In the brave new world of visual effects, where the only limitations are those of the imagination, visual effects break down broadly into categories—the flashy sort involved with Valerian-style world building, or Game of Thrones‘ dragons, and the kind that operates entirely behind the scenes, invisibly.
In the case of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, visual effects supervisor Brendan Taylor was largely working with the latter. In Season 1, one of Taylor’s biggest projects was dismantling of a church via computer, an effort inextricably tied into the series’ themes, as the institutions of yesteryear come crumbling down, replaced by the indoctrination of Gilead.
Speaking with Deadline, Taylor details the areas where visual effects came into play in The Handmaid’s Tale‘s first run, offering a window into the nitty-gritty of the process.
What got you excited about the prospect of working on The Handmaid’s Tale?
It was an opportunity to work with Take 5 and MGM, which was great. It was shooting in town. But more importantly for us, it’s a classic Margaret Atwood story, by a very revered Canadian novelist. It’s a book that most of us had to read in high school up in Canada, so when the chance came to work on a miniseries version of it, we jumped to it.
What was said in early conversations with Bruce Miller about the role he’d like visual effects to play in the series?
They wanted to keep a lot of it in close—close-ups, medium shots, to show the claustrophobia and the paranoia. But then, this is an opportunity to get wide and show the dismantling of the society under the characters’ feet, and show a church being brought down, which is the episode we’ve been nominated for. It’s basically a CGI church being dismantled.
I think it was really important for them to show it in progress and also to show these icons, these iconic buildings and almost an entire religion and community being dismantled before their eyes.
What was the process when it came to creating this effect?
The first thing we got was a little bit of artwork from the production designer. Before the shoot date, we started researching and there were a bunch of different methodologies in play, one of which was going to be a full-on wrecking ball destroying the thing.
For budget reasons—and I think for dramatic reasons, as well—they just decided, Let’s not be destroying it in the middle of the shot. It kind of takes away, because this is a subtext of flavoring to the scene—what the two actors are really talking about. How do you know that there’s an Eye in my house, and how do you know all these things? It’s really a moment between the two characters, so having a giant wrecking ball swinging through frames would be a bit excessive. [laughs]
We ended up doing a bunch of research on our own. They found a church in Hamilton, Ontario—just outside of Toronto—that was in the process of being demolished, so we used that, but as sometimes happens, it seemed like a great idea, but it was there to get the frame right. They knew what they were getting in a wide shot, but we ended up replacing pretty much everything.
That’s through discussions with Stephen [Lebed, Visual Effects Producer], and what we ended up doing was taking the imagery, which was an underwhelming church. It’s not like a giant cathedral like we ended up doing.
It’s actually great for the actors to have something to react to, and we had extras, and we had an excavator digging, but we ended up looking at all this reference, and I think, collectively, everybody decided that we could do a bit better.
We based it on the reference and created what I thought was some pretty kick ass concept art, and they all really took to it. So coming up with the idea is one thing, and then executing it is something entirely different.
Can you expand on the nitty-gritty details of bringing that image to life?
The first thing that we want to do is essentially bringing it into a real world space. We track it and lay it out—we put in a box that is basically the exact same size as the church in there, and then we know how big the sandbox we can play in is.
Then, we create the walls, and we model them based off of photography, and paint on top of the model. We did that for a few different surfaces and then we had to create a fully CG, animatable, articulating excavator because given the way that we designed it, the excavator that they shot on the day wasn’t going to work. We build it from scratch and then texture it using photographs, and then we’re able to animate it wherever we want.
There was a lot of dust in the scene—I think it was really important for the filmmakers to have that atmosphere in there, so we had to recreate the atmosphere as it would affect our church. We created it in a program called Houdini, just a bunch of smoke elements. Then we had to rotoscope all the people in the foreground and put the church behind them.
What’s the size of your VFX staff on this project?
It’s not huge; it was about seven or eight people on that. That’s artists alone, and probably an additional four production staff.
And how long does it take to deliver a sequence like the one we see in 102?
There’s always a lag between when you shoot it and when you actually start working on it because you want to make sure that it’s actually going to be in the show, and that the shots are going to be in the show. You don’t want to work on it and have it axed. I would say, all told, from when we first did the concept and started rotoscoping and tracking, its about six weeks. It’s a pretty short schedule.
There seems to be a divide in VFX between the effects that viewers can pick out and those that are entirely invisible—and intentionally so. What other kinds of invisible work did you do on Season 1?
There’s a few things, and thankfully they were really about practical effects and practical photography, and then they called on us to sort of augment things. There’s a scene where there’s a bunch of bodies hanging outside of the city hall, and for various reasons, I guess the Toronto municipal government doesn’t want them to hang fake bodies outside of city hall. [laughs]
They wanted about 40 of them, so they had two up and the rest of them were all digital. We would really be around to help augment scope, which I think was probably the chief job for us. So there’s the church scene, there’s the bodies hanging. There’s a few shots where you had to remove snow, and then at the end, there’s a woman on a bridge and she’s going to jump off.
It’s a very traumatic scene up at the top, but then you cut to a wide shot and the bridge feels like 15 feet up off the river. What they had us do was extend the bridge and make it much taller, so it feels now like it’s 60 or 70 feet off the river, which is interesting because it’s really effective.
That’s the kind of stuff that we see on Handmaid’s. What was so great about working with all of them was that the bare bones of the scene were there, and it’s so dramatic. They just called on us to tweak a few things, and it pushes the drama of the scene to the next level.
Production-wise, have you noticed any common threads, having worked on two Hulu productions—11.22.63 and now The Handmaid’s Tale?
Both of them were smooth. I’ve only done two Hulu series at this point, but creatively, everyone seems to be on the same page, and it seems to be very clean. There’s not a lot of big rewrites where everything needs to get changed. Or if there are, the production crew doesn’t really know about it. They seem to really have a clear vision of what they want the show to be, and it seems to run quite smoothly.
Were there any new challenges you faced with Handmaid’s?
I think each new project has its new challenges. You just want to be better than you were last time. There wasn’t anything that was new on this from a technical perspective.
It’s always nice to work with such beautiful cinematography. It was a real opportunity in our case to use our skills to their upmost, to refine our creative and technical tools and execute what I feel is a flawless execution.
This time around, we had sign off very early on, and we were able to just sit down and take the time we needed in order to do it all properly, and really creatively hone each of the shots into what we and the filmmakers wanted. That was a nice feeling, to have the time and support from the production.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far with the series?
The biggest challenge on the church stuff was just figuring out exactly how we were going to do it. There were a lot of small moving pieces that you might not even recognize as a viewer, but the rotoscoping needs to be perfect, and the smoke that we generate needs to match exactly the smoke that they had on set. The light streaming through the stained glass needs to be visible, but not in your face.
Have you started the process on Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale?
We’ve been having discussions, and it’s very exciting stuff. I have no idea when things get going for real, but conversations are definitely happening at this point.