World War Z is a zombie movie on an epic scale. It follows Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane as he attempts to escape a zombie outbreak that ends up taking over the whole world: working his way from Philadelphia to Jerusalem and then to an ocean-going floatilla of boats.
We interviewed Cinesite VFX supervisor Matt Johnson about his team's work on the film – including the initial outbreak in Philadelphia (though filmed in Glasgow) and a rooftop escape in New Jersey (shot on set – right) – and how the filmmakers wanted to bring a new type of zombie to the screen, one that moved without fear of damaging itself and attacked teeth-first like a doberman.
We also featured MPC, whose work largely concentrated on the hordes of zombies that overwhelm Jerusalem – with thousands of zombies swarming like ants, even rising in pyramids to knock down helicopters.
Use the slideshow controls above and right to see breakdowns of some of World War Z's best effects shots.
“Many of best zombie movies have used a confined environment to their advantage: [for example, in Dawn of the Dead, the protagonists are] trapped in a shopping mall and you've got zombies endlessly smashing against the windows,” says Cinesite's Matt Johnson.
“That works fantastically well when you have a contained [environment for your] story. If you have a whole square of people and you have 50,000 people running across it [pursued by zombies], it's not going to play so well. You can't have running people and slow-moving zombies in the same frame – it doesn't work aesthetically [for any sense of threat or danger].”
One of the main issues Cinesite found with creating a scene that ends on a rooftop of a housing project in New Jersey is that there aren’t any projects in that state – “I know this,” says Matt, “as I went and looked for them.”
Instead, the sequence was shot on a small set surrounded by a greenscreen. Rather than build the rest entirely in CG, to get the level of authenticity Matt wanted, they built the geometry in 3D and then projection mapped elements captured from the real world at very high resolution onto that.
Members of the team photographed rooftops up-close in New York from a cherry-picker, while longer shots were taken of New Jersey for a faithful backdrop to the scenes. Combined they make a coherent whole that isn’t truly any one place, but feels true even if you know the place being pictured.
“We created a world that doesn't exist, informed by the projects in Harlem – as aesthetically I thought they were cool,” says Matt. “In the mid-ground is Lower East Side and then in the background you've got Jersey.”
This scene demonstrates the film’s approach to zombies is when Brad Pitt’s character and his family get rescued by helicopter from the roof of a housing project in New Jersey.
The most obvious example here is when the zombies chase Gerry onto the helicopter, which starts to fly away, and zombies continue to attempt to chase him – and end up running off the side of the building.
Not all of Cinesite's work involved adding zombies.
While ground scenes of Philadephia were shot in Glasgow, real aerial shots of the city were made apocalyptic by Cinesite.
Another before-and-after shot of Cinesite's destruction of Philadephia.
More VFX-induced urban apocalypse.
Meanwhile over in Jerusalem (actually Malta), MPC mixed urban destruction with hordes of zombies that swarm like ants.
The crowd characters were built from reference photography and scans gathered on set.
Modelling lead Ashley Tilley and Texture lead Jung Yoon Choi oversaw the asset team, creating 24 different body types with different textures, which resulted in 3,000 crowd variations.
To attack the helicopters, the zombies climb on top of each other to form pyramids.
For this the team began with geometry, which was then populated based on inclination using ALICE. The larger pyramids typically included around 5,000 agents.
One of the largest tasks for the lighting team, lead by Jonathan Attenborough and Wes Franklin, was to render crowds of up to 250,000 in a single shot.
MPC’s Crowd team worked closely with the Animation department, lead by animation supervisor Gabrielle Zucchelli, to ensure that the figures moved realistically in a crowd and while interacting with the live action.
For the larger crowds, they used MPC’s in-house cloth solver that is integrated with ALICE.
The end result is a city torn apart by zombies, rather than just individual people.
MPC also worked on a plane crash sequence, which we've cleverly nicknamed 'Zombies on a Plane'.