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April 03
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

AGING PHILADELPHIA FOR THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE

By OLIVER WEBB

(Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

Philadelphia was one of the main locations for the show, with environment work split between Crafty Apes, Framestore and Ghost VFX. (Image courtesy of AMC)

Philadelphia was one of the main locations for the show, with environment work split between Crafty Apes, Framestore and Ghost VFX. (Image courtesy of AMC)

The final season of The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live follows Rick Grimes and Michonne Hawthorne in their attempt to find each other in a devastated, zombie-infested world fraught with peril. Charlotta Forssman served as Visual Effects Supervisor on the show, with Ghost VFX, Crafty Apes, Framestore, Mr. Wolf and Ingenuity serving as the main vendors.

Ghost VFX originally began working on The Walking Dead in 2017. “We picked up work on the other Walking Dead universe shows shortly after that, and have worked on everything consistently since then,” says Ghost VFX Supervisor David O. “I started work on Fear the Walking Dead then Tales of the Walking Dead, and then the final season of The Walking Dead  through the finale of the original show. When this series came along, I was happy to jump on board.”

Crafty Apes were brought onto The Ones Who Live because of their previous collaboration on AppleTV+ series Hello Tomorrow! with Forssman. “We developed a great working relationship on that series, and it continued to grow as we worked together on this show,” says Crafty Apes VFX Supervisor Alex Dreiblatt. “I first got involved with TWD in 2019 by working as a compositor on Seasons 5 and 6 of Fear the Walking Dead and then as a compositing supervisor for a few episodes of The Walking Dead: World Beyond.”

The CRM bases needed to be extended to sell the scope of the Civic Republic Military. Everything was layered with detail to match the depth of the storied world. (Image courtesy of AMC)

The CRM bases needed to be extended to sell the scope of the Civic Republic Military. Everything was layered with detail to match the depth of the storied world. (Image courtesy of AMC)

“From the first time reading the pages, it was very evident that the look they were going for was very cinematic and big. Even though it’s still a Walking Dead show, they wanted to go a bit beyond what we had seen before. We had an exciting task at hand to support the vision while working out what is realistically achievable within budget and schedule.”

—Charlotta Forssman, Visual Effects Supervisor

Forssman’s initial conversations with The Ones Who Live Executive Producers/creators/writers Scott M. Gimple and Danai Gurira focused on the scope and vision of the world they needed to create. “A lot of our discussion was about how we achieve selling the scale of the CRM [Civic Republic Military] and building out the various environments,” Forssman says. “What can we shoot practically and how can VFX jump in to support? Production VFX Producer Jamie Cernich and I broke down the scripts and strategized on how we can make the most out of the budget. My prep was quite short, so I had to jump straight into scouting locations and work out VFX methodologies with the directors, DP and production designer. From the first time reading the pages, it was very evident that the look they were going for was very cinematic and big. Even though it’s still a Walking Dead show, they wanted to go a bit beyond what we had seen before. We had an exciting task at hand to support the vision while working out what is realistically achievable within budget and schedule.”

To create the post-apocalyptic environment of Philadelphia, VFX Supervisor Charlotta Forssman studied how buildings look after years of being deserted and nature takes over. (Images courtesy of AMC)

To create the post-apocalyptic environment of Philadelphia, VFX Supervisor Charlotta Forssman studied how buildings look after years of being deserted and nature takes over. (Images courtesy of AMC)

The Ones Who Live represents the culmination of two of the most beloved, essential characters of the Walking Dead universe. David O notes. “The look and feel of the series was always intended to be cinematic, epic and sweeping in scale in order to match the scope of the story of the characters being told. It was all shot with Arri 65 cameras, which produces an enormous, cinematic frame, and it gave us the best possible starting point on which to build and do our work. The expectation was to achieve the highest quality visuals possible in order to dovetail seamlessly with the epic story and the high-format photography.”

“The look and feel of the series was always intended to be cinematic, epic and sweeping in scale in order to match the scope of the story of the characters being told. It was all shot with Arri 65 cameras, which produces an enormous, cinematic frame, and gave us the best possible starting point on which to build and do our work. The expectation was to achieve the highest quality visuals possible in order to dovetail seamlessly with the epic story and the high-format photography.”

—David O, VFX Supervisor, Ghost VFX

Dreiblatt looked at a plethora of references in relation to everything Crafty Apes worked on. “If anything had previously been established in the TWD universe, we made sure to stay true to that canon,” he states. “If we were working on the helicopters, we made sure to watch real-world references of Blackhawks, Chinooks, Apaches, etc. Our aim is always to make our work as seamless as possible so that you don’t realize that it’s VFX and just assume as you’re watching the show that it’s all real footage. So, for example, if we were doing a flying Apache, our team would watch real-world footage of flying Apaches to analyze all the details and intricacies of what that should actually look like, so when it came time to animate them, we are matching what we saw in those references.”

