The VFX secrets of Amazon’s The Boys

From scientific research to comedic timing, a VFX company in London helped bring The Boys TV show to life...

The London-based visual effects experts from Framestore worked on a couple of big sequences for the first season of The Boys, the Amazon Prime Video original series that is based on the comic book of the same name.

The team from Framestore hadn’t met The Boys showrunner Eric Kripke before, or the show’s creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It was actually Dan Trachtenburg, who directed the pilot episode of The Boys, who was keen to bring Framestore in. Trachtenburg had previously worked with Framestore on Playtest, the episode of Black Mirror he directed.

We interviewed Christopher Gray (executive producer at Framestore) and Pedro Sabrosa (VFX supervisor at Framestore) about their work on The Boys, and we’ve compiled some of their secrets into the article you’re about to read. To help you visualise what we’re talking about, they also supplied us with this VFX reel about the scenes they worked on….

The opening scene was shot last

As Christopher Gray recalls: “We came into the process relatively late on and found out they wanted to do the opening sequence, which was… um, you know, no pressure there! Interestingly, they shot that late: I think it was last in the shooting schedule. So yeah, we jumped on board very late in the day and had to turn it around quite quickly.”

Pedro Sabrosa adds: “With the first sequence, fundamentally, [showrunner] Eric [Kripke] was really concerned with keeping all the effects grounded, even though some of the stuff throughout the series is completely outrageous, you know: the dolphin moment, and The Deep’s gills, and there’s a lot of like eye-opening horrific and horrendous stuff that goes on. But I think mostly, all of it is just very grounded and has a reality to it.

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“I think what’s interesting about the opening sequence is that it really sets up what the world is, that these things exist, and where there is just an affinity for collateral damage, and it kind of pokes fun at that whole thing.”

Making the money shot

“We have a lot of experience with destruction,” Gray teases, “and we have done a lot of superhero shows at Framestore, so that really is in our wheelhouse.” But they’ve probably never done such a literal money shot as this before: Dominique McElligott’s Queen Maeve smashing her way through a stolen van full of cash, with the notes and coins flying around her in slow motion.

As Gray explains, this shot was a mix of physical effects and VFX: “They had like a metal beam that was secured to the street [in real life], and the vehicle was probably prepared to be destroyed more easily than usual, but yeah that was done for real. And then we added Queen Maeve and some additional elements into the scene.”

“We shot her on a plate,” Sabrosa adds, “landing in front of a green screen. And then we had to replace her with a digital double, so that we would put elements around her. And we animated a lot of those bits and pieces around her. So there was quite a lot of extra stuff on top of the practical destruction, which was amazing to start with to be honest.”

Comedy timing versus science

After Maeve’s money shot, Anothony Starr’s Homelander grabs a goon by the scruff of his neck and throws him into the distance. In real life, the actor playing the goon zips out of the shot on a wire, which Framestore digitally erases. Framestore also supplies a CGI copy of the goon, and animates him to fall in the distance.

As Gray explains: “That kind of stuff takes a bit of planning, because on TV, you’re limited while you’re filming it and you’re also limited while you’re doing post-production. So it’s a fine line, working out what you’re trying to shoot and what you’re going to need for later. It’s a fine line, and I think they’ve handled it very well on this show.”

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With moments like the goon dropping in the distance, you’re aiming “more for comedy timing” than scientific accuracy, Sabrosa explains. The VFX team were “kind of reacting to Homelander, throwing him and turning and acting all nonchalant. We didn’t actually animate him [the goon, while he’s out of shot] in the air. We looked at the speed at which he falls, but the timing, when he starts to fall [into the shot], was more timed to the comedy of the scene.”

The real science of Starlight versus A-Train

Framestore also contributed to the final episode, using their VFX magic to enhance the battle between Erin Moriarty’s Starlight and Jessie T. Usher’s A-Train. Gray estimates that they “worked on it quite attentively for 8 weeks,” and in that time they did a fair bit of research into how light travels in slow motion. More so than with the goon throw from episode one, they leaned into real science for this scene.

“It gave us a really nice opportunity to look at the different facets of Starlight’s superpower,” Gray explains, “and we looked at a thing called Femto-photography, which is like a way of visualizing photons. In it, you can kind of see light rippling and things like that: it’s an amazing study, and there’s a great TED talk on that if you want the link.

“We kind of dialled those elements into the sequence. It’s a quick sequence, but you see all those little details in it. And it was really fun to do a bit of studying. A lot of what we do at Framestore comes from very much a science-first, rules-based approach to stuff, and the creativity comes from that and goes on top of that.”

The importance of tiny details

You’ll notice in the visual effects reel that even tiny details, like the reflection of Starlight’s powers in A-Trains goggles, are worked into the scene by Framestore. Of such minute details, Gray is very passionate: “In visual effects, 90% of it is in your face, and the detail is what really sells it,” he says. “The subtleties and imperfections in the shots are what actually take it fully there for you.”

Sabrosa adds: “For example, we can make a great-looking dinosaur and light it so it looks like it’s in the background of a place. But if you don’t give it a shadow or a reflection whilst you’re walking past, you won’t believe it’s there. Something will feel off. It’s the little details that help the bigger elements come together for the shots.”

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Were they disappointed not to work on the dolphin bit?

To our jokey question, Gray has a nice honest answer: “I mean, there’s so many cool moments for VFX in the show, and I think we got two of the biggest moments in the series, and they were an absolute joy to work on, so not really.”

The future could throw some zany scenes in Framestore’s direction, though. As Gray puts it: “there is a season 2, and who knows what is going to happen? I think we’re in for more of the same stuff, if not more fun and more interesting. I read something from Erik earlier, about season 2 going into the characters even more. But you can guarantee there will be a lot of amazing VFX work to come in season 2 as well.”

We look forward to seeing what season 2 will bring for The Boys, and how Framestore and their collaborators will try and top the impressive visuals of season 1. While we wait for the show to return, you can click this link to see what’s new on Amazon Prime Video this month.