By Tyler Aquilina
February 26, 2020 at 10:00 AM EST
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To paraphrase Song Kang Ho in Parasite, the only plan that never fails is no plan at all. That’s not to say EW had no plan for our new digital cover featuring The Walking Dead star Danai Gurira, but photographer Dennis Leupold decided to embrace a more freewheeling approach to the cover shoot, rather than meticulously laying out how the images would come together. And that approach paid off richly, with one of our most visually striking digital covers yet.

“The whole process was super-organic,” says Leupold, who collaborated with stylist Law Roach and hairstylist Larry Sims on the shoot. “They’re amazing, and I let them do their thing; I don’t think we all three ever talked about what the final cover image should look like. When you have the chance to work with people that talented, you kind of let them go.”

Leupold had his own input as well, of course. He describes the cover’s flashy, neon-glow aesthetic as reflective of his personal visual style, while still being “a very collaborative effort” with EW’s creative team. The set of portraits from the cover shoot, meanwhile, shows off a thoughtful study in contrast: bold, vibrant colors (“very entertainment,” as Leupold puts it) next to gorgeous, softly lit black-and-white (“very fashion”).

“I’ve worked with Danai a couple times before, and this is something very different from what we’ve done before,” Leupold says. “It’s very bold and strong, and also really beautiful, with a focus on beauty and skin.”

In addition to working closely with Roach on her looks for the shoot, Gurira herself helped shape the tone and feel of the photos by establishing the mood on set. “At some points, she was just dancing, and she had a specific playlist and very specific songs she wanted to listen to that got her into the mood of the shoot,” Leupold says. That atmosphere helped create an environment where the actress felt comfortable and open, lending a more authentic feel to the photography.

“I like to be more an observer than a director. I try to make people feel very comfortable, so they give me something that I don’t tell them to do,” Leupold explains. “Some of the photos were taken when the video camera was rolling and she was focused on the video camera, because it’s a bit more intimate. The best photograph is always when the artist trusts you, and then they are themselves. Ideally, you want them to forget that they are on a photo shoot.”

As with all EW’s digital covers, the element of motion adds an additional level of storytelling to the final image — and an additional level of complication to the shoot. But Leupold wasn’t daunted by the prospect.

“I light everything [I work on] like it could be motion,” he says. “I use lights that are very similar to what they use in a movie or music video. So for me, it’s not a hard transition. You just have to come up with a concept that translates in motion. It kind of tells the story a bit more than the still photo. I think that’s the biggest change.”

The end result is a regal series of images that, along with Dalton Ross’ cover story, marks a key turning point in Gurira’s career, as she departs The Walking Dead and looks ahead to a new chapter full of ambitious projects. You can rest assured we’ll be covering those projects here at EW as they’re unveiled to the world, but for now we hope you’ll join us in celebrating what’s come before along with what’s ahead for Gurira.

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