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January 30
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

BRINGING THE ZOMBIES OF THE WALKING DEAD TO FRANCE FOR SOMETHING NOUVEAU

By OLIVER WEBB

Images courtesy of AMC Networks.

France's heritage of abandoned buildings provided vacant hospitals, schools and churches for zombies to be found. (Photos: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

France's heritage of abandoned buildings provided vacant hospitals, schools and churches for zombies to be found. (Photos: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

France's heritage of abandoned buildings provided vacant hospitals, schools and churches for zombies to be found. (Photos: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

France's heritage of abandoned buildings provided vacant hospitals, schools and churches for zombies to be found. (Photos: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

France’s heritage of abandoned buildings provided vacant hospitals, schools and churches for zombies to be found. (Photos: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

Following the events of the final season of The Walking Dead, Daryl Dixon washes ashore in France and must undertake a perilous journey in order to find a way home in the series The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon. Jao M’Changama served as Overall Visual Effects Supervisor on the show, with Sébastien Voisin and Justine Paynat-Sautivet working as VFX producers. “Excuse My French is the French supervision company that hired me for the show. The show’s French line producers, Raphael Benoliel and Augustin de Belloy, found the Excuse My French team, and AMC hired them. It was unreal for me at the beginning. having the Walking Dead come to Paris and getting the chance to be the Visual Effects Supervisor – and getting to destroy Paris. I was finishing a day on a cute CGI commercial spot with friends, and we were aiming to go to a bar when I got the call. That was surprising because we weren’t expecting this big of a show to come over to France, and being selected to work on it was like a dream come true,” M’Changama says.

When it came to the initial conversations about the look of the show, M’Changama and his team set up a Zoom call with creator and showrunner David Zabel and the AMC team. “They were asking not how I see the show but questioning me about my strengths and what I like and how I feel about zombies,” M’Changama adds. “I explained that I come from advertising. I’ve been supervising advertisements for 10 years for both big and small campaigns. They were very pleased to know that I worked in various worlds and with different types of narratives, including the Ubisoft live campaigns, exploring sci fi- gladiators and war action styles. It meant that I can easily change worlds, which is one of my strengths. It was really cool to be only focused on the Walking Dead world and to transfer the 15 years of Walking Dead that I’ve been watching to France and know that I have a huge part to play in that role. I wanted to create trust with AMC, and I know it’s the first time they’ve worked in France, so that was mainly the first exchange. Then, the week after there were some tech recces in the south of France. David [Zabel] was there as well as the director, Dan Percival, and Executive Producer Greg Nicotero, father of the Dead. It was great to switch between the U.S. TV show and being part of it [in France] in the best way we could.”

France doesn’t have the same variety of weapons as the U.S., and they tend to be historically older, so the VFX team designed weapons that weren't too old school for the Walking Dead universe. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

France doesn’t have the same variety of weapons as the U.S., and they tend to be historically older, so the VFX team designed weapons that weren’t too old school for The Walking Dead universe. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

In terms of visual references, M’Changama looked at France’s urbex (urban exploration) culture to define the apocalypse in France. “There are still a lot of abandoned buildings left here in France, which we can’t destroy because they’re national treasures,” he notes. “The government won’t clean them, so they just stay there until something happens to them. One of my goals was to chase a lot of those urban exploration references. There are tons of Youtubers and photographers that goes everywhere, so I look for those dead hospitals, dead schools and dead churches. It gave us visual satisfaction because a lot of those places haven’t been touched and are still there waiting to be seen. We have this huge heritage In France. That was one of my first directions.”

Visual Effects Supervisor Jao M'Changama looked at France’s urbex (urban exploration) culture to locate and define the apocalypse in France. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

Visual Effects Supervisor Jao M’Changama looked at France’s urbex (urban exploration) culture to locate and define the apocalypse in France. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier. Courtesy of AMC)

“There are still a lot of abandoned buildings left here in France, which we can’t destroy because they’re national treasures. The government won’t clean them, and so they just stay there until something happens to them. One of my goals  was to chase those urban exploration references. … so I look for those dead hospitals, dead schools and dead churches. It gave us visual satisfaction because a lot of those places haven’t been touched and are still there waiting to be seen.”

