VFX: HBO's <I>The Flight Attendant</I>
Issue: January/February 2021

VFX: HBO's The Flight Attendant

HBO’s The Flight Attendant is a dark, comedic thriller based on the novel of the same name by Chris Bohjalian. The series stars Kaley Cuoco as flight attendant Cassie Bowden, who wakes up in her Bangkok hotel room, hung over, with a dead body next to her in bed. Unable to retrace her steps from the night before and afraid to call foreign authorities, she instead heads to the airport for work in the hope of getting out of the country before anyone can link her to the crime. When she returns to New York, she is met by a team of FBI agents, who question her about her stay in Bangkok. Still unable to piece the night together, she begins experiencing a series of flashbacks and delusions that include conversations with the victim. At the same time, memories from her past make her question if it’s possible that she is the killer?

New York visual effects studio FuseFX (fusefx.com) helped tell the story, contributing between 20 and 50 shots for each of the series’ eight episodes. FuseFX was working on the show prior to the pandemic, providing on-set supervision up until the COVID lockdown. Once production resumed, the studio’s team implemented a remote workflow to complete the second half of the episodes that had yet to be shot before the hiatus.

In addition to Kaley Cuoco, the series stars Michiel Huisman as the victim Alex Sokolov, along with Zosia Mamet as Annie Mouradian, Cassie’s long-time friend and lawyer/legal adviser. Additional talent includes T.R. Knight, Michelle Gomez, Colin Woodell, Merle Dandridge, Griffin Matthews and Rosie Perez. 

FuseFX’s John Miller served as a visual effects supervisor on the show and recently took time to share with Post details about the studio’s work and the challenges of completing it during the pandemic.

What were the VFX needs for The Flight Attendant?

“Overall there were categories of the kind of work that we do. There are the traditional things that can’t be done practically, and that would work with special effects or makeup to help augment or add a layer to. When it comes to blood work, stunt work — if there’s a thing that can’t happen with an actor — we did all that kind of package of work. And that is sort of standard across a lot of our shows.

“But we also did three other kinds of categories of work. One was, each episode, there are these transitional moments where there are multiple frames — an image and an image, a transitional moment where you kind of see multiple views of an airport with planes going in different directions and it gets you to the next part of the show. In those scenes we helped with providing all of the aerial content — all the content of the aircraft. We created all those and they are based on real-life references to create the photoreal plates doing the things they needed to do. That became a graphic element for editorial to help transition to the next sequence. That’s one aspect.

“Then we did these flashback moments, which happen throughout the series. The design and direction behind those, and everything beyond collage graphic pieces, was to live in this photoreal world of the production design…of how the look of the series is going to be. In those flashback moments, the idea is, she is looking through either a window or mirror or glass, to see an image of something. Or she is outside looking at something that’s not there. And that viewpoint from her — those moments where she is in the shot as well — the directive is to create it so that it is plausible, so that it looks real for those beginning moments of the shot, until you realize what she is looking at and what’s out the window can’t possibly be there.”

Those sequences play a big part in the show.

“That was a really cool challenge for us because it’s more than just a normal flashback/VFX kind of look. There’s no mirage effect to it. There’s no additional visual effect to hint to the audience ahead of time what they are going to look at. It was done to be a very classic, invisible visual effects. And then you realize what she is looking at out that window or through that space can’t possibly be happening now. We didn’t want to cheat that and let you know it was going to happen ahead of time.

“There’s actually another moment where she’s looking out the same window at the sky, and you realize we are up in the air now. We are higher than we should be. It’s also making what’s outside the window and what’s inside the window, in terms of photography and lighting, match enough so that it feels it’s the same world. You want to be in her mind as much as we can.”

There are other photoreal moments beyond the ‘window’ effects.

“We have the episode with the giant rabbit.  She opens the door to a hallway and there’s a giant rabbit in the hallway looking back at her. Our challenge was to make a photoreal rabbit, but scaled up so much so that it’s still believable, as if this is what a giant rabbit could look like, which is always a challenge. And it still needs to be real to her perspective as well.

“I think that was our biggest challenge — trying to keep these effects in a photoreal world, but still stylized to the photography of the show and to the production design.” 

There are a lot of international locations. How much of that was practical versus visual effects?

“We got asked this question a lot. A lot of those international locations — what you’re seeing is real. They were really there. They did go to those locations, which meant we didn’t need to help with those moments. There was a fear they weren’t going to be able to go and we would have to do that, and we did the occasional moment here and there, but they shot the body of all that there in those places.

“The bus scene in Bangkok, where she’s in the bus with the other flight attendants — that’s all real. It’s incredible. That’s a lot of what we do for most shows, because it’s impossible to do without a budget, but they really wanted to get the real sense of being there, so they actually did that.”

The flashbacks are unique in that they are both effects and editorial techniques.

“It’s a combination of both. Some of them [are] us, some of it is editorial, after our work. We worked with editorial to design an effect that would work for some of those. Each one is slightly different. It’s a combination of us and editorial. 

“We do that a lot. It comes down to what makes most sense. If it’s easier for us to do it, we do it.”
Where are the greenscreen/bluescreen moments that viewers may not be aware of?

“There are a couple of moments. There’s a car crash sequence on a country road where we had to shoot bluescreen because of when they shot it and what season it needed to take place in. We had to do some seasonal work on that.

“There’s a scene where there’s a roof-jump sequence. That’s a traditional visual effect. Cassie and one of her friends needed to jump from one rooftop to another rooftop, and obviously we couldn’t have them do that, so we had them jump over bluescreen.”

How many shots did FuseFX handle in the eight episodes?

“I think the bigger episodes, we have done over 50 shots…I think a range between 20 and 50 per episode. Upwards of 50 for bigger episodes.”

What would you consider the highlights from a visual effects standpoint?

“I think it would start with the flashbacks. What’s interesting is there are different versions of those. Where she is seeing things that happened in the past. Those are essential. Our challenge was to keep it in this photoreal world but also, it has to have this elegant and beautiful moment, where we can’t hint that it’s a flashback.

“Then the rabbits were wonderful for us. I think that’s the order. Then there’s the roof jumping and invisible work that we’ve done.”

How did the pandemic affect your workflow?

“For this show, it was all done in the New York office exclusively. It was the perfect show to do it. We started working on it ahead of the pandemic. When the pandemic hit and New York was locked down and you couldn’t go into the office, we were able to [continue working] because of the technical advantages of our pipeline. We went remote within 24 hours of the New York City shutdown. And what that meant was all of our artists could work remotely on their workstations in our office. 

How big was the team working on this show?

“Twenty artists or less. I think it ranged from 10 to 20 at any time. They work on multiple projects at once. There are moments that expand and contract. We have lead artists that are always on a show.”

Can you talk about some of the VFX tools you employed for this show specifically?

“For this show we used Nuke for compositing and we used Studio Max for CG work. We do use Maya, but for this project we weren’t using it. And lots of Nuke plug-ins.”

What other shows are being worked on at FuseFX?

“We are working on 17 active shows. Blacklist, Pose, Bull, The Good Doctor, Prodigal Son…  Evil comes back into production soon.”

How would you describe your experience on The Flight Attendant?

“There was a very good team on this show, from the showrunner down to the production designer and DPs and directors. All of the production people and the post people especially that we were dealing with. The post producer was amazing. The whole team was great. What was really helpful was that everyone was on the same page from the beginning to the end of what we needed to achieve.”