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stunts, practical effects and CG combine for that crazy sick scene in ‘What We Do in the Shadows’.
Fake projectile vomit has been a staple of plenty of television and film gags over the years. Sometimes it’s done as an entirely practical effect with a specialized hose hidden from the camera. Sometimes it’s done with the aid of simulated vomit. But what about when that vomit needs to make the vomiter also blow around like a balloon?
Well, that’s exactly what was required for the latest episode of Jemaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows TV series on FX, based on the film by him and Taika Waititi. In episode six of the show, ancient vampire Baron Afanas (Doug Jones) eats something he shouldn’t – garlic on a pizza – and it sets off a crazy extended session of projectile, and sometimes aerial, vomiting.
Tasked with realizing some of these elaborate shots with visual effects was Mavericks VFX, headed by visual effects supervisor Brendan Taylor. befores & afters asked Taylor to go inside the process, from the production meetings where the team broke down how the vomit scenes would be shot, to what practical stunts were used, and to where digital visual effects came into play.
Setting the scene
Brendan Taylor: In the What We Do in the Shadows movie, there’s a guy who has just become a vampire who eats a french fry and then he starts vomiting all over the place. They did that practically in the film with a hose that went into the guy’s mouth so you couldn’t see it from the side, and then they just pumped all this blood vomit out. It was really effective and it worked really well, but for the show they wanted to go bigger.
In the show, the vampire character Baron comes in to basically whip these other guys into shape – they’re supposed to have taken over the new world. Baron is super, super powerful and they’re just scared of him. So in the episode, the others think that he’s going to try and kill them and they’re like, ‘Well, we have to kill him first! But Baron comes down and just says, ‘I wanna go out on the town.’ So they go out partying with him and they can’t drink alcohol, but if they drink the blood of someone who is drunk, they themselves get drunk.
Then there’s these four vampires who are all drunk out of their minds stumbling around Staten Island and Baron says, ‘I wanna have some pizza,’ and they’re like, ‘Don’t know if you wanna do that…’. Then Baron eats a slice of pizza and he says, ‘It’s not so bad! The garlic’s a little tingly,’ and then he vomits, and because he’s so powerful, the vomit – this is how it was written in the script – is like a balloon with the air being let out of it, so it makes him go spinning all over the place and then he lands on the ground.
Inside the vomit production meeting
The first thing that we did was have a production meeting. Tig Fong was the stunt coordinator and J.R. Kenny was the special effects coordinator. So we get the scripts and we’re going through and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, here’s that moment where they turn into bats, that’s fine. Here’s a stunt where he’s floating on wires, that’s all fine.’ And then we get to the vomit scene and Jackie van Beek, the director, and Jemaine, were like, ‘Okay, how are we gonna do this?’
It’s at this point that you go through the process of trying out all these different approaches, and some people get sensitive about work being taken away and given to visual effects. But to Tig’s credit and to J.R’s credit, they said, ‘Here are the things that I can offer up and here are the things I can’t help you with.’
What Tig showed us was something he had done on another show called Titans to push and pull someone around in the air, and it was really cool, but really expensive. It’s like a bunch of pick points on the side of someone and then you have telehandlers or cranes with leavers and then it all goes down to a motor. So it’s all motorized so you can actually suspend someone in mid-air with tension lines and pull this one and pull that one to move them around.
On Titans, it was supposed to feel as if a giant, invisible person was pulling them around. But on our show, what they wanted to do was really have Baron go far and really be propelled by his head. Because, when you think about it, vomit’s coming out of his mouth so if you’re thinking of jet propulsion, it’s got to come from there. But you can’t do that with a person on a rig because you have to attach the rig to their head, and you’ll break their neck!
Now, the great thing about this show is it’s so collaborative and everyone’s so supportive, so I said, ‘Tig, here’s my feeling about the shot – I think I’d do it with a digital person.’ And then Jemaine’s like, ‘So it would just be a digital person the whole time? Because I want to see him do the vomit thing.’ And then there was a bit of silence while everyone scratched their head, and then Tig said, ‘What if I give you the practical yank, so we’ll do a yank rig, and then you take over at some point?’ We were like, ‘Great! Fantastic! Solved!’
And then there was the vomit. What do we do about the vomit?
There was some talk for a while about how we could have a pressurised hose that we would have right next to his mouth, so if we did it that way we would have had to get the timing right of the hose vomiting and the timing of the yank right. But that was going to be tricky. However, they were prepared – J.R was prepared on the day to give us some real vomit and we ended up doing a reference pass of it, actually.
But pretty early on, I said, ‘This has to be a digital vomit.’ And so that was what we decided. On the day, we were there blocking the shot. I always get so nervous before stunts, even if I’m not involved! We figured out how we were going to do it in the meeting and everybody’s like, ‘Are you sure this is going to look great?’ I was like, ‘It is going to look fantastic…I hope.’
So, there was pressure to make it look good. And then, also, because Tig had given over the mantle of doing most of it over to me, he also wants it to look really good because he doesn’t want to feel like, ‘I gave it to the visual effects guys and they fucked it up.’ Then, we shoot the scene. And it went great! One take. It looked fantastic. And then Jemaine’s like, ‘Okay, over to you.’ So then we forget about it because we shot it in November, and then we started working on it again only eight weeks ago or so.
