By Randi Altman
Hulu’s original film Big Time Adolescence is a coming-of-age story that follows 16-year-old Mo, who is befriended by his sister’s older and sketchy ex-boyfriend Zeke. This aimless college dropout happily introduces the innocent-but-curious Mo to drink and drugs and a poorly thought-out tattoo.
Big Time Adolescence stars Pete Davidson (Zeke), Griffin Gluck (Mo) and Machine Gun Kelly (Nick) and features Jon Cryer as Mo’s dad. This irony will not be lost on those who know Cryer from his own role as disenfranchised teen Duckie in Pretty in Pink.
While this film doesn’t scream visual effects movie, they are there — 29 shots — and they are invisible, created by Syracuse, New York-based post house Flying Turtle. We recently reached out to Flying Turtle’s Shaina Holmes to find out about her work on the film and her process.
Holmes served as VFX supervisor, VFX producer and lead VFX artist on Big Time Adolescence, creating things like flying baseballs, adding smoke to a hotboxed car, removals, replacements and more. In addition to owning Flying Turtle Post, she is a teacher at Syracuse University, where she mentors students who often end up working at her post house.
She has over 200 film and television credits, including The Notebook, Tropic Thunder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Men in Black 3, Swiss Army Man and True Detective.
Let’s find our more…
How early did you get involved on Big Time Adolescence?
This this was our fifth project in a year with production company American High. With all projects overlapping in various stages of production, we were in constant contact with the client to help answer any questions that arose in early stages of pre-production and production.
Once the edit was picture-locked, we bid all the VFX shots in October/November 2018, VFX turnovers were received in November, and we had a few short weeks to complete all VFX in time for the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019.
What direction were you given from your client?
Because this was our fifth feature with American High and each project has similar basic needs, we already had plans in place for how to shoot certain elements.
For example, most of the American High projects deal with high school, so cell phones and computer screens are a large part of how the characters communicate. Production has been really proactive about hiring an on-set graphics artist to design and create phone and computer screen graphics that can be used either during the shoot or provided to my team to add in VFX.
Having these graphics prebuilt has saved a lot of design time in post. While we still need to occasionally change times and dates, remove the carrier, change photos, replace text and other editorial changes, we end up only needing to do a handful of shots instead of all the screen replacements. We really encourage communication during the entire process to come up with alternatives and solutions that can be shot practically, and that usually makes our jobs more efficient later on.
Were you on set?
I was not physically needed on set for this film, however after filming completed, we realized in post that we were missing some footage during the batting cages scene. The post supervisor and I, along with my VFX coordinator, rented a camera and braved the freezing Syracuse, New York, winter to go to the same batting cages and shoot the missing elements. These plates became essential, as production had turned off the pitching machine during the filming.
To recreate the baseball in CG, we needed more information for modeling, texture and animation within this space to create more realistic interaction with the characters and environment in VFX. After shoveling snow and ice, we were able to set the camera up at the batting cage and create the reference footage we needed to match our CG baseball animation. Luckily, since the film shot so close to where we all live and work, this was not a problem… besides our frozen fingers!
What other effects did you provide?
We aren’t reinventing the wheel here in the work we do. We work on features wherein invisible VFX are the supporting roles that help create a seamless experience for the audience without distractions from technical imperfections and without revising graphics to enable the story to unfold properly. I work with the production team to advise on ways to shoot to save on costs in post production and use creative problem solving to cut down costs in VFX to satisfy their budget and achieve their intended vision
That being said, we were able to do some fun sequences including CG baseballs, hotboxing a car, screen replacements, graphic animation and alterations, fluid morphs and artifact cleanup, intricate wipe transitions, split screens and removals (tattoos, equipment, out-of-season nature elements).
Can you talk about some of those more challenging scenes/effects?
Besides the CG baseball, the most difficult shots are the fluid morphs. These usually consist of split screens where one side of the split has a speed change effect to editorially cut out dialogue or revise action/reactions.
They seem simple, but to seamlessly morph two completely different actions together over a few frames and create all the in-betweens takes a lot of skill. These are often more advanced than our entry-level artists can handle, so they usually end up on my plate.
What was the review and approval process like?
All the work starts with me receiving plates from the clients and ends with me delivering final versions to the clients. As I am the compositing supervisor, we go through many internal reviews and versions before I approve shots to send to the client for feedback, which is a role I’ve done for the bulk of my career.
For most of the American High projects, the clients are spread out between Syracuse, LA and NYC. No reviews were done in person, although if needed, I could go to Syracuse Studios at any time to review dailies if there was any footage I thought could help with some fix-it-in-post VFX requests.
All shots were sent online for review and final delivery. We worked closely with the executive producer, post supervisor, editor and assistant editor for feedback, notes, design and revisions. Most review sessions were collaborative as far as feedback and what’s possible.
What tools did you use on the film?
Blackmagic’s Fusion is the main compositing software. Artists were trained on Fusion by me when they were in college, so it is an easy and affordable transition for them to use for professional-quality work. Since everyone has their own personal computer setup at home, it’s been fairly easy for artists to send comp files back to me and I render on my end after relinking. That has been a much quicker process for internal feedback and deliveries as we’re working on UHD and 4K resolutions.
For Big Time Adolescence specifically, we also needed to use Adobe After Effects for some of the fluid morph shots, plus some final clean-up in Fusion. For the CG baseball shots, we used Autodesk Maya and Substance Painter, rendered with Arnold and comped in Fusion.
You are female-owned and you are in Syracuse, New York. Not something you hear about every day.
Yes, we are definitely set up in a great up-and-coming area here in Ithaca and Syracuse. I went to film school at Ithaca College. From there, I worked in LA and NYC for 20 years as a VFX artist and producer. In 2016, I was offered the opportunity to teach VFX back at Ithaca College, so I came back to the Central New York area to see if teaching was the next chapter for me.
Timing worked out perfectly when some of my former co-workers were helping create American High, using the Central New York tax incentives and they were prepping to shoot feature films in Syracuse. They brought me on as the local VFX support since we had already been working together off and on since 2010 in NYC. When I found myself both teaching and working on feature films, that gave me the idea to create a company to combine forces.
Teaching at Syracuse University and focusing on VFX and post for live-action film and TV, I am based at The Newhouse School, which is very closely connected with American High and Syracuse Studios. I was already integrated into their productions, so this was just a really good fit all around to bring our students into the growing Central New York film industry, aiming to create a sustainable local talent pool.
Our team is made up of artists who started with me in post mentorship groups I created at both Ithaca College (Park Post) and Syracuse University (SU Post). I teach them in class, they join these post group collaborative learning spaces for peer-to-peer mentorship, and then a select few continue to grow at Flying Turtle Post.
What haven’t I asked that’s important?
When most people hear visual effects, they think of huge blockbusters, but that was never my thing. I love working on invisible VFX and the fact that it blows people’s minds — how so much attention is paid to every single shot, let alone frame, to achieve complete immersion for the audience, so they’re not picking out the boom mic or dead pixels. So much work goes on to create this perfect illusion. It’s odd to say, but there is such satisfaction when no one noticed the work you did. That’s the sign of doing your job right!
Every show relies on invisible VFX these days, even the smallest indie film with a tiny budget. These are the projects I really like to be involved in as that’s where creativity and innovation are at their best. It’s my hope that up-and-coming filmmakers who have amazing stories to tell will identify with my company’s mentorship-focused approach and feel they also are able to grow their vision with us. We support female and underrepresented filmmakers in their pursuit to make change in our industry.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.