By design, Set Decorator Gia Grosso SDSA is not provided much backstory about the character on THE WALKING DEAD. Instead, she approaches the post-apocalyptic environments of the long-running AMC series, now in its 10th season, by thinking of the characters as survivors who have cut ties with who they were before the dead started rising. Now, survival is their defining characteristic. That concept presents a unique challenge for the crew tasked with designing a world in which society has fallen and the undead roam.
This challenge was a compelling draw for Grosso, who joined the series in Season 8.** She selects objects not by delving into the characters’ histories and catering to their personalities, but instead by defining the world in which they live, making use of objects that already existed in the series’ environments.
“It is important to create meaning out of what is already there,” Gia says. “
Set dressing becomes more about function and out of necessity than decorative.”
The apocalypse brought a halt to any manufacturing, which means the human characters must be creative in using what they have available to them, such as creating an apparatus for washing clothes out of a bicycle and a bin, or using a truck’
s battery as a trap to electrocute zombies a.k.a. walkers
. This requires being inventive in repurposing recycled materials on the sets, which not only serves the story, but also allows the series to contribute to an industry-wide push to be more conscientious of waste.
Having worked with Production Designer Jeff Schoen in Savannah GA on the historical drama series UNDERGROUND, Grosso looked forward to their collaboration on TWD. “We had a similar vision of what things should look like in this world, and a mutual understanding of the level of distress of fabrics and other components, and how they decayed.”
Gia’s experience working in Georgia provided her with familiarity with a number of local prop houses and antique shops, which she uses on the series, including SDSA business members Bloom Atlanta, Cinema Greens and GA Prop Source. She also works with a number of Los Angeles based SDSA business members, particularly Alley Cats and RC Vintage. Additional valuable resources located in Georgia include Biggar’
s Antiques Prop House, Georgia Film Arts, Central Atlanta Props and Sets, Diggers Antiques and Uniques, and Kelly & Company Antiques. Having established working relationships with all of these sources allowed for an easy transition when she joined Schoen on THE WALKING DEAD’
s Atlanta-area production.
THE WALKING DEAD set dec crew has had very little turnover throughout the 10 seasons, helping maintain a consistent camaraderie and efficient production. Current keys are Lead Ken Nelson, Gang Boss Shawn Upthegrove and Set Dressers Yonatan Araya and Rene Arriagada. The series’ new Buyer for Season 10, Bethany Arriagada, a trained sculptor and painter, has been an invaluable addition to the team. Gia, who also has a background in sculpting, says that shared experience provided a strong foundation for collaboration from the get-go.
s tenure on THE WALKING DEAD began on Season 8, in the midst of a scripted all-out war between the protagonists and another group of survivors led by the oppressive Negan
[Jeffery Dean Morgan]. The war storyline involved a number of large-scale action scenes that required intensive and careful choreography with explosions, pyrotechnics and countless walkers
, played by actors in extensive makeup. The process of designing these set pieces was deeply collaborative, with all departments working in unison, particularly when set decoration elements needed to be destroyed, blown up or covered in blood!
Season 9 presented a reset, with the story entering a period of tenuous peace among the various survivor communities followed by a six-year time jump after star Andrew Lincoln’
s departure. [He had played the series protagonist Rick Grimes
.] The time jump in the middle of the season presented its own logistical challenges, requiring an entirely new visual aesthetic in about a week. Grosso and her team had accumulated materials...recycled fabrics, rough-sawn wood, handmade items...throughout production on the first five episodes of the season and worked quickly to update the existing sets to show the passage of time. Ironically, that included replacing cars with horse-drawn carriages, as fuel has become an even more scarce resource this far into the zombie apocalypse
, and establishing a pioneer-era aspect, which Grosso and Schoen dubbed “Medieval Amish.”
Season 10 has maintained that aesthetic while introducing a new threat...the mysterious and hostile Whisperers
...and expanding the world even further. The penultimate episode aired at the beginning of April and the finale was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Airing now in October, the finale serves as a lead-in to the new spinoff series: THE WALKING DEAD: WORLD BEYOND with Set Decorators Jill McGraw SDSA and Laura Harper.
Grosso, who has returned to the original series for its 11th season as production is just starting up, shared insight into each of THE WALKING DEAD'S primary locations, offering a glimpse behind-the-scenes of one of television’s most popular dramas.
A village of survivors, Kingdom
became a multi-community fair in Season 9, bringing all the characters from the survivor communities together in a show of strength and unity.
It was last hurrah for the Kingdom
set and location,” Gia says. “
It created a hopeful and exciting sense of community.”
