Turning Glasgow into Philadelphia for the Zombie Apocalypse of World War Z
Listening to Matt Johnson describe Cinesite’s efforts in Marc Forster’s World War Z, your first thought is, “Jeez, I wish I owned the coffee concession on that shoot!” Keeping the look of the film “photographed” rather than “rendered” required multiple crews working around the clock, complicated onset logistics, large amounts of data capture and ultimately, attention to details that no one in the audience would probably ever know or appreciate. The stated goal was always to make the visual effects seamless and invisible, the action grounded in real-world physics with a documentary-like reality. No simple task. Who knew creating a traffic jam on the streets of Philadelphia could be so complicated?
With over 430 shots primarily comprising the first half of the film, Cinesite’s greatest effort involved the recreation of various environments and action in and around Philadelphia. As the zombie infection hits the city, our hero, Jerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt, struggles to escape to safety, climaxing with his frantic efforts to get his family to a rooftop rendezvous with a rescue helicopter. Cinesite’s work included numerous aerial shots of the city in chaos, blocks of traffic jams, huge crowds running in panic, zombie attacks, scores of digital doubles, CG vehicles, a runaway garbage truck and other elements of mayhem and destruction often found with a zombie apocalypse and the explosive destruction of a city. Somehow, that brought Matt and his team to Glasgow.
I recently had a chance to talk to Matt about Glasgow, other locations and digital environments real and imagined, the enormity of the challenges faced as well as his desire to keep the film’s look based in the real world.
Dan Sarto: With the exception of the zombies, you’re recreating real cities, real environments. That gives you a great opportunity to create visual effects that aren’t obvious to the audience. If you’ve done your job, the audience isn’t thinking about the visual effects, they’re thinking about the characters, the story, the action.
Matt Johnson: My favorite visual effects movies are the ones where you don’t know there are visual effects all the time. My mantra on WWZ was I wanted it to look photographed, not rendered, trying to keep everything subtle and real. We wanted it so real that the audience would think they’re in Philadelphia, or a rooftop in New Jersey, not in Glasgow or in a green box. I didn’t want the audience to focus on the backgrounds. I wanted them to focus on Brad [Pitt] and Mireille [Enos] and what was going on in the story.
DS: What attracted you to this project?
MJ: What first attracted me to the project was talking to Marc [Foster] and the other creative guys about how stylistically, they wanted the film to be more like The Parallax View or All the President’s Men. I thought that was a rather interesting way to do a big sci-fi zombie genre movie.
DS: How early were you involved?
MJ: We got involved early and I was involved in most of the film. I was there from the early days of pre-production, well before shooting started, in terms of designing the zombies, in conversations on how they were going to move. There was a lot of thought going into the zombies, because, obviously, they’re a key part of the movie. Typically, in zombie movies, with George Romero, or in The Walking Dead, the zombies have a certain look, a certain way they move. That’s been established over the years in the making of these genre movies. But if you’re in a city, like Philadelphia, and you have vast areas of ground to cover, the traditional slow moving zombie wouldn’t work. We had to come up with something new and different. Everyone says that about their film, but I think we really did.
One of the most interesting things in pre-production was the involvement of experimental dancers. Avant-garde ballerinas. They can do the most astonishing things with their bodies. One guy, Ryan, is actually featured quite heavily in the movie, the guy who gets dragged out of his RV and transforms in the middle of a Philadelphia street, writhing his body around. Just looking at the way the dancers moved, the way they ran, we tried to design a new kind of language based on what these people were capable of doing. The one thing we found they couldn’t do in the way we wanted was lunge and bite. One of the key things in zombie movies is the bite, passing on the infection. One thing we looked at was, for example, if I’m leaping and trying to bite your neck, humans always put out their arms. It’s human nature, the reflex to brace for impact…
DS: …to break the fall…
MJ: Right. Of course, the key phrase there is “human nature.” These are zombies. They aren’t human. We saw videos online of attack dogs, German Shepherds and Alsatians that just leap, teeth first, at their target. I thought, “Wouldn’t’ that be cool for zombies to leap, to do that bite-first lunge.” Well, humans can’t do it. So throughout the movie, there are an awful lot of bites and leaps where you go from a human performer, whether a stunt person or experimental dancer, to a fully CG character for that moment of leap. We were trying to keep it looking realistic. You have to impart the correct sense of weight, and physics. This movie if firmly set in the real world. The laws of physics have to apply. We needed to make sure that in our animation, we were able to do that in a realistic way. We had to impart real world believability in that motion, even though for humans, it’s physically impossible.