How 'Army of the Dead' Brought That Terrifying Zombie Tiger to Life

Look closely for Valentine the tiger's adorable heart-shaped nose.

netflix army of the dead
Netflix

Zack Snyder's new zombie apocalypse heist movie Army of the Dead remixes movie genres, filmmaking techniques, and even different types of Hollywood zombies to create its blood-fueled world, and the combined spectacle is really something to behold. With a shallow depth of field achieved by using decades-old Dream Lenses that artfully blur out the background and a thirst for as much gore and guts as you can fit into two hours and 20 minutes, Army of the Dead is a visual spectacle achieved by combining practical effects with digital splatter. 

The movie made headlines already for more or less seamlessly replacing Chris D'Elia with Tig Notaro, a process that involved mapping out landmarks and anchor points that had already been shot once before, creating a completely digital body double, and re-shooting Notaro's scenes on the same sets with multiple different camera lenses. Aside from Notaro's appearances, a lot more work went into refining the look and the vibe of the rest of the movie, and visual effects supervisor Marcus Taormina, who has also worked on the effects of movies like Bird Box and Fast & Furious 6, spoke to Thrillist about fashioning a zombie tiger from scratch (with an assist from one of Carole Baskin's big cats), the one scene that even Zack Snyder told him to rein in a little bit (it involves a blood-soaked buzzsaw), and making digital blood look real (lots of oatmeal, apparently).

Thrillist: Zombie movies and movies of that sort tend to have a lot of practical effects done already when they shoot. What is it like doing visual effects for something like this? 
Marcus Taormina: When I was brought onto the project, Zack and I had a lot of conversations, and one thing that is important to him is Filmmaking 101 scenarios. It's not overly complicated. The simple things work, and the trickery works. So we knew that a lot of it was going to be practical effects from a makeup standpoint, and from a zombie standpoint, but then obviously we had some big questions and big things to solve in the visual effects realm. 

We actually shot a huge extensive library with the support of our special effects team of blood spurts and squirts and they got really fun with it, where it was like, "Yeah, you know what, that blood, it's too thin." And then we started to put the coffee grounds in there and oatmeal and really experiment with the texture and look of that blood. 

I think one little tidbit that's interesting is the way that Zack filmed it with a super shallow depth of field and these vintage lenses from the '60s was a blessing and a curse for visual effects. It was really great in a lot of ways, because we could kind of use trickery in some of our backgrounds where we didn't have to render a full digital background, for instance. But it also presented a ton of issues because that was such a unique look, that we had to solve how we were going to match the practical look into our digital background.

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I don't remember why I learned this, or in what context, but I recently learned about digital blood spatter on people's faces in movies, that a lot of the time the blood isn't really there. Because then you have to worry about if we're going to do multiple takes of this, then we have to wipe it all off and do it all over again.
Exactly. You saw the movie now, you know what I mean. That's a massive cleanup. That's like a fire hose and spraying all that down. But I will say there were elements—like the gore saw, for instance, in the montage when Vanderohe was whipping that thing around—we approached that practically. We went to the special effects supervisor, and we were like, "We've got to figure out a way to do this." At the core, it was really simple. We got a saw, it was a safe spinning blade like a foam blade. And we piped a bunch of blood through a green tube and had it feed out there. And then when we got into post, we kind of discovered the over-the-top zaniness of the gore.

When Cruz takes the .50 caliber to the zombies, that's a combination of practical effects where the special effects team rakes these foam core dummies. We had the zombies jump up, we locked the camera we had, and we put our foam core pieces of them in there. And we ran this outrageous practical effect where these bodies just blew apart in explosions of blood. And then what we did is we melted the zombie jump to meld into the practical foam cores and we added some motion to it so it felt alive. And then we just continue to pile on the gore, pile on the gore, pile on the gore. And that shot is just outrageous. It's the only shot where Zack told us to back off. There's a Snyder version of that, a "Snyder Cut," if you will, where that was the one time where we went too much.

Zack Snyder himself was like, "All right, cool it."
[Laughs] Yeah.

army of the dead
Clay Enos/Netflix

The tiger, Valentine, is honestly one of my favorite characters in the whole thing. What did you first think when you heard you're going to be making like a zombie tiger for this?
Oh, I was super pumped. I think it was the second week where [Zack] actually had an artist do some early pencil sketch concept of Valentine, which is I think circulating somewhere. But it's great because it's literally like, it's almost a one-to-one with the face. There were very specific pieces of Valentine that he wanted to keep. If you look closely, what's nice is that the nostril cavity in there actually has a heart shape to it. And that was something we keyed into early on and kind of kept that as like, "It's Valentine!"

We had a lot of discussions about the character itself. You could just go make a beastly tiger, but no, it doesn't really make sense because Valentine has been in Vegas for five years, and food is scarce there now, but we want her to feel menacing, so she has to have some muscle mass to her. She's also probably lying on dirty ground the whole time, so we want to make sure her groom has a nice matting to it and feels like it's been grimy and sitting on dirty, dusty Las Vegas Boulevard. 

We had a great stunt team and one of them, who goes by the name of Spider, we ended up putting in the tiger role for eyeline but also for interaction, like when Valentine jumps on the car or when someone gets mauled. The great thing about Spider is he literally wanted to be the tiger. In his mind, he became the tiger. He really kind of lived in the character, which was great, because it brought that next level of interaction. 

When I actually did scout out Vegas, I went to Siegfried and Roy's, and their tigers, you know, they're older tigers, they've been through the gamut. So they were a little more frail. And we're like, OK, that's not gonna work. They move slow. I don't want them to be doing anything that they shouldn't. So again, we started to make a lot of phone calls and asked around, and we actually nailed down a place in Tampa, Florida. We looked through and we found one, Sapphire, who, sadly, I just learned, is no longer with us. But she was great. We flew down there, and we basically recorded Sapphire in her habitat through lunch time. She was fed, I think they were small game hens, and we recorded how she interacted and how she would jump and all that was great footage for our animation team. We'd have moments where I'm jumping around in the room. It really helps because it's a conversation, but there's only so much you can converse about without actually showing the action. So even at some times, I had to become the tiger.

Visual effects work in something like this, as you said, is often about trickery and what the audience doesn't notice. Is it fun then to get to do these big CGI characters once in a while and just really go for it?
Absolutely. I mean, I laugh every time I talk about it because I'm like, in a very serious tone and sitting there telling them, "We need a photorealistic CG zombie tiger." What am I talking about? It's a zombie tiger! There is no photorealistic zombie tiger!

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.