Planning it out
Philip Alexy is a guy who I’ve worked with a couple of times. He’s a really great animator and he has a great understanding of comedy. And I’ve never worked with an animator like him. He’s got just a real sense of comedic timing and movement and how movement can be funny and how movement is not funny.
On the set, we shot it hand-held and we did the yank and then Baron just dangled for a bit, and then we shot tiled plates. This was because I knew in the back of my mind that whatever we did with the moving camera there, I was going to want to be able to change.
So what we ended up doing was creating a big, giant tableau of stitched images, and then Philip animated within that just the guy moving. We didn’t worry about the camera at all, and then only later did we do our camera moves.
We sketched a plan out of how we could use those stitched images (see above). You can see the black is a building and then the green is the framing. I drew with Philip exactly what I wanted to do and then I was like, ‘Okay if I was actually filming this, I think this so and so beat would be really funny.’
So, there’s a few beats of comedy in it and what I love about the shot, and what I really wanted to talk about it is, comedy for VFX is a little bit different. 90 percent of the time, we’re just supposed to be there in the background to let the actors do their thing. Even if it’s just bats, Jemaine was always like, ‘You’re not the star of the show here. Just stay in the background. If people think it’s a bat and transforms, that’s all we want. We don’t want to do anything super silly with these bats. It has to feel real.’ So we’re never in the spotlight, which is great. I don’t always want to be, but this is one opportunity where we could use our filmmaking chops, our comedy chops, to try and come up with something – that’s really fun.
Particles, lots of particles
For the shot, we didn’t do a fully photoreal digi-double. We did make a digi-double, but we ended up projecting a lot of textures onto it as well in the interest of saving time. We used one of the body rigs that we already have. We also had Baron going in and out of light, so we just needed the rig to look really good because we needed the animation to feel real.
And then for the vomit, I was at the beginning saying, ‘Yeah, it’s gotta be fluids.’ And one of my guys was like, ‘I don’t wanna get into the whole fluids thing. Can we just try particles?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know man, we should be doing fluids.’ He’s like, ‘Let me do a test for you and I’ll show it to you and if you like it, then we’ll go with particles.’ And I asked him why he wanted to go with particles. He’s just like, ‘Fluids is just such a guerrilla. There’s so much stuff you have to worry about, but I feel like it’s just atomizing vomit coming out of his mouth so I think we can get away with it.’ So we ended up putting into play with Maya particles and it looked amazing.
And I sent it back to Jemaine and he was like, ‘Why did you send me this? I don’t get it, why are you sending us this thing of vomit?’ I was like, ‘It’s CG vomit.’ He’s like, ‘That wasn’t real!?’ He thought it was some kind of physical spraying thing.
Showing the work
What happens in the shot is, Baron gets yanked, we do the takeover, he hits the building behind and falls into a trash dumpster and then you cut back to them and you think it’s over and you cut back to the trash dumpster and he rockets out of the trash dumpster and the camera man tries to whip with him and he goes out of frame and then he comes zooming around in front of frame and gets vomit all over the lens and then he’s just spinning around in circles and he goes up into the air, stalls like an aeroplanes and then at the end of the vomit he goes, and then falls down to the ground.
The first time I saw it I was dying. I was laughing so hard. And then we sent it down to them and of course I was like, ‘They’re gonna call me immediately. They’re gonna love it.’
And I was like, ‘Oh God.’ I’m waiting, and it’s not until the next day, the next afternoon, they’re like, ‘Sorry, we didn’t get around to looking at your shots. We love them!’ And then we got some really nice emails back from Jemaine. He’s just such a nice, effusive guy and he was like, ‘This is so fun.’
Making it work
So, for the take-over from the real person to the digital one, there was motion blur that let us switch, but also a happy accident was we didn’t quite realize that how high he was going to go up. So he actually went out of the light. So the takeover part is when he’s at his fastest but when he goes out of the light as well. So it was a pretty straight forward takeover.
Then one of the challenges was bringing him back down to the ground. Having to animate someone actually hitting the floor, especially on the TV schedule and budget and the way we had built, would have been tricky. They were like, ‘We want to see him hit the ground.’ As I just explained, the way we had built the digi-double would not hold up. They said, ‘Bring it closer, bring it closer.’ But I didn’t want to actually do the impact because I knew that would’ve been the focus of everything and that’s not the point of the shot. What we ended up settling on is that it’s a documentary cameraman and the guy just falls too fast for him. So he just falls right out, the camera hits and then we catch up to him. Getting that timing so that it didn’t feel like it was too long was a little bit tricky and then we sort of matte painted a little bit of the guy on the ground.
What I really love about the shot is it just keeps giving. I can remember just watching – because we watched it all in one giant sequence – and then they cut it up because you need the actor reaction shots. But I still watch it and I laugh. I giggle to myself.
I think we came up with a simple solution for what might have been a much bigger shot with full digital doubles and simulations in a feature film, say. I mean, we have these tools to do difficult simulations, but sometimes you forget that the easier solution is probably the smarter one. You can sometimes forget that there is a simpler, easier solution and not the big, expensive, difficult one.
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