VFX: FX's <I>What We Do In The Shadows</i>
Kendra Ruczak
Issue: May/June 2024

VFX: FX's What We Do In The Shadows

Vampiric lore traditionally conjures up images of ancient ghoulish creatures tucked away in isolated Transylvanian castles, shrouded in secrecy. FX’s What We Do in the Shadows puts a fresh spin on this classic narrative by documenting the idiosyncratic exploits of four modern-day vampire roommates who call Staten Island home. Based on Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 comedy/horror film of the same name, the acclaimed mockumentary series follows the lives of Ottoman Empire warrior vampire Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), British noble vampire Leslie “Laszlo” Cravensworth (Matt Berry), Greek Romani vampire Nadja of Antipaxos (Natasia Demetriou) and energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) — a “day walker” who drains the life force from his unsuspecting victims by being excessively dull.

The foursome share a residence maintained by Nandor’s endearingly underappreciated human familiar, Guillermo de la Cruz (Harvey Guillén), who struggles to balance his dream of becoming a vampire with his secret slaying superpowers — thanks to an ancestral link to legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. They also often cross paths with an unnamed floating vampire known as The Guide (Kristen Schaal), who serves as an envoy to Staten Island’s Vampiric Council. As the roommates navigate the challenges of modern life, they frequently clash with other supernatural
entities — and with each other.

With five seasons aired and a sixth confirmed, What We Do in the Shadows has racked up 21 Emmy nominations while garnering critical ac- claim and building a passionate fan base. Muse VFX played an essential role in bringing Season 5’s visuals to life, delivering effects that run the gamut, from entirely invisible to over-the-top outrageous. The boutique Hollywood, CA- and Atlanta, GA-based visual effects company helped craft the season’s most memorable moments, including the reappearance of Baby Colin — the infant offspring that burst from the energy vampire’s chest on his 100th birthday — and a hilariously action-packed sequence in which Guillermo miraculously evades a precarious gauntlet of deadly booby traps.

We connected with Muse VFX’s Fred Pienkos (chief technology officer & VFX supervisor) and Stefan Bredereck (CG supervisor) for an inside look  at the team’s visual effects workflow for Season 5. Pienkos, who co-founded the company with senior VFX supervisor/creative director John Gross in 2013, is known for his leadership and expertise in the realms of pipeline, color and post production technologies. Bredereck, who has worked with Gross and Pienkos since 2006, specializes in smoke and explosion effects, as well as look development, lighting and compositing.

Congratulations on Muse VFX’s recent ten-year anniversary! Can you tell us a little about your history with the company?

Fred Pienkos: “John [Gross] and I formed Muse after working together for 14 years previously. The Muse team is a group of dedicated people that we’ve worked with for years. We love adding new people to our team, and our employee retention is usually very high. It’s a team that has worked together for a while now and we all have a great shorthand with each other.

“It’s weird now that we’re all sort of multinational, spread across the United States, and it’s harder to get together for parties. We’ll make it work one day!” 

Stefan Bredereck: “I joined the team in January 2006. I’m from Germany. Originally, I worked mostly in corporate design…but it was boring, and a friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you show your reel here in America somewhere?’ So I took a trip to America and showed John and Fred my reel back then on a Friday. They said I could start on Monday,
which was awesome.

“I love our team. We have really-amazing, hand-picked rock stars that all have at least one specialty, but also can wear multiple hats, which, in a boutique company like ours, is super important.”

Can you give us an overview of the visual effects work that Muse VFX has delivered for What We Do in the Shadows?

Pienkos: “We’ve worked with Shadows VFX supervisor, Stephen Pugh, on the show for multiple seasons now, and this past season we were lucky to work on several different key effects. I think one of the things that stands out for me with What We Do in the Shadows is that it always helps when you’re working on a show that you love [the people you’re] working with, like Steve [Pugh]. And as usual with visual effects, the goal is sometimes to be invisible, and always to help reach the show’s vision.

“I think what I like the most about it is that the visual effects also play a part in the comedy, and what’s most rewarding for me is when I see our team adding to this humor that is already so rich.

“Some of my favorite VFX from our work so far has been Baby Colin, the vampire house explosion and the Guillermo gauntlet.”

Bredereck: “We usually have two meetings — a morning and an afternoon approval meeting — where we look at the shots in the current state. With that show, there’s always a good mood and good laughter. We usually crack up and we can’t wait to see the next version when stuff comes from the compositors. We just hope that everything works out so that it looks good but also is funny.

“When you see it finally come together, that’s very rewarding. Any time the show appreciates that kind of stuff, it has to look real because it’s a documentary or a fake documentary, but it has to also be a little bit over the top to kind of push the humor level. We work on all kinds of shows, but that show is definitely one of our favorites to work on because of the positivity of it. I think all of our team also watches the show actively, so it’s a lot of fun.”

How is the VFX team organized, and how do you divide the workload for a typical episode?

Bredereck: “It starts with Fred and me. Fred oversees the compositing team and I oversee the CG team. That’s the first line where we say, ‘Does it require CG or not?’

“Fred and his team — and he can say much more about it — did this beautiful replacement of the head of Colin, the energy vampire, on top of the child actor. I think that was last season or this season?”

Pienkos: “Last season, and it bled into the first episode of this season.”

Bredereck: “That, for example, was 100 percent compositing work. There was a lot of 2D tracking and trickery involved. The way Steve [Pugh] and the Shadows team shot it was really beneficial, but it was also, obviously, a lot of work to make it look convincing.

“Then there are other effects that are clearly CG-driven, like any kind of gore enhancement, where we simulate stuff like blood. We have about half the artists in CG, and we also have a lot of generalists so that people can take on multiple tasks.”

Pienkos: “I think the Baby Colin stuff that we did was a perfect example of production and post production coming together. We’ve done a lot of face replacements in the past. Some of them are often shots that weren’t expected to be visual effects shots, so they were sort of an afterthought. And face replacements can be hard when you’re not taking into account lighting and things like that.

“In some of the scenes with Baby Colin, they were in nightclubs with flashing, strobing lights. Steve [Pugh] and production took very careful care in shooting those elements with similar moving lights on Colin’s face so that we could time that with what the child actor was doing to really make it look believable and sell that he was the character in all of those scenes.”

You are using Fusion Studio for work on the series?

Pienkos: “We use Fusion for all of the prep and all of the color workflow for the different cameras that they use. Fusion is our main tool for ingestion and in production, taking that all the way through delivery. It’s our main compositing system for every shot on the show, and we’ll be using the internal 2D tracking and all of the keying and compositing — all of the tools and macros that we’ve written to add to the suite of tools. Fusion is obviously very easy to customize, so we’re always writing plug-ins or macros — or Fuses — to make the compositors’ lives easier to save them time and to help with continuity from shot to shot.”

Bredereck: “A good example is for the CG department. When we get a render out of our CG pipeline, we’re using mostly Houdini and Redshift. We have hundreds of EXRs on disk with multiple buffers. We have basically one thing in Fusion that we created that allows you to select what version you want to load, and it loads every buffer and pre-comps it correctly. We even created our own photographic exposure tool.

“Basically, what we’re doing in Redshift, we can do in Fusion. It’s not destructive, because it only reads the metadata of the rendered images and information, puts that in there and then we can tweak it. Even junior compositors or people that switched from Nuke and are a little bit green in Fusion can, with one click, have a pre-comp of all CG layers, and it’s deeply integrated thanks to the pipeline team.

“So CG artists, that maybe are not day-to-day compositors, can do a pre-comp and show the supervisor something, and it obviously also saves a tremendous amount of time when you don’t have to manually load the layers in, deconstruct them and put them back together. It’s literally three clicks.”

Pienkos: “That macro meticulously caters to the CG department and how they expect the layers to be merged. When those elements come in through our pre-comp macro, it looks exactly how the CG department expected. The compositor can start from how the CG was intended to look, so that saves so much time.”

Season 5 has some memorable scenes, like Episode 5’s hallway sequence, where Guillermo encounters and evades an elaborate series of deadly traps. How did you achieve the tone the client was seeking while bringing such a robust variety of effects to life on-screen?

Pienkos: “The client pretty much knew most of the gags that they wanted, but there are times when the VFX team can add to the humor of the shot. That’s sort of the way the relationship with the client works — if it’s funny and if it works, it’s great.

“The challenge from a 2D perspective was that this shot was one long take, so we had probably 14 different areas where we needed to have effects interacting with the character. It took meticulous planning to break that out into segments that could be distributed amongst multiple artists.”

Bredereck: “It was a total of 700 frames. More typically, an FX shot may be around 100 to 150 frames. We had flamethrowers, spears, electric sparks, electric arcs, a pendulum, flamethrowers, a springed wall panel, screwdrivers that fly through the air, spikes coming out, firecrackers, a baseball bat flying through the air, a guillotine and then the rope at the end. So there was a lot of stuff happening!

“We were lucky to get an amazing temp from Steve [Pugh] that showed us exactly what they wanted. They just basically said, ‘Make it look better. Make it look cooler. And make it definitely more realistic.’

