Ever since Hulu introduced their Emmy-winning show The Handmaid’s Tale, people have been wowed by the visual FX used to create a dystopian version of our own world from Margaret Atwood’s novel. A lot of that amazing work can be credited to Visual FX Supervisors Brendan Taylor and his team at Mavericks, including Leo Bovell, as well as VFX Producer Stephen Lebed and the Take Five team, who have been nominated for a fifth time for their supporting VFX on the 6th episode of Season 3, titled “Household.”
Below the Line got on the phone with Taylor last week to talk about what went into making one of “Household’s” biggest setpieces at the Lincoln Memorial, as well as how Mavericks has been faring after the shutdown due to the COVID pandemic.
Below The Line: Before we talk about the show, I’d like to ask about your background, particularly how long ago Mavericks began as an FX house?
Brendan Taylor: We kind of started as an unofficial in-house VFX team for a TV show called Transporter back in 2011, and then we bought the equipment we used in order to do the in-house VFX and went out on our own. We were four people from about 2011 to 2015, and then we started getting a few more people here and a few people there, and then, all of a sudden by pre-COVID, we were at 60. We don’t have a massive staff, and on the shows that we work on, we take smaller portions of it that we know we can do really well. Handmaid’s Tale, we share with Take Five, and we also the big CGI shots like the one we were nominated for.
BTL: When I was setting this up, it was also suggested I speak with Stephen Leped, who is the supervising VFX producer, but then they suggested talking to the VFX supervisor, and I wasn’t sure what the difference was between those two roles.
Taylor: Basically, he’s in charge of the Take Five team as well as he’s a producer on it, and I’m the supervisor on it. We’re really close now, he and I, so there’s a lot of overlap between what we do — what I do, and what he does. But traditionally, he’s the producer. The producer would be in charge of the money, and schedule, and talking to the producers on the show. And then, the supervisor would be in charge of talking to the directors and more on the creative technical side. However, we work very well together, so there’s cross-pollination between the two of us, and it’s great. It’s such a great thing that the Handmaid’s directors and producers can talk to either one of us, and we’re usually in sync with each other.
BTL: Are you still on set while they’re shooting?
Taylor: For seasons one, two, and three, I was on set for the big stuff. For the small stuff, then Stephen Leped takes it, but they’ve gotten so good at shooting that they don’t need us sometimes.
BTL: At what point in the process do you usually get involved? Do you actually start as far back as the script stage in terms of creating stuff?
Taylor: For Season 1, we landed the job and got the scripts, and we started looking through and seeing what was coming up. We would go on set to shoot it, and then they would turn it over to us, and we would work on it in post. However, in season two, they had something that they knew they needed to do with visual effects, but they weren’t sure if they could do it, if we could do it, if it was the right way to do it. And that’s the Fenway Park scene from the opening episode of Season Two. So they contacted us in the scripting phase when they were still writing it. Bruce was like, “I really want to do this. Can we do it?” And it took a couple months of figuring out how we were going to do it and getting the rights to do it and all that kind of stuff. But the part was really fun because you have an input. And for that particular scene, it was fun to have an opportunity to have some creative input because there is an ownership component to it.
And then fast forward to Season 3, there was a big fire that they needed to do that we were involved with on a very early stage, and then for the episode we were nominated for, they knew they wanted to do something at the Lincoln Memorial, but they weren’t sure to what extent they needed to use visual effects. The conversation ranged from getting 200 handmaids, 300 handmaids, and putting them all out there and shooting in Washington, and then we would just do a few things in the background, to shooting the whole thing in Toronto and recreating the entire monument.
Now, what we ended up with was somewhere in between where we actually shot in Washington, but then we had to extend the crowds digitally, and we had to destroy the Lincoln statue digitally, and a few other things. So it was a nice blend, but in that process, you’re talking to everybody because everybody has a bit of stake in it, right? Everybody wants it to look as real as possible and be as effective as possible of a scene, but the cinematographer is going to have a few ideas about how to do it. The production design is going to have a few ideas about how to do it. The director is going to have an idea of how they want to shoot it, and we’re going to have an idea of what we need in order to be able to accomplish this.
