Awards Daily talks to Barnstorm VFX co-founder Lawson Deming about visual effects you didn’t know were on your favorite shows, the art of the title sequence, and how they achieved the most challenging scene in Season 3 of The Man in High Castle.
Pop quiz: Which of the following television shows have visual effects? Outlander, Silicon Valley, The Guest Book, or Divorce.
The inclination might be to pick Outlander, the time-traveling romance on STARZ, which would be true. However, the correct answer is all of them.
I had a chance to chat with Lawson Deming, co-founder of Barnstorm VFX, the company behind the visual effects on your favorite TV shows and films. Deming reveals why he’ll miss working on The Man in High Castle (final season arrives this fall), what makes a good title sequence, and the first thing he’d digitally edit in the real world.
Awards Daily: Barnstorm VFX has worked on special effects for projects I didn’t even know had special effects. Like, I just recently watched The Spectacular Now and was trying to think of what special effects were in it. Does it bum you out that I didn’t realize that or does that just show you’re doing your job correctly? It’s so seamless.
Lawson Deming: No, that’s great actually. Sometimes the best compliment you can get as a visual effects artist is when people don’t even think about the fact there are visual effects on screen. A good test for the real quality of your visual effects work is whether people notice it when you’re not making it immediately apparent in the subject matter. Every show is a visual effects show nowadays.
AD: I was amazed by everything you guys do. What is a surprising level of special effects people would be shocked to learn were in a movie? Like what special effects did you do for Nebraska or The Good Fight?
LD: Nebraska is an interesting example because it was a film that had a lot of long takes in it, and The Good Fight is similar. Editors have gotten savvy at this point in terms of re-timing performances, not in a significant way, but sometimes there’s a little dead air in the scene and you want to continue to use that take and you don’t want to cut away. So an editor will want to cut out a portion of a take. Sometimes they’re very aggressive doing that, and it’s not something that they can get away with themselves. So in situations where there’s a lot of variation and reediting without editing a sequence, visual effects becomes very important and it can get very complex. We had some scenes in The Good Wife where it would be a scene with three characters and a dolly move. We needed to change the timing or take one person’s line or reaction from one take of the shot and someone’s else’s line or reaction from another take when the camera was moving differently and comp someone into a shot with another person already in that shot. All kinds of shows do that to varying degrees. It’s an evolution of editing.
AD: I know you’ve worked on The Man in High Castle. What was the most challenging visual effects scene in Season 3?
LD: The most intense scene for visual effects in Season 3 of TMIHC was the Statue of Liberty destruction which happens in the last episode of the season. The Nazis decide as part of a historical cleansing they want to turn America into a clean slate, removing all of America’s history, which includes all of its monuments. The first thing they do is create a big ceremony to destroy the Statue of Liberty, and it’s a controlled demolition mixed with a military strike and a fireworks show. It’s a big show for all of the youth who will inherit this new America. That sequence required a number of things. We did a fully CGI version of the Statue of Liberty and the island it sits on. We created digital fighter planes, we had explosion simulations, water simulation. All of those things coming together in order to create that scene was the biggest, most complex scene of the season.
AD: Sounds like it! The last season of The Man in High Castle is coming out this fall. Are you working on that now?
LD: Yes, we are. We wrapped principal photography several weeks ago and we have several more months of work to do on that. We’re deep in the weeds. We’re mid-season right now, doing all different kinds of sequences or episodes at once.
AD: Can you tell us anything about the final season?
LD: I can say that it is the most ambitious season from a visual effects standpoint. Of course because they’re trying to wrap up the stories and characters, there’s a lot of action and exciting sequences toward the end of the season.
AD: What will you miss most about working on the show?
LD: I think the thing that’s the most unique about TMIHC is the fact that it’s a science fiction show but in a way it’s also a historical show. Most of the time when we think of science fiction it’s spaceships and aliens and really unbelievable things. What’s great about TMIHC is that what we’re creating is fictional, but it’s based on history. So we’re able to do a bunch of research. We play historian to an era that never actually existed, trying to determine what the technological advancements would have been, what things would have looked like, and look at real things to do that. When we were building the Japanese navy last season, a lot of the Japanese navy was destroyed, particularly the big battleships, in World War II. A lot of the U.S. battleships and aircraft carriers that survived went on and continued to serve for 40 years and only finally were decommissioned in the ’80s. Rather than making up some kind of ships for the Japanese to have, we looked at what they had in World War II and theorized what those ships would look like if they had been modified in the same way U.S. ships were after the war.
AD: That’s so interesting. You do some great title sequences, too, with your work on Strange Angel and The Good Fight. What makes a good title sequence in your opinion?
LD: A good title sequence immediately tells you what the show is about, what to expect. I think that is particularly true for The Good Fight. It gets you in the mood to watch the show. It tells you immediately that it’s about worlds colliding and falling apart, going from a privileged lifestyle to starting over again. When we were coming up with the idea for the title sequence, the thought was of someone’s life unraveling and hi-jacking high-end products, where you take all of these nicely photographed things and destroy them. That’s an example of taking the concept of a show and expressing it in the title sequence and that’s what I think really works about that one in particular.
AD: What would be the first thing you’d visually edit or change in the real world?
LD: Oh my goodness. That is an interesting idea. I’ll give you sort of a creative answer to that. We worked on a show once where we created the Los Angeles skyline for the background of various shots. We had photographs of it that we were putting into shots, but we kept getting client notes that the city looked fake. So every once in a while I’m driving and I’ll look at the skyline and think about it if it were a visual effects shot, and if you really look at any given thing long enough, you start to notice all the things your brain glosses over. More often than not, I look in the distance and see the LA skyline and say it looks fake. So if I could change anything, I would change the LA skyline to look more realistic.
The Man in High Castle is now streaming on Amazon.