Cast of The Walking Dead (Facebook/File)
“We treat it like our own private playground. It’s our private club… It’s like a thrill ride,” said Tom Luse, the first employee ever hired for “The Walking Dead,” as we began our tour of Raleigh Studios, where most of the show is filmed.
The studio, spread over 150 acres of woodsy areas that traverse bumpy roads, is in Senoia, Georgia, about an hour’s drive from Atlanta. Tom, who described himself as one of the show’s “many executive producers,” took us on a tour of the sets as we walked around or rode on a shuttle.
It was a sunny morning early this month. As we toured the vast lot, Andrew Lincoln and Jeffrey Dean Morgan were filming episode 12 of Season 8 in a sound stage.
"Denise Huth (producer) was working with our showrunner at the time and Gale Anne Hurd (producer),” said Tom, recalling how he became the first hire of the show, which recently celebrated its 100th episode. “I met with Gale and AMC over eight years ago. We figured out how to make a show about zombies.
“This studio has been our home for the last seven years,” Tom added as the shuttle started to roll, in a tour that lasted almost two hours, over dusty country roads, hilly terrains and woods. “We came here during Season 2. There was a farmhouse nearby that we found and it just happened to have a studio next to it so we settled in here. We’ve used this property very extensively.”
The following are excerpts from Tom’s comments:
The remains of Gabriel’s church are over in Alexandria (Virginia). We recycled the church that was Gabriel’s and put it as a decaying church in the outskirts of Alexandria.
The prison yard is gone and now you’ll see a new set that’s partly in that area. All prison interiors and exteriors were shot here for Seasons 3 and 4.
It was pretty quiet when we arrived here. What’s great for us is that it’s our campus. We treat it like our own private playground. This studio has been very cooperative about letting us play with it.
We’ve had fires and floods. We control about 150 acres of property here, and we use about every inch of it. We have two lakes on the property. We have two large creeks that intersect this land, so we have a lot of opportunities to film a variety of environments.
We have four relatively small soundstages. “The Walking Dead” is by and large not a sound stage-driven show. We shoot almost everything on location or build it with a fair amount of verisimilitude because that’s been our approach since the beginning.
We (Georgia) lead the world in bugs. And we also have more poisonous snakes in Georgia than any other state in the country… We have somebody who catches the snakes and takes them out of the area.
That is our auto graveyard over here with a lot of the vehicles we used or have used. We recycle all these vehicles and use them as background of other scenes where we have burned out vehicles.
It’s (The Heaps set) where the Scavengers live. We love shooting in The Heaps, except it’s kind of an Easy Bake Oven. If you come here in the summer, the wind does not move. You just bake in the sun.
The prison yard has double fences around and the guard tower … a lake that we shot in last year had a giant houseboat on it. We built a platform in the lake, so we could literally stand on it and shoot the zombies.
It’s three and a half acres inside here (The Hilltop house). The walls have to be able to withstand the forces of nature, so this is all built as real as possible. This is designed to take 110-miles-an-hour winds. This is an actual sawmill that we found … [and] put here.
The idea of Barrington Hall Hilltop, as we call this, is a living history museum that Gregory and his fol lowers took over.
We have a working blacksmith shop that we use oftentimes for shots that we do here. We have sheds, pig pens, horse stables and a working garden. We have guard posts.
It’s a three-story shell. It took two months to build the house. If you go up on the balcony … you can literally see for miles, so when we shoot here, there are no digital effects on the set extensions.
We have a genius … on this show. His name’s Greg Nicotero—his whole approach to the gags that involves make-up effects (cuts, wounds) we do as much in camera as possible. We accentuate it with special effects. We have a great visual effects team.
Since Season 1, Greg has worked with us in production to train zombies, so we have a large pool of extras. We need a certain look for those people. Greg designs the makeup specifically for each person.
They’re trained on how to move. The most important thing is … they (zombies) don’t react to things that we (people) would react to.
We actually had for many years a zombie school that people would go to and learn how to move like zombies. Greg worked with them, but over time, we’ve built a large body of people we like to work with. We have different degrees of zombies.
In other words, we have “hero” zombies who are close to the camera and we have midrange zombies that are a little farther away from the camera. We do different makeups for all of that.
It is unbearably hot here in the summer. They’re wearing makeup, and they’re out in the sun all day. It’s hard work.
Oceanside is a continuing set. The idea of Oceanside … is that it’s on the Atlantic coast. We actually filmed exteriors of the beach in a place called Jekyll Island, Georgia.
The sign says Oceanside Motor Court. Our greens department uses real plants. We do things as real as we possibly can. Our crew gets a lot of fresh produce. We brought in tons of sand to spread on the ground to make it look beach-like.
I have done this show for eight years. This [season] has been, by far, the most ambitious, the hardest. I was about 25 years old when [it] started. It’s going to be the most thrilling season. There’s a lot that happens. If you like energy, this is your year.
Last season, we plunged to the depths of how bad things could be. This season, things rise up a little bit.
If you talk to Robert Kirkman (creator and executive producer), he thinks that this show is going to go for another 10 years.