The great thing about the Handmaid‘s team is that everyone is very open, and everyone is very understanding, and we all deal with problems and challenges in a very effective manner. So when it came to that particular scene, we floated every idea, and then we found the one that worked best for everybody, and I think it works.
BTL: I’m guessing they didn’t want anyone to actually blow up the Lincoln Memorial for the show.
Taylor: Well, we tried, we tried. They wouldn’t let us. Every once in a while, you travel to different locations, like we did with Washington, but for the most part, everything is shot in and around Toronto.
BTL: I assume that a lot of what you do is adding handmaids to different scenes? It sounds like a lot, and I’m not sure how the extras were dressed and how much is added later.
Taylor: We actually did a full breakdown of how we did it, but basically, we had maybe 50 or 100 handmaids, and they’re wearing very particular handmaids’ gowns. The wind was blowing a little bit on the day, so they wanted like 10,000 handmaids there. They wanted a lot, and they were pretty close to camera, so the restrictions were that we couldn’t have that many. That wasn’t possible to get that many extras and that many costumes down to Washington, get them all in costume, and shoot them. It’s financially restrictive. It’s logistically restrictive. It’s a hard thing to pull off.
Then the other piece that we were dealing with when we shot this, whenever we shot it, was that the government was in shutdown when we were talking about going down. What that means is that the parks are shut down, and the Lincoln Memorial is a park, so for a long time, we didn’t even know if we were able to go. Then when it opened all up again, we were able to go down, but it was like in two weeks, we go. Right?
The great thing with what we do in visual effects, we were able to help that out. Ideally, would you want to have all your Handmaids close? Absolutely. Even as a visual effects supervisor, I say that. However, that’s not possible, so where we were able to help out, we knew we’d have to destroy the Lincoln one because they wouldn’t let us destroy it for real, obviously, nor would we want to, was actually to help out with extending these handmaids.
What we ended up doing was we got the pattern from the costume department, and we digitally built the same pattern because what we found was that on the day when we shot, there was a bit of a breeze, and it was moving all of the handmaids’ gowns in the breeze. Now, if we were to add digital handmaids behind the real ones, and their gowns were not blowing in the same way, you would totally know that they weren’t real.
We spent a lot of time perfecting the costume, because if it drapes in a different way and you add wind to it, it’s going to blow in a different way. I know that sounds really weird, like come on, but it’s true. What we’ve found is that you can’t just drape a sheet over the top of them and expect it to be the same. You need to get the dampening, which is sort of the thickness of the cloth, right, and you have to get the draping correct. Then once you put digital wind on it, and it stimulates it, it works perfectly. So we had the ability to throttle the wind with the wind that was happening in the scene, so we would need to actually animate to the gusts.Wind isn’t always blowing, it gusts through, so we would have to watch it and have it increase and then die off. Some poor guy’s job was to monitor the wind and make sure that our digital ropes were matching what was happening on the set.
BTL: I assume that was the most challenging part of that particular episode and what you spent the most time on?
Taylor: There’s a few pieces that were really challenging, and one of the pieces, which is actually a bit technical, but what you need to do in these situations is when the camera’s moving all over the place, you need to create a three-dimensional facsimile of the steps because all the handmaids are on the steps. And then, there are ones that are by the reflecting pool. You need to create an accurate facsimile of the steps so that when the real camera moves, your digital camera also moves.
If someone is standing on those steps or standing on that ground point, it needs to match exactly because otherwise, they’re going to start to feel like they’re floating. Now, we couldn’t get what’s called a LIDAR, which is a, basically, laser scanner. We couldn’t get a laser scan of it because it was a bit prohibitive. It was really difficult to get in that amount of time. We found one that the park service had, so we were able to download that, however, something had changed in the steps since the park service had scanned it, so we were finding that our handmaids looked like they were floating whenever the camera moved, and it was like these subtle movements.
