On Watchmen, VFX supervisor Erik Henry was presented with a project of incredible ambition and scale, finding in the series the opportunity to bring myriad worlds and time periods to life, while offering a fresh take on an iconic comic book world.
Based on a DC Comics series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Damon Lindelof’s drama takes place in an alternate version of the 20th century, in which vigilantes—once celebrated as heroes—have been outlawed, due to their violent methods of extracting justice. In this version of America, episodes of racial violence erupt in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as yellow-masked police officers face off with a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry.
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A two-time Emmy winner, Henry found Watchmen to be quite the page-turner, as well as a project that allowed for ample experimentation. “As a visual effects supervisor, you get these moments where it’s like, boom. Your head just explodes with, ‘I love it,’” he exclaims. “This story gets more wacky every time I open the page, or hear a new pitch. What a great show to work on.”
Below, the VFX supervisor outlines the challenges he faced on the series—including creating Looking Glass’s mirror mask, and finding the right visual approach to the omnipotent being, Doctor Manhattan—also discussing highlights from his time with the show.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Watchmen? What excited you about working on this show?
ERIK HENRY: A very dear friend of mine, Jonathan Brytus, the two of us had worked together on Black Sails. He knew someone at HBO because he had done some work at HBO in the past, and that person said, “Hey, can you name someone who you think might be kind of creative? Because we’ve got this show coming up. It’s a little off the beaten track.”
He recommended me to Dauri Chase at HBO, [and] she called me and said, “I’m looking for a supervisor.” I was available and said, “What is the show?” And she said “Watchmen.” Of course, we all know that there had been a movie in 2009, so I said to her, “Is it like redoing the movie, but as a television series?” I was going to say something after that, but she said, “No, it’s a completely new script.” My relief must have shown on my face, and she said, “Yeah, I know. No one wants to do the same thing over again.”
So, the opportunity to do a wholly new take on it sounded interesting. Then, she said Damon was going to be at the helm, and I love The Leftovers, because he always makes you think. That’s the kind of television and films I like, so that’s how I got roped in.
Then, I met Damon and he said, “We’ve got a lot of different things in the show, and some of it’s going to go back in time.” He said, “You should do very well with that,” because we had so [much] period visual effects work in Black Sails. I don’t know if that’s ultimately what won me the job, but a short time later, I was told that, “Damon wants you to do the show,” and I’ve never looked back.
Because what great, collaborative, creative partners, he and [EP] Tom Spezialy were to me. They gave me a lot of room to play around with things, and I’m super delighted with the outcome.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Lindelof early on, in terms of the style he wanted to pursue with the series, and the major creative challenges he anticipated?
HENRY: I think one of the first things was how you’re going to deal with Doctor Manhattan. As anyone who knows Damon and has read anything that he’s put down on paper about the subject of Watchmen [knows], this is something near and dear to his heart that he didn’t want to screw up, and he resisted it for years.
So, when it comes to Doctor Manhattan, he said, “We’ve seen what a digital Doctor Manhattan looks like in the 2009 film. I don’t think that we can be so bold as to think we’re going to have him glowing all the time. Just from a monetary standpoint, I suppose he can’t be a visual effect every time we see him, so maybe we should just try to paint him.” To which I said, “Yeah, I’m sure there is something that can be done with paint, but I wonder if people will want something more. You have to give them something.”
So, we came up, right there in that meeting, with the concept of, “Maybe when he is exerting his power, that is when he glows,” and that’s kind of what we ran with. At first, we did extensive studies on what the musculature, and the skeleton, and the cardiovascular system would look like if you saw it through the skin, which was really cool. There was some great work done by Hybride up in Montreal, in the early stages. But we looked at it, and it was just a little too clinical. So, [Damon] said, “Let’s just try to go for the glow.”
We ended up going with a company called Gradient Effects here in Los Angeles. They had done a lot of work with some software they wrote called Shapeshifter, which [offered] an ability to track the human form without tracking markers. So, you could have people walking and talking, and apply something to their skin later, or replace their eyes later. It just seemed a perfect fit for this kind of work, so that’s what we did.
