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The Bewitching Victorian Era VFX of ‘The Nevers’

VFX supervisor Johnny Han, working with Scanline VFX, EDI Effetti Digitali Italiani, Mackevision, MR. X, BUF, and Jellyfish Pictures, produced 2,000 shots for Season 1A and 2,500 for Season 1B – including the ‘Shockdog’ - on the Emmy nominated HBO series, set in an 1896 London rocked by a supernatural event that gives certain people – mostly women – abnormal abilities.

When blue spores rain down from a mysterious alien craft over Victorian London, they leave in their wake an ostracized class of people, known as “The Touched,” who suddenly developed supernatural abilities. The Nevers was originally conceived by Joss Whedon for HBO, but controversy over his previous on-set behaviors forced him to leave project, which was then shepherded by Philippa Goslett. Also, complicating matters was the pandemic, which forced production on the first season’s 12 episodes production to be split in two. Weathering through the production and global unrest was Visual Effects Supervisor Johnny Han and a team of vendors, working alongside inhouse digital artists, that included Scanline VFX, EDI Effetti Digitali Italiani, Mackevision, MR. X, BUF, and Jellyfish Pictures. The series has garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Single Episode.

“Instead of a break that you might get from a season where the writers can start when you’re finishing post, we had to begin prep a few weeks before we finished post on Season 1A,” explains Han, who went from creating 2,000 visual effects shots for Season 1A to 2,500 for Season 1B.  “At the same time, we had a new creative team.  It was up to Philippa to inject the stories that she and her writers wanted to tell but still run with the momentum that the characters had with their arcs.  We wanted to keep the tone similar enough while at the same time kicking it up a notch to bring something fresh to it.”

A signature sequence from Season 1A is the lake fight, where Nichlas ‘Odium’ Perbal (Martyn Ford), who has the ability to walk on water, attempts to drown Amalia True (Laura Donnelly).  According to Han, “You couldn’t have done that by just letting one department take control. Stunts had to choreograph this sequence that was half above and below water.  Special effects had to design all the rigs. Amalia had a winch cable that helped her to get almost a supernatural speed to swim across the tank.  For us, we prevised the whole thing shot by shot.  For every shot we did an isometric blueprint on paper so people could see, ‘For this shot we’re going to use wires and glass platform,’ or, ‘That shot will be done underwater with an underwater camera.’  It’s a great study piece of every possible component of visual effects, special effects and stunts working together.” 

Season 1B features a battle sequence that takes place 300 years into the future. “We were trying to figure out where to do it, as most of our Victorian sets were built on a backlot situated on a farm property,” Han says. “It turned out that there was an old derelict building nearby, so we built our set around that and made use of its apocalyptic nature.  We had snow and lightning machines.  For visual effects, we expanded all the environments to make them feel like they were endless.”  Layers of destroyed cities were placed on top of each other. “They are probably walking on a half kilometer of rubble that has been smoothed out into land to give a sense that humanity never got their pieces together,” he adds. “They keep getting destroyed over and over again.”

In the show, not everything is of this world, in particular the alien species known as the Galanthi, created with a combination of design elements that included an elephant, octopus, and Tyrannosaurus. “Originally, it was half elephant and half octopus, but then I said T-rex too,” reveals Han. “It had to be clear that this wasn’t something that had evolved on Earth.  Some people would say that octopuses are the closest things we have to aliens on Earth because their biology is so different than anything else that we have here.  The elephant thing was to give this wise old creature feel. Then the T-rex to give it a monstrous towering biped presence.”  To get proper interaction, a pair of creature performers were placed into a single grey suit. “One would operate the legs and the other handled the tentacles,” Han laughs. “It was fun!” 

The Galanthi spacecraft was meant to be more than a ship. “Is it organic or mechanical, creature or synthetic?” Han asks. “We tried to ride that line finely.  If you look closely, you’ll see lots of little white dots as if they’re windows on a ship but at the same time the shape is translucent like an octopus or squid.  It works well.”

Han is proud of the Shockdog, which is a machine / canine hybrid. “It was quite an endeavor,” he explains. “The idea was clear from the beginning; that is when the work shines because we can focus on making it great rather than changing things. In Season 1A, we had these half human half mechanical goons. In Season 1B we visit the home of the scientist who created them.  We said, ‘This family pet is going to be transformed into a half dog half robot.’ It’s not like a robot from the future. It will use mechanical parts made from the materials available at that time.  We got to indulge in the flourished design nature of a lot of mechanical instruments from the Victorian era.” 

Stunt performer Kye Mckee stood in for the Shockdog. “We did a bunch of tests where he would walk and run alongside our actual hero dog named Plunket,” Han notes. The most complex shot involved getting the proper interaction as Amalia fights to hold back the Shockdog’s jaws while pinned to the ground. “That level of interaction is unprecedented,” he continues. “[It’s hard] to do character work where you have direct physical contact in a closeup shot and really believe that she is pressing force against this enormous animal. You can almost feel the dog’s breath on you.  We built this dog head rig on a steel frame so she could really grip it and wrestle with this dog stuffie.” 

The last shot in sequence required a digital double; Amalia and the Shockdog fall over a banister and down three flights. “We had amazing stunt work for the pre-fall but were watching the cut and decided it would be great for the camera to follow them off the banister,” Han says. “This was long after we finished shooting it.  We decided that since the dog is already digital why not make a digital double of Amalia.  It worked well because you’re not expecting the camera to go off the edge.”                

The character Bonfire Annie (Rochelle Neil) can manipulate fire with her hands. “It was often left to me to work with Rochelle Neil and get an understanding of what she felt comfortable [doing] with her hands and what kind of moves she could do,” remarks Han. “One thing we did is put these little LED poker chips in her hands so that she could have interactive light.  Very quickly we realized if you could see the light that means the light is hitting your face. Instead of holding her hands out we realized it was always better for the hands to be held in so that light would read her face. Rochelle got it immediately and was a natural.”

Season 1B features electricity personified in a new character called Electric Mother.  “We shot an actual actress onset with six volumetric depth cameras hidden around her,” Han reveals. “While we were filming our actual shots, we’re secretly capturing depth video from all sides so that our fantastic team at BUF in Paris could take that new type of data that lends itself well to effects work such as electricity and flowing currents and lines.  She is made of electrical currents but at the same time we definitely wanted the actress’ performance to come through. We definitely kept her likeness and facial performance; even her wardrobe was designed to echo the feeling of electricity. The DP had setup these spotlights that were focused on the actress, so it wasn’t blasting light everywhere. It was like lighting the actress by a cylinder of light above her. She has this natural orange electric glow as if she was emitting the light.  Visually, that was most unique thing we delivered.” 

Overall, the biggest challenge was designing a world of superpowers that felt unique and different within a crowded space of superhero shows.  “One motto or creed that I always try to go by is we’re trying to make powers that are supernatural to Victorian citizens,” notes Han.  “It wasn’t about lasers and explosions. A Victorian person has probably only seen fire, light and water.  We were trying to work with those elements.  Things that were familiar to their point of view that we then made supernatural. Also, in terms of the story, what would alarm them because the whole theme of the show is about them being treated as misfits and outcasts.  So, what do they perceive as bewitching?”

The standout supernatural power belongs to Nimble. “He creates these metallic disks that appear and disappear, which could be used as a shield, a platform to step on, or to slice off the heads of people.  That was a good example of the creed. We’ve all seen magic platforms in games and other sci-fi movies but would a Victorian one look like?  This will be like metal that he somehow manifested from the air. However, it would feel crude, an alloy composite of different types of metals, rough around the edges. It’s visually cool to look at when you see it.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.