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March 23
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS THAT DELIVER STEPHEN KING’S THE STAND

By TREVOR HOGG

Streaming The Stand miniseries on CBS All Access during the pandemic has art imitating life, as the novel published by horror author Stephen King in 1978 imagines a world decimated by a lethal strain of influenza that was accidentally released by a military research facility. The project had just finished principal photography and the second round of shooting in Las Vegas was about to commence when the work at home edict was implemented globally. “This was a show that was completely posted remotely,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Jake Braver (Hostiles). “And none of our 15 vendors missed a beat.”

The post-apocalyptic story where the remains of humanity are divided between the forces of good and evil was first adapted for television in 1994. “I have my own memories of it,” remarks Braver. “I made the conscious choice not to watch the original miniseries during our production. For me, it was more about capturing the spirit of the book. When our showrunners, Benjamin Cavell and Taylor Elmore, and I had to look something up, we always went back to the uncut 1,300-plus-page version of the book. What an amazing resource to have! A 10-minute-long scene in the series can sometimes be 100 pages in the book. There was so much detail to go in and grab when you’re looking for nuggets of minutia.”

 

Initially, The Stand was not going to be a miniseries. “I have a lot of history with this project going back to when it was going to be a movie for Warner Bros.,” reveals Braver. “The script went through several iterations. For this version, we discussed how to modernize The Stand without making it feel too modern and how to make the timeless story resonate because of the characters. There is nothing wrong with a movie filled with carnage, destroyed cities and piles of dead bodies, but that is not what The Stand is about at its core.”

On average there were about 270 visual effects shots per episode with the heaviest being Episode 107 with 450 and Episode 108 with 443.
“We had about 2,800 shots [for the nine episodes],” states Braver.

To have the ‘Randall Flagg gaze’ in their eyes, a slight anthropomorphic treatment was given to the rats and crows. Image courtesy of CBS All Access.

 

The Stand had just finished principal photography when the COVID-19 lockdown happened. Image courtesy of CBS All access.

“This was a show that was completely posted remotely…And none of our 15 vendors missed a beat.”

—Jake Braver, Visual Effects Supervisor

“Previs was created by Proof and The Third Floor. Most of the complex things in the show were done by ILM, Important Looking Pirates, Phosphene and SpinVFX.” The other vendors included Pixomondo, Folks, Cinesite,  Zoic Studios, Studio 8, Territory Studio, Exceptional Minds and Wylie VFX.

“We were working with ILM’s art department even before the project was green-lit and they were phenomenal creative partners,” says Braver. “One of the big things that we started early on was New Vegas and the Hand of God, the finale sequence when Vegas gets destroyed. We did so much early prep work that those sequences largely went as planned. The concept art made a world of difference as we were able to present key frame art to the previs artists.”

To prep the large sequences and start working on environmental builds, there were two shoots in Las Vegas, the first in December 2019 and the second in August 2020. A five-day shoot and a one-and-a-half-week-long data-capture mission with LiDAR, HDRIs and photography kicked off Braver’s work on creating New Vegas. “Our approach towards New Vegas was to use as much plate as we could,” shares Braver,“but we ended up replacing the solid block around the Inferno in CG and in other cases we replaced a lot more, like the nuclear explosion shot.”

A tricky element to figure out was the signage for New Vegas. “From speaking with Ben and Taylor, we knew that they wanted Vegas to feel a little bit different,” explains Braver. “So much of Vegas is ads and brands, but the question that we kept coming back to was, ‘What would Vegas be like if it was run by a devil demagogue?’ We came to this interesting idea of trying to do what any demagogue would do, which is cover up any brand or name that isn’t his own. He would put his own name and brand in as many places as possible.” To achieve this, Braver and his team shot the propaganda material that you see on the screens and populated all the video screens with this content that fit Randall Flagg’s [Alexander Skarsgård] message.”

Parts of the story also take place in Boulder, Colorado, however the production never actually went there. “The location work was shot in this wonderful, quiet town in British Columbia called Port Coquitlam,” states Braver. “No mountains exist there, so they had to be added and we had to do a lot of environmental work to make it feel more like Colorado.” For this, Braver brought on Important Looking Pirates and they used geographical data, as well as extracted all height information and structure density, to recreate Boulder’s buildings and mountain range. “Combining this with satellite photos and some building references we found on the Internet, ILP created Boulder in CG,” remarks Braver, “It was a substantial and beautiful build that they accomplished.”

