Getting gory with the FX mastermind behind The Walking Dead

greg nicotero interview walking dead fx special effects

Is there a bigger TV phenomenon than The Walking Dead? The ratings for Season 4 of AMC’s zombie survivalist drama hurtled well past the majority of standard network shows with 13.3 million same-day viewers per episode, and all signposts indicate even more walker watchers will join the horror fold when the show returns for Season 5 on October 12. So there’s no time like the present to undertake a blood-pumping refresher by binge-watching all of Season 4, out today from Anchor Bay on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD formats. (Collectors and rabid TWD fans take note: Seek out the limited-edition Blu-ray box set that comes with its own exclusive Tree Walker figurine.)

With the survivors’ bloody pilgrimages from the decimated prison to the possibly cannibal-infested Terminus on our collective brains, Digital Trends got together with Greg Nicotero, TWD executive producer, director, and special effects supervisor/designer, to talk zombie shop. Nicotero, 51, took time out from shooting upcoming episodes of Season 5 to dissect the show’s exacting visual requirements, 7.1 sound-design choices, some Season 5 teases, and getting walkers on skates. Gore-riffic!

Digital Trends: I’ve just finished rewatching all of Season 4 on Blu-ray. I’m continually struck at how good the show looks in HD, down to every last detail in the background. Did you know early on that you’d need to be that meticulous in how you’d shoot the show?

Greg Nicotero: That’s an interesting question. When we started Season 1, we explored a variety of formats to shoot in. We did a bunch of tests in Panavision, we shot with a RED digital camera, and we shot 35[mm film]. But there were three outstanding reasons why we chose to go with Super 16. One of them was that it felt like a George A. Romero zombie movie: the grain, the contrast, and the feel was paramount to the source material, which was Night of the Living Dead. [Night is Romero’s acknowledged zombie genre blueprint, shot in black-and-white and released in 1968.] The second reason was because we felt very passionately that there would be a lot of interior scenes shot looking out into broad daylight. Five years ago, digital also didn’t capture the contrast between darkness and exterior lighting that well. And the third thing was that it would have been very challenging for the makeup and prosthetics.

Digital is very unforgiving. When we did the first test, we put a walker underneath a bunch of green trees. We shot him in a parking lot in Panavision, and the makeup looked greenish. We never even went in and did additional color changes or color timing — we just sort of looked at it and went, “Well, yeah, we could adjust the color.” But we wanted to stack the deck in our favor and make sure we used the medium that would best suit the look of the show and the makeup, especially when we’re shooting in bright, bright sunlight. And that’s Super 16.

There really is no room for compromise. The kind of detail that people can now see on 70- and 100-inch screens is more scrutinized than ever.

“You actually felt there was real jeopardy.”

Oh yeah! You know, even on the last few movies we [KNB EFX, Nicotero’s visual effects company] have done, they still go in and digitally correct. I know on [2013’s The Great and Powerful] Oz, they digitally corrected the witch makeup, because things are so clean and so smooth and every slight blemish is magnified. But The Walking Dead gives us a lot of freedom since we have a lot of blood, decomposed skin, and things like that. It certainly ups our game for when people do freeze-frames and examine things frame-by-frame. The show has to withstand that kind of scrutiny.

What do you think are the best-looking zombies from Season 4? The Crispy Walkers [in Episode 414, “The Grove”] are certainly fan favorites, myself included. Do you consider them to be some of the best VFX work you did on Season 4?

We had some great moments in Season 4, yes. The Crispy Walkers evolved out of an idea I had pitched in Season 3. If you remember the episode “Clear” [Episode 312], where Rick and Carl find Morgan — I was initially slated to direct that episode. But due to a scheduling conflict with Lennie James [who plays Morgan], we had to switch. I had pitched an idea that when they [Michonne and Carl] went to the diner to get the photo of Lori, there was a fire in the kitchen, and out of that kitchen burst a bunch of Crispy Walkers. Tricia Brock ended up directing that episode and we got a little hint of it, but we didn’t really get a chance to feature those characters as much as I had hoped. But later, we found a pit full of Melted Walkers [Episode 314, “Prey”]. I love those moments. We had a couple of good walkers this year, like the one that comes out of the mud in Episode 408 [“Too Far Gone”] that bites Meghan, and the walker that Carl fights in the rural house, the one that almost bites his leg [in Episode 409, “After”]. That, to me, was one of the scariest walker moments, because you actually felt there was real jeopardy.

Episode 409 was a really big episode — that’s also the one where Michonne literally massacres 25 walkers. I feel like we’ve run the gamut in terms of keeping the walker moments fresh and original, and we have continued to do so in Season 5 — I think even more so, in terms of finding those real iconic moments where people will be going, “Oh my God! I can’t believe they did that!”

I can’t wait to see what’s coming. Is there anything more you can say about what we can expect in Season 5?

Have you seen the trailer? There are some great moments we hint at in that trailer.

Like the scene where Glenn has the sword behind his head?

“…having somebody bit by a walker and using that kind of great, celery-snapping crunch.”

