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Quick Chat: Dive’s Ed Mendez on VFX for ‘The Leftovers’

By Randi Altman

HBO’s new series The Leftovers has been a ray of sunshine in what is typically a gray summer of television fare. Not that the show — which focuses on how the world and, in particular, a small town in suburban New York deals after two percent of the earth’s population randomly vanishes — is sunny in any way, but it’s compellingly good television.

The town of Mapleton is filled with those who are handling the disappearance of loved ones (almost everyone has lost someone) in their own way, some believing it was The Rapture, others thinking they are being punished, a few embracing their dark side and some ignoring their misery and just plowing through each day. It’s a great study in how one singular event could touch people in so many different ways.

Dive in New York City is the exclusive visual effects vendor for The Leftovers, which is shot in New York State, providing many different effect sequences, ranging from the invisible to the more overt.

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Ed Mendez

Thanks to Dive’s VFX supervisor Ed Mendez, we were able to dig a little deeper into the process.

How many VFX shots are you averaging an episode?
We are averaging around 50 shots an episode, but the body of work can vary quite substantially depending upon the episode. We have delivered closer to 100 shots on several occasions.

Can you describe what is the most typical kind of work you are providing?
Typical isn’t The Leftovers’ world. Every episode is introducing new and challenging VFX work. Set extensions, seasonal work, practical and digital effects, digital makeup, monitor comps, paint work, retimes, etc.

We got to see the digital deer in Episode 1, any other CG animals?
Our deer is the only CG animal, but there are additional greenscreen animals we shot to use for VFX shots in upcoming episodes. One of our roles is to help inform which approach, practical vs. CG, is more cost efficient. Production has done a great job of bringing in practical animals, and we’d always prefer to use real photographic elements.

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Any one shot or sequence more challenging than another?
Yes, there are certainly more challenging sequences where we have a team of artists tackling the VFX work. It seems there is at least one or two sequences per episode that require special attention.

What shot or sequence are you most proud of?
I am very proud of our CG deer and jump sequences (people jumping off a building) completed for the pilot. The challenge for the deer was that we needed to shoot a real deer on a stage, and it had a limited range of what they could get it to do practically so we had to supplement with a CG creature. The two had to integrate seamlessly.

There are some great sequences coming up, but can’t talk about them yet.

How are you working with the showrunners/EPs to make sure they are getting what they need?
We worked closely with Damon Lindelof, Peter Berg and Tom Perrotta on the start of the series, setting a look and feel for the show. As the season continued, I would interact directly with the individual show directors and with the show producers assuring that we captured the footage we needed to complete the VFX. Often times we would previs or temp out shots to get direct feedback on approaches to on-set and post work.

So you are onset supervising?
Yes. When VFX shots of sufficient complexity are identified, I supervise the on-set execution of these scenes. My time supervising on set ranges widely from episode to episode.

How early are they bringing you in on episodes?
We have been included in preproduction and production of each episode. I read every script and attend scouts/production meetings and supervise on-set with our VFX scenes. VFX has been involved just like all other departments in production.

What is the review and approval process like?
We typically send over temp versions of shots to editorial several days before delivery. We would receive feedback/direction and complete the shots.

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Can you talk about the fire VFX shots for Episode 3
We created six fire shots for that one: two house fire shots and four man burning shots. For the house shots, I was on-set to supervise two different sets, We first shot the hero plate on location with the actors, fire trucks, set dressing and interactive lighting all in front of a real house. We later shot a burning miniature house, beautifully built by production at a quarter scale to our real house. It was shot at 48fps on the Alexa. In post we married the two plates together with additional fire, smoke, interactive lighting, heat distortion and lots of edge treatment.

For the burning man (Reverend Matt) in bed sequence, I was there to supervise two different sets. The first was our hero room. We shot our actor in a bed acting like he was on fire. Then in the same room, we shot a stuntman on fire in a flame resistant suit and on a flame resistant bed and sheets. The last set was an element shoot where we shot the stuntman in black, over black to provide us with elements to layer in our final composited shots. We used a combination of 3D elements, our VFX shoot elements, and some stock elements to get the desired look and intensity. We used Mocha and Nuke to track on the burn texture and fire elements onto the actor so he appeared to be on fire.  We also used Houdini on the shot.

You mention some tools you use above, what else do you call on?
For on-set we use Setellite on an iPad for VFX data acquisition and a Canon 5D Mark III DSLR. For post it’s Nuke for compositing and paint; Maya for 3D; Mocha for planar tracking/paint; Syntheyes for 3D tracking; and Shotgun for project management.

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First run episodes of The Leftovers air on HBO on Sunday nights.

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