Spring 2015

On the Air - The Walking Dead

The quality and variety of episodic television may be at an all-time high. With long-running comedies like New Girl, newcomers like Jane the Virgin, and dramas like The Walking Dead, The Americans, and NCIS: New Orleans, the range of material is vast. We asked directors about the challenge of creating some of today's most acclaimed series.


Dead Zone: (top) Director-producer Greg Nicotero says he and his other directors, including (bottom) Michael E. Satrazemis, try to keep things elegant and simple by avoiding flashy camerawork, handheld shooting, and super-fast cutting. (Photos: Gene Page/AMC)

"I think there's something elegant about it," director-producer Greg Nicotero says of The Walking Dead, which might seem a strange thing to say about a television show whose defining characteristic is the constant presence of milling, lurching, voracious zombies. But Nicotero—who has now directed 11 episodes, and frequently shoots second unit as well—insists on the point: "We don't go in for flashy camerawork, we don't use a lot of handheld, we don't go in for super-fast cutting. We always want it to seem like the camera is another person going along on the journey with the characters. The style is simple, and it pulls the audience in."

And the reason for that simplicity, says Ernest R. Dickerson, who has also directed 11 episodes, is that "in the fantastic genre, it's always best to present the horrors in the context of a concrete reality." He goes on: "I think horror only works if you really care about the people it's affecting. So mostly we want the camera style to be fairly invisible and not call attention to itself because the show is about the people."

The Walking Dead, which has just wrapped up its fifth season on AMC, has from the beginning favored a rather classical directorial style and a distinctly muted palette. The action takes place in the South, after an epidemic that turns most of the population into flesh-eating zombies; the survivors wander from place to place looking for sanctuary and fending off "walkers" wherever they go. This involves a certain amount of gore. It's essentially a long road movie, set in a grim post-apocalyptic landscape, and according to Dickerson there's never much difficulty finding suitably devastated locations near Senoia, Georgia, where the series is largely shot. "There are a lot of small towns around there where industry has left and the places are on the skids, just a lot of old rusting hulks of buildings."

Michael E. Satrazemis, who has directed three episodes and has for the past two seasons also been the show's director of photography, says: "I time it to be like a Western, the sepia tones. I don't use a lot of fill. This material needs natural light, to make it believable." Both Nicotero and Satrazemis have been with The Walking Dead from the start, and were involved in the decision to shoot the series on 16 mm film. Frank Darabont, the director of the pilot and then-executive producer, ordered camera tests and, according to Nicotero—who was handling the special makeup effects—"we tested the RED camera, we tested 35, everything," he says. "When we looked at a zombie in the digital test, the colors didn't look quite right; they were a little green. But when we got to the 16, it seemed to capture what we were shooting for, which was the feel of Night of the Living Dead. It was a no-brainer." (When there are a lot of visual effects in a scene, however, "we have to switch to 35, because we need more information," Nicotero adds.)

"It's always a pleasure to go back to film," says Dickerson, who after working in the movies in the 1980s and 1990s (first as a cinematographer and later as a director) has since directed dozens of episodes of television, notably for The Wire, Treme, and Dexter. "With 16 mm," he says, "there's an element of grain in the image that gives it a semidocumentary feel, which I think really contributes to the show."

Satrazemis notes that "16 mm is the only way we can keep the show as big as it is, and this is the biggest show I know of that isn't using green screen to create it. Ours is basically a practical set."

Walkers: Director Ernest R. Dickerson, who has directed 11 episodes, directs Emily Kinney and Lauren Cohan on an exterior set of The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

The episodes are shot in eight or nine days, and the makeup for the zombies can take up a lot of valuable time. There are, as it happens, three categories of zombies for production purposes: The "heroes," who do their grisly thing in the foreground, take three-and-a-half hours apiece to make up; the "mids" take less; and the "backgrounds"—the shuffling ghouls farthest from the camera—simply have their zombie faces painted on. When, as is sometimes the case, there are hordes of the nasty creatures in the scene, preparing them can present a production challenge, and, Satrazemis says, the flexibility and the small size of the 16 mm camera helps the crew members get the shots they need in the time available.

To that end, too, there are often two or three cameras running, and for the most elaborate, action-heavy episodes, sometimes more than that. In the spectacular fourth season episode "Too Far Gone," in which the villainous character known as the Governor lays siege to a prison in which the main group of survivors has taken refuge, Dickerson hid several small Canon 5D cameras in the grass to provide some extra coverage. "Most of the directors," he says, "approach this work not as a television show but as a mini-movie. When I'm doing my storyboards, I'm always looking at movies for inspiration. When I was doing the Governor attacking the prison, I kept watching Zulu over and over again."

One reason for the show's consistency of style is, of course, the familiarity that the cast and crew of a series develop over the course of a long run. "By season five," Nicotero says, "Mike Satrazemis and I and [1st AD] Jeff January barely even have to talk. We have the same style, which we've developed together. I'll be standing there before a shot and Mike will just walk up with the viewfinder and hand me the lens I need." And the ease of those working relationships enables the directors of The Walking Dead to take some chances here and there, to push the boundaries of the show's visual style.

In the fifth season episode "What Happened and What's Going On," written by the series' current executive producer, Scott M. Gimple, and directed by Nicotero, the show opens with a wholly uncharacteristic montage of hazy, dreamlike, random-seeming imagery—elements of which recur later in the episode. "It was different tonally from anything we'd ever done," Nicotero says. "We used a lot of disconnected imagery, we used slow motion, we even experimented with changing the frame rate of the camera and turning it on and off to give the feel of those old Super 8 effects where the film would turn orange and flash on and off." All the tricks, though, are in the service of the story, which is about the slow death of one of the main characters, seen largely from his own "fever-dream perspective," as Nicotero calls it. "I wanted to give the effect of his life playing out like watching Super 8 movies on a wall."

As much as effects like these may be a departure from the series' plain style, they're still firmly grounded in the animating principle of The Walking Dead. "It's not about the zombies," Dickerson says, "it's about people dealing with extraordinary circumstances." The show is about the struggle to stay human in a harsh, unforgiving environment, and its directors do whatever they can to keep our attention on the bedraggled survivors drifting through this haunted landscape. It's a simple, human principle, and, like all things human, in natural light it can look surprisingly elegant.

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