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June 08
2021

ISSUE

Summer 2021

THE FIERY, ELECTRICALLY-CHARGED VICTORIAN SCI-FI OF THE NEVERS

By TREVOR HOGG

Photos by Keith Bernstein and courtesy of HBO except where noted.

Mechanical devices and sparks were incorporated into the workshop of Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) to emphasize her ability to create futuristic electrical inventions.

 In the HBO series The Nevers, spores are released by an alien spaceship, causing a group of Victorian-era women and men to develop special abilities that result in them becoming social outcasts and subjugated to brutal experimentation. Mixing the genres of period drama, science fiction and horror is creator Joss Whedon, which is not surprising considering his credits include the Avengers franchise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He subsequently left the production with the remaining six of 12 episodes being completed by showrunner Philippa Goslett (Mary Magdalene). 

“Joss is a veteran of visual effects projects and knows the routine,” notes Visual Effects Supervisor Johnny Han, who was also involved with One Night in Miami and Welcome to Chechnya. “Joss understood from the first script readings how important it was to identify what was going to be visual effects, but once we got the overall idea of how to do them, he trusted us. Philippa is amazing as well. She has been good to embrace the world that we’ve already halfway established and is working that into her material. Even though Philippa has done fewer visual-effects-heavy projects, I’m excited because it means that I can be useful and walk her through the process.”

The Nevers was impacted by a high-profile HBO production. “A lot of our team came from Game of Thrones,” reveals Han. “I was the new kid. Everyone was coming fresh off of the finale, so they had such a well-oiled machine and professional way of working – that was such a treat. There wasn’t any drama. Everyone knew what you were there to do, that it was hard work and not everything goes right.” 

The inventions of Penance Adair are derived from her ability to see potential energy and what it would do.

Part of the Game of Thrones alumni is Production Designer Gemma Jackson (Finding Neverland). “I felt it was more make-believe in Game of Thrones,” observes Jackson. “Anything could be considered. While for The Nevers, despite the sci-fi aspect, I kept it straightly in Victorian time.” 

Special Effects Supervisor Michael Dawson (Snow White and the Huntsman) is no stranger to HBO projects having previously worked on Band of Brothers and The Pacific. “Every day was a bullet hit or someone was getting blown up or the beach was going up,” remarks Dawson. “This one was Victorian London, so you didn’t get any explosions except for the opium cart going up. 

The Nevers was a lot more sedate, but also interesting because it wasn’t the same thing every day.” 

Halfway through the production, the pandemic caused The Nevers to shut down, leading to some changes in the structure and execution of the series. “The pandemic put it into parts one and two,” notes Han. “That gave us an opportunity to embellish the story because now we’re doing 12 instead of 10 episodes. Even with part one, it was a blessing because during the lockdown the edit was refined. They were shooting as much live-action material as possible, so we were able to identify a lot of things. Normally, with element shoots, you have to guess what you’re going to need, but we were able to shoot some shot-specific ones with special effects.” 

The coachman is a mechanical device made by Adair that inhabits a world that is an authentic recreation of Victorian London.

A single street block was constructed and redressed to look like several others when needed.

The hand motions of Bonfire (Rochelle Neil) resemble someone making pottery out of fire.

Gemma Jackson referenced her extensive personal library of historical black-and-white photography when recreating Victorian London. 

Locations and sets also needed to be revised. Adds Han, “When we got back to work, in a way it became more interesting work. The asylum built out at Langleybury was too claustrophobic for the COVID-19 situation, so we completely transfigured the police station. We took down walls, kept the overall shape and windows, and then made it the asylum with different colors, dressing and accents. That pleased me ridiculously on a level. I defy you to know that it’s the same place.” 

One of the guidelines established by Joss Whedon was that story is not part of the steampunk genre. “Steampunk is such a well-established visual motif,” offers Han. “The most obvious thing is that we’re not using steam anyway. Penance Adair [Ann Skelly] is all about electricity. In the show, she is revealed to be the master of being able to see potential energy and what it would do. We didn’t want to make steam and hydraulics. We leaned a lot more towards electric motors and things sparking – that helped to inform the design process.” 

Jackson uses a different term to describe the show. “Joss’ byword was Victorian sci-fi, which is how I approached it. Other than Episode 106, which is a whole different kettle of fish [because it takes place on another planet], most of it was fairly accurately based on the Victorian era. But we allowed people like Penance Adair to have extraordinary ideas and plans that were way beyond her era.” 

A suggestion involving electricity led to Dawson getting hired. “I remember when I first went to the interview to get the job and the producer only had one script. She said, ‘In this show we have a car that comes out of the back of a horse-drawn carriage and how would you go about that?’ I thought, ‘I have no idea.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we make the car electric?’ Later she rung me up and said, ‘You’ve got the show. We mentioned the fact that it should be electric and Joss loved that idea.’ From that point on we were building a fully-electric, three-wheel vehicle from scratch that would fit into the back of a horse-drawn carriage and come out. I was impressed with the fact that we did it and it worked!” The vehicle could go 30 miles per hour. “Stunt Coordinator Rowley Irlam, who is not forgiving in any way, put the car through its paces and said, ‘That is a great little car.’ From then on, it went up and down hills and around London,” says Dawson. “Joss liked the car so much that he commissioned a four-wheel version that we made and will be in the second half of the season.”

