When AMC debuted “The Walking Dead” (TWD) they had no idea that it would materialize into the juggernaut that it has become. Perhaps the greatest measure of a show’s success is when it creates a spin off series. “Fear the Walking Dead” (FTWD) has also achieved great success and legions of fans. The major difference between that of FTWD and its predecessor is that it was not only expected but required to live up to the hysteria that TWD ushered in. Fans and critics alike would be particularly critical of FTWD, requiring homage but not being derivative…at least in an excessive degree. The way that the producers of FTWD would insure a positive outcome is by hiring the best professionals in every department. The look is paramount in this TV series and a large part of the aesthetics are the camera angles and movement. Steadicam Operator / B Camera Operator Juan Matias Ramos Mora was hired on for FTWD but had never worked in TV preceding this production. Although he has an acclaimed background in film (as in the 2004 Academy Award-Winning Film The Sea Inside), FTWD and its truly cinematic approach to TV enticed him to accept the position. Anyone who has seen the series understands that the locations of the action look brutal and unforgiving, which Juan Ramos concedes is correct. In spite of this, the opportunity to work on such an ubiquitous franchise alongside immensely talented peers is the type of experience that overshadows comfortability.
It’s important with a franchise so beloved to both attach and distinguish yourself. The creators and professionals involved with FTWD wanted to show the public that they appreciated the origin of the story but would also take it to some interesting places for those who also enjoyed it. Some key differences enabled this. The huge ratings earned by FTWD’s second season premier confirmed what Juan Ramos had suspected when he first started working on the series, the fans of this series loved it and they were legion. FTWD may be similar in the subject matter to TWD but it has its own unique perspective. FTWD’s story has more to do with how the characters react to what’s happening to their world and is told through their point of view. This is why both the DPs and camera operators on this production feel so strongly about handheld camera work; it allows them to convey the feeling of chaos and always being on the move.
In terms of the look in technical terms, “The Walking Dead” started out with a 16mm texture which gives it a unique style. FTWD has always been digital. Season 2 was presented with an anamorphic look which gave the show a bit of a hazy appearance which emphasized the idea that the characters don’t really have a clear path; they move a lot, they get separated and lose loved ones. As with Season 2, season 3 is filled with handheld camera work and careful coverage for VFX shots. Still, both shows share techniques that help convey a world in which humanity as we know it is disappearing.
One of the reasons that Juan was hired for the Steadicam Operator position on FTWD was because of his mastery of tempo and movement. The show often has a panicked mood which can be enhanced or detracted from depending on the camera operator. As the viewer’s proxy, Juan pulls us into the emotional state that the action on screen, the actors, and the director cultivate. He explains, “There was a scene in season 2 in which three of the characters are trying to decide if they should leave the hotel where they’ve been staying at, since one of them has been banished. The characters are in a rush and are trying to decide quickly, but they also have great downsides to consider. There is a Steadicam shot in which the actors had to walk very quickly and suddenly stop, and we also had to have a couple of close-up shots of all of them as they were talking. We designed the route they would follow so that I could work with and around them, rushing when they would rush and then letting the camera be more still but still tense when the conversation is happening. I always try to think about how to convey the way the characters are feeling in the most effective way, and in this case, with FTWD, I also have to do it in the most time-effective way since we always have a pretty packed day. We often have Steadicam shots like this in which a lot has to happen. We might go back and cover it also with both handheld cameras, but to me it’s really important to get that first shot perfectly so that they can use it even without the rest of the coverage.”
“Fear The Walking Dead” co-creator and show-runner Dave Erickson remarks about the exceptional ability of Juan Ramos to handle choreography. Sometimes the tension of the script requires Juan to be one-third camera operator, one-third boxer, and one-third dancer. While the actors are focusing on each other, Juan’s role as camera operator requires him to be aware of the actors, the other cameras, as well as his own monitor. He describes, “Towards the end of Season 2 there is a complex sequence in which one of the main characters (Travis) finds out what happened to his son. This scene starts with a conversation and escalates into a violent fight which, in addition to the physical conflict, also lets the audience know about Travis’ intense pain for the way his relationship with his son got to a point in which it could not be fixed. We filmed this in a tight space because the location was an actual coffee shop and we had to take care of the furniture. The fight had to be choreographed so that not only one but two cameras could have as much coverage as possible and not see each other despite the tight space and the wide movements. My job as B camera is not only to get the coverage the DP needs but also take care of A camera, allowing them to move freely without seeing me and also get bits and reactions that they might miss. I always try to work around what the A camera is seeing, and it’s important to me to get the best frame possible so that it won’t just be all B roll, but an actual shot that they can use extensively.”
Far from being laid back in a temperature controlled soundstage (much of FTWD was filmed in Mexico) filming a Rom-Com, Juan’s work on FTWD is quick paced and challenging both physically and mentally. Even beyond these factors, there is the awareness that such a popular TV show is watched by many, many people. One of the most important people to Juan was director Andrew Bernstein. Bernstein’s comments encapsulate why so many in the industry appreciate and want to work with Juan; he declares, “Episode 15 of season two of Fear the Walking Dead was highly complex because it was the season finale Both myself and the DP were working under a lot of pressure. Juan remained focused and drew from his vast experience to contribute. His hard working spirit, talent, and effective communication with the DP made the work run smooth and effectively, giving the episode the quality and outcome that we wanted.”