How 'The Walking Dead' destroyed Atlanta

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How 'The Walking Dead' destroyed Atlanta

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Actors Laurie Holden, Norman Reedus, Jon Bernthal, Melissa Suzanne McBride, Sarah Wayne Callies and Chandler Riggs (left to right) appear in the second season premiere of "The Walking Dead," which is set (and filmed) in Georgia. AMC

When the characters in “The Walking Dead” venture from rural settings into Atlanta, the zombie apocalypse doesn’t leave much for viewers to recognize the city. 

Victor Scalise, the show’s supervisor of visual effects, shared how digital animation transformed Atlanta into a bleak post-apocalyptic city for scenes of the popular AMC show.

How to spot the digital animation

You can’t.

Or at least the crew working behind the scenes to create the show doesn’t want you to know what is real or not. Well done effects often make people wonder: Was that real blood, fake or computer-generated blood? Is that a prosthetic or a visual effect?

“We want the audience just to believe everything is real,” Scalise said. “And I think that’s one of the great things we do on the show is we ride the fine line of practical and digital.”

Some digital animation is easy to spot simply because there’s likely no other way to create the effect. 

For instance, in season five of “The Walking Dead” a wide shot of the Atlanta skyline after time has passed and nature has taken over shows holes in major buildings. “The Walking Dead” may be one of the biggest shows filmed in Georgia, but the producers can’t destroy actual buildings for the purpose of the perfect shot. 

Digital animation helps to simulate what would otherwise be impossible to create in real life. 

"The Walking Dead" promotional poster was shot at the Jackson Street Bridge in Atlanta. Here's what's real and what's fictional in the image.

How the city is transformed

In season five, the primary goal was to show how time had passed since Atlanta’s earlier appearances, especially when the city was napalmed in season two. 

To show the passage of time, the visual effects team, which consists of anywhere from 20 to 40 people depending on the episode, used digital animation to add greenery and kudzu to show nature’s reclaiming of the city. They also used effects to add scorch marks and holes to buildings that show the scars of battles and the chaos of the zombie apocalypse and tie it to the storyline, Scalise said. 

The crew also has to keep continuity with the scenery. For example, the SkyView Atlanta Ferris wheel had not been erected when the show began in 2010, so they removed it for continuity purposes in season five, for a scene when Daryl and Carol were on the bridge.

How digital effects artists edit themselves

On “The Walking Dead,” the visual effects team avoids going overboard with the manipulated destruction of Atlanta. The most challenging part of using digital animation on “The Walking Dead” is adding tasteful effects that tell the story without distracting from the storyline, Scalise said. If the destruction is too big, it can be comical, he said.

For example, in the scene where Daryl and Carol are on the bridge, the digital effects team needed to show the city has been weathered without having too crazy of a background that would take away from the story of them being trapped on the bridge.

In digital animation, Scalise enjoys finding that balance and keeping viewers guessing. 

“The fun part of the job is kind of the mystery of trying to fool everybody in think-ing everything’s real,” he said.

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