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June 08
2021

ISSUE

Summer 2021

SIGNATURE SPECIAL EFFECTS ON THE SMALL SCREEN

By IAN FAILES

A careful mix of fuels, mortars and debris made up the explosions for Gangs of London. (Image courtesy of Alexander Gunn)

If you thought that the state of play in special effects in television and streaming had ramped up in recent years, you’re not imagining things. More shows, bigger scenes, and what might be described as a resurgence in the audience taste for practical effects has seen SFX, makeup effects and other on-set effects in high demand. 

Here, several practical effects supervisors look back at what they’ve been working on in the TV and streaming space, as they highlight the specific gags and effects sequences in Gangs of London, Lovecraft Country, 9-1-1: Lone Star and His Dark Materials. 

THE ART AND SCIENCE OF EFFECTS: GANGS OF LONDON 

In the Sky Atlantic series Gangs of London, several shocking moments portraying the brutality of international gangs tearing at the seams of the British capital were brought to life with practical effects. Overseeing that work was Special Effects Supervisor Alexander Gunn of Arcadia SFX. “Gangs of London actually encompassed virtually every type of physical effect technique. We had rain, wind, snow, smoke, atmosphere. We had fire, we had explosions, we had bullet hits. We had blood squirts. We had people being blown to pieces.” 

A ship that characters of Lovecraft Country find themselves in proves to actually be underwater, and therefore a set piece that Special Effects Supervisor J.D. Schwalm needed to flood. (Image copyright © 2020 HBO)

A snow-covered location on His Dark Materials, as generated by the Real SFX team. (Image courtesy of Danny Hargreaves)

Flash-burn makeup effects work for 9-1-1: Lone Star. (Image courtesy of Jason Hamer)

Gunn identifies a scene of a man being killed with a cattle stun gun as one of those key moments. “We built the actual gun, which had moving parts and which the actor could hold. You could actually put it against someone’s head, and it would appear to thump into their skull. The performer had this twin-chambered system on them with flexible pipes to make the blood spurt out. It was also a controllable system to show that the blood spurts slow down as the heartbeat slows.” 

A shoot-out in a campsite had a similar physical quality. Gunn notes it was heavily previs’d by series creator Gareth Evans, which helped inform the frenetic action as bullets and debris fly. “We had about 20 or 30 bullet hits going off that were rigged into the set and then the rest of it is done with air cannons. We had loads of silicon glass, feathers for the pillowcases all being shot up. We literally turned it into a maelstrom of crap flying around.” 

For actor interactions with the polar bears in the His Dark Materials, stand-ins were made and puppeteered during shooting. (Image courtesy of Danny Hargreaves)
One of Gunn’s mandates on Gangs of London was to involve the stunt performers as much as possible in the blasts themselves. (Image courtesy of Alexander Gunn)

Convincing and safe interior fire burns were delivered by J.D. Schwalm’s team on Lovecraft Country. (Image copyright © 2020 HBO) 

Then there’s the major house explosion. Gunn’s team set off rigged mortars and explosions by hand rather than via electronic firing boxes. “You feel it as it goes,” he says. There was also a very deliberate way the blast was ‘designed’ to look as gritty and dramatic as possible. 

“With the fireball, if you look at it, it’s got a halo of black behind it. Because there’s so much incidental light coming from the fireball, what I can actually do is frame that with mortar pots that are filled with dark earth and dark debris. We fire the fireballs off, then you fire your debris off. Then you fire another fireball off in the center, and then your big debris cannons behind that. 

“You want this stuff to come up behind it, give a black wall, so that your fireball is now not lighting up the house,” adds Gunn. “Instead, it’s actually got black behind it, and that actually makes the flame a lot dirtier. And in bright sunlight, it gives you some lovely, rich colors, and it matches the exposure levels of the daylight itself. It is quite an art and a science.” 

MOLOTOV COCKTAILS AND GENERAL MAYHEM IN LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 

Fiery effects were amongst a myriad of practical effects work required for HBO’s Lovecraft Country, which also included creature interaction work, blood hits and mechanical rigs. One particular necessary gag was ‘working’ Molotov cocktails, which actors playing a mob of men could throw in a number of scenes. 

“They were as real as one can get for a Molotov cocktail,” outlines Special Effects Supervisor J.D. Schwalm from Innovation Workshop. “They were made from candy glass, and we also experimented with different fuels cut down with water, with a wick that was soaked in a white gas or an alcohol fuel that would burn a nice bright yellow flame and look just like they needed to.” 

Indeed, pushing for the real was a large part of the series, and it was further evidenced by another fiery effect created by Schwalm’s team for an interior burning room. “We built the entire set outside out of steel, and then we built a huge tent around it with propane pipes and put fire sprinklers in. Everything was controlled with big automated manifold systems. We were able to deliver a pretty intense fire, safely, in pretty close proximity to the talent.”

The talent also got close to the action for a scene that sees the characters enter a fantasy world and find themselves in a ship submerged underwater. “That entire set had to be built underwater, so my team fabricated a 100-foot-diameter round pool,” says Schwalm. “Then construction came and built their set on top of our pool and then we filled it up with water. We could control the level of the water in the whole pool, and we could also control the current of the water, the heat, the temperature and the cleanliness, depending on if they needed it clear or murky.” 

At one point the ship’s windows break and water flows in. “To do that,” explains Schwalm, “we built these giant dump tanks and had 10-foot-diameter round plastic pipes filled with about 50,000 gallons of water. On ‘action’ there were trap doors that opened immediately, and the water went down a chute and then burst through those windows and onto the set. I got a lot of text messages the day after that episode came out with people saying, ‘How did you do that? Was that practical?’” 

