VFX For TV: 'The Leftovers'
Issue: April 1, 2015

VFX For TV: 'The Leftovers'

Alkemy X (www.alkemy-x.com), formerly DIVE, regularly works on visual effects for television programs. The studio contributes to Starz’s Power, as well as to an upcoming network series called Flesh & Bone. TNT’s upcoming, 1950s cop drama Public Morals will also contain their VFX work. And last year, the studio provided VFX for a number of pilots, including ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder and HBO’s The Leftovers.

The Leftovers, says VFX supervisor Ed Mendez, really keeps the studio on its toes. The HBO series is based on the book by Tom Perrotta and chronicles life on Earth after a mysterious event causes a percentage of the world’s population to simply and inexplicably disappear. The show stars Justin Theroux as a small-town police officer, Kevin Garvey, who’s left to raise his teenage daughter after his wife abandons them to join a cult-like group. Liv Tyler plays a fellow Mapleton resident and Guilty Remnant cult member. 

Each episode presents a different challenge, notes Mendez. The show will occasionally flash back to a time before “the departure” took place. Here, viewers are able to learn the backstory of the series’ different characters and how their past is influencing their current behavior.

“The quality level needs to be big and seamless,” says Mendez. 

In the pilot, for example, a couple is planning to commit suicide by jumping off a building. Stunt people were shot green screen from 40 feet above the ground, descending with the help of a wire. They were also shot a second time from approximately 20 feet, landing on a car, which blows out from the impact. 

Alkemy X merged several elements to create one seamless fall and impact. The background is a combination of a college dorm building, shot as photos, and a matte painting.

In another sequence, officer Garvey comes upon a mysterious deer that’s been appearing throughout the town and is blamed for damaging his home. After a long stretch of eye contact, the moment is broken by a pack of dogs, which hunt down the deer. 

“We couldn’t shoot that, so we shot the deer on a stage in California,” says Mendez. Dogs were selected by director Peter Berg, and were shot running on a street north of New York City. “We did multiple passes of dogs running,” he recalls. They were then isolated, rotoscoped and repeated to create the pack. The deer was replaced with a CG element for the final take down.

In another episode, the town’s reverend has a dream/flashback, in which his childhood house is burning down. A 1/4-scale house was actually constructed and burned. The model was composited with a matte for the exterior shots. Inside the house, CG fire was added to practical fire on a stuntman. Burned skin was also tracked to complete the effect.

And in the fifth episode, where Guilty Remnant member Gladys is stoned to death, the studio had to hand track CG blood, bruises and scars to the actress’ face. 

Alkemy X uses Mocha as its 2D planner tracker and SynthEyes for 3D tracking. Nuke is the studio’s main compositing program, and Maya and Houdini are used for 3D — Houdini for effects such as smoke and fire, and Maya for elements such as the photoreal deer.

The studio has a Mac-based production pipeline, but its render farm is Linux based. Shotgun Software is used for project and asset management.

Additional VFX work on the series included an exploding manhole cover, and the large fire that takes place during the season finale. VFX studio Spin handled interior shots during the fire sequence at the Guilty Remnant’s house, while Alkemy X handled exteriors.