“[For] the Bernie Wrightson illustrations [of the tube necks] that appeared in the book…We spent a lot of time taking these 2D pencil drawings that are beautiful and turning them into something that was believable in 3D, in the world of the show. People had to move, shoot guns and die with an enlarged neck, so at the end of the day, this needed to be something that told the story and allowed the actors to give their performances. That’s why we did this hybrid approach; and even though makeup was involved, we still used a significant amount of CG to execute the final look, and entirely CG mucus so we could fully control it.”

—Jake Braver, Visual Effects Supervisor

 

It was important to Braver and his team to retain the look and feel of Las Vegas when constructing New Vegas, which is the headquarters for Randall Flagg and his followers. (Images courtesy of CBS All Access).
Rats and crows were created entirely in CG by utilizing real reference material and making them “a bit anthropomorphic so that [they] had that ‘Flagg gaze’ in their eyes,” states Braver. “Through animation and added elements as simple as them making eye contact for a couple of frames longer than would feel comfortable or normal,” continues Braver, “the ‘Flagg gaze’ was created. As for all our hero rats, they were in CG as well, but we surrounded them with as many real rats as possible. We ended up training rats to go from A to B with clickers and got one good take,” Braver laughs.
No crows were available to shoot practically in Vancouver, whereas the wolves were real. “We had dog-wolf hybrids in most cases that were brought up to Canada from the States. I directed them in Episode 101, which produced a great amount of elements that we used throughout the show – all thanks to the wonderful trainers.”

 

As for the human and supernatural characters of The Stand, Braver and his team took the lead on bringing the components from page to screen using entirely CG or in some cases building upon base layers of prosthetics. Whoopi Goldberg had to be digitally aged to portray Mother Abagail, who is 108 years old. “She had to look ravaged after her encounter with Flagg,” remarks Braver. “For that scene in particular, there was a base layer of prosthetics, which was essentially what Whoopi wore for the rest of the show. We wanted to add all of the fine details like the wrinkles, liver spots, everything that comes with years and years of living. Phosphene did a lot of tests and pulled it off flawlessly using 2.5D projections and some displacements for the areas of her skin as she is talking.”

As for showcasing Flagg’s true demonic form, Braver created this on two occasions. “You get a glimpse of it when he’s with Nadine Cross [Amber Heard] in the desert and she’s coming in and out of reality; and when he is being pummeled by lightning in the end, where we wanted to give a sense of his façade falling before he disappears. Because he has been around since the dawn of time, Ben, Taylor and I talked a lot about scarification and how to symbolize that with all of the marks on his body. We wanted his look to feel timeless and ageless. It had to be shocking.”

Prosthetics were utilized for the enlarged necks of those infected by the virus referred to as Captain Trips. “Since the tube necks appear so heavily in the first episode that Josh Boone directed, he took the lead on that and was keen on the Bernie Wrightson illustrations that appeared in the book,” explains Braver. “We spent a lot of time taking these 2D pencil drawings that are beautiful and turning them into something that was believable in 3D, in the world of the show. People had to move, shoot guns and die with an enlarged neck, so at the end of the day, this needed to be something that told the story and allowed the actors to give their performances. That’s why we did this hybrid approach; and even though makeup was involved, we still used a significant amount of CG to execute the final look, and entirely CG mucus so we could fully control it.”

For the colossal Hand of God sequence, Braver and his team created a destructive lightning cloud. “Since we knew there was going to be a tremendous amount of lightning, we shot on a set that we built at this hotel right on the U.S./Canada border called the Pacific Inn,” explains Braver. “It had a glass ceiling with a metal structure around it. Our amazing lighting and grip team was able to rig 3.5 million watts of lightning strikes to the top of that ceiling. We were determined to get as much interactive light as we could on set to represent the lightning. It ended up being really critical to our success.”

 

Practical explosions were digitally augmented to make them appear massive. Image courtesy of CBS All access.

“Since we knew there was going to be a tremendous amount of lightning [in the Hand of God sequence], we shot on a set that we built…It had a glass ceiling with a metal structure around it. Our amazing lighting and grip team was able to rig 3.5 million watts of lightning strikes to the top of that ceiling. We were determined to get as much interactive light as we could on set to represent the lightning. It ended up being really critical to our success.”

—Jake Braver, Visual Effects Supervisor

The Hoover Dam was entirely CG, created using a LiDAR scanning and photogrammetry team that captured every inch of the dam. (Image courtesy of CBS All Access)

Braver and his team spent hours looking at real reference material, which served as the basis for the nuclear explosion that engulfs and destroys New Vegas. “The story we were telling was that the lightning set off the nuclear warhead that destroyed the hotel, and then all of Vegas was consumed around it as well as a substantial amount of surrounding Nevada,” remarks Braver. “We wanted to keep it from the same point of view as the rest of the sequence, which was told in dark, eerie wide shots. For example, for the shot where you see the cloud wrapping around the hotel, we wanted it to feel almost disconnected from the story you were watching unfold. Looking at the nuke shots, we tried to find angles that were interesting and ended up deciding to play two shots in Vegas and then one shot as an extreme wide where you got a sense of how large the blast was.”

