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New Growth For Walking Dead

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) faces a wall of zombies in “The Walking Dead.”


BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

It’s October, or the month the world has come to expect the return of “The Walking Dead.”  Now heading into it’s fourth season, the popularity of the zombie infused drama continues to grow steadily around the globe, from the US to the UK to Japan.  How has the tale of humans battling “walkers” managed to avoid becoming as rancid as rotting flesh baking in the hot Georgia sun?  By focusing on the communal family,  both in front and behind the camera.

At a recent press event, “The Walking Dead” cast and crew members gathered to promote the new season and share their insights into why the show continues to grow.  Writer/producer Robert Kirkman surmised the show’s exploration of the basic need of survival is what anchors it universally.  While zombies are a fun and terrifying draw, Kirkland felt its the character’s quest to reconnect with morality and avoid losing their own souls that keeps people returning, season after season.

“The one thing about it that makes it unique is the characters; studying their emotions and where they go,” said Kirkman.  “These people are in a horrific world, and how that world changes them and how they change each other in that environment – the zombie stuff should not be there unless it serves that.  We want it to be evocative.  We want you to feel the pain of their loss and to get a sense of that world.”

Executive producer David Alpert recognized there was a pre-existing fan base for “The Walking Dead” – those fans who followed the comic books the series is based upon.  The books have a number of milestone moments and characters that the writers and producers must determine how best to introduce into the mix.  Some of these milestones include the death of beloved characters.

“We are going to use the milestones in the comics, but how we get there nobody knows,” said Alpert.  Added executive producer Gale Ann Hurd, “Sometimes we’ll speed up, sometimes we’ll slow down, but it’s only for the benefit of the characters.  The interesting thing is that there is no plan for anything other than what makes sense for the characters.”

At the end of each season, the writers review the elements that worked as well as what missed the mark.  Their goal is to find a blend of conflict, growth, and horrifying circumstances while working in elements from the book and continually elevating the series to keep viewers returning.  Scott Gimple, who’s been a series writer and is the fourth season’s show runner, acknowledged there is a certain pressure that comes with creating fan content.  He feels staying focused on each episode individually removes any tension that may build on or off set.

“If we are pushing ourselves and working hard, not resting on our laurels, and trying to make the best show possible for us and the fans, that’s where the pressure goes away,” said Gimple.  “That requires a ton of work, a ton of planning, a ton of cooperation.”

While some members of the press have been critical of “The Walking Dead’s” revolving door of show runners, Hurd pointed out that Gimple, like his predecessor, was a pre-existing member of “The Walking Dead” team.  A number of crew members have taken on various roles during the life of the series, including cinematographer David Boyd who’s directed three episodes, and makeup artist Gregory Nicotero, who’s not only directed episodes but also serves as an executive producer.

“We are all a family, unlike other shows we promote from within,” said Hurd.  “It’s so funny when you read the reports describing shocking changes behind the scenes.  There is a seamless transition.  I know it may seem odd to everyone who’s not on the show, but it actually is (seamless).”

As season four begins, events unfold that will force the group out of the confines of the prison. Rick, played by Andrew Lincoln, trying to achieve his own mental stability while developing a constructive role model for his children, steps down from his leadership role, and under-explored characters will present their personalities and histories.   Having been with the series from the first episode, Lincoln is excited for the changes to come.

“You find out so much more in the first five episodes,” said Lincoln.  “Something that Scott (Gimple) and the writers have done that is great is put pressure on the group.  the zombies are more terrifying and a real threat again.  The tension has come back.  The group dynamic starts to get more combustible and the pressure certainly builds.”

While the effort to survive overwhelming circumstances may be the heartbeat of the show, the zombies are the force that keeps that heart racing.  The writers are tasked with ways to re-invent the scares these aging creatures bring.

“Zombies are not fresh.  They are decidedly unfresh,” said Gimple.  “You let your imagination run wild.  The writers sit down and come up with these things we think no on will be able to do, then Greg says, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll be able to do that.'”

One such zombie creation appears early in season four.  A zombie has been crushed under a large tree, and organic matter including moss has taken root in the zombie’s flesh.  Nicotero and his team from KLG Effects, working alongside visual effects artists from Stargate Effects, were able to craft the perfect mix of prosthetics and VFX to bring this vision to life.  This season Nicotero’s makeup team created elaborate zombie “puppets” – some with missing noses, jaws or other body parts and retractable lips and gums – that will be interspersed with real actors adorned with prosthetic makeup.  While he is humble about the makeup work that has received multiple Emmy nominations and wins, actress Dania Gurira finds Nicotero’s ability to step away from “munching up guts” to direct their stunts or provide intricate set up for their scenes while “knee deep in junk completely amazing.”

“It kind of throws you when he is dressed with zombie makeup and there’s blood coming out of his face and he’s like, ‘Can you set up the lights and change the order?'” said actor Norman Reedus.

As the success of “The Walking Dead” has continued to grow, so has its impact on the shooting locations in Georgia.  Once on the verge of financial ruin, the communities are full of global visitors eager to experience the show’s setting.  Streets that had been deserted are now brimming with successful businesses and restaurants.  This has had a tremendous impact on all who work on the show.

“It’s so surreal, in a sense, that we are part of something that didn’t exist prior, and just by making it, people have grasped it and made it part of their every day,” said actor Steven Yeun.  “We fabricated that, and for that to extend to the the well being of a town in financial struggle, that’s insane, that’s crazy!”

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