The Engrossing Effects of "The Walking Dead"

Stargate Studios uses LightWave 3D to deliver VFX for AMC's hit "The Walking Dead"

Posted: Wed 25 Jul 2012

By Courtney E. Howard

Television producers and network executives have, since the invention of the television, sought after a secret recipe, a combination of quality ingredients capable of delivering a blockbuster series. Audiences have, at the same time, been searching for a network program capable of consistently providing that perfect potion. AMC’s The Walking Dead has come closer than virtually all other series with its blend of compelling story, relatable characters, and seamless special effects.

Creative Conglomerate

The creative concoction that is The Walking Dead blends real-world and computer-graphics (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 weekly basis. 

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 begin airing in October.

The post-apocalyptic drama follows small-town Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) and a small group of survivors, including Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs), as they struggle to survive in the zombie-infested Georgia countryside.

Stargate Studios has worked on The Walking Dead since the beginning, contributing eye-catching effects over all three seasons. The show’s VFX and CG elements continue to grow in complexity and number from episode to episode, and from season to season.

Artistic Endeavor

“The CG content varies from episode to episode, but always includes VFX shots where we’re adding virtual zombies, blood and bullet hits, wounds, and stuff like that. Fixing and cleaning up shots, which isn’t very glamorous, are also part of the package,” admits Al Lopez, vice president of creative services at Stargate Studios in South Pasadena, California.

Digital artists handle all the gore that one might expect to accompany an onslaught of the undead. “Crowds of zombies, dead bodies, wounds, blood, entrails—all the extra gross stuff,” Lopez describes. “They like to see a lot of heavy blood splattering in the shots, and that’s us adding that effect.”

“We also extend whatever the main characters are using to impale these zombies, such as an iron poker or a hoe,” Lopez adds. “We have even burnt zombies.”

A little known fact, however, is that many of the show’s environments are actually the digital handiwork of Stargate Studios. Much of the show is shot on bluescreen, with artists crafting virtual sets, set extensions, and matte painting backgrounds. “We have built bidi (bi-directional) extensions, vision extensions, and multiple environments,” Lopez explains. Sweeping views of Hershel’s vast farm and the Georgian landscape are beautiful matte paintings inspired by a variety of different locales.

Suspending Disbelief

The show’s premise, considered plausible by some and far-fetched by others, has mesmerized audiences, with help from the VFX craftsmanship of Stargate Studio artists.

Although the zombie apocalypse circumstance holds no basis in reality, as yet, the artists consistently deliver realistic, organic effects that keep viewers immersed in the story. Even seasoned CG and visual effects (VFX) veterans find it difficult to determine what is prosthetic and what is digital—a serious accomplishment on screens big and small. 

Achieving feature film-quality effects on a weekly television show is no mean feat, and that goal is top of mind for everyone at Stargate. “The audiences are used to that quality and we can’t deliver less on TV just because we have less time and fewer resources to do it,” Lopez affirms. “We always have that task ahead of us; for that reason, it’s really important for us as a studio to be as efficient as we can when we work and how we work.”

Tight Timeline

Stargate completes all VFX and CG work within a 10-day turnaround for each episode. “From the time we get the plates in to when we have to deliver finals, it’s usually temps in one week and finals in two weeks—that’s a typical recipe for turnaround on The Walking Dead. When there is a big CG sequence, they try to get us some of those shots earlier and we might get an extra week,” Lopez notes. 

When an episode comes into Stargate Studios, 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. Lopez, who oversees all 250 artists working throughout the company’s five international studios, is responsible for assigning shots on a number of hit TV shows to the optimal artist for each task.

The size of the Stargate Studios team working on The Walking Dead can vary from episode to episode, based on the postproduction 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. “Our 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 everyone has [Adobe’s] Photoshop,” Lopez mentions. 

Global Epidemic

Stargate Studios operates offices in California and Georgia, Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, and Germany. “The Georgia facility was started up this season to service The Walking Dead; that’s where they shoot,” Lopez explains. “Most of the work on the series previously was done in L.A., but there have been times when other facilities have been engaged in working on the show. We look at the team, at everyone, and at the availability of good talent.”

Stargate Studios uses a proprietary system, called VOS or Visual Operating System, that ties all the artists, producers, and supervisors together. “It allows us to have one place where everything is clearly organized,” Lopez says. “We don’t have artists digging through things; everything is systematized. It allows an artist to focus on the work and on the art, not spending time looking for elements, notes, camera information, or anything else.”

VOS is tied into each of the facilities and all major applications used at Stargate. “All the artists are working together, across all our facilities,” Lopez continues. “What’s nice is we can be absolutely slammed at one facility and have artists who are not as busy in other facilities. Because of that Visual Operating System, they’re tied in, they have all the footage, they have all the notes, and they have everything we have here. Artists there can work on the show that’s mostly being done in L.A. and Georgia. That is really key for us—when you work in television, you have to be absolutely as efficient as possible.”

The Quick and the Dead

Stargate Studios’ 3D workflow, which extends across remote facilities, currently employs a mix of LightWave 3D and Maya, but it was not always this way. “When I came to Stargate eight years ago, it was strictly a Maya house and, because I was a LightWave artist and people I had worked for before were LightWave artists, I introduced the software package to the company,” Lopez recalls. “We brought in LightWave and LightWave artists and integrated it into the pipeline.”