We were banging our heads against the wall like, “Why doesn’t this match? Did we scale it incorrectly?” We never found out what the problem was, to be honest. The two were different. For whatever reason, they were different. So we ended up brute-forcing it and basically, just making sure, watching it over a couple of times, and being like, “I think that they need to move down about a couple of pixels. Okay. That looks good. Yes. Good. Fine.” So that was actually the most challenging part, which is kind of mundane and boring. The wind is way more fun, but those are a lot of the challenges.
[You can watch a sizzle reel below that breaks down the different elements of this shot]
BTL: I saw the pictures of Mavericks on the website, and it’s a beautiful space. Have you been able to return there or is everyone still working remotely?
Taylor: The Ontario government has allowed us to come back to work, and we’ve been allowed to come back to work for a while, but we made the decision internally — and I think it was a pretty easy decision to make — that we’re going to stay remote as long as we can. Everybody went home in March. In a way, it feels a little bit like Chernobyl here because people went home, and we didn’t know how long we were going to be at home for. For a couple of weeks, at the beginning, people left a bunch of stuff, and it’s just sitting there collecting dust. People have figurines, and it’s all still there because we thought that it would be a couple of weeks, And it was a bit of an emergency measure, I think, across the globe.
Now that it’s becoming the new normal, we’re actually embracing the work from home as much as we can. If this is going to be the way that we’re going to interact with each other, we need to make it a little bit more fun, and we need to put a lot of effort into that. We used to have cocktail hour every other Thursday here, so we’re still doing it, and we’re still doing online events, Zoom calls, even some outdoor meetups in order to remind ourselves that this is not just work, that there is a social component to it. In answer to your question, our return to work is a little bit the same. A few more people are in the office, but we’re handling it very carefully because as long as we have the ability to keep people at home and keep people safe, then we’re going to do that.
BTL: Does everyone generally have a decent and suitable set up at home, and are you able to create a workflow that’s comparable to the one that worked at the office?
Taylor: Well, I guess the one piece that is really missing and that we’ve needed to make an effort at, is the comradery and the mentorship. There are people across the entire spectrum who work here, some people who’ve been working for 25 years in the business, and some people who’ve been working for 25 months in the business. It takes a long time to understand how this all works, and they need mentorship and help. We’ve had to make sure that is at the front of our minds because you don’t want those people, those younger people, and less experienced people to get lost in it, right lost in the shuffle and forgotten about. So there’s a lot of check-ins. And honestly, sometimes it’s just like a social Zoom call. Right? Just to be like, “Hey, what’s going on guys?” Right? Yeah. But technically, technologically, it’s pretty similar from that respect because we all remote into our workstations here, so it’s the same pipeline. In fact, I would come here because I was the only person who would come here in March, April, May, and you would see people’s monitors on. You could see them working from home. It’s a weird sort of feeling of being in a ghost room where I could see them working.
I remember at one point, I called one of our compositors and said, “Hey Ryan, I think that shot that you’re working on, you should probably change the lighting a little bit,” and he was like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “The shot of the bat that you’re working on, You should change a bit.” He’s like, “How do you know what I’m working on?” And I was like, “I’m at the office. I can see your monitor.”
BTL: I just wrote a piece about the boom VFX houses in New York are seeing due to COVID since there’s more green screen shoots. Is Mavericks seeing a lot of that, too?
Taylor: We’ve had a lot of the early conversations about it, but everything’s in prep right now. So far, I haven’t seen that much on stuff, but I assume a lot of it’s going to happen, like a lot of green screen shooting and digital crowds and that kind of stuff.
BTL: What have you been working on since the shutdown?
Taylor: We just have been working on stuff that had already been shot, that was in the cannon, so we did What We Do in the Shadows that finished shooting in December, and we worked on that until May. And then, Expanse, which we’re just finishing up now.
All three seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale are now streaming on Hulu. Look for Below the Line’s interview with the show’s Emmy-nominated production designer, Elisabeth Williams, soon. You can learn more about Mavericks and see its real at the official website.