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Tuesday, June 8, 2021

‘Army of the Dead’: The VFX Team Talks Zombie Tiger, Digital Tig Notaro and Buckets of Gore [Exclusive Interview]

Released a few weeks ago on Netflix, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead is the kind of big-budget, no-holds-barred romp that we don’t see too often in the horror genre. One that has the luxury of indulging in massive, CG assisted set-pieces, copious lashings of gore, and all of its directors’ eccentric ideas, as well as a lengthy runtime in which to explore them. 

To help bring Snyder’s uninhibited vision of the zombie apocalypse to the screen, he enrolled the talents of the Framestore visual effects company. In addition to the expected work on teeming undead hordes, monstrous tigers and a ruined Las Vegas strip, the tech wizards also took on an unforeseen challenge late into post-production, when Chris D’Elia was removed from the project in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. Tasked with digitally removing the original actor and replacing him with a recast Tig Notaro, they employed a variety of green-screen and compositing techniques to fool audiences into thinking that Notaro was always on set with her co-stars.  

To find out more about their incredible work on the film, we spoke to VFX Supervisors Bob Winter and João Site

Bloody Disgusting: Let’s start with that zombie tiger! I believe there’s an interesting story behind the inspiration for Valentine? 

Bob Winter: Valentine started her fictitious life as a digital copy of a white tiger named Sapphire [who] lived at the Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Carol Baskin gave us permission to collect reference material and [that] became the foundation for building the CG character.

BD: So, was this before Tiger King become a global phenomenon? 

BW: Yes. The reference material was collected prior to the release of Tiger King. We were all surprised to [later] see the drama that was revealed about big cat owners.

BD: There’s a lot of cool detail to Valentine, with the matted fur, the crusty blood and exposed bone. Would you be able to talk a little about how you nailed down that look?

BW: We received an early concept image from Zack that showed Valentine’s zombie characteristics. So, we knew that he wanted us to remove layers and add decay to its final look. While we waited for the final concept, we built a CG tiger based on Sapphire that allowed us to have a physically accurate [model] to begin animation. 

Once we received the final concept art, we incorporated those zombie characteristics. We began by peeling away the layers of skin and muscle, in order to reveal internal bones and tendons. Then, our animation and creature FX teams added skin sliding, fur dynamics and muscle jiggle for the realistic motion of her exposed anatomy. The final touches were the dried blood, dirt clumps and decayed anatomy [which gave] Valentine the same patina as the rest of the world created for Army of the Dead.   

BD: Speaking of gore, could you talk a little bit about how the Revenant-esque mauling sequence? I found some behind-the-scenes footage and it looked like a stunt person was involved in portraying Valentine. Considering they obviously don’t have the same bodily proportions as a big cat, how was that reference material useful to you? 

BW: The primary purpose of this scene was to show Martin dying a horrible death. Our animation team had permission to unleash all of Valentine’s physical prowess on him.  

The stunt performer was essential for the choreography of the fight, even though [their] proportions did not match Valentine’s. But we used the timing of the stunt performer as much as we could in animation. For the shots that did not line up […], we replaced Martin’s legs with CG ones so we could control the posing.

BD: Do you have any favourite kills or gore effects that you worked on? One that stood out to me was, in the opening credits, when a zombie is totally obliterated by a high calibre machine gun.

BW: There are so many it is hard to choose a favourite. I will give you my top three; Valentine bites Martin’s head off, Scott blowing Zeus’ head apart, and the zombie getting obliterated. The last one was by far the most blood-by-volume compared to any other shot we worked on. You could fill 8 zombies with the amount of blood that came out of that one.  It was totally over the top and we had so much fun working on that shot.

BD: I think a lot of people are going to want to know about how you integrated Tig Notaro into the film. I cannot imagine how complicated that must have been. What was your reaction when this daunting task landed on your lap? 

Joao Sita: I would say that it was more exciting than daunting because there was a lot of planning involved in the re-shoots […] which shed light on the process. Tig also did a great job of creating a character [who] fit within the heist crew [helping] make it all look seamless.

BD: What were the big obstacles to achieving this effect? 

JS: From the beginning, we knew that the interaction with the surrounding actors and set pieces would be tricky. Every step in the process required us to capture the photographic qualities of the principal photography and the style chosen by Zack.

As we painted out the previous actor from the plates, we would carefully introduce all the optic characteristics from the Canon Dream Lens. Depth of field, bokeh shapes and the various aberrations the lens introduced in the image were fundamental to getting the “clean plates” looking right and ready for the next element. Because the shots in the principal photography were not originally intended to be “paint outs”, we had to use a lot of different sources to recreate the backgrounds, using different takes to fill up the background with all the necessary details.

Alongside that process, we followed a very methodical workflow in which we would camera track the shots and line up a digital version of the previous actor in a couple of key moments. Then we would swap that with our digital version for Tig, which would work as a line-up and a proof of concept for each shot. Once that was done, we would track the plates from the reshoot and align both cameras and performances. That was all done rather quickly so that we could spot any major discrepancies and address them.

Due to [the actors’] height difference, we used some creative adjustments, like changing Tig’s distance to the camera to ensure that she fit in those shots and that the eye line was preserved. The next big element was the depth of field and making sure that she read as [being] the correct distance from the camera.

Once those key steps were set, we moved into integrating the shadows into the plate, added additional dust kick-ups, footprints on the ground, reflections into surrounding objects and refined the lighting on Tig to get a greater sense of integration and presence. 

BD: And did Notaro have to change her performance in any way to ensure you had what you needed, or was she free to do her own thing? 

JS: Tig had the visual aid of the principal photography as a guide for spatial performance, and production provided a couple of props – along with stand ins – to help her with any interaction needed. For example, in the shots where she is piloting the helicopter, production got the heli seat for her to sit on and have something tangible to work with. And while inside the containers that led into Vegas, there was a stand-in that served as a proximity cue, so she knew how close she was [supposed to be] to the other characters.

Army of the Dead is available now on Netflix. 


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