 

The Practicalities of Practical Suits 

Netflix’s space series Away called on the astronauts of the show to be fitted up in spacesuits that resembled those of the Apollo/Gemini NASA missions. This work was handled by Legacy Effects. 

“We did a lot of research from the era and tried to stay as close to that period as possible,” outlines Legacy Effects Co-founder John Rosengrant. “We translated the designs to something comfortable and functional that actors could wear, while ensuring purposeful details that reflected actual function. To stay within budget constraints, we had to make the suits work for both IVA and EVA filming. We made boots and gloves that would translate for both purposes, and introduced spacer knit to the interior of the suits to make them believable both inside and outside the spaceship.” 

Legacy’s team collaborated with the show’s design team, led by Costume Designer Kimberly Adam, on materials both aesthetic and functional, utilizing coated Cordura and spacer knit as the primary fabrics. 

“Fitting the actors was a primary concern to ensure that they would feel comfortable, but authentic in the suits,” notes Legacy Effects Fabrication Department Head Marilyn Chaney. “A few of the actors experienced slight claustrophobia at the initial fittings, which actually helped with the authenticity of the suits as a whole. We worked with each individual actor in the suits to address issues about fit, comfort and function to ultimately enhance the believability.” 

Ray Panthaki and Hilary Swank in Away. The spacesuits by Legacy Effects referenced early NASA flight suits. (Photo: Diyah Pera. Copyright © 2020 Netflix)

GRISLY BUT REALISTIC: THE MAKEUP EFFECTS OF 9-1-1: LONE STAR 

Given that the Fox series 9-1-1: Lone Star deals with the rescue stories of fire, police and ambulance departments, it’s not hard to imagine the need for gruesome makeup effects for accident victims and others facing medical emergencies. Indeed, that’s what special effects makeup designer Jason Hamer of Hamer FX was called upon to create for the show, in spades. 

“The work ranges from burned bodies to broken limbs to conjoined twins connected at the head,” details Hamer. “For that last effect, we had these fiberglass skullcaps that were ratcheted onto the heads of our actors, glued down with medical tape, and then the appliances go over that. We actually built an electromagnet that when charged up made the two pieces stick. The actors were twin brothers who lived together, which also helped curb any COVID-19 stress about them being so close to each other.” 

A more common effect in the show were burned bodies and burned appliances. For flash-burn victims, Hamer and his team developed an outer skin layer with Baldiez, a plastic cap material that was sprayed onto a garbage bag. “We get these sheets of skin from that, and by applying it to the face or the area that’s burnt, you could create this outer layer of skin that is charred. We ended up doing really thin pieces of silicone that worked as under skin.” 

For some burned firemen, Hamer consulted reference that showed how the top layer of skin peels back from the under layers. “The outer layer is very black and charred, but then you have this really white, pale under layer. 

“To create that look,” continues Hamer, “we had polyfoam bodies with armatures in them that we could pose in really strained positions. We covered the whole body in a drying blood to give it an undertone.

One of the main facial-injury makeup effects gags orchestrated by Jason Hamer and his team on 9-1-1: Lone Star. (Image courtesy of Jason Hamer)

And then while the blood was still wet, we sprayed glue and a thin layer of plastic on top. We spray-painted it with flat, black spray paint, and then we heat-gun everything. That black layer shrivels up and creates that outer skin layer, and it exposes that polyfoam covered in the blood underlayer. It was such a simple technique that was very quick and very affordable, but also very effective.”

9-1-1: Lone Star requires a multitude of medical emergencies and conditions to be replicated. (Image courtesy of Jason Hamer)

Body injuries formed part of the main work on 9-1-1: Lone Star. (Image courtesy of Jason Hamer)

HIS DARK MATERIALS: LET IT SNOW

Environmental effects are a significant part of BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials, especially the generation of snow. Special Effects Supervisor Danny Hargreaves from Real SFX explains the on-set techniques for making non-snow products look like the real thing.

“To make snow, we use a machine called a Krendl, which had its original life as an insulation machine where you fire foam or paper into an attic, for example. For spreading out snow, you get bags of fake snow, which is recycled paper that has been dyed white. You put that into this machine. It churns it up with blades and then it fires it down a tube, and then at the end of this tube, it’s got water jets. The paper itself hits the water, and then it turns it into papier-mâché-like material. It very much behaves like snow.

“It’s a very quick way of laying a large area of paper or white down on the floor,” adds Hargreaves. “When you have a set that’s built primarily of foam, it’s just a really natural product that goes on top of the foam, and you just create these lovely waves. All of the sets that you see in His Dark Materials were completely fake and totally paper.”

Hargreaves’ other principal challenges during the making of His Dark Materials’ two aired seasons have also included mechanical effects for the balloon-flying sequences achieved with motion bases, and enabling interactive effects for scenes involving the polar bears. Here, of course, the bears would ultimately be CG creations from visual effects studio Framestore, but on set they were brought to life with partial foam pieces, stuffies and puppeteering, plus on-set practical gags.

“The integration of practical effects with visual effects – that is, making things move on set when there was going to be a CGI creature added in later – was a huge challenge for us,” states Hargreaves.

A fiery scene in Lovecraft Country. (Image copyright © 2020 HBO)

A Real SFX crew member distributes fake snow on a His Dark Materials set piece. (Image courtesy of Danny Hargreaves)

In fact, Hargreaves makes particular mention of the importance of the co-existence of special effects and visual effects on a show like His Dark Materials. “We need them and they need us, and I think I’m quite happy to keep it that way. There are certain things that they like to do, while I still try and claw onto the practical elements as much as I can. We come under the same umbrella.

The cattle stun-gun rig setup on the performer for Gangs of London. (Image courtesy of Alexander Gunn)

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