The Boys Season 2's VFX Supervisor Talks Head Pops And More
We chatted with the man behind those gloriously gory head explosions on The Boys Season 2.
Warning: The Boys Season 2 spoilers below.
With Season 2, The Boys proved that it's one of the best shows on TV--as well as one of the goriest. If you've ever wondered what it would really look like when Superman directed his "heat vision" someone's way, or what would happen to a whale if a pointy speedboat hit it broadside, full tilt--not that that's a normal thing to wonder about, but still--The Boys is the show for you.
That level of blood and guts doesn't get cobbled together in an afternoon, particularly when heads are popping like bubble wrap in a crowded congressional hearing. To find out just how much work went into those effects and more, we jumped at the opportunity to chat with The Boys associate producer and VFX supervisor Stephan Fleet.
With light editing, our full chat is below. After you find out everything Fleet had to say about heads popping, faces melting, and just how desensitized he's become to all the gore, check out our The Boys Season 2 ending explainer, everything you might have missed in the season finale, our interviews with Shawn Ashmore (Lamplighter), Claudia Doumit (Victoria Neuman), and Nathan Mitchell (Black Noir), and our in-depth video breakdowns of the full season.
GameSpot: The comics are so gory and insane, and I've read that you've basically had to tone it down from the comics. The show is pretty over the top. But I think the comics even more so.
Stephan Fleet: Yeah, I mean, I think from the very beginning, Eric Kripke, and Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], at the very, very beginning when I was talking to them, Eric definitely came in with his own take on the comic book where he, I think, found a really clever way to balance honoring the sensibilities and the tone of the comic book, but also bringing in his own sensibilities and tone. And I think from the beginning, he said, like, "We're not going to go as belligerently insane as the comic book," just in the sense of the sheer gore and violence and stuff. We have ramped up the gore [in Season 2], I think--we have like a gore dial, you know what I mean? I think one thing that Eric's very good at doing, and we work on in post a lot and in production, is like, how much or how little gore are we going to see, to sort of give the sensibilities of the comic book and give the comic book fans what they want, but then also pull it back into the world that we've created. So you get these pockets of sort of fun gore that we definitely work on a lot in visual effects. But yeah, you know, it's become its own thing. It really has.
I mean, I would say the gore in this show is maybe toned down only in comparison with the comics. Compared to anything else, it's pretty intense.
It's funny man, you say that to me--I'm so desensitized to it because I have to work on this stuff frame by frame, that for me, it's like, "OK, cool, could we put a little more brain in that head over there? Can we get an eyeball like, falling out of this thing?" For me, it's just like a Wednesday. But I've noticed that when I look at a lot of the social media and stuff about the show, people are like, "Holy s*** it's so gory." And I'm like, oh, yeah, I guess it is.
Episode 6, in particular, had had lots of little nods to the comics, with all the supe patients at Sage Grove. Was it fun recreating some of the powers from the books, like the acid vomit guy and "Love Sausage"?
It was a lot of fun. I got to second unit direct a lot of the stuff with the people in their cells. They were so busy filming, we actually had three units going on at the same time. So I was the third unit doing that stuff. And it sort of fell upon me--if you read the script, it had a lot of suggestions for powers for the people in those cells. But Eric and the director, Sarah Boyd, who's amazing, by the way, sort of turned to me and were like, "Since you're gonna be the guy making these powers and you're pretty close to it, you want to pitch us a bunch of powers?" And so I ended up doing a whole spreadsheet of different ideas for powers that I thought would fit our world.
We tend not to go too over the top with the superpowers in the show. We try and downplay it, but at the same time, we have to have them. It's a really interesting line that we try and ride there. And there were a few that we ended up editing out. We had a person with a sort of toad tongue effect grabbing a fly, and it just felt a little too comical for our world, so we cut that one out. But it was fun to bring back our tiny hero from Season 1. That was one of my pitches--let's bring back the little guy, put them in the corner, just as a little nod to Season 1.
