VFX supervisor Jay Hawkins talks about the series’ key visual effects sequences, including an show opening car crash and a complex werewolf created using animatronics and CG.
A car crash leads to an unexpected romance between a single parent and a mysterious woman who harbors a dark secret that reveals itself every full moon. Such is the premise for the Peacock romantic dramedy series Wolf Like Me, conceived and directed by Abe Forsythe (Little Monsters) and starring Josh Gad and Isla Fisher. Looking after the visual effects for the show’s six episodes was Jay Hawkins, who previously worked on Little Monsters with Forsythe as well as Penguin Bloom and The Power of the Dog.
Halfway through production, a Delta variant outbreak caused the production on the show’s key wolf attack to be shifted from Broken Hill to a field situated outside Sydney. “The art department dressed the floor to be like Broken Hill and we lit it for moonlight,” states Hawkins. “When we did eventually go to Broken Hill, it was as a reduced crew to pickup other bits and pieces.” Alt.Vfx was responsible for just under 200 visual effects shots. “Most of those were cleanup while the main body of CG work and heavy lifting was in Episode 106 with the wolf,” Hawkins notes.
Check out Alt.Vfx's breakdown reel before reading on about how the work was produced:
In the series, Mary (Isla Fisher) has a habit of running in her bare feet. Episode 101 features a scene where Mary runs away from her date as a car crashes into a bush shelter. “We were shooting that with a stunt double because it was quite complex choreography of cars weaving and buses driving,” explains Hawkins. “Then we needed to shoot an additional pass with Isla running, but she couldn’t run well in bare feet at the same pace as she can with shoes. I’m adverse to doing face or head replacements because I find in 2D often they don’t work great. When we shot Isla’s pass, I said, ‘Why doesn’t she wear shoes and I’ll do a digital foot replacement?’ [But it ended up that] The camera team, Isla and the blocking were fantastic. We wound up being able to take Isla’s head and put it onto the stunt double; that was the only barefoot help we needed to do for the whole show.”
The car crash opening from Episode 101 was orchestrated by stunt coordinator Tony Lynch, who also worked on Little Monsters. “When the cars impacted, there was an air cannon in the Volvo that allowed it to flip,” states Hawkins. “The main thing involved there was to paint out the cannon, cleanup through the windows where we could see the roll cage, stunt driver and helmet, and plated extras for outside the café for safety. That car crash is in camera. The impact was a compositing shot that was made up of two main plates. The hero plate was of the talent driving, jamming on the brakes and acting going forward. The second plate we had rigged a RED KOMODO camera in the crash car for when we cover the crash. We only wanted to do the crash once. When we did the crash, the camera was mounted in the backseat facing toward the jeep as it was going to hit us. We used that plate for the oncoming jeep, shattering glass, and background. It would spinout so it would feel like the car was spinning on its back wheels.”
Part of the crash discussion involved how the graphic blood and gore should be depicted. “Abe wanted the attack to be shocking and visceral,” Hawkins shares. “He wanted people to feel scared and horrified after coming on this journey. Blood and gore were always going to be a big part of that. We work often with Odd Studio, which did the practical effects and designed the werewolf as well as supplied the film with severed heads and guts. There were buckets of red blood onset. There is one shot of the werewolf after it had been munching on Jayden [Nash Edgerton]. The head comes up and blood is cascading out of its teeth. Every reset they were in there with giant syringes pumping the blood. It was wonderful!”
Hawkins goes on to note that the werewolf was designed by Adam Johansen with points of reference taken from American Werewolf in London and Alien, adding, “We wanted to embrace as much practicality as we could until we show the whole body of the werewolf.”
Various versions of the werewolf were practically constructed. “We decided to build a full head, front arms, and torso of a suit that a stunt performer could wear along with high heels which would extend their back legs and would be holding onto some appendages for the feet allowing them to walk on all fours,” the VFX supervisor reveals. “That would cover us for shots waist up and any shots where we see more than that would be fully CG. We had a fully articulated animatronic head, which was worn by a puppeteer for close-up shots. The eyes didn’t move but it had brow, snout and mouth movement. We had a dummy head that was worn by the stunt performer for when walking around. Then we had the snappy head which could be worn on someone’s hand and used that for closeups of biting. We went into it with a freedom to try to get as much in camera as possible. Every shot had clean plates and lighting reference.”
Digital augmentation was required for the practical performance. “The most challenging thing was finding the right blend points. because Adam and his team did such a beautiful job with the fur, blood, and interaction when we were coming back in to add a bit more subtly and emotion with the brow, eyeball and snout animation,” Hawkins says. “Some of it was our own rendered skin and fur, but then some of it was reprojected onto our geometry in order to find that blend point. We didn’t want to lose any of that interaction that we got with the real blood in camera because it was so amazing.”
The weather during night shoots was so cold that they needed to address cold breaths that they at first had not considered. According to Hawkins, “It was about 4C at night when we were shooting those scenes so it was brutally cold for the crew. We were shooting from 6 pm until 5 am every night. The breath from the stunt performer was so visceral that we knew we had to do something. We played with the idea of using live-action breath but in the end, with the dynamics of the movement of the head, we wounded up simulating everything. It’s tricky to setup right but we were fortunate to have good effects artists who were able to take care of it.”
“It was quite a different show because it was a challenge doing the wolf and having it look photoreal and also marrying in aesthetically and tonally with what the prosthetic and practical did,” notes Hawkins. “Whereas the first inclination might be to do something in our animation, we had to keep it in a way that still made sense with certain shots that were cut that were full practical wolf. Finding that right balance was the hardest thing. In terms of other challenges, it was a joy because your showrunner, writer and director are all the same person and he is a competent filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants and what the tone is. He is trusting of his crew so he allows you to do what you think is right. It was a wonderful process.”