—Jao M’Changama, Overall Visual Effects Supervisor

M’Changama paid close attention to weaponry as it’s such a large part of the Walking Dead universe. “France doesn’t have the same variety of weapons as the U.S., so this was an important part of our research,” he details. “For the visual effects, we shot specific plates because we have a heritage with older weapons on France. We wanted to design something that wasn’t too old school and fit into the Walking Dead universe. It was the same thing for Norman’s [Norman Reedus portrays Daryl Dixon] mace. He’d already used a mace in Season 10. In France it’s smaller, so we needed to put the green tape on the mace and ask Norman to do it a bit slower to make it seem heavier. We couldn’t slow down the movement with VFX. We needed to adapt a bit.”

The boat scene was initially located only at sea, but the script was changed just before shooting to make part of the scene happen in a harbor – which changed the way the show was filmed. (Photos: Stephanie Branchu. Courtesy of AMC Networks)

The boat scene was initially located only at sea, but the script was changed just before shooting to make part of the scene happen in a harbor – which changed the way the show was filmed. (Photos: Stephanie Branchu. Courtesy of AMC Networks)

The boat scene was initially located only at sea, but the script was changed just before shooting to make part of the scene happen in a harbor – which changed the way the show was filmed. (Photos: Stephanie Branchu. Courtesy of AMC Networks)

M’Changama worked closely with Series Production Designer Clovis Weil. “We went to the same school and hadn’t seen each other for  about 15 years. At the first meeting about the set decoration, we remembered when we were in school and how we built a frame and a picture, which was something learned at school,” M’Changama explains. “It was great to work with Clovis as a friend and very talented individual. His team was working on the show around three months before I arrived, so they’d already been thinking about the show. It was a real collaboration between the set design and the VFX department.”

Norman Reedus (Daryl Dixon) used a mace in Season 10 of The Walking Dead, but in France the mace was smaller. Green tape was placed on the mace so VFX could enlarge it in post to match. Reedus also had to wield the mace slower to make it seem heavier. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

Norman Reedus (Daryl Dixon) used a mace in Season 10 of The Walking Dead, but in France the mace was smaller. Green tape was placed on the mace so VFX could enlarge it in post to match. Reedus also had to wield the mace slower to make it seem heavier. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

“David has a great knowledge of France culture, but when it came to destroying it, he put a lot of trust in set decoration and VFX and instructed these departments on how to do that best. It was a very smart move,” M’Changama  adds. “Expectations were high. We wanted to get out of the Emily in Paris perfect world and show how we, the French, see the apocalypse. It was all about telling little stories in the background that helped us build the world around the main characters.”

“[Creator/showrunner David Zabel] has a great knowledge of France culture, but when it came to destroying it, he put a lot of trust in set decoration and VFX. … We wanted to get out of the Emily in Paris perfect world and show how we, the French, see the apocalypse. It was all about telling little stories in the background that helped us build the world around the main characters.”

—Jao M’Changama, Overall Visual Effects Supervisor

There were 740 VFX shots in total, and over 400 artists worked on the show. “We managed the workload with confidence,” M’Changama says. “It wasn’t an issue, but we knew that we weren’t the usual Walking Dead team. We had to show everyone that we could bring something new to the show. Sébastien, like me, has a solid background in advertising. On the other end, Justine had one in feature films. We are used to holding a huge workflow and doing a lot of work in a small amount of time. We knew that working in that way was achievable because we had the team needed to do the job. What is specific to our way of working is that we prioritize everything. Every single frame is important and every shot is important. ‘Scope’ and ‘details’ were the words from David with all the teams. We just wanted to build a consistent and imaginative show. We want the first episode to be as good as the last episode and all the fights done with the same love and care.”

Creator/showrunner David Zabel, Executive Producer Greg Nicotero, director Dan Percival and Overall Visual Effects Supervisor Jao M'Changama scouted potential shooting locations in France, including Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay in Brittany. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

Creator/showrunner David Zabel, Executive Producer Greg Nicotero, director Dan Percival and Overall Visual Effects Supervisor Jao M’Changama scouted potential shooting locations in France, including Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay in Brittany. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

M’Changama worked with five top Paris studios: BUF, MPC, Mathematic Light and Mac Guff. “Paris is a fairly small city, so we knew each other and each other’s work. I worked at MPC for 10 years before, so I knew that MPC had solid strength in environmental work and digital matte painting. So, for the deconstruction of the city, we just wanted them to work on it very closely. We exchanged lots of concept art. BUF just made Eiffel, so we knew that they had all the assets of the iron lady. We knew it would be fun for the team to destroy what they’d built. We also knew that Mathematic had a solid comp and craft vision that is very elaborate, and they are fast at adapting a lot of simulation techniques and lighting. We felt that they were the best guys to work on the zombies. The French zombies needed a lot of love and ingenuity. Greg Nicotero brought some incredible concepts of new species appearing in the Walking Dead universe. I think the VFX team succeeded in bringing a gorgeous update to zombies: Pulsating veins, burning blood, and more details not to be spoiled here. One of the supervisors with Light is also a flame artist – like me, and we knew they could craft technical shots, including 2D and CGI, very quickly. This process allows us to quickly share the steps with David Zabel and the AMC team. Mac Guff is a studio known for their generalists who can adapt to  reconstructing towns to matte painting. They handled several shots successfully. So, by knowing our studios’ strengths, we managed the shot dispatch with accuracy, and this also helped us to build trust with David and AMC.”

Mathematic Light handled work on the zombies. The VFX team wanted to get away from the “Emily in Paris perfect world” image of France and show a contemporary French view the apocalypse. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

Mathematic Light handled work on the zombies. The VFX team wanted to get away from the “Emily in Paris perfect world” image of France and show a contemporary French view the apocalypse. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

“The French zombies needed a lot of love and ingenuity. [Executive Producer] Greg Nicotero brought some incredible concepts of new species appearing in the walking dead universe. I think the VFX team succeeded in bringing a gorgeous update to zombies: Pulsating veins, burning blood and more…”

—Jao M’Changama, Overall Visual Effects Supervisor

When it came to filming the streets of Paris, the Eiffel Tower was, of course, the main event, but for M’Changama and his team, every street was important. “The most challenging locations for us involved the locations with bluescreens because we faced last-minute changes on the script,” M’Changama remarks. “For the bluescreens scenes, there was the rooftop camp, the cargo ship and the Eiffel Tower. The screenplay wasn’t completely finished as we were going to shoot. The good ideas from the showrunner and the director came in very late in the process, and as they were amazing ideas, we needed to adapt our initial plans. For example, the location of the boat was initially only in the sea and finally a part of it happens in a harbor, What could we do regarding the visual effects in the harbor? It changed the way we would film. It was challenging because we changed our vision to the good ideas that sometimes came 10 minutes before shooting. The on-set VFX team provided a large panel of solutions, not only on bluescreen but all along the road trip we made in France. Then, when we were in the VFX post-production process, we were honestly excited and impatient to share our vision with David and all the team.”

Zombie blood and how the zombies are killed – specifically, the exploding head in the arena towards the end of the series – was one of the most creative aspects of the show for M'Changama and his VFX team. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

Zombie blood and how the zombies are killed – specifically, the exploding head in the arena towards the end of the series – was one of the most creative aspects of the show for M’Changama and his VFX team. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

One of the biggest challenges for M’Changama was matching their work with the rest of the Walking Dead universe. “We had a vision of how the zombies work, but we are not doing another show about zombies, we are bringing the Walking Dead to France. We can bring something new to it, but we need it to match what already exists and we need it to be accurate. The zombie blood and how we will kill the zombies has been one of the most creative aspects for us. Specifically, the exploding head in the arena towards the end of the series. Greg Nicotero brought in several SFX components to make the pumping zombie skin and other makeup FX magic. But one of the biggest challenges was shooting in a national treasure area where we were not allowed to put blood on the walls and the ground. The lights were changing, and it was becoming dark, and the blood was very specific. We needed to make those little details match. That one single shot was very fun to do, and we did a great job. It wasn’t too digital or too gory, but it was 100% CGI.”

“The zombie blood and how we will kill the zombies has been one of the most creative aspects for us. Specifically, the exploding head in the arena towards the end of the series. Greg Nicotero brought in several SFX components to make the pumping zombie skin and other makeup FX magic. But one of the biggest challenges was shooting in a national treasure area where we were not allowed to put blood on the walls and the ground. … It wasn’t too digital or too gory, but it was 100% CGI.”

—Jao M’Changama, Overall Visual Effects Supervisor

Clémence Poséy as Isabelle in Paris. BUF made the Eiffel Tower and all associated assets – and enjoyed destroying what they built. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

Clémence Poséy as Isabelle in Paris. BUF made the Eiffel Tower and all associated assets – and enjoyed destroying what they built. (Photo: Emmanuel Guimier)

M’Changama and his team also faced issues with anachronism. For one of the flashback sequences, Notre Dame’s spire, which was destroyed in the recent fire, had to be recreated. For M’Changama, working on these fine details was an important part of the process  “I’m happy that Hollywood trusted France’s VFX ecosystem. I think we did a great job, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. We’re eager for the next challenge!”


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