(slight pause) Yeaahhhhh, that’s one of them. Um, we have a great moment where you see our heroes fighting walkers in a submerged environment, which gave us a really great opportunity to do some sloughing off of skin. We were imagining a zombie stew that they’ve been stuck in for 6 or 8 months, and what that submergence would do to them. So it’s sort of taking the Well Walker idea from Season 2 [Episode 204, “Cherokee Rose”], but multiplying it and imagining that that walker was in there for almost a year. We’ve been able to do a lot of really fun stuff this coming season.

For the episodes you direct, do you have a sense of how you want certain things to sound, since you have 7.1 channels to work with?

Absolutely. Our editors are really great at laying out the initial sound design when we’re putting the episodes together. We have an award-winning sound team. It’s really fascinating hearing and layering the nuances of this world — the squishy splats of blood as it hits the ground and a walker moans, or just having somebody bit by a walker and using that kind of great, celery-snapping crunch. There’s a lot of excellent sound design that builds to help heighten the visuals.

If even for a second a viewer has to process the idea, “Hey, that doesn’t sound right,” it can take us right out of that world. I don’t think we get that sense at all when watching this show.

No. The sound design is tremendously important, because there are a lot of gun battles — and then there are quiet moments too, where it’s building the ambience of a desolate world. A lot of times, it’s what you don’t hear. And it’s always funny when we’re filming and an airplane flies overhead. “Ok, we can’t shoot until that’s over.” Because if Carl and Rick are having a conversation, and you hear an airplane in the background — nah, I don’t think that’s going to work.

walking dead andrew lincoln season 4

Yeah, I would think all of the Pilot Walkers would have crashed by this point.

Yes. Or they’re just flying around in circles. (both laugh)

Can you give me an example from Season 4 where you felt the music cues did exactly what you wanted them to?

In Episode 401 [“30 Days Without an Accident”], there was a great music cue my editor Julius Ramsay picked, where we have the transition from the quiet prison life to the scene with Patrick, the kid who turns at the end of the episode. He starts getting sick and he goes to bathroom, walks in, splashes water on his face, and then dies in the shower. There was a fantastic music cue the editor picked — The Place Beyond the Pines. It was just so creepy and eerie and thought-provoking. And that evoked the exact emotion we wanted there.

And I would also say [showrunner/executive producer] Scott M. Gimple works very, very closely with Bear [McCreary, TWD’s composer] in terms of the score. Scott is really the one who spearheads all that. I don’t know a more hands-on showrunner in the world than Scott Gimple, because, aside from writing episodes, he’s tireless in terms of looking at every single frame of every single visual effect and listening to every sound effect and every piece of music. This is a really, really complicated show. It needs that attention to detail. And that attention is not lost on Scott.

It’s not lost on us either. I also like how the show has taken and adapted certain iconic scenes directly from the comic book. Will we have more scenes like that coming up in Season 5?

“It’s building the ambience of a desolate world.”

Umm… yes. (chuckles) The thing about the show is we get to refer to the great source material that is the comic book. That’s really exciting. Sometimes we’ll change it up a bit. When The Governor attacked the prison in the comic book [SPOILER ALERT!], Lori and the baby died, and The Governor decapitated Tyreese. Whereas on the show, Lori died in Season 3 [Episode 304, “Killer Within”], and it was Hershel who got decapitated [in Episode 408, “Too Far Gone”]. And then you get to Episode 409 with Carl and Rick where Rick is one step away from death, which was so faithfully adapted by Robert Kirkman from his own comic book [TWD issue 51]. When I directed that episode, I wanted it to feel like you were opening the comic book pages and you were watching what you were reading. So I actually chose specific panels from the comic book that I wanted to emulate, because we were being very faithful to Carl’s journeys in that neighborhood. I thought it was great because we don’t have that many opportunities to really do that. So it was very important to me, in that season, to mirror panels in the comic book.

Because the show has often veered from what happens in the comic book, I felt a real sense of jeopardy watching that episode. I mean, you could have really killed Rick off there. People expect things like that could happen now on the show. We don’t know that he’s going to get out of that situation just because he did in the comic book.

Yeah, that’s correct! Even the thing with Carl from that issue of the comic book — Carl fights the three walkers in the neighborhood and survives, but we added that second scene with Carl going upstairs into the house and fighting the other walker. We really wanted the audience to be like, “Wait a minute. WAIT A MINUTE! Are they really going to do this?” It’s fun to do that.

To wrap things up — just between us two native Pittsburghers, let’s go back to when the Civic Arena and not the Consol Energy Center was the home arena for the Penguins. If you could get walkers on skates and put them on that ice, would you do it?

Greg Nicotero walking dead special effects season 4Of course I would! But it would have to be at the Monroeville Mall, where the food court is now. [The Monroeville Mall was the primary location for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978, and it also housed one of the first indoor mall rinks, known as the Monroeville Ice Palace.]

Oh, that’s great! I actually played hockey on that mall’s rink as a kid, so I’m totally with you on that.

Before they tore down J.C. Penney’s, I used to go there. Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Simon Pegg, and Edgar Wright flew in for the Land of the Dead premiere [in 2005], and I took them to the Monroeville Mall and to the Evans City Cemetery [where the opening sequence of Night of the Living Dead was shot].

Oh man, that’s prime geekery right there.

Oh yes! I have pictures of Quentin walking in the cemetery doing his impersonation of [Night of the Living Dead cemetery zombie] Bill Hinzman. (both laugh) Talk about a geek moment to be there with those four guys!

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