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Not every superhero is as virtuous as his or her public persona and may abuse their position to the detriment to society. This concept was explored by writer Garth Ennis and illustrator Darick Robertson in the comic book series The Boys, where a group of civilian vigilantes led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) attempt to keep the idolized beings honest by using any means necessary. Under the guidance of Eric Kripke, Amazon Studios, Sony Pictures Television and Point Grey Pictures have produced an adaptation that has been renewed for a second season.
Translating the superpowers from the page to the small screen has been the responsibility of VFX Supervisor Stephan Fleet, who previously collaborated with on Kripke on Timeless. “A lot of the discussions were about how we were going to interpret the comic book for a different medium and through that came the decision to reduce some of the blood and gore,” states Fleet. “Producing partners Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg at Point Grey Pictures, and our fearless leader and showrunner Eric Kripke wanted there to be gore, but to build a more believable world. The director of the pilot, Dan Trachtenberg, also had a heavy hand in the initial discussions.”
Two major bloody moments occur when speedster A-Train (Jessie Usher) obliterates the fiancé of Hugh Campbell (Jack Quaid) by running through her and Billy Butcher spitting blood onto the invisible Translucent (Alex Hassell) to reveal his whereabouts. “The show as a whole is a mixed bag between visual and special effects when it comes to blood,” explains Fleet. “For example, in Episode 2 when Translucent blows up we did a practical blood bomb inside of the room. In case of the Robin’s [Hugh’s fiancé] death scene it was so complex to shoot — it was a Phantom camera, slow motion, and several passes. Ultimately, it went full CG as there was too much art direction and specificity for that amount of time for the practical blood to work out. That was heavily art directed over months of creating this canvas of a dead body floating in the air. In the case of the Translucent fight, the interesting thing about that one is that we did go hyper-real. There was way more blood than we would actually have.
“It was all about legibility,” Fleet continues. “We did the reel and you couldn’t read it. It was a little smear on a face and ribs. We kept increasing and decreasing it until we got a cool balance of legibility and realism. The fight was on a soundstage. We did have a guy in a grey suit and witness cameras to try to get as much information as we could. Ultimately, it is a lot of match move.”
“The color of blood is a big thing on The Boys,” remarks Fleet. “For the most part, it has a hefty color grade which is fairly desaturated and leans more toward black. What we have discovered through the course of making this show is blood-shooting elements work to a certain degree for us. We get more sophisticated as we do like some specularity or shine in our blood if the environment calls for it. But that specularity or shine evolves over the course of the blood travelling, changing shape, and being seen at different angles in various lighting conditions. We tend to do detailed blood work to get that color and look right.”
Previs was an important tool. “For the opening sequence,” says Fleet, “we had The Third Floor do a significant previs for when the truck smashes into Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott). Mr. X chipped in and did some previs for a couple of sequences in the pilot. I do a lot of my own previs too. I would go to meetings with some kind of a visual aid and talk to directors. We would go back and forth and try it. What you do is anticipate that there’s going to be 100 problems when you go to set. That’s where previs is valuable.”
Over a period of five months, 1,400 visual effects shots were created by DNEG, Framestore, Mr. X, Pixomondo, Rodeo FX, Soho VFX, Mavericks VFX, Rocket Science VFX, Method Studios, Rhythm & Hues Studios and Cutting Edge for first season of eight episodes. “We’re doing something different from the comic books when it comes to the superpowers on the show and had to create a large amount of our own conceptual stuff,” notes Fleet. “There was extensive R&D. The first episode had 300 shots. There are some sequences that have five shots that took us a lot longer to do than sequences of 20. Exploding a dolphin is more complicated than doing some water composites. We somewhat split up the superpowers by company. The R&D lasted long past production. It was trying to dial into things that complimented the character. I tried to find oddball realistic references online. For A-Train, I looked at a lot of slow-motion stuff of speeding bullets and how they affect the air and move things around them. For the lasers, we grabbed a couple of high-powered lasers as well as different cameras, like the Phantom, filmed them and incorporated such things as lens flares. For Starlight’s (Erin Moriarty) hand blast I actually shot a speedlight from a DSLR on a Phantom camera at 1,000 fps. What is crazy is that you only get eight frames out of it, but I studied the shape and cadence of how the light flashes and folds out.
“I was happy when The Boys was released that it hit people in the right way, because I believe in the show beyond the visual effects. I love the story and the world we’ve built. The visual effects in terms of scope and scale are a lot bigger in Season 2.”
—Stephan Fleet, VFX Supervisor
“We are conservative with our digital double use, but do have avatars of Homelander (Antony Starr) that can be utilized for flying,” reveals Fleet. “We try to have him fly quickly in the distance or shake the camera when he is flying. If it is going to be a slow landing then we’re going to use a wire rig to lower him down, or for fast land we have developed a technique with Antony where he would jump up and down in a cool superhero way and then we would do a digital double that blends into him of Homelander crash-landing.” Homelander throws a criminal up into the air who subsequently crashes onto the roof of a car in the background. “That was a clever shot. If you watch that shot from beginning to end there is a bunch of practical stuff going on. The first thing that happened is Homelander’s feet lower into the frame. That is Antony holding onto monkey bars and lowering himself. There is a little bit of wind on the cape. Antony walks up to the guy who is on wires and grabs him. They do a wire pull and throw the guy straight out. Then we took over in the background and added a digital double which hits the car.
“The most difficult shot of all,” continues Fleet, “was Robin’s death because we had to figure out what a body looks like when it’s atomized at 500 fps. That took a long time. In terms of actual superheroes, we did spend a long time on Starlight’s powers mostly because it was first up to bat. So, in addition to creating a conceptual power, it was a lot of us getting together as a new team learning each others’ ways. We worked together well and everything was awesome, but we were developing what became later on a shorthand that could help us do things quicker. Homelander clicked in quickly. Translucent also took quite awhile, and that was primarily the way he turns on and off. The only issue with The Deep (Chace Crawford) was his gills, which was done through prosthetics and enhanced by visual effects.”
Season 1 of The Boys was well-received. “I was happy when The Boys was released that it hit people in the right way, because I believe in the show beyond the visual effects. I love the story and the world we’ve built. The visual effects in terms of scope and scale are a lot bigger in Season 2. If there was one thing I saw when looking at the forums was the fans of the comic books wanted to see more of the world opened up, so we’re doing that.”