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A few years ago, Hollywood attempted a film production of Stephen King’s epic, apocalyptic novel The Stand. Clear heads prevailed, and the project – an attempt to distill a novel that runs 1,308 pages in its uncut version – stalled. It would later be reborn as a new Paramount+ limited series, compacting the novel’s many plots and characters into a more manageable nine episodes.
Involved in the initial cinematic attempt, Jake Braver would eventually wear multiple hats on the limited series, which dropped on the streaming service in mid-December. Braver served as visual effects supervisor, second unit director, and producer. The intersection of these three roles ensured that Braver would become intimately involved in many creative decisions for the acclaimed limited series.
A limited series about a deadly pandemic that was completed and aired during a deadly pandemic.
While COVID-19 is nothing like The Stand’s Captain Tripps, the parallels weren‘t lost on Braver either, even if in his eyes the pandemic wasn’t the heart of the novel.
“I don’t think The Stand is strictly about a pandemic. I think The Stand, at its core, is a book about the eternal struggle between good and evil. The deadly plague strips things down and takes away all the systems and supports that make society function,” Braver explained. “That being said, it was uncanny making The Stand while wearing a mask and a face shield on set.”
Stephen King’s novel tells the story of a lab-created plague that spreads across the world, killing 99 percent of the population. The survivors eventually band together culminating in a battle between good (led by Whoopi Goldberg’s Mother Abigail) and evil (led by Alexander Skarsgård’s Randall Flagg). To tell this emotionally and visually complex story, Braver and team continuously referred back to the original King source novel to ensure every aspect was note perfect.
One of the earliest creations from the novel that the show had to get right were the infamous “tube necks,” a particularly grisly side effect of the virus on the human body where victims’ necks swell up several times its original size.
No self-respecting Stand project would dare get that wrong.
To achieve the gruesome effect, victims in the background were fitted with something akin to a neck brace covered with silicon. That approach didn’t hold up for the 4K cameras, so the more prominent background actors or characters were rendered using VFX. Main characters received a brace that held their necks rigid to replicate the bloated effect. VFX techniques were used to paint over the temporary apparatus, adding mucus and other graphic touches to ensure the actors’ emotional performances were appropriately accentuated.
Aside from rendering the gory side-effects of a deadly plague, VFX played a critical role in realizing Randall Flagg’s playground of New Vegas. Braver and team scouted locations in Las Vegas to find the appropriate setting for Flagg’s headquarters. They needed something large and imposing. Something directly on the Vegas strip that could become the unmistakable focal point of the post-apocalyptic city of sin. While nothing immediately revealed itself as perfect, the Planet Hollywood had a striking footprint, giving Braver and team a solid starting point from which VFX could take flight.
“We set about designing the Inferno using the bones of the Planet Hollywood and settled on this almost parasitic architecture of wrapping the structure in glass. We were lucky enough to have Industrial Light and Magic as our partners in creating New Vegas,” Braver said. “They were such fantastic partners in creating the Inferno, which is ultimately destroyed along with the surrounding area.”
Braver enlisted the help of 15 vendors for the show including Important Looking Pirates, Phosphene, SpinVFX, Pixomondo, Folks, Cinesite, Zoic Studios, Studio 8, Territory Studio, Exceptional Minds, and Wylie VFX.
The devastation of New Vegas emerged as one of the most challenging sequences to design in the series. Triggered by nothing short of the literal hand of God, a nuclear explosion finally lays waste to Flagg’s hedonistic empire. Given that are no surviving images of a nuclear blast from a short distance, Braver and team relied on science to dictate that look.
How would a huge concussive force look ripping through a human body?
What would it do to giant slabs of concrete?
It was a moment, ending the battle between good and evil, that they absolutely had to get right.
“We ended up reworking one of the shots quite significantly, so that you really felt the impact of Vegas being destroyed,” Braver shared. “It was a moment that we thought was important for the audience. Not to imply that Vegas was destroyed but actually really see that destruction.”
In addition to these major displays, the series boasts all types of subtle work, designed to eliminate traces of the real world and replicate a total absence of humanity. Planes flying in the sky needed to be painted out. Cars moving in the background needed to be stricken from the record.
And then there were the crows.
The production team originally planned to use live crows in the series. However, when the “crow wrangler” (note life goal to meet a “crow wrangler”) showed up on set, he revealed that he’d accidentally left the cage open, and the crows flew away.
“So we only have CG crows in The Stand because there were no there were no other crows in Vancouver to go to. That was one of those things where we wanted it to be practical, but we ended up again relying on visual effects, ILM to give us a very realistic CG crow.”