The Walking Dead: Guts

This week’s episode of “The Walking Dead,” appropriately entitled Guts, expands the cast and the world of the series.  Rick encounters a group of survivors, some of whom are more helpful than others, and we experience some intense action scenes as well.  The music, too, develops and the orchestration has become more layered.  This week’s blog video takes an in-depth look at the various orchestration techniques and effects I played around with in this episode:

SPOILERS BEYOND: This episode was an experiment in string textures.  I used the small ensemble of 2 violins, viola, 2 celli and a bass to create ambiguous harmonic “clouds.”  I avoided typical “horror genre” clusters, however, and searched for sonorities that were more emotionally nebulous.

One of best examples of this is the scene where Rick and Glenn smear themselves with guts and stagger through the crowd of zombies, trying to reach a truck and escape.

When they first step out into the street, surrounded by zombies on all sides, I created a dream-like state in the music.  I wanted to suggest they are now entering the zombies’ world.  The suspense in the story speaks for itself and is plainly obvious, so I did not directly comment on the danger they are in.  To create this sound, each string instrument was assigned different pitches and durations, forming a constantly evolving cloud.  I put the first violin much higher than the others and doubled it with a slightly de-tuned synthesizer tone, so that they would subtly clash against one another.  The resultant sound is pretty unsettling:

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In addition to exploring new orchestral colors, I also introduced more rural, Southern instrumentation.  Once Rick and Glenn are deep within the zombie crowd, the dissonant string orchestra texture is pierced by a bluesy, electric guitar riff, de-tuned autoharps, dulcimer and an electric banjo:

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At first, the strings stay in the background, letting the blues instrumentation take the lead.  But, then a sudden rain shower begins, washing the zombie guts off their bodies, leaving them exposed to the dangerous horde around them.  Here, the orchestra becomes more prominent.  Dissonant clustered string swells rise and fall from within the guitar texture, adding chaos and confusion.

The scene is, of course, a suspenseful one.  But, I wanted to create a murky cloud of musical texture that didn’t specifically sound like “horror.”  As the strings become more chaotic, the guitars and other bluesy stringed instruments drift further and further away from any discernable groove.  The effect is almost as if the rainfall were also washing away the notes off the musicians’ pages and the orchestra crumbles.

While working on Guts, I realized that the string orchestra and blues band gave me an incredibly diverse palette of sounds and styles to draw from.  The ambient dreamy suspense cues worked beautifully, but I also used the same ensemble to create tense action cues.

Once the zombies smell Rick and Glenn’s tasty living flesh, the chase is on.  Rick and Glenn flee the mob and steal a truck and a car, as part of their plan to rescue everyone. As Glenn rounds the corner at 75 miles per hour, the string orchestra plays an aggressive, staccato ostinato against a wailing banjo and chugging autoharps:

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As the chase scene continues, I combined the autoharps and banjos with col legno accents from the orchestra. (“Col legno” is the technique where the player strikes the string with their bow, or a pencil.  You can see it in action in the video clip).  This sound, towards the end of the “Glenn’s Wheels” audio clip, is interesting because it’s the culmination of familiar instruments playing unfamiliar sounds.  The string orchestra sounds like a weird plucked guitar and all the guitars sounds like a weird zombie bluegrass band.  I love it!

(L-R: supervising orchestrator Neal Desby reads the score, music co-producer Steve Kaplan checks the mix, and videoblog filmmaker Kevin Porter is lost in deep thoughts)

The intense action cues lead up to the final escape sequence, where Rick backs the truck into the storefront and everyone escapes.  Rather than making the score even more intense and percussive, we went the other way.  The score returns to the dreamy cluster-clouds from earlier in the episode.  But now, they are voiced lower and played much more aggressively.

In this clip, notice that all 6 strings are glissing to and from different pitches, staggered across different times.  The result is a smear of random pitches that constantly shifts.  I designed this sequence so that you would never hear two strings playing the same pitch simultaneously and also so that the orchestra would never accidentally line up on a familiar major or minor chord:

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Set against the fast cuts and energetic action of the sequence, I hope the result is an oddly suspenseful experience.  I know the first time I saw this episode, even in a rough cut, I was on the edge of my seat here.  And as a fan of the comic book, I’m happy that Darabont and the writers have chosen to step a little outside the graphic novel narrative, so that even people familiar with the original story don’t know what to expect.  What did you think?

Next week I’ll go into more detail about these wacky banjos, autoharps, dulcimers and guitars.  I think you guys will really enjoy seeing how we made these sounds.

-Bear

PS: You should check out the new book The Science of Battlestar Galactica, by my friend, and official BSG science advisor, Kevin Grazier.  I just got it and have been addicted to it.  I’m amazed at how many subtle details were planned out to make the show as believable as possible.

And I forgot to credit our photographer last week!  All “Walking Dead” session photos were taken by the amazing Andrew Craig.