Among the supernatural abilities of the Touched is the ability to see into the future, walk on water and wield fire. “We call it ‘the ripple’ when Amalia True [Laura Donnelly] sees into the future,” remarks Han. “The DP for the pilot, Seamus McGarvey [Atonement], did some tests with speed ramping the frame rate and maintaining the same ratio as the aperture so it didn’t get any darker or brighter – that would cause the character to jitter. I came up with the idea that if you were looking at your reflection in a vibrating mirror, the edges of your reflection would distort like rippling water. I took Seamus’ test, put on our visual effect distorting it and Joss loved it.”

Amalia True gets attacked by the water-defying Nicholas ‘Odium’ Perbal [Martyn Ford]. “It was the biggest effects shoot of the season,” recalls Han. “We filmed at a water tank stage at Pinewood Studios. An overhead wire rig was built that could suspend Martyn Ford high enough so that his feet were resting on the water. There were various platforms and a different rig for every shot. We had an underwater camera and crane. Even though the shot is all CG, it is based on the practical water shoot.” 

Annie ‘Bonfire’ Carbey (Rochelle Neil) has the ability to unleash fire. “We used some practical fire and developed a Bluetooth micro-controlled LED that was a poker chip size which rested in her palm,” explains Han. “We came up with a lot of ways where she would keep her palm facing herself to hide the light from camera and to nicely illuminate her own face. Bonfire shapes the fire in her hands almost like pottery.”

Primrose Chattoway (Anna Devlin) is revealed to be a giant. “We would shoot the scene without Anna and have her do her lines off-screen,” says Han, “but when it was time to shoot her plate, we would bring the two or three cameras half a distance closer. If you do your measurements well, you’ll get an optically correct image of a girl being twice as big.”

By halving the distance between the camera and Primrose Chattoway (Anna Devlin), Visual Effects Supervisor Johnny Han was able to create the optical illusion of her being the size of a giant.

The scene where Primrose Chattoway (Anna Devlin) is revealed to be a giant to Myrtle Haplisch (Viola Prettejohn) by Penance Adair.

Special Effects Supervisor Michael Dawson built a functional electric car using a Tesla battery configuration.

The production design accommodated the character. “For going in and out of Penance’s workshop, we made it look like they cut through the top of the wall and put extra doors up so Primrose could go to and through,” reveals Jackson. “It was a nice little detail.” 

The Galanthi vessel had to feel like an extension of a creature that could grow its own ship.

Amber was the prominent material chosen for the Galanthi spacecraft

It was important to portray the spores dropped from the Galanthi as being friendly rather than invasive
 

“When you read it, it takes a little while to get your head around it because it’s so out of the norm. When you get to Episode 106 where it’s off-world and you think, ‘What is going on? Where is this going?’ It is so exciting to be putting something into reality that is in [show creator] Joss [Whedon’ s] mind.”

—Johnny Han, Visual Effects Supervisor

Driving the sci-fi narrative is a mysterious alien species. “The Galanthi was a big character design process,” admits Han. “Their spacecraft has an organic, almost skeletal feel to it. We wanted it to feel airworthy, so it almost feels like sails. We thought that amber is a beautiful color and is translucent. Our scene was going to be at dusk, so the sunlight would light the amber nicely. We toned down the amber a lot. It had to feel like an extension of a creature that could grow its own ship.” 

Not every scene takes place on Earth. “That took a while for us to agree as to what that world was,” remarks Jackson. “There is this burnt-out city that had to have an architectural sense to it other than being a pile of rubble. I remember looking at some extraordinary microscopic photographs of fur and eyes, and all sorts of weird and wonderful things that we had up on walls. I got quite involved with underwater stuff like fish gills.” 

The alien world harkened back to another experience for Dawson. “It is almost like Band of Brothers. There is a battlefield with explosions and bullet hits. We had a lot of snow, atmosphere, wind and dirt. I enjoyed doing that as it was so different from the previous five episodes set in Victorian London.” 

Approximately 1,200 visual effects shots were made by 12 vendors consisting of Scanline VFX, EDI, Mackevision, MR. X and BUF, with an in-house team of digital artists providing crucial problem-solving support. “The things that we didn’t anticipate were how much of the invisible effects that we would have to figure out,” states Han. “How do we move the story along without big flashy effects? Whether it meant morphing the performance between two different takes together or holding eyelines and preventing the character from blinking.” 

The Nevers is a wild project. “When you read it, it takes a little while to get your head around it because it’s so out of the norm,” says Han. “When you get to Episode 106 where it’s off-world and you think, ‘What is going on? Where is this going?’ It is so exciting to be putting something into reality that is in Joss’ mind.” 

Jackson enjoyed the creative process. “What happens is you tend to do a lot of research, and then you have to chuck it out and get on with it in some strange way. You have to own it and make it yours. It just comes out of you after a while, which is when it gets to be gorgeous. That’s why I’ve come back to do the other half [of the season]. It is still lurking in me. I want to carry on with it a bit longer.”


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