“After that, Fred and his team did all the 2D prep. We usually remove the noise so that it’s clean for tracking. Then we had to do a camera track of the whole sequence, so that we have one big layout for all the people to work in. Once we have this main layout, it’s easy to distribute the workload amongst multiple artists and say, ‘Okay, you do all the flame-throwers,’ and so on and so forth. Then, bit by bit, we made sure our Fusion setup could handle updates with frame range changes, which is another custom script that we did so that when, for example, a client decides to shorten or lengthen an effect within the sequence, it gets automatically and perfectly updated in the timeline, or we can insert new effects into that updated timeline dynamically and nondestructively. That’s another thing we actually customized just for this show. This allows us to be really flexible and we can insert effects into such a long sequence, and we only render the frames we need.

“Then it was all a bunch of different kinds of simulations, all done mostly in Houdini: fire simulations, rigid bodies, vellum — which is a grain simulation — electrical arcs and particle simulations. I think the only thing that we didn’t do this time was water, but I believe we had a blood simulation for a vampire wound in the same episode, so we did get our fluid sim in! We had one effect where they wanted to have lasers coming out of the knight’s armor. That was actually a really cool effect, but because of time, they cut it. It may also have been cut due to comedic timing. If it’s too much for too long, it might just not be as funny.”

Pienkos: “Less is more.”

Bredereck: “Then we kept moving forward with the sequence bit by bit. Certain effects within the shot were approved, while others still got tweaks and adjustments. All in all, it was a very smooth production and we had way fewer issues than we thought we would.

“We even did a full body match movement for Guillermo the second time the flamethrower hits, so we could singe his sweater. The whole shot sequence is just layer after layer. One of our compositors, who did the end composite, begged us to not add anything more. The Fusion node tree was the largest single-node stack we had ever seen — but Fusion handled it.”

Pienkos: “That node tree was bigger than a 4K monitor could show when zoomed out entirely.

“I think another way that Fusion really helped us was at the end of the day, when we had this very long, complicated sequence with a bunch of people working on it. With comedy being the most important part, there was an editorial change at the end of the shot where they wanted to re-time Guillermo’s reaction to the bat and the delivery of his final line. So we had to cut a little time out of that section.

“When your elements are organized in the way that they were for us in Fusion, that became a much simpler client request. If it wasn’t as organized as it was, that would have been a difficult note to get — to remove 32 frames from the middle of the sequence and make it seamlessly play without a jump in the camera move or the actor’s position. It became just another compositing task for the shot.”

Are there any other challenging or memorable effects sequences that stand out?

Pienkos: “We did several bat transformations, and we worked on the sequence when the vampires were in the cages. It’s all fun. We had a scene where we had to do some blood coming out of Kristen’s knee [Kristen Schaal as The Guide], and those are always funny because the actors are just hilarious on their own. And then we get to add some more to the scene, which makes it a lot of fun.”

What do you enjoy most about working on What We Do in the Shadows?

Pienkos: “It’s the fact that we can see the same shots over and over again for a period of weeks, and we still laugh during dailies. It just doesn’t seem to get old. Every time we see it, we can see the humor and we can see what we’re working on. And I think that’s what’s best for me. Sometimes if you’re seeing something over and over again, you start to lose focus or you start to lose the details because you’ve seen it so many times. That’s not the case with this show.”

Bredereck: “I mean, the show is so popular that I expect half of our team to dress up as the characters for Halloween. Even John [Gross], our boss, is practicing one of the vampires’ accents because he’s just a big fan. From the boss to the intern, everybody enjoys it. That’s really cool. Often we work on serious shows. We’ve worked on NCIS; Evil; Class of ’09; Y: The Last Man (also with Steve Pugh as show VFX supervisor) — those are all real- ly serious, heavy kind of shows where we do either very gruesome stuff or big explosions. This has a different sensibility. There are little Easter eggs. We even got to design this pizza parlor sign, for example, which sounds like a little thing. What was the name, again?”

Pienkos: “Staten Pie-Land.”

Bredereck: “That kind of stuff. It’s on frame in the show for maybe like two or three seconds, but people can find it. With this client, it feels like you’re really part of the team and you’re contributing in such a way that you’re just happy to share that with your friends and your family. Especially when I mention that we work on this show. If people know it, they’re instantly like, ‘Oh, my God!’ and start asking questions.

“Almost every episode throws an interesting challenge our way, which keeps things exciting. The client really gets that this is something special they’ve come up with. They give us enough time, a proper budget and a clear vision to bring it to life. It’s really great working with clients who under-stand the process and are committed like that.”