VFX For TV: SyFy's <I>Deadly Class</I>
Issue: March/April 2019

VFX For TV: SyFy's Deadly Class

Deadly Class is a new SyFy show that’s based on the popular comic series of the same name by Rick Remender. The series is set in 1980s San Francisco, where a disillusioned teen named Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth) is recruited into a high school-type academy for young assassins.

Master Lin (Benedict Wong) runs the Academy for the Deadly Arts at Kings Dominion, which is hidden behind the crowded streets of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. Lin is always looking for young prospects to groom. Marcus recently found himself out on the street following the death of his parents and the destruction of the boys’ home where he was staying due to a suspicious fire. Master Lin sees Marcus’ potential, thinking he set fire to the orphanage. And now wanted by the police for multiple murders, Marcus sees Kings Dominion as his only choice for hiding out from the cops. He also sees it as a way to achieve his ultimate goal: the assassination of President Reagan, whose policies, he feels, led to the death of his parents.

Mark Savela is the show’s visual effects supervisor, and worked closely with Jon Cowley (pictured) and the team at FuseFX in Vancouver to create the effects needed for the series. FuseFX was the sole VFX provider on the pilot episode and the lead visual effects house on the following nine episodes that make up the 10-episode season, which debuted in mid-January.

“Our LA office has good relationship with (producer) Jake Aust, who is behind the scenes on that particular show,” recalls FuseFX’s Jon Cowley. “They reached out to us during pilot season for the work — the creative. We bid against a couple of local BC vendors that were doing that [and] had some great meetings with Lee Krieger, who was the director for that episode, and we really gelled. We were the only vendor for the pilot. Based on that experience, they asked us to continue along into the actual season.”

For the pilot, Cowley says the visual effects centered around building out the limited sets to feel big and grand. This included the Kings Dominion set, which serves as the academy for the students.

“You can’t go crazy building sets that are going to last the season,” says Cowley of the practical settings. “In the pilot, when they first come into Kings Dominion, there is a big reveal, where you see some statues and a high ceiling. That is a local church here that we had to slice and dice, and cut apart and make it, digitally, be this big, grand entrance way.”

Making Vancouver look like San Francisco in the ‘80s was also a big part of their work.

“Dealing with current-day architecture that had to be more retro — the whole Quake Tower, was a small set piece that had to be big and grand,” he explains. “A lot of that invisible effects-type work. And then the blood and gore, which is a staple of the Deadly Class universe.”

The show’s VFX supervisor Mark Savela points to Episode 5 as the visual effects centerpiece for the season. The students head to Las Vegas with a plan to kill a friend’s dad. But an LSD trip puts a twist on things.

“And as soon as we started, we started prep for this episode,” says Savela. “I think there were over 200 visual effects shots, and Fuse created an amazing sequence of driving down the Las Vegas strip, while our lead character is on seven hits of LSD.”

The scene was actually shot in Vancouver in late fall — not in Las Vegas — adding to the challenge.
“We saw the schedule and said, ‘We were shooting Vancouver for Las Vegas in October?’” says Savela. “Right away, if you’ve ever been to Las Vegas or Vancouver, the weather is pretty different at that point in time. In October, it usually pours 24 hours a day.”

Savela calls Episode 5 “an experience.” 

“All the fans of the graphic novel were like, ‘I hope they do Vegas!’ The response from the fans were like, ‘Wow, it came to life from the page.’”

FuseFX averaged between 70 and 100 visual effects shots per episode for the duration of the season. In addition to blood shots, the studio also added an arrow here and there, and extended knife blades. 

“It’s primarily not meant to be seen at all,” says FuseFX’s Cowley of their work.

The work went almost entirely through FuseFX’s Vancouver office, with some help from their LA studio. Cowley estimates that as many as 90 artists were contributing to Deadly Class at its peak.

“One of the intrinsic challenges of episodic TV is the pattern per episode doesn’t necessarily play out that way,” Cowley explains. "So, trying to plan for an entire season can vary. We have shows where we are the only vendor on it. And you have big episodes and small episodes, so you don’t crew and staff for a full run of everybody dedicated to that. It is sort of week-by-week, day-by-day triage of what’s coming down the line. What the deadlines are. What the scope is. You sort of shuffle around your resources for the priority of the day and the week.”

FuseFX, says Cowley, likes to go after the more challenging work, as it engages their artists more so than the simpler stuff. The studio’s core tools are Autodesk Maya, Foundry’s Nuke and SideFX Houdini. 

“Those are our three primary packages that we have,” he notes. “We have a proprietary database system called Nucleus, which we use for all of our production management. It’s behind the scenes, but one of our really important tools for how we manage large volumes of shows at multiple facilities.”

In the case of a challenging sequence, like the Las Vegas VFX featured in Episode 5, Cowley says the team will spend a lot of time up front, designing the look for the effect. 

“Once we got turnover, we spent a lot of time working on single frames, really trying to get buy-off for what the look was going to be so we had a really clear target,” he explains. “We came very close to 1-to-1 on that. There weren’t any curveballs.”

Cowley’s film background spans 18 years, while he’s been working in television for just three in comparison. 

“In film, you have the expectation that there is a lot of time for play and explore. I really think the creative pipeline in TV — you have to be very linear. You have to be very targeted in where you are going. And when the end goal is very abstract, like it is with this sequence, that’s where things can really go off the rails if you are not very, very smart with what you are doing.”

“We talked with you guys a month or even two months before we actually shot the episode,” Savela recalls. “It’s not really storyboards, it’s the concept of what the tone is going to look like. We did a lot of ‘melting Vegas’ kind of examples. We designed the clown for the sequence and that all has to be signed off on before it actually goes into the production pipeline.”

Deadly Class also features reoccurring rooftop scenes, where the students hang out in what’s called The Graveyard. The pilot episode was shot on a real rooftop, but subsequent scenes were shot on a cyc with a translight illuminated film background. VFX were added to enhance the outdoor look, include blinking lights and airplanes to add realism.

In another sequence, taking place in a hotel room, the VFX team created matte paintings of 1980s San Francisco, which were then composited into the hotel’s windows. 

At press time, the VFX team was working on Episodes 8, 9 and 10.

“It’s an amazing show to work on,” says Savela. “The crew is amazing. It looks like a miniature feature film when you look at an hour of television.”