She took this opportunity to transform the typically bland barracks of the Kingdom
exterior into a lively celebration that incorporated the aesthetics from each community. Inspired by Tibetan and Mexican pennant flag strings, Grosso and Schoen had flags made out of multicolored recycled fabrics tied to rope, then strung over the gardens. They brought in horse-drawn carriages and created an old-fashioned dunk tank, plus booths filled with art, homemade crafts, candy apples and, fittingly for THE WALKING DEAD, weapons. The Hilltop
community was represented with a moonshine station, while Kingdom
was emblemized by a 9-foot fiberglass & paper mâché tiger. Bringing the Kingdom
interior tapestries outside enhanced the handcrafted atmosphere.
Seasons 9 and 10 delved further into Oceanside
, a beachside community of women survivors, with the ocean as the community’
s primary resource. Grosso did detailed research into fishing villages and traditional fishing methods throughout the world. The final set decoration features fishing equipment such as netting, ropes, knives, lobster traps and 1,800 hand-cast and painted foam-rubber fish!
The design of the village is structured around a multiple-station “
flow” for the process of cleaning, drying, smoking and salting the fish, with a distinctive shaded rotunda-shaped space intended for the processing of fish for sustenance.
A repurposed high-end suburban town already outfitted with some survival features, such as solar panels and lush gardens, Alexandria Safe-Zone
is now inhabited by survivors. These features have expanded to include water filtration systems, lake turbines, a windmill with sails composed of fabric scraps and a fully stocked and decorated makeshift hospital. The modern-day suburbia style of the homes in Alexandria
was at odds with the series’ usual weathered and worn-down aesthetic. These homes have only been abandoned in the 10 years since the apocalypse
struck, meaning that the fabrics and furniture would not have degraded significantly in that span of time. Finding a balance between maintaining the series’ apocalyptic aesthetic yet adhering to the only slightly worn-down reality was Grosso’
s welcome challenge for this set.
Filled with antiques and evidence of a more rugged pioneering spirit than the suburban Alexandria
village was “
a fantastic addition to THE WALKING DEAD’
s world,” Gia points out. The village was built around the Historical Society
building that was filled with traditional furniture, paintings and other antiques. Utilitarian huts line the perimeter with working moonshine and blacksmith stations, and hand pottery created by a local artisan. As the Hilltop
community evolved throughout the show, Grosso incorporated more patterned and patchwork fabrics similar to other communities but veered into a more “
hippie commune” style, due to Hilltop
eventually becoming the last place of refuge for all the communities in multiple conflicts.
are among the latest threats in the series, a group of survivors who disguise themselves in masks sliced from the faces of walkers
. What was compelling about the Whisperers,
Gia notes, was how closely aligned their survival mentality — “Nothing should remain” — was incorporated into their sets. The Whisperers
believe nothing in their camps should be permanent or built with any lasting quality, so the structures were created only out of natural materials found in the woods. Gia’s approach to decorating this set was examining h
ow they could integrate and expand upon what was already there. There are no set elements that cannot “collapse back into the earth.” Water pouches made from walker
intestines and the skins of walkers
and animals were hung from the trees. There is a clay pit, which the Whisperers
used to create drinking water vessels intended to vanish after rain. Inspired by Zen-stacked stones, Gia piled stones, imagining them as the Whisperers’
security system for detecting any nearby movement.
The first time we meet Princess
[Juanita Sanchez], in an abandoned city in the 14th episode of Season 10, her strong, vibrant personality is immediately apparent. The city is Princess’s
domain, and she has been alone without any human interaction for so long that she turned walkers
into her own toys, using them to create dioramas for her own entertainment and sanity.
Grosso constructed these interactive walker
-inhabited vignettes, collaborating with costume designer Tere Duncan. Together, they coordinated the walkers’
costumes to match the set dressing. An antique store decorated with pink accent fabrics featured a walker
wearing a hat, brooch and vintage purse chained to a rocking chair. Another scene, a restaurant, had two walkers
dressed in high-end clothing — one in a fur coat, the other in a top hat — chained to a table with moldy dinner plates and empty martini glasses. These vignettes created for Princess
provide insight into the character’
s personality...just another day of THE WALKING DEAD.
...a note from Gia...
“I feel very fortunate to have joined THE WALKING DEAD in Season 8. It was a seemingly daunting endeavor at first, especially after seven seasons of such an iconic and established look. It's been a very exciting challenge to reinvent the look of this world for the past three seasons, as new characters inhabit new environments and as we evolve deeper and deeper into the zombie apocalypse
. Participating in this extremely creative and inspired collaboration with this amazing group of artists has been mind-opening—particularly in view of our current world and industry—but most of all, it has been a whole lot of fun!” — Gia Grosso
*Mentored by Set Decorator Rosemary Brandenburg SDSA
** THE WALKING DEAD Set Decorator History
Set Decorator Lisa Alkofer SDSA 2010
Set Decorator Lynne Mitchell SDSA 2011-2011
Set Decorator Kristen Donaldson Walker 2012-2017
Set Decorator Bradley Downs 2015-2016
Set Decorator Gia Grosso SDSA 2017-2020/2021