We had him painted, and then tracked him in post, and the result really took a long time. Damon was very exacting on, “I don’t want it to fill the room with light, his glow. A little bit is okay, but [it should be] just this side of, ‘Is he painted, or is that paint actually bioluminescent in some way?’” So, I think it’s a really nice mix. He always said to me that he wanted to be able to have the real actor, because he felt that the emotion, getting it through the acting, was more important than just having him be a glowing guy. Complete CG was something he just was never interested in.
So, that was one of the early discussions, one of the early challenges. He also talked about the idea of going back in time, and making that as real as he could, so that people didn’t feel that it was anything but reality. There wasn’t supposed to be anything hyper-real about it, until it came to the show within the show, American Hero Story—and that, we had a lot of fun with. We took the gloves off, as it were. When someone got shot or was bleeding, it was a lot, and all the colors in that world were hyper-real.
You also had the challenge that he threw to me of, “I want this guy [Looking Glass] to have this mask that is a mirror,” and we said, “Okay. Well, first, should we just check and see if there’s some fabric that is reflective?” The costume department did their damnedest to find something and, lo and behold, it doesn’t happen.
There isn’t anything that is reflective and stretchy that could be pulled over a person’s face and still allow them to breathe. The best they could find is something called a lamé fabric, and that actually worked. From 30 feet away, you could kind of get away with it. So they built a mask, and the actor wore that in some wide shots. But anytime you get up close, we knew we had to do something special, so we had him wearing green screen.
Eventually, we changed over to a gray screen with some tracking markers on it. But the real nut to crack on that one was the gear they had to add on his head, to record all of what was around him, 360 around his head, so we could map it back onto the reflective surface in post. That was something of a challenge because I knew the production would not want to shoot two passes for everything—him saying his lines, and then everything around him as a second pass. We’d never get it done.
So that’s why we came up with these cameras, and a company up in Toronto called Mars is the one who did this mask. They were also, ironically, the company that did the Rorschach mask for the 2009 movie. So they had called me several times and said, “Hey, if you’ve got a Rorschach mask, we want to be your company. We’ve done it already. We can do this.” I just said, “Unfortunately, we don’t have that, but we have something else if you’re interested.” So it was a great match.
But like I said, [there were] lots of different things, and lots of different challenges, and that’s what makes the show so good.
DEADLINE: I know Europa was one of your favorite environments to create. Were there others?
HENRY: Another one would be [Adrian] Veidt’s lair, Karnak. To me, that was another opportunity to do something unique. Even though it had shown up in the movie, the book for us was, as Damon put it, “The Old Testament,” and we just had to get that to look like what this book had laid down. So, the inside of it was a complete 3D environment. It really makes it look like almost an Egyptian museum, and [with] that as well as the exterior, we tried to echo some of the things that we did for Lady Trieu’s biodome. It’s broken down; it’s old. He’d let it go, but you look at that and go, “Oh, that looks like the same thing we saw that Lady Trieu’s built.” Trying to put these connections together between the two.
Another thing having to be just like the book was in Episode 5, where we pull back out of Hoboken, come across the Hudson into Manhattan, and lo and behold, we have the giant squid attack. That was really important for Damon, too. I think that shot, when you talk about worldbuilding, and that whole idea of being exactly like the book, that was something that he said, “You know, no one gave the audience that in 2009, in the movie, so I really want to get this right.” And I’m very proud of the work that Raynault [VFX] did on that.
Then, also The Millennium Clock, we know that ultimately it becomes the sort of Trojan horse of the show, and we just had a hell of a lot of fun designing that with Kristian [Milsted], the production designer, making it look like it possibly could tell time, in some abstract way, when in fact it really never needed to. The monumental size of that, we had so much fun getting that in a number of shots.
DEADLINE: Tell us about one of your favorite aspects of the work you did on Watchmen.
HENRY: One of the greatest ones is such a small thing, but in Episode 1, when we get up really close to Looking Glass’s mask, just getting in close and seeing little, fine wear and tear on the mask, as if it had been worn several times. Some of the stuff had flaked off. Like, if you’ve ever had a silkscreen shirt that flakes after you’ve washed it a few times, you get that idea that the weave of the fabric flexes, and pieces of paint come off.
Then, when you get up close, and you see the reflected images of a Nazi flag or something like that, and the graphic nature of that strange, warped image over the face of this reflective surface, to me, that was one of the moments where I said, “It’s subtle, but it’s so damn good. It really, really makes you feel.”
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