Some of the most striking visuals that have stuck with audiences of The Handmaid’s Tale are the horrifying ways that parts of American history have been destroyed in Gilead. The second season saw Fenway Park transformed from one of the most iconic American pastimes into one of horror. In the show’s Emmy-nominated third season, June travelled to Washington, D.C. only to reveal the destruction at the hands of the new regime including the eradication of the Lincoln Memorial and the transformation of the Washington Monument into a giant cross.
Speaking with Awards Daily, VFX supervisor Leo Bovell detailed what it was like destroying some of America’s most iconic landmarks. On top of detailing their post-production work at Mavericks VFX, the 2020 Emmy nominee also walked us through his role on set ensuring his team has everything they need to build Guilead and some of the surprising onset challenges including hundreds of tourists and fans dressed as handmaids sneaking into shots.
Awards Daily: This is your third nomination for your work on The Handmaid’s Tale. This year, the nominated episode follows June and the Waterford Family as they travel to Washington, D.C. I am curious, what initially inspired the dystopian take on the city that you and the creative team came up with?
Leo Bovell: A lot of that came from production and Elisabeth [Moss]. They are incredibly genius at the impact these visuals would have. We came into support that vision and make it a reality. A lot of the groundwork comes from just being in DC. You’re on such hollowed ground, and it is such an impactful place to be. We were only allowed to shoot in intervals of three or four minutes. To have handmaids at the monument itself indicated a lot to us in terms of what we needed to do to drive this presence of Gilead.
On that day, we brought out 200 extras, and we aligned them in such a way as to multiply that through visual effects. Just to have that many people dressed in red and kneeling on a national monument was impactful. A crowd formed because everyone thought it was a protest.
AD: The major reveal of the episode highlights the mutilation of these two major monuments. How much of these effects were practical versus visual?
LB: About 70 percent of the work in the episode ended up being visual effects. Mainly because we had to increase the number of handmaids. On the day, we were working with about 200 extras and by the end of it we had anywhere from 18 to 22,000 doubles.
It’s a national park so there were no restrictions and people were able to come and go as freely as they wanted. Park enforcement was there to help production and they only allowed us to work in three-four minute intervals. In between those takes we had to open up the set and tourists were running around taking pictures. As you can imagine as we were shooting there were tons of people everywhere. At one point I remember there was a fan with his arms around me in the video village area. On a normal day no one on set would be that close. It was crazy! There were even fans dressed as Handmaids trying to sneak into shots. We spent a lot of time taking people out of those shots.
AD: As a VFX supervisor what exactly is your role on set?
LB: On set we are there to make sure anything that will be a VFX shot has all the data that we need captured. We’re also there to inform production and crew on the best methodologies. We try not to get in the way because we want the DP and the director to be free but there are sometimes cases where we suggest how shooting something a particular way would help us and benefit the overall vision of the show.
One of the great things about The Handmaid’s Tale is that although it is not a show heavy in VFX they are extremely receptive to our crew. I’ve been on shows where that isn’t the case, even shows that are more heavy in VFX. On this production, we truly are a team.
AD: How did you create the disfigured Lincoln Memorial?
LB: We arrived the day before in DC and the entire crew went out on a scout. While they were scouting I literally started taking thousands of photos of the Lincoln Memorial getting any measurements and references that I could. We did some research to get a Lidar of the monument, something of a point cloud that gives us an accurate 3D mesh, but that was impossible to get. I had to get thousands of photos from every single angle to capture everything. We took all of those photos and ran them through various software packages like Agisoft and PFTrack. What they do is combine all of those photos into a 3D mesh which gave us a close to accurate representation of the memorial and statue.
From there that is when we started to augment and destroy. We used ZBrush and various other tools to make sur the destruction as realistic as we needed to. Stephen Lebed has an incredible eye for that. He and Brendan Taylor were really able to guide that process and solidify the look for the Lincoln Memorial.
AD: Beyond the obvious effects at the end of the episode a lot of the VFX throughout the episode and even unnoticeable to the average viewer. Is there anything in particular that might surprise audiences to learn that the VFX team had an influential role in shaping?
LB: To this day I still talk to a lot of people who are convinced that we closed the park down and brought in thousands of extras. I always have to walk them through the process of working around fans and tourists. Everything from removing actual bodies to the reflections of tourists in the water. Removing traffic in the background and people riding their bikes.
Also when watching the scene you have to realize it exists within a couple of minutes. However, we were there shooting throughout the whole day. Lighting conditions were constantly changing and it was our job to create this sense that it was all within a moment. The lighting needed to look the same, the wind needed to stay consistent. There were takes where the costumes of the Handmaids were blowing in the wind and there were other shots where they were completely still along with the flags.
A lot of that goes very much unnoticed and in my world that is some of the best visual effects that you can do. Making sure everything looks natural and convincing the audience it was all simply shot. Visual effects are there to aid in the storytelling, not to take over.
AD: Throughout the season as a whole, were there any other challenges you weren’t necessarily anticipating?
LB: One of the great things about The Handmaid’s Tale is that there are always surprises. It keeps the show interesting for us at Mavericks VFX. The season before we worked on Fenway Park and that was a big surprise to build a full 3D version of a post-apocalyptic Fenway Park. Those challenges you expect to a degree but you never really realize the impact until its happening.
VFX Supervisor Leo Bovell is nominated for his third Emmy for his work on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ alongside Stephen Lebed (VFX Producer), Brendan Taylor (VFX Supervisor), Rob Greb (Compositing Supervisor), Gwen Zhang (Senior Compositor), Marlis Coto (Compositor), Stephan Wagner (Lead FX Artist), Josh Clark (CG Supervisor), and James Minett (CG Lead Artist).