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Insight: Tom Luse - on producing The Walking Dead in Super 16

  • October 08, 2014

Though he didn’t know it at the time, producer Tom Luse began preparing for a career in show business in college, when he was charged with the enviable task of popping the popcorn at an art house cinema in his hometown of Atlanta. “I liked movies, but it wasn’t something I had planned on going into,” explains the EMMY®-nominated producer. “But later, in graduate school, I had the opportunity to study film and ended up getting a degree in Communications.”

While these days it’s being an executive producer on The Walking Dead that keeps Luse busy (he’s been with the show since the very beginning), he has dabbled in a variety of job titles over the years. “I wanted to be a technician originally, and ended up working in the camera department as a grip,” Luse recalls. “I found that my skills were really in organizing things and thinking ahead, which eventually led me into location management, then into production management, and then into producing.” As he readied for the fifth season of The Walking Dead, Luse spoke with us about lighting a post-apocalyptic universe, the cost of time, and why zombies look better on film.

You’ve been a part of The Walking Dead since the very beginning. How involved were you in the decision about whether to shoot it on film versus digital?

All the producers were heavily involved and we wanted to test different options available to capture the show. We rented a studio at Panavision and got a couple of digital cameras as well as a 35mm camera, and then kind of tossed in a 16mm camera at the last minute. Over the course of a day, we ran a series of tests with David Tattersall (BSC), our DP for the pilot.

At that time, we all felt very strongly that we were going to end up shooting the show on digital. But as we did our tests, we had Greg Nicotero, our zombie guru who is also now an executive producer, do some makeup tests, and we shot them both on stage and out in daylight. In looking at the tests, we discovered that the makeup looked much better on film. We were very excited when we saw the 35mm test, but then when we put the 16mm test up, which is what we shoot The Walking Dead on, it not only made the makeup look better but it had a sort of classic horror film look to it that resonated with all of us. … The way it (Super 16) takes the makeup and handles the contrasts between exteriors and interiors is astonishing. With the interiors on our show, there’s no electricity; it’s a post-apocalyptic universe, so we have a lot of scenes that go from day exteriors to interiors and the quality of image going from bright exteriors to dark interiors was vastly superior.

Alex (Tate ellington), Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) - The Walking Dead _ Season 4, Episode 16 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

How do you integrate the number of special effects that you use in the show?

If we have a major effects shot, we will sometimes shoot it on 35mm, just to give our visual effects department a larger image. So we do carry one 35mm camera. Most episodes shoot on multiple cameras; oftentimes we’ll shoot three or sometimes four cameras.

We shoot in extremely hot, humid situations for much of the year and in very arduous conditions. The film cameras are extremely reliable; it can get as hot as it can get and the cameras can still record a great image. The flexibility of being able to move the camera and set up quickly in 16mm is also an enormous advantage.

What part do finances play in the decisions you’ve made?

I started off on The Walking Dead as a line producer, so I’ve always been very involved in the financial aspect of it. But you have to look at time, more than any other factor, as the deciding variable on how you shoot. Time is the most expensive thing. On our show, we focus on the quality of the look: We can shoot a zombie in bright daylight on film and it looks amazing. We also find that shooting 16mm is extremely quick. We have the flexibility to move our cameras and adjust very quickly under extreme situations in terms of heat, humidity and pretty hard physical situations. In terms of saving time, that’s a distinct advantage and you have to factor that in. It’s not just about the camera, film and transfer costs; it’s also whether you can get your work done in a very expedient manner. With 16mm, we can.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about shooting on film?

I think the main thing for us, in our situation, is that film is the correct decision both artistically and economically. We have over 100 years of filmmaking history shooting special effects and makeup effects on film, so there’s a lot of understanding of what film can and cannot do, and that’s a huge advantage as well. We do a lot of makeup and special effects and we know how that’s going to look on film. Sometimes a digital capture makes it look a little bit different. I think film should always be considered.

Last question: How is season five going to end?

In a fantastic way. And you’re going to love it!