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The Walking Dead‘s production designer describes using the comic book as a story board and losing a Huey helicopter on the set.
Q: How did you approach designing for The Walking Dead?
A: I did Tales From the Crypt for many years, and I always approached that show from a realism standpoint — trying to set up a realistic world, and then let the surreal horror spin out of it. And that’s the strategy I’ve taken with this, to root it in reality as much as possible and let Rick move through this world and see it get more and more skewed. A great example is when he wakes up in the hospital. It just gets worse and worse. It’s like there was a running gun battle through this hospital. There were grenades. He comes outside and it looks like Dachau. Then as he comes to the parking lot, there’s going to be an entire military hospital unit that’s been overrun. It just keeps unfolding. When you read the comic, Rick walks outside and there’s a car crashed into a tree. [Laughs] I’m like, “OK yeah, we’ll do this burned out bus and dump trucks stacked with bodies.”
Q: What visual inspiration did you get from the comics?
A: It’s like having a storyboard of the whole production. Usually I get a storyboard of an effects sequence or an action sequence. But it’s very interesting to have something from beginning to end. There are a lot of iconic images in that graphic novel that we have taken into the series. People will go, “Oh yeah that’s the downtown Atlanta shot.” For instance the police station in the graphic novel: One day I was driving around and saw right behind our production office this little brick building that looked exactly like the police station. So there are a lot of points like that, and then the hospital is something we really took to a whole new level as far as the devastation and really showing for the first time the scale of the apocalypse in Rick’s town.
Q: How much do you typically have to dress a location?
A: I would say very little. Obviously we had to devastate the hospital, but one of my rules with this is we need to own the location. Rick’s house was kind of an abandoned house that was for sale. It had no windows, it was boarded up, kind of derelict. But it laid out beautifully for us, so we went through the trouble of fixing it up. But I would say overall, we’ve been very fortunate with locations. They’ve been big dresses: The gas station was a huge dress. The hospital was a huge undertaking, especially once we got outside of it.
Q: What goes into making Atlanta look like it’s been through an apocalypse?
A: The challenge is, again, to find areas that we own. We’re setting up an abandoned city, so we needed to find areas of downtown that we could shut down over a weekend. I was looking just to keep it tight, so that it was hard to see around corners and know what’s coming ahead of you. And then from there, it was just trying to build some backstories to what happened there: The concept was that a section of Atlanta had become a Green Zone where the military could protect a certain square-block area. And basically the thought is that Rick approaches this military checkpoint that’s been overrun. We had lots of abandoned cars with luggage or doors open, like people had come, tried to get in; some people had tried to run the blockade, we had some burnt, turned over cars.
Q: How long did that take to set up?
A: They shut down the street at 7PM on a Friday night, and at 7AM we were shooting these apocalyptic scenes over six blocks. The set was so large, when Frank [Darabont] got there he didn’t even see we had a Huey helicopter landed in the street. He’s like, “Where’s the helicopter?” “It’s down there!” “Well bring it up here!” So we immediately brought that up. That’s how big it was – the helicopter got lost. [Laughs]
Q: Will you have to supplement these set-ups with CGI?
A: I have to say rather proudly that there are two or three sets that we’ve done – downtown Atlanta, the gas station – that were going to have a lot more CG work done to them. But when we got done with them, Frank was like, “We kinda have it,” which was great for me. He’s like, “I don’t think we need to extend this set. This is actually much more than I thought I was going to get.” That’s been kind of cool, to actually be able to deliver enough physical scenery to fill the shot.
Photo: Greg Melton (right) with Writer, Director and Executive Producer Frank Darabont (left) on a tank.