Damage, decay, weathering and overgrowth were applied to the skyline to give Philadelphia a specific look and feel to serve the story, Philadelphia appeared briefly in the last episode of The Walking Dead, but is a prominent location for The Ones Who Live. (Image courtesy of AMC)

Damage, decay, weathering and overgrowth were applied to the skyline to give Philadelphia a specific look and feel to serve the story, Philadelphia appeared briefly in the last episode of The Walking Dead, but is a prominent location for The Ones Who Live. (Image courtesy of AMC)

Forssman focused on research and creative problem-solving in preparation for the shoot. “Since this was my first time supervising in the TWD universe, I dived into everything about The Walking Dead in detail. I was very lucky that Aaron McLane, a VFX supervisor who has been a big part of the show for a  long time, was available to answer all my questions. I tapped into his wealth of intimate knowledge from previous seasons. I also rewatched a lot of Walking Dead during prep and looked at what they had done previously. I had to level-up my military knowledge quite a bit. One of VFX’s biggest tasks was to build out CRM bases. There are a lot of vehicles, helicopters and equipment that we had to add. Production Designer Jeff Schoen had incredible concepts and set builds, and VFX helped enhance the exterior environments. In addition to the material given to us by the art department, I tried to source as many real references as possible. I did a lot of helicopter research and looked at Army Base layouts.”

The cruise ship was an asset not seen before within the Walking Dead universe and proved to be a challenge for Crafty Apes. (Image courtesy of AMC)

The cruise ship was an asset not seen before within the Walking Dead universe and proved to be a challenge for Crafty Apes. (Image courtesy of AMC)

The cruise ship was an asset not seen before within the Walking Dead universe and proved to be a challenge for Crafty Apes. (Image courtesy of AMC)

“I also researched references for abandoned buildings and overgrowth,” Forssman continues. “One of the most fascinating parts of creating a post-apocalyptic environment is to look at how nature takes over and how buildings look after years of being deserted. Some of my favorite shots are drone establishing shots of our city where we aged and destroyed the city. We drove around Philadelphia over the summer and not only took images of the skyline, but also got some great references of abandoned structures that were used as inspiration.”

Forssman inherited a team that had prior experience working on The Walking Dead. “Jaimie Cernich, the VFX Producer, and I very early on discussed our VFX vendor strategy – casting the right work to the right vendors,” Forssman details. “We began early conversations with them to help design and lean on their strengths. Ghost VFX, Framestore, Crafty Apes, Mr. Wolf and Ingenuity all did incredible work on the show and delivered some great VFX for us. Our in-house VFX team were Walking Dead veterans and provided a solid hub for helping streamline and execute shots. Keith Pullman, one of the TWD artists, was also a huge help early on, helping with temps and concepts. He was a great resource to run things by. Having a team already set up as I walked into the show was a huge luxury. Post Producer Ryan Degard laid a good foundation, having also been on the show for many years and being very knowledgeable with all things TWD and VFX. I was honestly spoiled by being the only newcomer in our VFX team. It really helped me be able to focus on the creative problem-solving regarding the shots themselves.”

Ghost VFX had previously created walkers for The Walking Dead, so they didn't need to start from scratch for The Ones Who Live. (Images courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

Ghost VFX had previously created walkers for The Walking Dead, so they didn't need to start from scratch for The Ones Who Live. (Images courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

Ghost VFX had previously created walkers for The Walking Dead, so they didn't need to start from scratch for The Ones Who Live. (Images courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

Ghost VFX had previously created walkers for The Walking Dead, so they didn’t need to start from scratch for The Ones Who Live. (Images courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

There was a total of 1,149 VFX shots completed for the show. Crafty Apes completed 66 VFX shots for the series, and just over 200 shots were completed by Ghost VFX, with the additional vendors making up the rest. For Ghost, the massive crowd shots proved technically and creatively challenging from start to finish. “Both due to the layered creation of the agent assets and their assembly into a new pipeline, and the cascading effects of altering or updating any component part within such a complex system. Similar to most from-the-ground-up systems created for VFX projects, we used every last minute available and got it working just in time,” David O says.

There was ample room for creative freedom in the continuing effort to build out parts of the Walking Dead universe as well as add new elements. (Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

There was ample room for creative freedom in the continuing effort to build out parts of The Walking Dead universe as well as add new elements. (Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

“If anything had previously been established in the TWD universe, we made sure to stay true to that canon. If we were working on the helicopters, we made sure to watch real-world references of Blackhawks, Chinooks, Apaches, etc. Our aim is always to make our work as seamless as possible so that you don’t realize that it’s VFX and just assume as you’re watching the show that it’s all real footage.”

