There are a lot of big new characters coming to The Walking Dead in season 7 (premiering Oct. 23 on AMC), and not all of them are human. Fans have long been wondering how the show would handle adapting Shiva the tiger, and so has the creator of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman.
“Hell yeah, let’s see how we handle this tiger in the show!” Kirkman told us he thought when he first introduced Shiva in the comic book. “This is going to be difficult!” So how are they handling the tiger on the show? We asked exec-producer/director/horror makeup guru/all-around genius Greg Nicotero about the process as well as bringing all things Kingdom to life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s talk about the Kingdom, which we’re going to get to see in season 7. What can you say about this new group?
GREG NICOTERO: It’s the biggest community that we’ve ever come upon. Carol and Morgan show up there and it’s thriving, and it’s alive, and it’s vibrant. And even when I directed the episode, when I was editing it, it was The Walking Dead version of The Wizard of Oz. If the outside is a black and white, dull, dead world, the inside is vibrant and colorful and whimsical and alive, and it’s all led by a dude with a scepter and a f—ing tiger named Ezekiel. So the script had a very strange tenor to it, because it was very unlike anything that we had done in The Walking Dead, ever.
You have this guy walking around and people are calling him King Ezekiel, and you have these Biblical quotes that are on display all over the Kingdom, and people follow him. And at first glance you look at this and you go, “This can’t be real. There’s got to be something that’s f—ed up about it,” because there’s no way that this place could have existed, but that’s the beauty of Ezekiel. He recognized, very much like the people in Alexandria, that they need someone to follow, and they need someone to lead them. And Ezekiel took that opportunity and created this larger-than-life person that people can follow and people can look up to.
So think about being out in the world: They’ve heard about this guy Rick, that he’s ruthless and he went up against Negan, and heard about Negan’s baseball bat that he calls Lucille and he bashes people’s heads in with it. And I heard about this guy Ezekiel, and he’s got white dreadlocks and a big duster, and he has a tiger. I mean, it’s so much about propaganda and about how they hear about each other. So Ezekiel has built up a mystique about himself and about his community, and in doing so created a place where his world can flourish.
Ezekiel is such a big character from the comics. Was it exciting when you first saw Khary Payton playing this part and bringing the character to life?
Without a doubt. I feel like Khary Payton is Ezekiel now. There’s no doubt in my mind. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He had spent like three weeks bubbling over with excitement and enthusiasm about the character, but he couldn’t talk about it to anybody in Los Angeles, so when he landed and we went to dinner the first night to talk about the character, he just exploded with these beautiful, eloquent thoughts and feelings about who Ezekiel is. So it was really amazing to be able to watch him and to direct that episode.
And there are a lot of other characters that are introduced in that episode, Richard’s introduced, and a whole lot of people at the Kingdom. We sort of approached it like, okay, you’re shooting a pilot for another TV show, and you need to establish this world and the rules so that the audience can understand it, identify with it, and be drawn into their story, and that’s what we did.
Talk about Shiva a little bit. How are you handling the tiger? Is this a mix of animatronics and CGI?
It’s definitely a mix. We started building at the end of February, and I have a tremendous advantage, which is experience with animatronic animals starting way back with Dances with Wolves. So we created the character and the forms digitally, and then output those into full-size standing and sitting animatronic tigers. And then we’ll be supplementing multiple shots. I would say a good portion of it, the majority of it, will be animatronic.
And then we will digitally augment with either moving eyes or moving tail, or we will have a few shots if the creature has to walk, take several steps forward, or turn around, or roar, going from a neutral expression to a roaring expression, we’ll do those shots digitally. But it’s been a very collaborative effort between myself and digital effects and [showrunner Scott M. Gimple] to dial in just the right patternings, the right saturation of color, the right movements.
It’s that kind of thing, that if you study anything for too long you’ll start to realize that it’s being operated by puppeteers, so understanding that it’s not the star of any particular shot, but it just has to be present in the scene just like the other actors. And when it comes time for it to do something, we will make it do that, and then it will be sort of integrated into each particular sequence.
Check out an exclusive video of Jeffrey Dean Morgan below. And for more Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.
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