If you're a fan of What We Do in the Shadows, you know that the show lives and dies (pun intended) on its hilarity juxtaposed against its horror. There's a heavy amount of special effects needed to make the world of vampires both believable and funny.
So, how do you balance the jokes with the gore, and how do you let them feed off each other?
I had all these questions and more, which is why I was lucky enough to be introduced to Fred Pienkos, the founder of MuseVFX, as well as Stefan Bredereck, the CG Supervisor at Muse VFX. They lead a team of talented artists at Muse VFX that work on What We Do in the Shadows under the leadership of Steve Pugh, the VFX Supervisor of the show , and were then happy to answer these questions and much more.
No Film School: How did you get your start in the VFX world?
Fred Pienkos: The ironic answer is that I went to film school! To quote my Mom, perhaps "It was a different time then." And, in fact, it was. Most people could not afford SGI computers or the costs of shooting on film on their own. I originally studied photography and film in Chicago at Columbia College. Back then, Columbia also had a great computer graphics department; it was ahead of its time. I quickly realized that everything I was learning about lighting, lenses, camera angles, composition, and shot flow in the photography and film departments translated well into working in CG.
I started focusing on computer graphics at that point. After graduating, I worked with TDI/Wavefront, Alias Power Animator, and Lightwave creating video games for Konami for Windows and the brand-new (at the time) Sony PlayStation. After a couple of game titles, working in commercials attracted my attention, and I focused on CG and character animation in commercials for several years in Chicago, working with an incredible team of talented artists at Skyview Film & Video for clients like DDB, Leo Burnett, USPS, and McDonald's.
Stefan Bredereck: I started in 1999 with an internship at a German TV network in news animation. After working myself through the ranks to Senior Designer, I took a sabbatical in 2006 to see if I could make it in Hollywood. That is when I met Fred and John and started working for TV and Feature VFX. Even as a child, I was fascinated by special effects, like monsters and explosions in movies and episodic, but I could have never imagined making it my living.
NFS: What inspired you to create Muse VFX?
Pienkos: I moved to Santa Monica, CA, from Chicago in 2000 to work at Digital Muse, hired by owner John Gross to work on Star Trek Voyager. That Digital Muse team of phenomenal and creative artists would eventually turn into colleagues and friends of mine to this very day. A year later, a new company, Eden FX, was born, and we continued to work on Voyager for its final season and then Star Trek: Enterprise for Paramount. Eden FX provided VFX for 13 years, being nominated and winning multiple Emmy and VES awards, but then in 2013, an opportunity to start something new as a partner with VFX Pioneer John Gross presented itself. Muse VFX was (re?)born.
Bredereck: I was there from the start. Even though I took a small break to work on The Flash, a dream come true for many reasons, I always seem to return to Muse. It's like family to me. We care about one another and are primarily long-term employees, which tells much about the company.
NFS: Is there a trick to timing VFX to comedy and horror like you do in What We Do in the Shadows?
Pienkos: Timing is everything in comedy. No single trick comes to mind, but finding our way to have VFX play a role in the comedy is one of the most rewarding parts of working on the show. As visual effects artists, we help our clients achieve their vision of how they intend something to look or work. Often, our work is "invisible," but for WWDITS, our work often adds to the comedy.
Bredereck: Timing in VFX is always tricky. The worst visual effects are the ones not getting an emotional reaction. Timing, anticipation, and payoff are so important. While we are trying our best to support the show with great animation and not hesitate to suggest different ways to make things funnier, our client, Steve Pugh, the VFX supervisor on the show, usually gives us amazing pre-vis or temp versions of the effects. It helps so much since everybody, from the showrunner to the sound team, knows the intention and the timing.
In the case of the Gauntlet shot, two edits were added during the production phase, which helped so much to get the rhythm right and the last line to be perfectly timed. It's just one of the many applied tricks to make it all work. Lastly, the actor's performance made it work so well. A big part of the success of that sequence!
Credit: FX PRESS
NFS: Describe how Fusion Studio VFX and motion graphics software help streamline your workflow.
Pienkos: Fusion helps streamline our work by being great, fast, and cheap. You usually have to pick two, but we get all three simultaneously with Fusion. Fusion still processes even the most complicated composites efficiently, utilizing dozens of GPU-enabled tools, and with free render-only licenses, very large comps get distributed on the render nodes. That covers fast and cheap, but Fusion's constant development, adaptability, and customization make it great. Redundant tasks are quickly replaced by Fusion scripts and macros, and anyone who knows a little Python can harness the ability to automate processes in Fusion, working smarter, not harder.
Fusion 18 now includes modern AI-driven tools like Relight and MagicMask merged into Fusion from DaVinci Resolve. With the decades of combined image processing expertise between Resolve and Fusion now working in parallel, we now have I/O, Editorial, VFX, and Grading all managed in one platform.
Bredereck: Fusion Studio allows us to automate all things 3D well. We render all of our final frames in a particular way, and Fusion automatically pre-composites all the layers, AOVs, and mattes and puts it all together. It looks identical to what we see in Houdini but is ready to be tweaked.
This process takes less than 15 seconds with a few clicks versus 10 to 15 minutes on an easy render and sometimes hours on a big one if created manually. The general integration of Fusion into our Pipeline is excellent and reliable, but Fred could say much more about that part.
NFS: Are there any effects people are sure were done practically, but you get to tell them were actually you and your team?
Pienkos:WWDITS has a fantastic amount of practical effects as well as digital effects. Some digital effects are apparent because, as a viewer, you know it wouldn’t be possible or practical to do so without endangering the cast and crew. Often the challenge is that we do not attract attention to the effect itself, but try to sell it as a naturally occurring phenomenon in the WWDITS universe. I try not to ruin the fun for my friends who do not work in post-production, but I tell them that if there was smoke, fire, blood, or bats, it is possible we were there.
Bredereck: While we are working on a good amount of apparent effects, like CG bats or explosions, we produce more effects that are considered invisible. For example, WWDITS is supposed to be a documentary with an unavoidable sense of a reality TV program. Much work goes into keeping that illusion alive and hiding evidence of set builds, wires, and other production-related obstacles.
Of course, it is the best feeling to show friends and family our work and how much visual magic goes into even the seemingly most straightforward shots.
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