—Alex Dreiblatt, VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes VFX

For Crafty Apes, one of the biggest challenges was the walker and soldier crowd work. “We knew crowd simulation, and a lot of animation resourcing was going to be required,” Dreiblatt explains. “To best create a sizeable library of animation cycles for the walkers and soldiers, we decided to utilize XSens motion capture technology for all the different actions we would need for our scenes. This allowed us to quickly build an animation library that could be sourced during our crowd simulations so that each walker or soldier would behave appropriately in their given situation and in unique ways compared to how those surrounding them might be behaving as well. Before going out and capturing this data, we studied the behaviors and actions of the practical walkers that were in each scene to match our actions as closely as possible to theirs. After the actions were captured, our animation team did a fantastic job of doing any minor clean-up to the motion capture data and making it suitable for the crowd simulation process. The other big challenge was creating assets that had never been seen in this universe before, such as the cruise ship as seen in Episode 2 and the CRM base. When assets like these are shown, sometimes they aren’t on the screen for a very long time in the edit, so we needed to make sure they had all the details necessary to tell the story of what had happened in these locations or give some context in a short amount of time. Much thought and planning went into every little detail that was added to these assets to help them tell the story visually.”

Maintaining the look of the Walking Dead universe was central to every VFX task. (Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

Maintaining the look of The Walking Dead universe was central to every VFX task. (Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

“We had a few challenging shots this season,” Forssman adds. “Creating a giant walker herd to match into a scene from TWD Season 12 was challenging. We had few practical walkers to work with, so the scene leaned heavily on digiwalkers due to its size. Another one of our more complex shots that was fun but challenging was the helicopter crash in the first episode. It is a oner inside a helicopter that is being shot down. The crash needed to feel intimate and claustrophobic as we were experiencing it with the character. The first challenge was that the camera needed to be inside the helicopter at all times, moving around our actors without any cuts to the exteriors of the helicopter. We had to carefully choreograph every camera move and had three stitch points. This was further complicated by the camera being handheld in a helicopter that was moving on a gimbal. The directors, Amber Templemore-Finlayson and Katie Ellwood (collectively known as Bert and Bertie), and DP Adrian Peng Corriera were really great to work with on this little sequence, as well as the amazing camera crew. Framestore was early on tagged to do this shot, and they did an amazing job.”

Ghost VFX completed more than 200 VFX shots for the series. Ghost began working on The Walking Dead in 2017 and has played a key role in helping to shape the look of the universe. (Image courtesy of AMC)

Ghost VFX completed more than 200 VFX shots for the series. Ghost began working on The Walking Dead in 2017 and has played a key role in helping to shape the look of the universe. (Image courtesy of AMC)

Populating the valley where Michonne finds herself facing down a nearly endless sea of walkers was a unique task for Ghost VFX. XSens motion capture technology was used to quickly build an animation library that could be sourced during crowd simulations so each walker or soldier behaved differently. (Images courtesy of AMC)

Populating the valley where Michonne finds herself facing down a nearly endless sea of walkers was a unique task for Ghost VFX. XSens motion capture technology was used to quickly build an animation library that could be sourced during crowd simulations so each walker or soldier behaved differently. (Images courtesy of AMC)

Populating the valley where Michonne finds herself facing down a nearly endless sea of walkers was a unique task for Ghost VFX. XSens motion capture technology was used to quickly build an animation library that could be sourced during crowd simulations so each walker or soldier behaved differently. (Images courtesy of AMC)

The Ones Who Live relied on visual effects to portray post-apocalyptic environments and Philadelphia was one of the main locations for the show. The environment work was split between Crafty Apes, Framestore and Ghost. “Just the right level of damage, decay, weathering and overgrowth applied to the skyline to give Philadelphia a very specific look and feel requested by the creatives to service the story in a precise way,” David O notes. “Also, the valley in which Michonne finds herself facing down a nearly endless sea of walkers was a unique task. For most of it, the ground isn’t even visible, so you end up with an environment that’s mainly comprised of crowd agents and need  to manage visual continuity very carefully, as opposed to the usual environment work that comes with some visual landmarks for the viewer to reference.”

“To best create a sizeable library of animation cycles for the walkers and soldiers, we decided to utilize XSens motion capture technology for all the different actions we would need for our scenes. This allowed us to quickly build an animation library that could be sourced during our crowd simulations so that each walker or soldier would behave appropriately in their given situation, and in unique ways compared to how those surrounding them might be behaving as well.”

—Alex Dreiblatt, VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes VFX

VFX Supervisor Alex Dreiblatt and his team made sure to stay true to canon previously established in the TWD universe. (Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

VFX Supervisor Alex Dreiblatt and his team made sure to stay true to canon previously established in the TWD universe. (Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

VFX worked closely with SFX makeup, SFX and Stunts to see where and how they could support each other. (Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

VFX worked closely with SFX makeup, SFX and Stunts to see where and how they could support each other. (Image courtesy of Gene Page and AMC)

The importance of maintaining the look of The Walking Dead universe was integral to every VFX task. Concludes Forssman, “The Ones Who Live is set in different environments, and it’s hopefully something the TWD universe hasn’t seen before. What I loved about the show is that the creators always want to do new gags and treat the audience to new locations within the world. There is plenty of room for creativity and creative collaboration. Danai Gurira and Andrew Lincoln are great to work with. Scott Gimple and [Executive Producer] Denise Huth are both very knowledgeable and amazing resources for anything TWD related. The whole crew was fantastic. As a fan of the show, I am very happy that I was able to have a small part in such a big universe.”



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