FX has built a loyal fan base with its American Horror Story, which maintains the same core cast each season, yet completely changes its storyline. Now in Season 4,
American Horror Story: Freak Show is set in Jupiter, FL, in the early 1950s, where Elsa Mars’ (Jessica Lange) small traveling show has set up camp. The carnival is seeing increased competition by a new medium — television — which allows audiences to stay at home and be entertained in their own living rooms. This pressures the show to come up with new acts and fresh talent that will draw customers.
At the same time, Elsa hopes her troupe of “freaks ” — which include the three-fingered lobster boy (Evan Peters); the bearded lady (Kathy Bates); the world’s shortest and tallest women; and her newest find, two-headed sisters (both portrayed by Sarah Paulson) — will attract scouts in search of talent. Elsa also hopes her own talent as a singer could finally be recognized, leading to international fame that has evaded her throughout her career. She is getting older and has had a tough life, including the violent amputation of her legs. Time is winding down on her dream.
The nature of the show also attracts curiosity seekers and those with their own self-interest. There's a creepy killer clown named Twisty, whose disfigured face is obscured by a mask; an oddities collector looking for a museum-quality find; and a rich boy who's bored with his perfect life and is looking for deviant thrills.
FuseFX (www.fusefx.com) in Los Angeles has worked on the show since Season 1 and is again responsible for its visual effects. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post just prior to Season 4’s debut, visual effects supervisor Jason Piccioni took time out to talk about the studio’s work on the series and the challenges that the new season presented.
Tell us about the visual effects that FuseFX has provided for the series?
“Normally we do a lot with make-up effects. De-aging of actors when they are involved in flashbacks. For (Season 2) Asylum, which took place in the late '60s in Massachusetts in the in the fall, Briarcliff Manner, the base of it was the Santa Ana Courthouse in Orange County in August. It presented quite a bit of a challenge. We had palm trees. Obviously, we can’t see cars or contemporary street lights. [And] the building needed to be retrofitted quite extensively to mimic the asylum we were using as an inspiration, which was a famous one in Massachusetts. It’s the one that [the film] Session 9 was shot at.”
Seasons 3 & 4 were shot on location?
“Season 3, Coven, was shot in New Orleans, and Freak Show is there as well, but is supposed to look like Florida.”
Even before the show debuted, fans got a taste of what to expect, including a two-headed woman and scary-looking clown.
“Sarah Paulson is a major character, or two major characters. Sarah, for years, has been one of the big stars. She’s a major part of the show. She’s on screen a lot — not in every episode — we dip down a little, but she’s a massive part of half the season. I’ve read through Episode 9 and she’s in there a lot.”
Where are you at in terms of finished episodes at this point?
“We just started shooting Episode 8. We are just finishing posting Episode 3. [They] mix an episode on Thursday and Friday to air the following Wednesday. It’s pretty tight. By mid-season, we are probably averaging five to ten days to run the entire episode through post.”
How many shows is FuseFX working on simultaneously?
“This is one of the bigger ones. We’ve probably got 30 shows going on between the office in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver. We do American Horror Story and Agents of SHEILD here, we do Bones here, Criminal Minds, Hell on Wheels is a big show. It’s a little easier for us because it’s mostly over the summer. Out of New York, we have Blacklist going. Blacklist mixes Friday and Saturday for a show that airs on Monday. That’s pretty nuts. We have Powers — it’s a Sony PlayStation release — 10 episodes of a graphic novel, shooting in Atlanta. In Vancouver we do The Returned, and I think we are going to start up Bates Motel, and a couple of other tiny shows.”
What services are you providing?
“We’ve [color] timed shows, we’ve color-mastered shows. We provide the VFX. We like to drop them in during the mix or before the mix. Certainly, if there is anything to do with sound, we’ll temp it for the mix and try to drop in later. For Horror Story, it all kind of wraps around a specific formula, so we tend to deliver our shots right up to the mix.”
Is someone on-set in New Orleans for the shoot of American Horror Story?