The nuclear blast shots were the last to be completed in post-production. “Those shots were delayed in filming because our shoot in March 2020 was shut down, and we finally shot in August under COVID-19 protocol,” reveals Braver. “Conveying scale in those shots was tremendously tricky. We got far along with one of the shots and it wasn’t working, so it had to be completely reworked because all the depth cues that you’re used to seeing of something exploding are never that massive – you’re not seeing slabs of concrete that are 115 feet wide and 700 feet high fall. You have to be careful about all of that. It was quite an undertaking.”

Other challenges Braver and his team faced came from shots that seemed straightforward and instead became a large visual effects undertaking – the well and Hoover Dam. “The well was a funny one,” admits Braver. “When I first got the Stephen King script for Episode 109, it was shrouded with secrecy. I remember talking to the producers and saying, ‘I think there are a bunch of visual effects in this episode.’ I ended up being right because what we quickly realized is a well is an impossible place to shoot because it’s a confined space and in the ground.”

To capture the well there were five different sets that needed to be extended by visual effects. There was a partial well set on location, a second partial well set of a different scale in the jungle, a well set onstage, a separate set for the bottom of the well where Frannie Goldsmith [Odessa Young] was lying, and a well for the stunt where Frannie falls through. Braver credits Production Designer Aaron Haye and the art department for creating these various sets, adding “they did a fantastic job.”

Braver elaborates, “For all of those shots where Stu Redman [James Marsden] is standing at the top of the well looking down at Frannie, he was looking at a greenscreen in a hole in the ground. There were times where it was a bit of a mindbender thinking about, ‘What set do we use for this? What is the right way to get this shot?’ There are two shots in the show that use all five sets.”

For the nine episodes, 2,800 shots were produced by ILM, Important Looking Pirates, Phosphene, SpinVFX, Pixomondo, Folks, Cinesite, Zoic Studios, Studio 8, Territory Studio, The Third Floor, Proof Inc, Exceptional Minds and Wylie VFX. (Image courtesy of CBS All Access)

 

The true demonic form of Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) makes an appearance in the series two times: Episodes 107 and 108. (Images courtesy of CBS All Access).

For the Hoover Dam scene, Braver and his team had to have Julie [Katherine McNamara], Lloyd [Nat Wolff] and Dayna [Natalie Martinez] standing at the mouth of the dam. As they got closer to shooting, Proof did previs for the shot and started speaking with the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, who both oversee the Hoover Dam. “They flat out told us ‘You won’t get that shot because we’ll never let you fly that low,’” recalls Braver, “So, we came up with a new plan and in August  in 117-degree heat!  we had a LiDAR scanning team and photogrammetry team from ILM capture every inch of the Hoover Dam. In the end, that shot ended up being a fully CG hand-off to a plate that we shot from a helicopter once the camera got to an altitude that we could actually photograph.”

Overall, the biggest challenge was the scope and scale of the story, as well as being able to satisfy the expectations of fans. Braver notes, “We tried to get as much on the screen as possible, while also honoring the original novel.”

Braver had been on show for two years, as the VFX Supervisor, 2nd Unit Director, and credited Producer. When asked about the experience of working on The Stand, which is now available to stream on CBS All Access and Paramount+, Braver remarks, “It has been a lot of fun to bring the book to life, and I’m excited for people to finally get to see it. I’m also grateful for all the incredibly talented hands that I have been working alongside. The show was a long time coming, and with the added challenges the pandemic brought, I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished together.”

An injured Stu Redman (James Marsden) waits for help in an environment that was extended by bluescreen. Image courtesy of CBS All access.

Randall Flagg Propaganda content was shot and incorporated onto video screens throughout New Vegas. Image courtesy of CBS All access.

Some of the environmental details are surreal in nature, such as the button with a happy face. Image courtesy of CBS All access.

High-powered practical lights were installed into the ceiling to provide the interactive lighting needed to simulate lightning. Image courtesy of CBS All access.

Braver directed two second unit shoots in Las Vegas to collect enough material to reconstruct the city as ‘New Vegas.’ Image courtesy of CBS All Access.

 

Interactive lighting was critical to the success of the Hand of God sequence. Image courtesy of CBS All Access.

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