Lopez, a longtime LightWave artist, started his career running a LightWave .9 beta on an Amiga computer alongside NewTek’s Video Toaster software/hardware bundle. “I’ve been using LightWave all my life,” he says. “I love the tools.”

Lopez brought LightWave 3D to Stargate for several reasons. “Bringing that package into the pipeline here really helped,” he affirms. “First and foremost, it allowed me to tap into some very talented artists.

“I have been in television all my life as far as visual effects go, and it has always been a very fast tool for doing very high-quality work,” Lopez adds. “Achieving high-quality, photo-real images with the LightWave renderer is easy. It does an excellent job and it’s a fast tool for television. To me that has always been the edge and advantage to LightWave.

“On TV, there’s a really fast turnaround and you are always going to say, ‘I wish I had more time.’ That is the biggest challenge. One of the things that has helped is LightWave. Its rendering has always been fast, especially for the quality you get, so it gives artists more time to work on a shot before we have to drop it on the farm,” Lopez enthuses. “That has always been a big plus.

“It was dead-on easy to bring it here, to show them the work that I and artists I knew had done, and show them the quality of the renders and the work in LightWave,” Lopez says. “There was never a question; the tool spoke for itself.”

No Guts, No Glory

The Walking Dead has no shortage of complicated CG elements and VFX. “The modeling tools in LightWave are superior,” Lopez describes. “That’s why I tend to do more-complicated models in LightWave. Plus, one of my best modelers is a LightWave guy. Obviously, I’m going to defer to him and get him to model any kind of really complex or really difficult model in LightWave. Sometimes, I will have him finish the shots in LightWave.”

One of the more iconic shots from the first season of The Walking Dead was also one of the most complex models. Grimes and other survivors are huddled inside a military tank surrounded by the undead or “walkers.” The shot pulls up from the tank, revealing the city of Atlanta overrun with an army of zombies. The tank and zombies immediately around it are real; the rest was built in painstaking detail by Stargate artists. “The zombies, at that point, were primarily done in Maya but the entire virtual set—the buildings and the entire downtown area of the city—was done in LightWave,” Lopez says.

Invisible Effects

Stargate artists are accomplished at extending sets and inserting CG elements next to real-world actors and vehicles, and doing so imperceptibly. “Integrating CG, photoreal models side by side with real, practical elements in the plate and no one knowing—that is one of the big challenges,” admits Lopez. The artists keep upping the ante, adding more detail to zombie actors and digital zombies. “We have 3D zombies, everything from deep background to close to camera,” he says. 

When Grimes awakens in an empty hospital, he steps outside for the first time and quickly realizes that something has gone horribly wrong. “We pan over this field to a parking lot, where there’s an abandoned Army encampment with helicopters and tents and stuff like that,” Lopez describes. “There’s a real helicopter and, 10 to 15 feet to the left of it, there’s a CG helicopter that is absolutely dead-on perfect. You wouldn’t know it wasn’t there on the day of the shoot.”

At the same time, many of the zombies’ faces are fitted with prosthetics. “As much as they can do with the prosthetics, they do. We come in and do what they can’t,” Lopez clarifies. “Obviously, you can’t disembowel a zombie, cut him up, and have all his guts and entrails splattering and coming out—all that is CG. When they are disemboweling people, you see guts coming out, or zombies are cut in half, that’s CG.”

In another memorable scene, Grimes and the audience meet what people call “bicycle girl” or “torso girl,” who is cut in half and crawling on the grass. She is outfitted with prosthetics until her waist, and wears a blue, spandex suit from the waist down. “It’s a marriage of the two: CG and prosthetics,” says Lopez. “We replaced everything in blue” with digital intestines trailing behind, re-animated the grass, and blended the CG with the practical set. 

Winning with Walkers

The Walking Dead has been nominated for several awards. The pilot, including the LightWave and Maya artists who worked on the episode, received three nominations for the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Series. (The pilot episode won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie, or a Special.)

“I am proud of the work that we do,” Lopez says, “and the fact that when people watch this show, we don’t take them out of picture with the visual effects. They don’t question it; they buy everything as being real.”

Lopez and his colleagues sometimes marvel at “all those complex elements and effects that we are able to do, that kind of complexity and quality that really allows them to enjoy the show without knowing there’s a CG 3D model in there. We definitely have that nailed down.”

Stargate Studios will continue to employ LightWave 3D in its workflow for The Walking Dead and other popular, graphics-rich television programs. “LightWave 3D has always been reliable. We know what we can get out of it and, more importantly, we are happy with the way we see LightWave evolving,” Lopez says. “We always check each year to see where our main applications are going. We’re really pleased and excited about where we see LightWave 11 right now and what NewTek is doing with it. It’s definitely going to keep us on track with LightWave.”

Even so, says Lopez, “You can have the best tools in the world, but if you don’t have the talent behind it, you have nothing. The tools facilitate the artists to get to where they need to be with their work and are also critical. With the wrong tool, you’ll get there, but you’ll have a hell of a time. LightWave is a great tool for us.”

Courtney Howard is a devotee of The Walking Dead and an industry writer specializing in digital film, design, and entertainment technologies.