“The Walking Dead” is known for graphic violence and monster ratings, but the AMC hit rarely receives the attention it deserves for delivering some of the smallscreen’s most well-crafted images. Whether that means a zombie horde descending on human prey or a quiet emotional beat shared between battle-weary survivors, much of the series’ epic storyline is communicated through elegant visuals.
Cinematographer Michael Satrazemis began as a camera operator in season one, before rising to serve as the show’s primary d.p. (and occasional director) in season four. In the most recent season finale, “Conquer,” Satrazemis faced some of his biggest challenges yet, including accomplishing everything for the 64-minute episode (20 minutes longer than usual) in the standard nine-day shooting schedule.
“Everything on our show is done by the skin of its teeth,” Satrazemis says. “To stay that big on a television schedule, it’s always virtually impossible. Then after a while, because the scripts are so massive for so long, you get used to doing the virtually impossible. It becomes a little more possible, which is nice.
“I’ve got a really, really great gaffer, Gary Holmes, and so we can really plan it, but we kind of pushed the maximum that you could do in nine days” for the finale.
Because of the show’s constantly evolving storylines, Satrazemis notes it’s difficult to plan too far ahead. “’Walking Dead’ in general there’s always some trick to something because we don’t have sets that remain for very long. I mean even the prison, which was giant in so many ways, you’re only there for a little bit and boom, you’re back in the woods or in the church. That’s the beauty of this show, but it’s also the difficulty.
“We’re prepping right now for the new season, but I can’t prep for the whole season because there’s going to be a million different things that I don’t even know about. So you wake up every morning and come on in charging.”
The second half of season five unfolded primarily in a suburban refuge called Alexandria, an unusually “normal” location he was happy to see turn significantly darker as the season came to a close.
“All our characters were in a dark place and even a little bit divided,” Satrazemis notes of the visual palette that played up those divisions through artful use of shadows and light, and a high volume of night exteriors. “It was nice to bring everything down and make it a lot moodier, even for a very moody show.”
In one of the episode’s most striking images, emotionally despondent Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) lies down in a grave full of inanimate walkers — illustrating the emptiness she feels inside after losing both her brother and her lover to walkers earlier in the season.
“When I read the scene on the page, that’s what I saw. A lot of us now see the same thing. (Director) Greg (Nicotero) said the same thing, ‘Yeah, we’ll do a crane up,’ and I said, ‘Well let’s get the technocrane and we could follow her all the way over,’ ” Satrazemis recalls. Blocking the shot was further complicated by the actress being eight months’ pregnant, he adds.
“That shot was very beautiful and there was no reason to cut to anything else, it could sit there. It became more and more powerful the higher the crane rose and pulled away from it.”
That speaks to the show’s overall aesthetic, which steers away from the sort of fast cuts and frantic handheld camerawork fashionable in the horror genre in favor of a more classic approach — right down to shooting on 16mm film, rare in TV now.
“I keep having to call Kodak up and be like, ‘You’re still going to make film for me right?’” he says, only half-joking. “We burn through a bunch of it and I think it’s important to the show. It’s important to the look to be on film and even 16 mil with the kind of grain factor that it has really introduces another element to the look. The 16 millimeter cameras being so small and light we can move faster, which is great. So we can get a lot more out. I wouldn’t want to change, and Kodak said they’re going to keep making film.”
Satrazemis says the template was established by the Frank Darabont-helmed pilot, shot by David Tattersall and which continues to serve as the show’s primary visual influence.
“This is a very light cutting show, which I love, but that means every frame is so important,” Satrazemis says. “The composition of the show takes on a stronger importance when you know you’re not going to bounce around all over the place, that you’re going to hold on shots. It makes it a lot more fun to tell the story that way.”
He also enjoys allowing the actors the freedom to explore their characters and the material by playing scenes all the way through. “That’s been a big thing for the whole show. Even from when I started operating, Andy Lincoln and I would look at each other, and he’d be like, ‘Hey, do we have to cut when you say cut,’ and I’d be like, ‘No, let’s just keep going.’
“We’d make a plan and just keep shooting, and then it turned into a thing where (the scene) is better. The performances become really, really powerful when you let somebody run through the whole thing top to bottom and that’s something we try to protect now. That’s always in the plan is to let everybody run through everything top to bottom.”
The level of creativity Satrazemis feels working on the show is something he credits not just to the executive producers but also AMC, whose landmark series influenced his decision to join “Dead” in the first place. “I wasn’t that excited about doing a TV series when this came along, but between Frank Darabont, and AMC with ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men,’ I went, ‘Wow these guys are shooting television-ised features.’ It was definitely in my mind from the very beginning that AMC was a place where you could shoot television and be creative. It’s the most creative atmosphere I’ve been in in a long time.”