Greg Nicotero on Directing a Record-Breaking Zombie Horde for The Walking Dead Premiere


At New York Comic Con on Thursday, The Walking Dead comics creator Robert Kirkman promised, “This is going to be the most intense season of The Walking Dead yet.” If the 90-minute season premiere is any indication, the show has become more ambitious than ever in its sixth season, orchestrating a record-breaking zombie horde and constructing a narrative with two timelines. “It was a tough one,” said Greg Nicotero, the executive producer, makeup maestro, and director of the episode. “We certainly don't shy away from taking big swings, that's for sure.” Vulture got down to the technical details of the episode with Nicotero, from blending CGI with practical effects to setting up a “spray-tan tent” to get the zombie horde prepped.  

As I was watching the premiere and seeing Rick and his crew executing such a huge plan, I could only imagine how much of a directorial challenge it must have been behind the camera. What were some of the difficulties?
Well, I could say first and foremost the [opening] quarry sequence. I had very specific ideas, and I storyboarded a lot of the reveal of the quarry. We found a practical quarry here in Georgia that we shot in, but of course the real quarry was about six times larger. So we had to really spend a lot of time pre-visualizing exactly how big the quarry was, figuring out how many walkers there would be in the quarry. I think at last count we decided that there were 30,000 walkers in that quarry. And then, of course, just the logistics of making it feel authentic and real. It was definitely the biggest pre-vis situation we've ever been in. 

Are you planning on going bigger in terms of production value and budget this season?
Yeah. We feel like we have a responsibility to keep the show fresh. What I like about the script and the way the storytelling unfolds in this premiere is it's unlike any other premiere that we've done. In season four we were at the prison and we put the ship to sea getting a sense of where all the characters were. And then in the season-five premiere, we had this big giant rescue/escape from Terminus, and I feel like this premiere has a little bit of both. It's got some thrills and some chills and some action stuff, but it also is basically setting the first half of our season on its feet by letting us know, "Okay, here's the task at hand and knowing what our people are going to have to overcome.”

I really like the fact that we played with nonlinear storytelling, that we pick up right where the last episode left off, and use some of the black and white to tell the audience that this is our story line in the past versus our story line in the present. I'm just thrilled with it. I love the actors, and they were all so eager to get back to work at their performances. Everyone was chomping at the bit, so getting Lennie [James, who plays Morgan] back into the fold, and getting everyone back into it again, was a sheer delight. 

What made you decide to use black and white to delineate the two timelines in the premiere?
We knew that we needed to delineate the two timelines pretty clearly. There was an early iteration where we were going to desaturate the flashbacks and oversaturate the present-day stuff, just because we wanted there to be a visual tell. And one of the challenges was as soon as we started oversaturating the present timeline, everything became so vibrant and full of life that when you're looking at a zombie horde and the zombie horde was all of the sudden very colorful, it didn't look right. The whole point of having a horde of the undead is for them to not look vibrant. It was like watching The Wizard of Oz — all of the sudden you see the color and it's like, "Wow. That's really colorful." In our instance, the vibrant color was so prevalent that Scott [Gimple] and I sort of struggled with that and came to the decision of stripping all of the color away. It was a risk and a gamble. I've seen the entire episode in color and I'm sort of keeping my fingers crossed that when we release the DVD, we'll have a full-color version because some of the quarry stuff, when the walkers go over the edge and hit the bottom of the quarry and splatter, it's very gratuitous and gory and you love to see little red patches around the zombies. So it was definitely a stylistic choice — we wanted to make sure the audience understood that we were jumping between timelines. 

I’m curious about the mixture of practical effects and CGI in the opening scene. What was what?
I think we had 200 walkers there for the interaction around the truck. And then for the wider stuff when the truck slides off the edge of the quarry and somersaults in, those were digital walkers in the background. The foreground truck was practical, of course, and the background truck was CGI. 

People always talk about CGI versus practical, and much of your background is in practical effects. How do you think CGI should be balanced with practical, and when and where it should be used?
I've always been a large proponent of the fact that every tool is used to its maximum effect. It wouldn't be practical to hire 30,000 extras. From a filmmaking standpoint, you'd never be able to get 30,000 people ready. Scott always had described it as the Lollapalooza of walkers in that sequence — a giant mosh pit. Clearly, the big wide shots were intended to be digital because that's the tool to be used. But when the walker forces itself between the two trucks and the skin tears off, that was clearly something we wanted to do as a practical effect. Also, sometimes it's a factor of our shooting schedule. In season one we did a lot of the head hits practically and the exploding heads with real blood, but when you have to do 25 or 30 of them in one scene, you don't have time to even go in and clean off the blood and redress the extras. You just have to move on. So we've developed the opportunity to do a lot of the exploding heads and stuff digitally — and some are practical — but for the most part it's painting a picture. Even from the directing standpoint, it's always critical to use whichever tool is best suited to tell the story, and when we're seeing sequences where walkers are walking close towards camera and their faces are rotted, that's clearly prosthetics. 

What’s useful about practical effects?
Practical is real. There's no doubt in your mind that that zombie that's walking toward you is something that you can reach out and touch. It's tangible. The only challenge with visual effects is that the way your brain processes that information over the way your brain processes the information of a practical character is very different. One of the things I think is very important to do is to blend them. Like, with Hershel's head in season four, we shot a practical animatronic head with jaw movement, and then we put in digital eyes so that the eyes were looking around and moving. So, by using that as a blend of those techniques, you're telling the story, and you're also giving the audience the opportunity to scratch their heads and say, "God, how did they do that? That looked so real." That's why I got into the business to begin with. Seeing Jaws and trying to figure out how they made that shark.

How does coming from a visual-effects and makeup background affect your directing?
When you're dealing with actors who wear prosthetics, you're the first people they see in the morning, and you're the last people they see at the end of the day. You are assisting in their transformation. So I spend a lot of time winning over the trust of the actors I've worked with on movies. When I took the directing helm, I understood how important those aspects of directing were, on top of the fact that I had worked so much in effects, that I really understood how intrinsic the effects needed to be to tell the story. In the late '70s and early '80s, when makeup effects were sort of really coming into their own, movies would stop for special-effects sequences, and as a kid you love that stuff because — Oh, my God. It's the Thing! — and how great it is that you have those effects sequences. Those inspired me. They also taught me you have to be very careful and cautious about how you choreograph those sequences to keep the momentum of the actual story moving forward. 

Was this the largest crew of extras that you've had to use?
Yes. I know for sure we had broken our record in the first episode in terms of the number of walkers we had. We had at least two days when there were 300 people in makeup. Each day. And that was a big challenge. When Daryl is riding the motorcycle down toward the intersection and they built that wall that redirected them away from Alexandria — that was our biggest zombie day we ever had. 

What were the difficulties of wrangling such a large cast of extras?
One of the things that I'm constantly refining is our makeup process as the show progresses. I certainly was very interested in being able to allow my team to create more zombie looks in the allotted time frame. So what we did was we actually came up with a spray-tan tent. We wanted to just make sure that when you were looking at a crowd of 300 people that it wasn't 120 people with makeup on and then another 180 with masks or pink faces. So we basically redesigned our workflow to allow us to have 100 or so people that walked through the spray tan and we would spray them with a pale makeup color and add a dead color and then spattered blood color. It gave us a really good mix. 

It's like a reverse car wash.
A reverse car wash! Exactly. 

Did you put them all through zombie school?
They all went through zombie school, yes. Every single one of them. And some of them were from zombie schools from previous seasons, but we had a big zombie school this year because we had those big numbers.