Despite all its woes over the first season, AMC's The Walking Dead amassed a huge following during its second season. Even though the story has arguably dragged at times, there is no doubting the fantastic special effects work that goes into each and every episode of the zombie thriller. Based on Robert Kirkman’s popular zombie apocalypse comic book series by the same name, The Walking Dead has captivated TV audiences for two seasons and is already whetting appetites for its highly anticipated third season, scheduled to air in the UK in October. The story follows a group of survivors, lead by police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who band together in the midst of a gruesome zombie apocalypse. The creative concoction that is The Walking Dead blends real-world and CG elements, characters, and environments. Artists at Stargate Studios, an international production services and postproduction company, merge that which is real and imagined, as well as dead and undead, into a convincing, cohesive whole on a rather impressive weekly basis.
Stargate completes all VFX and CG work within a tight 10-day turnaround for each episode. When an episode comes into Stargate, the staff studies the script, looks at the shots, establishes what VFX elements are needed, and determines which artists are not only available, but also the best fit for a particular shot. The size of the Stargate Studios team working on The Walking Dead can vary from episode to episode, based on the post production needs of each. Each show averages between three and five 3D artists and twice as many compositors, most of whom use two PCs and dual monitors. Their main applications are NewTek’s LightWave 3D and Autodesk’s Maya in 3D, Adobe’s After Effects in compositing, Vicon’s boujou for tracking, and of course Photoshop.
For the look of the zombies, Writer/Director Frank Darabont tapped Oscar-winning special effects artist (and zombie specialist) Gregory Nicotero to amplify the comic illustrations’ gaunt, drawn-out faces. Using CG more sparingly, Darabont is able to reach back to utilise traditional make-up effects, combined with some digital visual trickery, to make the zombies the audience sees far more horrible than they would otherwise be. Many of the zombies' faces are fitted with prosthetics - the CG only comes in where the use of the prosthetics reaches its limit and in shots where multiple items/bodies/general gore are required. In the first episode of the first season, when Grimes awakens in an empty hospital, he steps outside and the camera pans over to an abandoned Army encampment complete with helicopters and tents - during shooting there was only one real helicopter on site, everything else was CG. Also many of the show’s environments are actually the digital handiwork of Stargate. Much of the show is shot on bluescreen, with artists crafting virtual sets, set extensions, and matte painting backgrounds. Sweeping views of Hershel’s vast farm and the Georgian landscape are actually matte paintings inspired by a variety of different locales.
With the addition of Michonne and the Governor, the new Prison setting and the return of Merle, the highly anticipated season 3 of The Walking Dead is going to have to deal with many (potentially) controversial story lines but will no doubt deliver on both storyline and aesthetics. Just remember people, three words: Fear the Living.
The Walking Dead Season 3 will return to your screens on the FX channel in October 2012