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Interview: ‘The Boys’ VFX Supervisor Stephen Fleet On The Show’s Effects

Stephan Fleet has been working as a visual effects supervisor for more than a decade, having worked on projects like Timeless, Daredevil, and Iron Fist.  He is currently in charge of the visual effects for Amazon’s hit series, The Boys. We spoke with Stephan about his work on the hit streaming show. 

At any given time, you can be working with several different VFX houses. Can you talk about how you ensure continuity between the different teams you’re working with?

That’s a good question. First off, it’s not just me, I have a wonderful team on the production side, as well as the coordinators, and then the effects editors. I’ve got a great staff up here with me that helps ensure continuity. There are two sides to it A lot of it is just organization and just managing how the product goes out and comes back in, and then there’s the creative side, which is making sure that it looks consistent. We try and break stuff up based on theme. Say, for example, the penis monster last season. That was a one-off and it was only a handful of shots, and it wasn’t going to happen again in another episode, so that’s a very good opportunity to give to one particular vendor. The truck crashing in on Queen Maeve at the very opening, that’s another vendor. Inevitably, there’s a superpower is like laser eyes that will criss-cross between multiple vendors. So, you just kind of get one to do the standard, high watermark, and then you share it with everyone else. So far, all the vendors have been great.

You mentioned Queen Maeve and the truck. Right out of the gate, you came out swinging. That’s not something we’ve really seen on television or streaming before. It’s generally reserved for the features. And then to follow that up immediately by the A-Train/Robin shot which we haven’t seen anywhere before. Were you trying to set the tone for the series in the opening shots so you can kind of make your mark?

Yeah, you know, Dan Trachtenberg who was the director of the pilot, really pushed for a lot of that. I’ll give him full credit for the concept of doing the slow-motion reveal of Robin’s death, and then our Director of Photography Jeff Cutter who ran the technology using a thing called a bolt arm. But ultimately, it was up to me and my team to put it together. When you’re doing it, you’re not trying to make something unique and never before seen. You’re just trying to tell the story and break it down a million times. It was definitely fun.

That truck crash was a really interesting story. We had a different opening for the show written. We even tried to shoot a little bit of it, and it just didn’t, wasn’t working. It wasn’t as big as we wanted it to be. So, we actually shot that at the very end of all of season one. After sort of regrouping and saying, “Look we do it bigger.” Weirdly, I had the experience of working on the pilot for a show called Under the Dome years ago, where a truck hits an invisible wall. We ended up using a lot of CG. I knew from that experience the pitfalls and what we needed to do this time. It’s just weird and random to have on my resume ‘truck smashing into things.’ I went to our special effects team, and asked, “What is it going to take to do this for real?” and they were all over it.

As you said, you don’t get to do something like that on TV too often. The actual interior was another Dan Trachtenberg idea, which was really cool. The entire set moved around her. We built a set on sliders. So, Dominique [McElligott] stood still with some wind in her hair, and the entire truck moved as she backed into it. Some really fun, innovative, creative stuff that we got to do there.

You’re working with some superpowers that we’ve seen before, like laser eyes and superspeed. What was your approach to make them different than what we’ve seen before?

Weirdly enough, when I’ve watched stuff on TV or the movies, I can suspend my disbelief. I don’t want to sit and analyze the visual effects. I want to enjoy the story. So, I was able to keep that side of it away and not reference it too much in the beginning. I would I do things like go to YouTube and look for real phenomenon like St. Elmo’s Fires or watch a lot about Nikola Tesla’s electricity for Stormfront, stuff like that. Now, even if ultimately, in the end, I arrive at something similar to what we’ve seen before, I’m not actually trying to be derivative of anyone else, it’s just that they probably are referencing the same real things that I’m referencing. Everything we do in this show, we try to find a real motivation to approach everything that way.

You’re on the set frequently, which is not typical. Have you found that to be a significant advantage for you?

For Seasons One and Two, I was on set, probably 80 to 90% of the time. I can’t talk much about Season Three, but between COVID and having a slightly bigger staff, I’m not on quite as much. But I’m still here. I definitely have a very hands-on approach to things. I love to prep it, and then do some of my own previs (previsualization) or work with great previous artists. I like to show up with my homework. I like to be prepared. I like to have the crew be informed of what’s happening before we shoot it. We’re moving at such a feverish pace because we’re still sort of in this crossroads between feature-film quality and a faster television-like schedule. You’re always shooting one show and prepping for the next. I show up for big events and I’m pretty hands-on. I like to really develop a good relationship with the director so that they know when I’m on set. I’m not afraid to speak up collaboratively and make sure that we’re getting the best product for everybody. At the end of the day, on set is the creation of the ingredients that we’re going to use in post to make the dish, and you want to source the best ingredients that you can.

Most of the programs that you’re working with having innate physics simulations, but you’re doing things that we haven’t really seen before. Have you found limitations with the programs that you use to do what you want to do?

Well, luckily, because we have all these big vendors, they’re doing most of the heavy lifting in the physics department. That said, we deal with it up to a point, and then you’re breaking physics because you’re getting into superpowers, which are all supernatural in nature. So, we try and find our own internal logic for the specific project. We come from a perspective that the show needs to be the grounded take on superheroes. It’s not about their powers, but about the world with suits that just happened to have powers. But you can only take to a point, however. For example, when a boat bursts through a whale, you’re going to bend some physics if you want your heroes to survive. in reality, the boat would be dead in the water. You find your places to take the liberties and suspend your disbelief

But with the specific programs, one of the most difficult aspects of any show is elements like water, fire, smoke, etc. Those simulations take a long time to do, so it’s

just long conversations, and a lot of trial and error.

You obviously can’t talk about Season Three, but can you at least say if there has been anything that has challenged you yet? It seems like every season, you’ve upped the ante as far as something we’ve never seen before. 

I can speak in super vague terms, but every season gets more and more challenging in different ways. Some of it, I think, is the expectations. Now, when we did season one, who knew what the expectations were. And then after season two, I think the show had gotten propelled into a bigger arena, so, I imagine the expectations were higher. Ultimately, I just have to sit down, take it shot by shot, beat by beat and try and be honest to the material. I will say that season three blows my mind some of the stuff that I’ve read, and that’s after doing Seasons One and Two.

Jeff Heller

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Written by Jeff Heller

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