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‘The Walking Dead’ VFX Crew Brings Zombies to Life With Traditional Effects

On April 15, with the final chapter of the eighth season of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the zombie apocalypse series will have aired 115 episodes, kept millions of viewers glued to their screens with its blend of suspense and violence and spun off companion series “Fear the Walking Dead.”

In addition to becoming somewhat of a cultural touchstone, “Dead” has emerged as a prime showcase for television craftspeople who still use old-school techniques — including the sculptors, painters, designers and other artists responsible for its award-winning makeup and effects.

“The thing I’m most proud of on this show is that it’s given us an opportunity to shine a light on practical makeup effects and the people who create them,” says Greg Nicotero, a longtime executive producer and director on the series. “In a world where people are so enthralled with digital effects, it’s amazing to have artists who are able to create these effects practically and palpably.”

Nicotero is an old hand at this kind of work. The veteran special makeup effects artist got his start working with George A. Romero and the legendary Tom Savini on “Day of the Dead,” and he’s been a mainstay of horror for decades, collaborating with the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. That expertise has made him ideally suited to oversee an effects-heavy show about gnarly, heavily decomposing zombies.

“The Walking Dead” has come a long way since its humble start as a six-episode order. “The big challenge in the beginning was that we were shooting in Georgia in the summertime,” Nicotero recalls. “We couldn’t use a lot of over-the-head masks, because we didn’t want the performers to overheat.” Instead, he says, the team relied more on 3D transfers, and moved heavily into elaborate prosthetics in the later seasons.

Nicotero and his team’s innovations are bold, and the results are often disturbing. “We’ve started getting into full-face prosthetic pieces that consist of dentures as well,” he says. “The dentures hide the real performer’s lips. That way we can simulate tightness around the lips and exposed gums and teeth for a more skull-like look.” The goal, he adds, is to “not make it look like a person wearing makeup but a shell of a person.”

For Nicotero and company, each new set of episodes is an opportunity to push the envelope of practical makeup effects. “Every season we reevaluate what we’ve accomplished,” he says. “My team and I examine what worked and what didn’t.” The vision is for an “emaciated and decomposed” look, and “every year we come up with new ways to accentuate that.” From elongating foreheads and jaws to adding bald caps and prosthetic ears, there’s no end to the gimmicks the show employs.

As the seasons progress, many of the zombies appear worse for wear. “The longer the show exists, the more we’re dealing with the fact that some of these beings have been walking around for years,” Nicotero says. “The leathery skin, the emaciated look, the pronounced bone structure — we’re trying to convey the passage of time with the decay of these zombies.”

Nicotero credits his background in medicine with the accuracy of the grisly effects. In college he studied biology, and that knowledge, on the show, translates to a shocking degree of horror realism. “We try to make it look as real as can be,” he explains. “If you pull the skin back on some of these zombies, you’ll see different layers of things underneath.” Bones,
tendons, muscles, arteries, veins: There’s no part of a real body that Nicotero doesn’t consider when it comes to his on-screen effects.

The latest season of the series highlights one of the team’s proudest creations: a zombie that catches its foot in a steel fence, topples over and lands on its belly with its head twisted all the way around, facing up. It looks remarkably authentic — a fact Nicotero relishes. “We did a full prosthetic makeup on the performer; then we dug a hole in the ground and buried his face, then put an animatronic head on top of his head, so we could turn it all around,” he explains. “We want to keep the audience guessing how it’s done.”

But as important as the makeup effects are to the success of “Walking Dead,” they have to be in service of the narrative, Nicotero cautions. He recalls the scene in “An American Werewolf in London” in which Griffin Dunne transforms into a monster. “A werewolf transformation wouldn’t be effective unless you cared about the guy transforming,” he explains. “We can’t forfeit the story for the sake of an interesting effect. The effects have to be intrinsic to your story.”

Viewers can look forward to additional decaying. The producers are hard at work on Season 9.

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