Netflix Original Black Summer is Not Your Typical Zombie Series

An exclusive interview with the team behind the Netflix series

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Photos by Daniel Sawyer Schaefer. 
In the dark, early days of a zombie apocalypse, complete strangers band together to find the strength they need to survive and get back to loved ones in the Netflix original series, Black Summer. Director John Hyams, Editor Andrew Drazek, VFX Supervisor Mike Currie and Co-Producer Steve Bannerman, talked to ProductionHUB about the series. 

ProductionHUB: Thanks for meeting with us and congrats on the amazing success of Black Summer! To start out, can you tell us about the storytelling approach?
John Hyams (Director): We chose to tell the story from a character level rather from a big global, broad level. You’re with these characters, you only know as much as they do, in a very Polanski way. Like in The Pianist, the story is from the perspective of a family in their apartment and how everything kind of spins out of control around them. You only see what they see. That point-of-view became something that we were after.

PH: How does this show potentially relate to modern times?

John Hyams: I think all apocalyptic movies are always referencing your time. We came up with the story about not finding the cure, or if there is a cure, but what would happen if you were separated from a family member? If a mother was separated from a child, what would you do to find that child — and we came up with the Stadium concept. It reminded me of Katrina, the Superdome, and getting to this oasis, which may or may not be an oasis.

After we came up with the concept, we actually experienced a summer where family separation happened in our country so, there were some parallels with immigration. We felt the story should be about Americans becoming refugees in their own country. We talked a lot about this documentary called Human Flow. Also, we had a mantra where this had to be a thriller – not a tragedy. 

PH: How did the show get created and funded? 

John Hyams: Our showrunner, Karl Schaefer, is also the creator of a show called Z Nation. Z Nation is a very comedic, satirical take on the zombie genre – sort of an antidote to The Walking Dead. That show did very well on the Syfy network despite being a pretty low-budget show — and then it had a real big life on Netflix afterward. The term Black Summer was a concept in some early episodes of Z Nation.

PH: Are you able to share what the budget was?

John Hyams: We were essentially operating at sub-700K per episode. Once we got into post, Netflix was really great about allowing us to mix in full Atmos sound and full HDR picture, so there are certain elements that cost a few bucks more.

Our shooting schedule for 8 episodes was 40 days — essentially 5 days per episode. We hired Abram Cox and basically directed the thing together. We designed it from the script level and the whole show was reverse-engineered. Abram and I worked on all the episodes together. By having two directors working on different units, we took a 40-day shoot and essentially made it a 75-80 day shoot.  

PH: What were some of the challenges in editing this show?

Andrew Drazek (editor): I think the biggest challenge editorially is we wanted to have a street-level, exciting show but to tell the story in real-time. So how do you do that if the action lags? How do you retain the excitement and the chaos, but still adhere to the real-time aspect of the show?

We had rules where we couldn’t condense time, but we could condense space. There were little tricks here and there to do that. Another luxury we had was chapter breaks. We could always insert a chapter break. Also, not having specific runtimes was really cool! We could make the episodes as long or as short as we wanted to, and Netflix was great about that. They wanted the most exciting show possible and they didn’t want filler to satisfy a certain runtime. It was really refreshing to work that way.

PH: How about VFX challenges?

Michael Currie (VFX Supervisor): The show presented some really interesting and unique challenges in that John had a very specific vision of what he wanted to do with the show. He wanted to stick to realism and real-world visuals.  

There were more specific things, most specifically gunshots. What was interesting to us as TV and film watchers when it comes to gunfire and bullet wounds is wrong – realistically is wrong. We’re used to seeing what practically they’ve done for decades.

We came up with this Gunshot Manifesto for the show that spelled out: Don’t put a muzzle flash on every flash, have smoke coming out of the barrel every single time the gun fires (but not a flash), when somebody gets shot from the front, we see a hole. If we’re seeing it from the back, depending on the shot and what type of weapon was fired, you may see an exit wound but you may not — not every bullet is going to penetrate all the way through.  

It was a very fascinating approach in that regard because it made us think twice.  

Steve Bannerman (Co-Producer): The other interesting thing from a VFX perspective was a tremendous amount of the visual FX calories or hours, on the show were done in the conform, in the online, because that’s where all the stitching was done.  And so those stitches were very challenging, very technically challenging.  

Even Stephen King commented on how fluid the show was — how fluid John’s direction was, and how fluid the camera was. Well, maintaining that fluidity and keeping those stitches was really hard. And it took a lot of calories.  

And again, it’s not the classic visual FX you expect in a Zombie show — it’s not a classic Zombie show.

PH: Do you think going for ultra-realism was a way to make it more frightening?

John Hyams: Absolutely. That scares me the most. With this show, I thought: let’s be completely experiential. We’re going to drop you in the middle of something and you’re going to figure it out as it goes. We’re even going to give you bits of information from completely unreliable sources — this outbreak, how secure or not secure the military is, etc. — you don’t know anything. All of these things played into realism.

Steve Bannerman (to Andrew): How did you keep the pace, and the story so tight?

Andrew Drazek: We worked really fast! John and I have worked together on many projects so I understand what he’s looking for. That obviously helps. Also, we didn’t have assistants. Everything we did, we did ourselves.  

When Netflix watched cuts, we wanted VFX to look almost final, so we worked really hard on any temp shots.  We also had the sound department do temps. Overall, we just did it.

John Hyams: Most of what happens in this show happens off-camera. Almost every big moment plays very briefly on camera, or not at all on camera, and that was generally how we would shoot it.

PH: John, what was a new experience that you had on this show that you hadn’t seen or achieved before?

John Hyams: Well, first of all, I’d never run or created a TV series. What I learned is that the aesthetic of the show is determined from the first conversations to the final touches in post and that if you’re not in control of those elements it’s not your show. Whoever controls the first conversation and the last conversation is the person who decides what they’re going to be.

Second, it’s really about who you hire. My job is to hire people that are filmmakers, storytellers — they’re not just fitting their little role on the crew. They’re thinking about the totality of it.

Lastly, our collaboration with Local Hero was fantastic. They were able to handle not just one department, they were handling the totality of what was going to be the visuals on this show. From dailies to VFX to color, they handled everything from top to bottom.  

PH: Well, thank you so much for sharing a bit about the making of Black Summer. Incredible show, and a great addition to the Zombie genre. Hoping for a Season 2!

Black Summer is currently streaming on Netflix.

To learn more about the work of director John Hyams, visit his IMDb.

About Local Hero Post 

Founded, co-owned and operated by colorists, Local Hero has been supporting the feature film community since 2006. With over 120 feature DI credits, Local Hero has been innovating in the field of digital intermediate and feature finishing ever since.

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