And then beyond just this stuff on the screens, we had a lot. That was one of my hardest episodes to do actually, in visual effects, just because we had so many unique superpowers, but we have to treat each one like it's as important as one of our hero superpowers. We don't spend any less time researching and developing the one guy that blasts the van versus like, Homelander's eyes. We spend the time--we make sure that everything's quality and comes from some sort of motivated reasoning or perspective in our own internal logic.
Speaking of high quality, we have to talk about the head popping. The hearing at the end of Episode 7 was one of the craziest things I've ever seen on TV.
That was one of the most rewarding sequences for me. The whale [in Episode 3] was very rewarding--I don't want to skip over the whale. But I will say that it was another situation where it heavily fell upon me to figure out the logistics of how we were going to shoot that day, working with Stephan Schwartz--another Stephan, the director--he did the Believe Festival episode in Season 1. He had a lot of trust in me and vice versa. So we had a good time shooting that sequence. And Dan Stoloff, our [director of photography], is really great. The three of us were tasked with like, how do we do 20-something head pops in this courtroom scene. And I think we had like two days to shoot it or something like that.
So it was a combination of really figuring out what our hero shots were, the first two guys [who explode], and finding techniques to film the rest of the scene. And then our [assistant director Jack Boem] was also really great, because he figured out a way to time all the background extras, like he would go one, and then the jerk to the left, and then two, and then jerk to the right. So it was kind of fun to just watch in real life how it all happened.
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We had a company called Rocket Science VFX that we've worked with since Season 1. We have a lot of great companies that work on the show, but they've sort of become our "Homelander lasers people in half blood" people. And this season, they became our head popping group--and they did the shot where Homelander lasers the crowd in Episode 5. And it just worked out really well. [Rocket Science] nailed it. I got to sit in spots virtually with Eric at that point, because we had the [coronavirus] on us already. So we're all virtually spotting this stuff. But you know, you'd hear him laughing, and you always know you're onto something if you get a good laugh out of Eric in a visual effects spot.
What was the process of actually creating the effects for the head pops like?
It's a lot of CG, but for the first two, which we call "hero," that are the most important ones, that we're going to hold on the most, which were the senator--the chairman--and Vogelbaum, we had prosthetic dummies built without heads, and we covered him in blood and like, bananas mixed with fake blood, that kind of stuff. So you kind of shoot it before and after. And then visual effects does the in-between and marries the two. And they were heavily planned out. I [pre-visualized] everything myself, so I have little cartoons of the shots, I knew where the green screens went--again, we didn't have much time. So it was like, I show the picture or the video to the director and the DP, and they'd be like, "OK," and obviously, the DP is going to find a better framing than me and I'm not holding on to that, but a ballpark idea of like, "OK, if the camera's here, we put a green screen here, we put the guy here."
So that's how we did the first two, and those took a while, but then we kind of came up--you know, you do this a while, you learn that you're going to end up shooting from the hip sooner or later. Nothing's ever going to go perfectly. And so, as the day went and time started running out, I would just look for opportunities. A great example is the assistant lady. There's this great shot, it's one of the last head explosions, where you're behind the lady tracking her and she's running with Neuman, and her head explodes and she drops to her knees and falls. And that was literally just, we just had the actor shoot it, and I just kind of looked at the footage to ask for a replay, and made sure that her head was not overlapping into people, and that we had a nice piece of wall so that we could paint it out. So it's just, with a technical eye, just looking at it saying, "This will work."
And it did, you know? It was a little risky. It was just literally at a certain point, just shooting footage, and then we just overlaid visual effects on top of it. We had our special effects guys, I mean, a lot of it, frankly, shooting blood cannons on everybody. So we really got people covered in blood. But it's kind of like rain. In movies, you don't really see real rain, it doesn't show up on cameras, you have to get really thick with it. So we ended up adding a lot of that digitally on top of the practical stuff, because it's just hard to see. Cameras don't pick it up. But yeah, we had kind of three stages: We shot the whole thing with the crowd, no blood, then some blood, and then a lot of blood on them so that we could cut intercut footage of people covered in blood. It takes a lot of thinking to pull off a scene like that.
