Them: VFX Supervisor Hnedel Maximore Discusses World Building, Visuals
Bleeding Cool had the opportunity to discuss the incredible visual effects work of the series Them with the supervisor himself, Hnedel Maximore. Maximore's previous work ranges from film to television, with a diverse filmography ranging from Ratched to Supergirl. With topics ranging from the difficulty of varied settings to the unique work required for the Amazon Prime series as compared to other projects that Maximore has worked on, here's a look at how our conversation went.
Bleeding Cool: You've worked on many dramas and action-related shows and films, what interested you when it came to working on a horror anthology?
Hnedel Maximore: Them: Covenant is unlike any other project I've worked on. My biggest points of interest were the time period. I think period-specific shows always present a unique set of challenges from a 'world building' perspective, the subject matter; housing restrictions, segregation, and how those policies and attitudes have shaped our communities, and lastly the subtle role of visual effects. There is quite a bit of complex visual effects throughout the series but it's not as flashy as one might expect from a horror series.
BC: When it comes to collaboration, how has the pandemic changed the way you work with a visual effects team?
HM: Short answer, very little. About two-thirds of the way through filming and a third of the way through post, we had to shut down in-person production due to the pandemic. That meant working remotely with the post and LA-based visual effects teams. Half of the VFX work was done by our FuseFX team in Vancouver, so there was already a solid workflow in place for working remotely and across locations. Working remotely with Little Marvin (show creator/showrunner) and the editorial/post crew was also pretty seamless because we were able to leverage many of the secure tools available for remote editorial work.
BC: What was most challenging when working as a visual effects supervisor on this series in particular?
HM: There were a few shots that were technically challenging due to the locations where they were filmed. There is a full CG shot of downtown LA that is part of the Emory's arrival montage. This shot required a ton of research in order to match closely what Los Angeles looked like in 1954. I worked with the Production Designer Tom Hammock and we gathered a lot of archived photo references so we could nail the look. After a few rounds of concepts, we created a full CG shot using drone test footage that the cinematographer shot as a guide for timing and framing. The other major challenge has to do with the subject matter. Without giving away spoilers, some very traumatic scenes required VFX work. These scenes are difficult to watch on their own, and with VFX work, you have to watch on repeat, compare previous versions, fix mistakes, discuss versions with the show creators and then repeat the process until you've struck the right tone.
BC: What have you learned from recent projects that you've been able to bring to this one?
HM: There is quite a bit of fire in this season of Them. More often than not, filmed fire has to be enhanced or augmented for multiple reasons; safety to actors, crew, and location being the primary reasons. Having worked in almost every department of VFX, I have a fair amount of experience with what's required to get a beautiful finished image on screen. On previous features and TV projects, I served as a Digital FX lead. These projects required me to create and enhance lots of fire and destruction. Typically this is a mix of filming fire or dust elements in a safe space then compositing it into the final image or creating digital fire or dust elements. That hands-on experience came in very handy when we had scenes requiring fire on Them.
BC: In your opinion, what is important to remember when working on visual effects in a series that explores the horrors of racism?
HM: I think it's always important to remember visual effects is one of many tools in supporting storytelling. The scale of that role is determined by the show creator, and in this case, Little Marvin was very clear on what this series is and isn't. My personal directive for my team was always; be an aid in creating a compelling and beautiful final image that supports and doesn't distract from the overall narrative.
BC: What are some of the visual effects in Them that you're most excited for audiences to see?
HM: We did a lot of set extensions and period-specific environment work. These shots are not as flashy as the fire and character work we did, but it makes for an immersive experience and takes you back to the 1950s. You get to experience the dream that the Emory's are chasing. Also look out for some face replacements, lots of fire (mentioned that), and body augmentation.
BC: What preparation went into the visual development of Them's 1950s California set extensions?
HM: It all starts with the production design team, led by Tom Hammock. The book Compton (Images of America) by Robert Lee Johnson was also a huge resource for me and my team when we started to create a series of concept images to show Little Marvin. Once those concept images were approved, we went to work building the set extension using a combination of digital matte painting and full CG builds as needed.
BC: What did you enjoy about working on paranormal visual elements in the series?
HM: The collaboration. Little Marvin made it very clear that the experiences of this series had to be visceral and real. With that tone in mind, every department was very collaborative and it was easy to work with the many directors especially Nelson Cragg and Ti West, the cinematographers: Checco Varese and Xavier Grobet, makeup effects Howard Berger and special effects Ryan Senecal and Roy Cancino.
BC: What do you hope audiences walk away with after watching Them: Covenant?
HM: I hope viewers take a moment to understand the plight and experiences of some of their neighbors and how for some, the struggles of homeownership goes beyond affordability and income. Those struggles are tied to their identity and how society sees them. I also hope they have those 'wow I didn't know' moments, because this series has so many of those moments that are rooted in reality (re Nat King Cole's lawn, red-lining, etc). At the end though, and on a "lighter" note, I want audiences turning on basement, closets, and kitchen lights to make sure Ms. Vera is not lurking in the shadows.
BC: Without any spoilers for viewers, which episode was your personal favorite to work on?
HM: Episode nine, because it had me in my "element". This episode required lots of fire and destruction as well as our usual set extension and period-specific environments. My VFX producer and partner in crime Glorivette Somoza and I had quite a few challenges thrown at us during production. The episode was filmed in New Mexico with very strict COVID protocols in place. The practical firework that was previously permitted got scaled back when firefighters from New Mexico had to travel to Los Angeles to help with the real Bobcat fires in the Pasadena area. This meant production had to pivot and lean more on VFX. Problem-solving at this level with a collaborative and talented crew is what every VFX supervisor hopes for. Back in post, the amazing artists at FuseFX led by myself, Art Codron, Scott Rose, Marshall Krasser, and Alexey Alekhin put in the long hours required to get this challenging episode done.
Now here's a look at a sample reel from FuseFX the demonstrates how they bring the magic to life: