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Elvis, Tiger King, and Sin City: Behind the visual effects of Army of the Dead

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead didn’t quite win over critics, but the genre-blending zombie heist movie has at least two attributes that make it stand out from other living-dead sagas: Gorgeously ambitious visual effects and a Tiger King connection.

Part ensemble heist film, part action-horror adventure, Army of the Dead follows a group of mercenaries recruited to recover $200 million from a vault casino in the heart of Las Vegas. The catch? The city is overrun by flesh-hungry zombies and walled-off from the rest of the country, with a nuclear strike planned in a matter of days.

In order to bring this story to the screen, Snyder and visual effects supervisor Marcus Taormina enlisted award-winning VFX studio Framestore to work on a wide range of elements in the film, from hordes of undead Elvis impersonators and a zombie tiger, to the explosive spectacle of a nuclear detonation in one of America’s most popular tourist destinations. Digital Trends spoke to Bob Winter, Framestore’s visual effects supervisor, about the process of turning Sin City into a city of the living dead.

Digital Trends: What were some of the primary elements the Framestore team worked on in the film?

Bob Winter: We worked on all of the main components. … The building of the film’s world, Las Vegas, the zombie tiger, the crowd of zombies, lots of blood and gore, adding Tig Notaro and that whole element, and the detonation of the nuclear bomb … all of that.

For an earlier article, we talked about the amazing work visual effects supervisor Joao Sita and the rest of your team did in putting Tig Notaro into Army of the Dead after filming ended, so let’s talk zombies now. Every zombie movie has its own spin on them. How did you approach this film’s zombie characters?

The biggest challenge was there were two types of zombies: The shamblers, which are the typical zombies you think of in terms of movement and performance, and then there were the Alphas, which were the more physical zombies. We had motion-capture sessions with the stunt actors for the Alphas and for many of the extras who were playing the shamblers, and that was crucial to getting an exact match to what was being shot in-camera. They had amazing stunt performers doing parkour and really impressive, physical movements.

The range of wardrobe and makeup was probably the biggest challenge [with the zombies], though, because a great aspect of setting this story in Las Vegas was the wide range of character designs to pull from. We had to push our typical system as far as it could go to allow us to have that variety, not just changing shirts here and there, but going from an Elvis to a fireman to a showgirl to a businessman, and all sorts of other variations. So we basically built a modular system that let us use a wide range of wardrobes and props to match the level of variety in the actual photography.

Official Army of the Dead VFX Reel featuring. Tig Notaro

Tell me about Valentine, the zombie tiger who kind of stole the show. What was the creative process like for that particular element of the film?

One of the things that excited me most about the project when I started was hearing that there was a white tiger in it, and that it was intended to be one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers. It’s so fitting for Vegas to have that. So when we set out to build this character, we had some concept art from Zack and Marcus that showed the zombie characteristics they wanted. They wanted it to have layers. They wanted to see down to bone and see different parts of its anatomy.

So, while they were still working on the design, we built a white tiger without the zombie attributes. It was based on a tiger we photographed and scanned and took video of from Big Cat Rescue in Florida, which is Carole Baskin’s facility.

Wait, Carole Baskin? As in, from Tiger King?

Yeah, this was before the release of Tiger King. She was great, and she was happy we were taking this approach, creating a digital version. She was very much in support of not using animals in filmmaking. So she was happy to let us do what we needed to do, which was great. So that became the foundation for our tiger.

We knew if we could digitally create a physically believable white tiger, then we could add the zombie characteristics into it. So once they finalized the concept of where they wanted the decay and how they wanted to portray that aspect of Valentine, we started building it from the inside out with layers of skeleton, muscles, fascia, and skin. We wanted a system that looked believable and would have layers that moved together or slid against each other, pushing the realism as far as we could.

The final aspect of it that we really pushed with the complexity and believability was the the fur, dirt, and dried blood — those types of textures. We wanted it to feel like it belonged in that world, decayed and dirty and aging for quite some time.

Las Vegas, the city, plays such a big part in the film as the backdrop and a recognizable touchstone for the audience. What did your VFX work on the city involve?

We spent two weeks shooting in Las Vegas, getting photo and video, drone footage, aerial shots, and so on. We started with an accurate layout and representation of Las Vegas and the strip, knowing Zack wanted the scope and scale of that world to be present. And it really is massive, so truly portraying the size of of those facilities and that section of the of the city was crucial. Instead of building the pristine version, though, we dove in and started building our destroyed city with the patina that we referenced from concept art [that]the art department’s production designers had created with Zack.

At the end of the title sequence, the strip gets bombed, so there was an aspect of postwar feeling to it, which gave a lot of that destruction a patina. And then the other aspect of it was the southwest desert of Vegas, in Nevada, where the desert kind of reclaimed a lot of that dust. There, we gave it the patina you would get naturally from time passing on an abandoned city. … We really wanted to make the scope and scale of that world feel consistent and massive.

Did it help that there are so many iconic, recognizable elements of the Las Vegas strip you could reference, or did that present new challenges?

We tried to keep the iconic kind of shapes that you think of in Las Vegas, and didn’t want to go so far that you wouldn’t be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s Vegas.” There was one point when [the characters] come out onto the strip and look at the Bly [the fictional casino where the money is stored] and behind them is the empty Bellagio fountain, filled with dirt. We left the mechanical fountainheads in there, aged and rusted, because it’s one of those things you’re almost subconsciously familiar with, even if you don’t spot what it is right away. There’s a familiarity there.

Is there a particular element in the film that people might not realize is a visual effect?

Obviously that rules out the zombie tiger because we all know that’s a fictitious character. [Laughs] But no, I think in this case, when we look at the style of the film that Zack put together and was trying to accomplish here, there’s a lot of spectacle. It wasn’t your classic silent effects film. It was very much in your face, and on purpose, in terms of the style of the film.

But for me, there are scenes — like where they cut off the queen’s head or they shoot Cummings [Theo Rossi’s character] in the leg — that I still look at today and can’t tell you where the physical set ended and the CG world started. It’s really amazing, and a credit to our team in terms of building that world as a digital asset, and our compositing team for being able to mimic that really interesting, stylized look of the lenses Zack used on the film to bring it all together for a seamless image.

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead is available now on Netflix.

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