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Editor’s note: To uncover the FX secrets of TRUE BLOOD,
Fangoria.com engaged legendary FX artist Steve Johnson (GHOSTBUSTERS, SPECIES,
THE ABYSS, etc.), who spoke with his friends at MastersFX, the studio he also
serves as a consultant for.
It’s an early evening in the studio where HBO’s popular
supernatural series TRUE BLOOD is being shot, when an ear-piercing scream
interrupts the quiet summer tranquility. Contrary to the usual reaction one
would expect to such a sound, no one blinks an eye. It’s pretty much business
as usual on a series in which staking, decapitation, full-body immolation and
numerous other forms of graphic violence are all in a day’s work.
Most of the aforementioned mayhem (as noted in the exclusive
pics here) is engineered by the team at MastersFX, whose ground-breaking makeup
work have been seen in such series as TALES FROM THE CRYPT, SIX FEET UNDER and
FRINGE. On this particular evening, we’ve managed to corral four key members of
that team—including MastersFX owner Todd Masters; TRUE BLOOD FX producer Dan
Rebert; MastersFX visual FX supervisor Andre Bustanoby; and coordinator Mark
Vinniello—for a rare interview about their contributions to TRUE BLOOD, which
enters its fourth season this summer. Punctuated by the occasional unexplained
scream of course…
STEVE JOHNSON: Is there such a thing as too gory?
DAN REBERT: A lot of times, in production meetings we toss
ideas around. The writers and creators of the show lean on us for input, asking
what we can do with a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time. And
I’m often told that what I’m pitching is too gory. The producers laugh it off
and joke around, tell me I’m sick. But one of our biggest effects on the show
was when Bill [Stephen Moyer] is having sex with Lorena [Maria Klaveno]. In the
middle of it all, he reaches forward, grabs her head, twists her neck and snaps
it. He twists her head all the way around backward and continues having sex
with her. That’s probably one of the most graphic, horrific things that I’ve
ever been asked to create—and they wrote it! And these writers and producers
tell me I’m sick?
JOHNSON: Todd, this show is quite reminiscent of DARK
SHADOWS. It’s Gothic, it’s melodramatic; you’ve got forbidden desires, werewolves
and vampires. But if you were directing or producing, what would you add to it?
TODD MASTERS: I’d like to see them push the envelope even
further. The stuff that Dan and the shop are doing is just amazing and it seems
to be a big of interest to the fans. There are lots of water cooler moments in
this show, regardless of the effects; it’s just the kind of show that you want
people to talk about. But moments like Lorena’s head twisting, that to me is
the fun and games of the show.
JOHNSON: With film vs. television, how do you meet those
schedules, on what has to be a tighter budget?
MARK VINNIELLO: Dan has often said that working on TRUE
BLOOD is like doing a film every two weeks, and the expectation for such a
quality show is to maintain that level of quality. One of the things that has
helped us out is that a lot of the materials available now weren’t available 10
or even five years ago.
JOHNSON: Vampires in a box.
VINNIELLO: A lot of it is just Dan and I working together
and having open lines of communication with production. We’re now in season
four of TRUE BLOOD, and over the course of three seasons, we’ve all been
trained to know when the big effects are going to happen and how to plan for it
best within the schedule. So that helps too.
JOHNSON: To me (and maybe some of the more sophisticated
audience members), it’s obvious that there’s a lot of digital/practical
overlap. How do you approach designing the effects that way?
ANDRE BUSTANOBY: We work with and in tandem with visual
effects supervisor Jon Massey and Zoic, who creates the visual effects, taking
what’s on set, thru compositing and postproduction. What’s unique and very fun
for all of us is that we’re involved early enough, reading the scripts,
engaging the writers and talking to [creator] Alan Ball and the directors not
just about shot design, but also how to sell the effect as a story point and
what techniques to use. We’re not saying, “Is it best done physically or
digitally?” Often it’s together, so you leverage the best of both. As the
viewer, you don’t know which technique is being used, but you don’t care; it
just looks great. To prove many of these ideas, we often shoot full tests with
our team, here in the shop.
JOHNSON: How did you come up with your design for the
REBERT: I can give you the exact answer for that. What had
happened was way before we even did the pilot, like two months before, Alan
called and asked Todd and I to go down to his office to discuss the look of the
vampires. He wanted to talk to us first and foremost, because Alan’s not an
UNDERWORLD guy. He doesn’t really get that stuff. A lot of things that makeup
effects guys think look cool, he just thinks it’s downright silly. He wanted to
make sure that we were starting off with the feel of what he wanted. And he
actually told us a model movie to watch. He said, “How I want TRUE BLOOD to
come off in terms of feel is a movie called JUNEBUG.” I hadn’t heard of
JUNEBUG, so I watched and was like, “What the hell is this? I don’t see
vampires in this at all!” But I understood where he was going with it. He
wanted to tune everything down.
What Todd and I did, was put together a book of different
ideas: teeth designs, we showed them designs with veins; with lenses; all that
stuff. And Alan responded to what he wanted. He wanted a really minimalist
approach. What he really did like, and one of the producers who called me up
and asked me to come down to this meeting, said, “I’ll tell you what. I’m going
to give you a little precursor. What Alan really wants to see is a new teeth
design.” The first thing that came into my head was, I’d never seen vampire
teeth like a rattlesnake teeth. You know, like teeth that basically unfold from
the inside of the mouth. And we brought down tons of pictures of different
teeth designs, and I did a Photoshop on [MastersFX artist] Sam Polin down there
of the teeth folding out like switchblades. The great thing about the eyeteeth
is a false front that actually folds into the gum. And it’s a really cool look.
JOHNSON: That is actually the most unique vampire idea I’ve
heard in a long time.
REBERT: I designed that on Polin’s eyeteeth, because that’s
just where they visually fit best for him. My idea initially was to put the
teeth on the canines, depending on the actor’s mouth. But Alan Ball saw the
Photoshop and said, “This is what I want; I’m on board with the whole snake
idea!” And that’s what we went with out of that meeting. We want something
really neat and original for the teeth, and everything else is pretty much
TO BE CONTINUED
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