[Ed. note: Spoilers for The Nevers episode 3, “Ignition,” ahead.]
HBO’s Victorian adventure series The Nevers comes into its own in episode 3, “Ignition”, during a terrific battle sequence that starts out of nowhere. The protagonist of the series, Amalia True, is one of those “touched” who has acquired supernatural powers through a supernatural event. She has made enemies, so in “Ignition,” which was directed by David Semel and written by Kevin Lau, she is suddenly put down while on a carriage ride and thrown off a bridge into a lake. Her enemy’s servant, Odium, follows her – and when he calmly walks out onto the surface of the water, she realizes that she is in great trouble.
In the following sequence, Amalia (played by Laura Donnelly) cannot appear to fight Odium (Martyn Ford) without him stomping her in the face or slamming her with a heavy chain and hook. And she can’t stay underwater for long without drowning. The fight that follows is quick and furious, often captured in gunfire, with Donnelly swimming underwater while Ford appears to be on the surface above her. It’s the kind of sequence that says, “How did you do it? to do That? “Questions. So Polygon went to Nevers Ask VFX supervisor Johnny Han.
The most surprising thing Han tells Polygon is that the sequence uses no substitute for digital actors at all, and very few of the takes are pieced together or use a stunt double. “All the actors – and we’re really proud of that – are completely real all the time,” says Han. “We kept the digital doubles option in our back pocket when it wasn’t looking good, but our actors did a great job. Laura, who plays Amalia, was such a soldier, I can’t tell you how hard she worked this through and never kept an eye on what she went through. Helen [Steinway Bailey], her stunt trainer and double, always rehearsed the scenes with her, and it was always an option to use her. But in Helen’s favor in training Laura, we didn’t have to use Helen, save for two or three shots that were on wires. Laura did 99% of what you see on the screen. “
“It was really physically challenging,” says Donnelly Polygon. “But I had an absolute ball. It sure wasn’t something I’ve ever done before. I had never dived or anything so I had to train for two days just to study. So I was on the underwater stage at Pinewood Studios in a wetsuit, learning how to go five meters underwater on a breather, in goggles, and all. On day two, they expect you to take your breather and goggles off and you only need to swim 25 feet above the tank. That was probably the most intimidating thing I’ve ever had to do for work. “
The sequence was shot in late winter, so it was impossible to do it all outdoors: “It wasn’t just about not putting actors in freezing water, to be honest,” says Han. “It was like, ‘It might be frozen, we couldn’t set it someone in the water. ‘”But the crew got the opening and closing footage of the fight on location to ground the sequence into reality.
“That’s a trick,” says Han. “Make the first shot real and the last and it will help you believe the sequence.” For that opening shot, Ford went to a hidden platform below the surface of the water and the surface of the water was digitally replaced.
“At some point we discussed, ‘Why don’t we just do the entire sequence with a hidden platform?'” Says Han. “And my take on it was that quite a bit was done. My favorite example is Superman 2when General Zod first arrives on earth. He arrives in the middle of a small pond and walks out to the bank as if he were walking on the water. Hidden platform, it always works. ”
However, his question was, “How do we own this and make Odium’s character come true?” He and his team wanted the water’s reaction to odium to be unmistakable and to strongly suggest the supernatural effect of its powers. “Very early on, I had the idea that the water should behave almost as if it had a special magnetic field around it or a field that changes the behavior of water,” says Han. They used real water physics to stimulate the movement of bubbles and eddies in the water, but also experimented with memory foam mattresses and trampolines to inspire the visual effect of the water withdrawing from Odium’s presence and then quickly rebounding. Fortunately, Han says, there was a trampoline park “literally across from our studios” where he and his team could get visual inspiration.
“The surfaces are not solid,” says Han. “You are flexible, but there is still tension. And that way the water would really feel like it reacts to him, he doesn’t react to the water. ”
While Ford was on location for the opening shoot, Donnelly was added digitally afterwards – all of her action for the sequence was filmed in the tank she was trained in at Pinewood Studios, England. A special camera that could be positioned on the surface of the water was used to capture the footage of Amalia underwater pulling on Odium’s chain. This enabled the effects crew to create a split-screen effect without digital compositing by capturing the action above and below the surface at the same time.
Photo: HBO and Photo: HBO
“We were able to use a special underwater housing for the camera that was particularly balanced in terms of weight,” says Han. “Something underwater is quite buoyant, and you can move a camera and crane very easily, but once you get over water, it’s very difficult. So we had a special housing with which the camera could easily run over and under water. It’s also a very small case so it didn’t cause a large splash or air bubble every time we went underwater. “
“We’re really proud of these recordings,” says Han. “Together we all feel like the sequence really works because we haven’t done too much CG. We have used the VFX where it is really needed, replacing the water and adding the green screen to the lake. And it wasn’t too fantastic. Every shot feels like a cameraman is actually doing it because the cameraman really did it did run it. “
For some of the shots that looked up from Amalia’s point of view, a white screen was used instead of a green screen to capture the feeling of a cloudy sky. “You can get away with a lot with the way water distorts and breaks the image behind it,” says Han. “If we were to make it green, it would be very difficult to extract the green. Little things like this help – any giveaway that we get on set, in the camera and that we don’t have to do later in the post, we’ll take every opportunity … So we had a system where we pretty much got it between white and green could exchange like a curtain, like a stage curtain that we simply pull back and forth. “
Photo: HBO and Photo: HBO
According to Han, one of the biggest challenges in planning the sequence with stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam and special effects supervisor Mike Dawson was designing the sequence to surprise viewers and teach them more about the touched’s abilities. “How do you make it something that tells the story of their powers rather than just a generic battle sequence?” Says Han. “How do you show Amalia’s wisdom to be not just a fighter but a thinker?”
Ultimately, the answer was for Amalia to use Odium’s power against him, taking advantage of his inability to break the surface of the water against him and strangling him from below with his own chain.
“We have these recordings in our profile,” says Han. “Ford is hanging on four wires, almost like a hammock, because we wanted him to actually lean into the water. We didn’t want him to look like he had a flat back, we wanted him to really feel like he was diving in the water, like a trampoline again. And Laura is actually under water. It’s all the same performance, all in one take. We didn’t shoot them separately, we didn’t shoot him separately. “
Again, Han says that most of the digital tinkering with this sequence was replacing the green screen with the place and replacing the surface of the water. “The response of the water to him fighting, that has been replaced to be more active, so that it looks like he is really fighting, the water ripples and ripples against him.”
Donnelly says she was confident with the work despite the physical demands of the sequence. “I was a gymnast when I was younger, so I’m pretty familiar with throwing myself in the air and hopefully not landing on my head,” she says. “It was physically demanding, but it was so much fun. Not only is Martyn Ford the tallest man on the planet, he’s also one of the nicest men. We had a lot of fun trying to climb it dripping wet and Victorian. “
Ultimately, Han believes the sequence works because so little of it is digital that reality plays out for the audience. “Imagine what the sequence would have looked like if we’d done everything in CG,” he says. “Often times you get really crazy camera movements that feel supernatural. The interesting thing about visual effects is that you can sometimes go in too many different directions. The unlimited canvas is often your downfall because there is an arrogant mindset that goes, “We can think of something better than reality.” But if you have something to anchor it with, it always helps. ”
For more behind-the-scenes footage of the fight, see HBO’s featurette in the episode.