“For Season 4, we have a guy in New Orleans who is on-set every day. He and Sarah are quite close. He runs her through everything they are going to do with a lot of the cameras, because we have to double up on every set up so she can do both sides. That’s all very carefully choreographed, and he sits with the director and DP and walks Sarah through it all. It’s a well-oiled machine by now.”
How are you creating the two-heads?
“Most of time, both of her sides are shot on greenscreen. If she’s in bed lying down, it’s a little bit different. Generally, if she’s on stage, both sides are shot greenscreen and then we shoot a background plate and she gets seamed together and composited in. We’ve got a couple of rigs of prosthesis that she can wear for doing a wide shot with a prosthetic head, or where we are in an ‘over’ and we want to see the two heads. She does wear a prosthetic to get that second head going where we are not seeing her face.”
What format are they shooting the VFX on?
“It’s all shot on film. Glee just moved over. For Season 5 they went to an Alexa. There are like two shows still shooting on film. American Horror Story has always shot film.”
One might think a digital format would speed things up? Does a film shoot create any sort of delay?
“It can. We haven’t hit that too much. We’ve made an effort to seam into their normal dailies process. They bring it down to DNx 175x now and we’ve been doing a lot of QC’ing between that format and RAW DPX scans, and it’s pretty close. We’ve been having a lot of luck with that. Occasionally we will rescan in the DPX format if we feel there is some compression there.”
DNx is typically an editing format, no?
“It’s is mostly for editors, but we have been using it for the show. Occasionally we’ll get shots where the compression is an issue, but with the new 175x, it’s a really good format. The film frame is 2048x1556 and we are at 1920, so the resolution is almost identical. As long as you’re not David Fincher [laughs].”
Ultimately, what is the delivery format?
“We are getting a lot of 4K requests. Everything out of Sony — they want to master in 4K. We do a bunch of Amazon pilots and they want to master in 4K. Now that question comes up more than it doesn’t in television.”
In American Horror Story, there are several reoccurring effects. Jessica Lange’s character is an amputee?
“We did the same gag on Chloë Sevigny in Asylum, when she gets her legs chopped off below the knee, so it’s the same kind of idea as the ‘Lieutenant Dan’ technique. Make-up effects makes it enough so her knee sticks out slightly and she basically wears green leggings underneath it.”
Do you have to use VFX to create the circus set?
“That’s all a build and it’s all (production designer) Mark Worthington and the art department. We did that a little bit in Season 2, but they built that whole thing. Occasionally we get into deep background removal or houses, and lights and cars if we see them. But that whole carnival is a contained unit.”
Twisty, the clown, has an interesting but kind of gross effect going on?
“We start to gets into his back story a bit, so when his mask comes off, there’s some work done that you see in Episode 2, and more in the coming episodes of what happened to him. That’s a big effect for us. It is an entire replacement of the lower half of his face underneath his nose. It’s a full CG head.”
What tools does the studio rely on?
“We are primarily a Nuke/Max house. All the deliveries are run through Scratch, so Scratch is linked in to our review and delivery process. But shot work is primarily done in Nuke and (3DS) Max. We do have a few Maya seats and a few Houdini seats.”
Do those tools translate across other shows too?
“Yes, primarily. Occasionally we’ve have some specialty that we’ll punch out to another package for, but our whole pipeline is built around those tools.”
How big of a team do you have?
“For Horror Story, we probably have 15 to 20 people per episode. I think we’ve got 60 people in the building right now. We are at 80 to 85 across the three buildings.”
Is everything Windows-based?
“Everything is on PC now, running Windows. I am on a Mac personally, but I don’t do shot work.”
How many shows are you involved in as a VFX supervisor?
“I do eight shows, but a couple of mine are on hiatus. In addition to Horror Story, I do Glee, which isn’t a whole lot of visual effects. I just finished Manhattan for WGN… I do Salem, also for WGN. I do a little bit of work interfacing with The Blacklist. American Horror Story picks up the most time, for sure.”
Post: It looks like there will be a Season 5?
“It’s official, it was picked up. It’s a good show — 13 episodes is a good run for us. We shoot from July to December. Usually, we finish before Christmas."