How the Emmy-nominated VFX team of ‘The Boys’ let a host of damaged ‘supes’ run wild
Not long ago, “The Boys” showrunner Eric Kripke told The Times, “We usually start with depth of character and psychological truth, then political or societal commentary, and then we go to shocking, bananas moments.”
The black comedy about late-stage capitalism in which a monolithic corporation, Vought, has proliferated people with superpowers (“supes”) and the vigilantes out to stop them enjoyed one of its most “bananas” moments in the Season 2 episode “The Bloody Doors Off.” The Emmy-nominated visual effects team had its hands full with shocking moments.
In it, our mostly nonpowered heroes infiltrate a secret Vought facility, a mental institution that’s the “Boys” version of the Island of Misfit Toys. Locked in the cells are supes on whom Vought’s experiments have gone wrong. Lab rats of sorts, their powers can be mere curiosities or terrifying and lethal, and many have minds damaged by the ordeal. When an accident frees them all, it’s party time.
“It’s the hardest and biggest episode we’ve had to do because there were so many powers” among the inmates, says visual-effects supervisor Stephan Szpak-Fleet. The VFX for that episode took about six months, noted visual-effects producer Shalena Oxley-Butler. “Some powers were written into the script; Stephan and I were like, ‘What other powers can we have in here? What can we achieve and make it look awesome, and what’s gonna give the fans all of those thrills that we’re known for?’”
“We see these powers once or twice, but we’d put just as much time and research into those as we would for, say, a hero power like Starlight or Homelander,” Szpak-Fleet says of the series’ main characters.
“Especially with ... Love Sausage,” says Oxley-Butler, with that little hint of a giggle these VFX vets can’t suppress (Szpak-Fleet giggles as well) when talking about the supe whose power is a male organ that extends like a massive tentacle 15 feet or longer.) “That was a ... large power we had to tackle. Even though it was a giant, you know, penis, we still had to figure out how would this giant penis operate.”
Both laugh delightedly.
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bunch of quality shows with superheroes in them!
Szpak-Fleet says, “As far as I know, there’s nothing in the history of cinema like that. If there were, I’d like to know, because it would have saved us a lot of time. We had a prosthetic on set so the actor [whose character is attacked by Love Sausage] would have something to hold onto. But ultimately, we skinned over the whole thing with visual effects. There was a lot of detailed discussion.”
Oxley-Butler asks, “Didn’t we research boa constrictors?”
“Yeah, how it would wrap around someone’s neck. And close-ups of skin on male genitalia. One of the vendors working on it called and said, ‘Can we get some reference?’” Szpak-Fleet falls out of the Zoom frame laughing as he relays this.
Oxley-Butler recalls her answer: “ ‘Um, I think there’s a lot of texture reference online.’”
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Another one-off power that required intensive work is the powerful shockwave one inmate generates that sends the vigilantes’ van rolling. The practical special-effects crew made the real vehicle flip over, while the visual-effects team digitally created its undercarriage (rather than use a van with a real engine) and the shockwave’s impact in the grass and air.
“We looked at a lot of slo-mo footage of real explosions, the distortion in the air, how they effect the ground and the environment,” says Szpak-Fleet.
”Cindy [Ess Hödlmoser] crushing the guy like a toothpaste container is my favorite,” he says of the mysterious patient who emerges from their cell with the power to compact things — or people— with a hand gesture. “Our special-effects friends created this thing we call the ‘blood lollipop’; it’s a 360-degree blood explosive. A lot of that blood hits the walls, then we add to it.
“Stormfront‘s powers were great too; her plasma lightning, the way she [seemingly] ‘killed’ Cindy.”
We sift through the rubble of the Season 2 finale of Amazon’s “The Boys” with Aya Cash, Karen Fukuhara, Antony Starr, Karl Urban and showrunner Eric Kripke.
With so many one-off superpowers (16 shown on the security office monitors alone), were any particularly difficult to achieve?
“Acid Face,” says Szpak-Fleet, immediately. One of the patients has the power to regurgitate acid. Unfortunately, he discovers his own face is not immune to it.
“Oh, my God, dude. We have a fantastic prosthetic team that did a great job, but sometimes the appetite changes in post ... The original concept for that was more practical than visual, like Indiana Jones, so we weren’t as prepared for it. It hit us really hard, and coronavirus hit right when we started it, so suddenly, everyone’s working from home. The world changed overnight, and we have to do a close-up of a guy whose face is getting burned by acid.”
Things they had to consider, Oxley-Butler says, “How far into the face are you seeing? What’s being revealed as the acid is eating away? We had to see how things actually get burned by acid. All kinds of things — toilet paper rolls, cotton balls.”
“It perfectly tracks that this poor idiot is a lab experiment, so he has the worst power — he can burn his own face off,” says Szpak-Fleet, laughing.
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