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August 27
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Problem Solving, Fire and THE HANDMAID’S TALE

By IAN FAILES

Watch the trailer for season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale

 

The first two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu utilized a real house to shoot exteriors for the home of Gileadan Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), to which Handmaid June Osborne/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is assigned. But for season 3 of the series, production was no longer about to continue to use that location.

The decision was therefore made to destroy the house in the show by fire in season 3’s first episode (it is set alight by Serena). Existing interior sets of the house would also be burnt down. But how could that be done to make it really look like the house was on fire, in a safe manner, and still seem to have the actors right there as walls and fittings were in flames? The answer lay in a combination of on-set practical fire effects and visual effects, which were created by Mavericks VFX.

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena is filmed on the interior house set with fire light reference.

“The producers’ biggest concern was that CG fire didn’t look real. So, my pitch to them was, ‘I think what you should do is design the scene in a series of lock-offs. We’ll shoot the actors on the set with interactive fire light on them, and then we’ll come back, set the camera position up again on the stage, and then burn it down.’ Because all the interior shots were set on stages, we were actually able to burn it down, because we were never going back there.”

—Brendan Taylor, Visual Effects Supervisor, Mavericks VFX

The final shot, incorporating the extra fire elements.

REAL FIRE

“The producers’ biggest concern was that CG fire didn’t look real,” outlines Mavericks Visual Effects Supervisor Brendan Taylor. “So, my pitch to them was, ‘I think what you should do is design the scene in a series of lock-offs. We’ll shoot the actors on the set with interactive fire light on them, and then we’ll come back, set the camera position up again on the stage, and then burn it down.’ Because all the interior shots were set on stages, we were actually able to burn it down, because we were never going back there.”

In terms of the visual effects work, that would mean Mavericks would rotoscope the actors off the first-pass set footage and put them into the burning set. Taylor says they did consider shooting the actors against blue or greenscreen but decided against it.

“My concern with bluescreen,” notes Taylor, “was getting the interactive light far enough away from them, because the fire was about 15 to 20 feet away, and we had some flame bars set up there. We couldn’t really position a bluescreen in such a way that the interactive fire was not flickering all over the screen. We weren’t too concerned about doing roto. And, a lot of the time you can really tell when it’s a bluescreen, and I felt like having the interactive fire at the distance that the real fire was would help for the believability.”

In any case, to convince production that the desired approach, i.e., shooting one pass with the actors and interactive fire light, and then another pass burning the set down – could work, a test with stunt doubles was arranged. “We lit the wall next to them on fire, just to see what kind of interactive light we would need, how close they could get and how much smoke there was going to be,” says Taylor. “Because we were shooting the foreground element with the people beforehand, we really wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing.”

Those tests proved successful, and it also resulted in a ‘bible’ for each shot being prepared that outlined what was needed from special effects, stunts, production and from visual effects. “It’s amazing how fast fire can take hold,” says Taylor. “It’s like, nothing happens, nothing happens and then woof! They were really smart – they built flame bars into the wall, so they would just have to light those and put accelerant onto the walls, but then a second later, it’s done.”

The fire elements were filmed at high speed on interiors, and that meant after each take the stage needed to be vented. It also meant that burns were limited over a two-day shoot period. Artists at Mavericks then combined the elements, taking the background fire plate, significantly blurring it and then, describes Taylor, “softly screening it over the top of the foreground to give it all a little bit more of an orange feel. It was a very subtle thing, but it worked so well to just integrate the foreground in there.”

Strahovski and Elisabeth Moss perform the scene.

“A lot of the time you can really tell when it’s a bluescreen, and I felt like having the interactive fire at the distance that the real fire was would help for the believability.”

—Brendan Taylor, Visual Effects Supervisor, Mavericks VFX

The composited shot.

ETHEREAL SMOKE

Earlier in the scene, June is alerted to the fire by the presence of smoke. “The production wanted this ethereal smoke,” relates Taylor, “like a layer of smoke, just up at the top of this winding staircase – and it’s just sitting there. Then she walks up and she doesn’t really know what it is, and she puts her hand through it and breaks it up and disturbs it.”

Since making smoke stay in the air in that way was deemed too difficult to achieve on set, the production turned again to visual effects, which would produce the smoke as a simulation and composite the actress’ hand within the sim. Here, Mavericks employed a series of witness cameras for the purposes of later being able to roto-mate Elisabeth Moss’s hand as she waves it through the smoke.

“The witness cameras were GoPros, and we had them time-sync’d to the production camera,” explains Taylor. “Because they were synch’d we knew that every single camera was frame-accurate to the production camera. It was really helpful because then when you roto-mate her hand, you have footage from four different angles, including the production camera, which means you can really tell where it is in 3D space.

“For the smoke,” continues Taylor, “we did it all physically-based in Houdini, but then we found we just weren’t getting enough of a trail behind, so we ended up putting emitters inside her hand that turned on right when she was reaching it, so it looks like it pours through her fingers.”

The scene took advantage of the interior house sets not having to be used again.

“You often see fire pouring out of all the windows and, to me, that just reads as fake. So what we did instead was that there’d be smoke everywhere, but then in some windows there’d just be fire inside, as if it hadn’t broken any windows yet.”

—Brendan Taylor, Visual Effects Supervisor, Mavericks VFX

Mavericks VFX composited the actor plate with the fire elements.

FIRE FROM THE OUTSIDE

Exterior scenes of the house burning also relied on visual effects. First, the location house was filmed from pre-defined camera angles. Then, the art department built a giant black buck at around one-half scale that was set on fire, with extra black smoke elements also filmed.

Mavericks VFX composited the fire and smoke pieces. “I wanted to do it a little bit differently than what you normally might see,” says Taylor. “You often see fire pouring out of all the windows and, to me, that just reads as fake. So what we did instead was that there’d be smoke everywhere, but then in some windows there’d just be fire inside, as if it hadn’t broken any windows yet. We also used some of that bedroom footage that we shot and put that into one of the windows.”

The final scene shows June and the other characters going different ways, with the burnt house in the background. Originally intended as a locked-off shot, the drone footage rotated slightly around the house. This meant that plans to do a matte painting morphed into a 3D reconstruction of the building. “It was a combination of projected matte paintings onto geo, as well as full CG,” says Taylor.

Aerial views of the burnt out house also required removal of certain artifacts, such as swimming pools in surrounding yards and other street elements. Even a greenhouse needed to be added. “We got away with just putting condensation on the panes of glass for that instead of doing plants,” notes Taylor.

A final challenge came as a result of fire hoses utilized on location that were shown to be putting out the fire. “It was winter time, and the fire hoses were up on ladders and spraying all over the trees,” describes Taylor.

“They’d do one take, two takes, three takes of that, and then it all becomes icicles on the trees. Then behind these trees with icicles is where you have to put the house. So not only do you have to roto these tiny little branches, we have to also figure out how we’re going to deal with the refraction of the icicles on branches. We cheated and just made it a still frame and gave it a little bit of movement in compositing. Oh, and we made the hose streams as well – there were so many little things.”

A plate for the ‘ethereal’ smoke shot.

Final shot, in which Mavericks roto-mated the hand and simulated the smoke.

“For the smoke, we did it all physically-based in Houdini, but then we found we just weren’t getting enough of a trail behind, so we ended up putting emitters inside [Elisabeth Moss’s] hand that turned on right when she was reaching it, so it looks like it pours through her fingers.”

—Brendan Taylor, Visual Effects Supervisor, Mavericks VFX

Aerial plate of the fire aftermath.

The final shot removed neighboring swimming pools and other unwanted artifacts, and incorporated a destroyed section of the house.

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