Bryan Godwin, CEO of Shade VFX, has overseen visual effects on a number of major studio pictures and acclaimed TV series in recent years, including True Detective, Batman vs. Superman, Pixels and American Ultra. This year the studio was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Supporting Role for its work on Netflix’s Daredevil. But one of the most interesting projects Godwin has worked on is HBO’s four-part limited series Olive Kitteridge. As Godwin says, “It’s not every day that you get to change Frances McDormand into an elephant.”
On Olive Kitteridge, Godwin and his team guided director Lisa Cholodenko through her first experience with visual effects, helping to ensure they were congruent with the tone of poignancy that Cholodenko was after.
Though Shade VFX designed various animals for the project, including snakes and birds—“expanding character creation abilities really quickly,” Godwin says—one of the most discussed moments in the series was the elephant scene, when one of the main characters experiences a hallucination and sees McDormand’s title character as an elephant. For this moment Shade “drew a lot of inspiration from Frances’ performance, (incorporating) little blinks and glances,” as well as the color of her eyes.
As you can see in the video above, which runs the viewer through the visual effects process, there were many steps in conceptualizing and constructing the image of the elephant that you see onscreen. “We settled on an Asian elephant because it had a little bit of a softer look, a little bit of a smaller head and could be a little bit more feminine than other varieties,” Godwin says. Starting with photos, the team then created sketches and illustrations in a pre-visualization process before constructing the image digitally.
According to Godwin, the visual effects in the series are very faithful to the novel, and are emblematic of the company’s commitment to “only do exceptional television.”