‘The Nevers’: How the HBO Series’ VFX Team Crafted That Impressive Water Battle

Visual effects supervisor Johnny Han on why trampoline technology and non-Newtonian fluid studies informed the Emmy-nominated third episode “Ignition”

Infusing realistic settings with visual effects is something VFX supervisor Johnny Han is quite used to, being a craftsman who is just as comfortable working in the present and recent past as easily as science fiction and fantasy. HBO’s “The Nevers”, which operates in the latter categories, chronicling a Victorian-age community known as the Touched, who possess unique, manipulative powers for both good and evil, is a project he says is honestly not that different from serious works like 2020’s “One Night in Miami” and “Welcome to Chechnya,” films that used VFX to alter or remove imagery for importance and effect.

“It’s really about breaking things down into a singular, creative message in every shot,” the Emmy nominee Han says. “We often think of periods of the past as a simpler time, so a lot of the fun was boiling it down, even if the shot is one second long, and the ability to say, ‘Hey, I understand what that character felt in that shot.’”

Han has aptly balanced working on features and in effects houses over the past 10 years with an impressive resume of commercials from clients ranging from McDonald’s to Sony Music but found “The Nevers” to be uniquely challenging, employing just shy of 2,000 visual effects to what is often a fairly straightforward period piece that could almost sit side by side with something like “Bridgerton” – if that show’s characters happened to have machines in which townspeople could should lasers out of their limbs.

“I think this show is really fun because it strikes a nice balance, playing within the walls of that period that is already so fascinating, and getting to play with the fantasy realm which includes the tactical and supernatural,” Han adds, referring to characters such as Penance (Ann Skelly), who sees electrical energy patterns, and Annie (Rochelle Neil), who can manifest fireballs.

And then there’s Amalia (Laura Donnelly), the de facto leader of these oft-snubbed outliers, who can psychically see future vignettes, and is the central figure in one of the most impressive sequences in the series, where in the Emmy-nominated third episode titled “Ignition” she is pursued by a massive, water-repelling henchman named Odium (Martyn Ford) in a lake, culminating in a water battle in which viewers can see Amalia struggling underneath as well as Odium casually walking across the surface above her in an impressive feat of tech.

“We shot greenscreen and designed the shot so the camera could fluidly move and not be dictated by cranes and such,” says Han, who credits “Star Trek” as being one of the influences that informed his chosen profession.” And then on the post side of things, we worked really hard to come up with a cool way for the water to behave, we didn’t want it to just feel like someone walking on rigid water, the way you might walk on a platform. We wanted it to have some sort of elasticity.”

For her coverage, Donnelly trained with a scuba specialist so she could do as much of the scene underwater as possible. “We can do amazing human work now with simulation, but it’s just not the same. The fact that we had Laura doing all her own work, seeing her swimming and struggling in the digital level, we were so lucky to have that,” Han says.

Han and his team then turned to the idea of trampolines and how they set bodies in motion, and also a technique as simple and relatable as the ketchup in your refrigerator. Explains Han: “We looked into a lot of research and landed on the idea of material poverty called non-Newtonian fluid, in which you can make corn starch with water and essentially make a fluid get harder and more solid the more force you apply to it. I watched so many videos that make it seem like an easy thing, but it has to be done alongside computer graphics and water simulation. It’s still one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my career, and I’ve dealt with so much water.”

“The Nevers” is now available to stream on HBO Max


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