Upping the ante on The Walking Dead takes a herd of zombies — and a head for action and effects.
Details matter on The Walking Dead.
Each season, walkers — zombies to the uninitiated — decay a bit more as the special-effects team works to top its previous efforts.
Season seven started last fall with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) brutally bludgeoning Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) to death with a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat. Then came water-logged “bobber” zombies, a hot iron to the face of one of the renegade Saviors, a reveal of Carl’s (Chandler Riggs) eye socket (he lost the eye in a previous season) and Spencer’s (Austin Nichols) surprise disembowelment.
“The most important thing about makeup special effects and visual effects is that all of it serves the story,” says Scott M. Gimple, the series showrunner as well as a writer–executive producer.
Greg Nicotero — special-effects makeup supervisor, executive producer and frequent director — is the mastermind behind The Walking Dead’s goriest moments. “We always bite off a lot on the show,” he says. “As an effects artist and a director, I have to make sure the audience gets something spectacular.”
He did that — and more — in February’s mid-season premiere. For the episode “Rock in the Road,” Nicotero worked closely with episode writer Angela Kang, Gimple and visual-effects producer Victor Scalise. With the rest of the team, they pulled off one of the biggest walker kills to date.
In the shocking sequence, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) each drive a car, connected by a heavy-duty cable, on opposite sides of a highway; the cable slices through a herd of walkers on the median strip. The idea wasn’t in the initial draft of the script, Nicotero says. But the seed was there: explosives strung from a wire between cars.
“I said to Scott, ‘You guys have teed up probably one of the best gags we’ve ever done, and I don’t even know if you realize it,’” Nicotero recalls. He drew some sketches and had the sequence storyboarded for Gimple’s approval. He then had about 10 days for design.
Communicating his vision to the crew was imperative: “Grace Walker, our production designer, printed out a six-foot schematic of the freeway, and we got little Matchbox cars, which I used to set up the choreography. I’d Facetime Scott, using my iPad to show him, ‘Okay, here’s where the cars are. This is where the herd [of zombies] is coming from. The two cars drive through the herd. The cable will be CG for this shot, this shot and this shot.’ I took him through the entire thing.”
With 120 walkers in makeup, the crew shot over two days — day one had everyone facing one direction. “The next morning,” Nicotero says, “we turned the camera around and shot all of the dialogue in the direction the herd was coming from. The distant herd shots were all visual effects.”
A drone captured overhead shots of the cars traveling on opposite sides of the freeway.
“We had all of our zombie extras standing in the median, and as the cars drove past they would fall to the ground,” Nicotero explains. A fiery explosion capped the sequence.
Immediately after the scene aired, Twitter exploded, with stunned fans commenting on its magnitude and originality.
“The effects team did an unbelievable job making it [look] real,” Gimple says. “What got me so excited about that gag — the craziest walker thing we’d done in some time — was that it had everything to do with the emotional story and the relationship of these characters: Rick and Michonne working together, with each playing an equal role.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017