The scene is also a triumph of editing. When you go back and watch it in retrospect, after seeing the finale, it's super clear that Victoria is the one doing it. But it's subtle enough that you wouldn't notice it unless you already knew. There's literally one Reddit topic from like four days ago, where someone's like, "What if she's the one doing it? Because it seems like she's looking at all these people right before they explode." And all the comments are like, no, that's stupid.
I have to like bite my tongue every time. Or like that photo, you know, we have that press photo of her looking a little maniacal--she was actually just being silly...it's gonna have a whole different meaning after [the finale airs].
In the lead-up to the finale, almost no one suspects that it's her.
I know. It's great. We did a good job. It's interesting--the biggest thing we had to figure out was in Episode 8. It's the glow effect in her eye. One of the things we did, when we originally did that shot, the eyes were glowing the whole time, and then they fade off, and it looked really cool, and it timed out really cool. But when we were looking at it, testing it, we were like, "Wait a second, it's really going to not work with Episode 7." Because then that means we'd have to have seen her eyes glowing at some point [during the hearing]. But if we just have them kind of come on and off, you can watch Episode 7, and you can buy that we're cleverly cutting away at times when her eyes aren't glowing.
So a lot of thought was put into it. And you know, again, not to give Eric too much credit, but he is the showrunner and an awesome dude and created this little show. He's really, really involved in editing and visual effects. I really like his approach to how he makes a show in general, because we shoot a lot of coverage, and the way he manipulates the coverage in editorial is like a master's class. Of course, we have fantastic editors, but it's really a master's class in watching someone dial up and down the tension or the logic or the story. I mean, he really gets into it. So it's fun, I sit in on a lot of that, when it's visual effects related, and it's really great to watch how he does it. He was very intentional--he spent a lot of time on that scene in Episode 7, very intentionally putting it together.
To go back to the whale for a second, I thought it was insane that that was at the end of Episode 3, because that's like a season hero shot and there's no way they're going to top that. I was wrong, of course, because we got to Episode 7. Was there anything that was that was too crazy for this season?
Nothing makes me feel crazy anymore on this show, I have to say. I've definitely redefined what crazy is...Arv Grewal, our production designer, spent a mammoth amount of time building the practical whale set, and we spent an equally mammoth amount of time with ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] creating the whole shark to whale sequence. It was a lot of fun. I mean, the fun thing about The Deep is, again, a lot of the time we downplay the comic book nature of the visual effects in the show, but with The Deep, because he's our clown, he's our jester--right? He's our court jester in the show, he's the slapstick component. We're able to infuse some of that. So I get to go for it and do things that I'd probably refrain from doing with other characters--you know, the gills too, which, they're mostly CG, like 90% CG--it's such an absurd thing to do, and really complicated and hard at the same time.
So yeah, the whale sequence, you know, the difference between like the whale sequence and, say, Episode 6, is we had a tip off early on about the whale sequence, so we really braced for it. We braced for the storm, no pun intended--and there's not a storm so it's not even really a pun. But we planned for it. I mean, I think ILM executed it to perfection. It went about as smoothly as something like that can go--even filming [The Deep actor Chase Crawford] with that one shot on the blue screen I had to do went really well. It's a lot of fun. It felt really good. It's weird how something big like that ends up not being the most difficult thing, and then something left-hooks you that you didn't think about being a complicated visual effect. Like for example, the acid guy's face, that was an incredibly difficult shot to pull off, because you're just holding on a guy's face getting melted, and it ended up going all CG. It's just very difficult. You want to get out of it without people going, "Ugh, that's obviously CG," you know? That's the goal, right? But yeah, the whale was a great time, man. I got to be in a helicopter, be a kid, have an adventure.
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