What We Do in the Shadows: Making a Realistic Vampire World

What We Do in the Shadows cinematographer DJ Stipsen and visual effects supervisor Brendan Taylor share their tricks of the trade.

What We Do in the Shadows on FX is unique among single camera comedies in that it makes use of special effects but also strives for a realistic mockumentary feel. With the show wrapping up its stellar first season on May 29, 2019, we spoke with cinematographer DJ Stipsen, who also worked on the original New Zealand movie directed by and starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement that inspired the series, and Brendan Taylor, who acted as visual effects supervisor, making the vampires and their powers look as real as possible while preserving the believability of the world the show tries to create.

Stipsen admits that a major difference between the film and the TV series was the bigger budget, but the scripted nature of the show was also a change from the more improvisational original. “When [Jemaine Clement] phoned me up about working on the series, he said, ‘Oh mate, don’t worry! It’s not going to be nearly as anarchic as the film.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, thank goodness for that. I don’t know if I could do that again’,” Stipsen said. “The film had a script which was merely an outline of how the story may progress. We shot the film chronologically,… but the script was merely a guideline, and they were very clear about that because they embraced the mockumentary style completely and utterly.”

Taylor didn’t work on the visual effects for the film, but he was certainly a fan of the original What We Do in the Shadows, especially considering how rare it is to see effects in a comedy. “I was in Wellington when the movie exploded in New Zealand. I didn’t get to see it then, but I saw it as soon as I got back,” said Taylor. “And as soon as I heard that [the TV show] was happening, I campaigned very, very heavily to get it. We had done a comedy series with FX called Man Seeking Woman, and it was the same kind of thing: lots of effects for a half hour comedy. So I think we were really well positioned to do it, and we put together a reel of all of our best comedy stuff.”

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Taylor did want to evoke the original movie somewhat with his effects so that fans of the source material would recognize the world, even though the Staten Island vampires were different from their Wellington cousins. “There was no point in reinventing the wheel,” he said. “I thought the movie did a great job, especially with the transitions from bat to vampire and vampire to bat. Jemaine was just like, ‘Make it look like that. It’s great the way it is.’ But that was really the only effect — oh, and the werewolf eyes as well — that we could actually draw inspiration from the film because everything was so new in the TV series. There’s a new gamut of stuff to do.”

Having visual cues to create the bat transformation effects posed its own set of challenges for Taylor and his visual effects team. “It’s funny because I asked Jemaine how they did the bat transformation in the movie, and he just just sort looked at me and said, ‘We just jump in the air, and then you take over?’ I was like, ‘Okay…’” Taylor said. “But the ‘Bat!’ thing was something that I think Matt Berry had come up with, and… Laszlo is the only one that says ‘Bat!’ Everyone can just do it. Except, funny that you mention it, not every time, because where we would take over is at the apex of the jump, right? When they stop going up and start coming down, that’s when you do it. But he never said ‘Bat!’ at the right time. So you’ll see some where he says it way before, some where he says it right on, and some actually where he says it too late, and he’s already turned into a bat and you hear the word, ‘Bat!’”

Another trademark of the film that carries over into FX’s What We Do in the Shadows is the one-point lighting that tells the audience they should view this as a documentary, which is admittedly an outdated but still relevant visual cue, according to Stipsen. “No real documentary does that anymore… But people still react to that,” he said. “So it was really important that we had that going to remind the audience that this was observational, to make sure that the audience never forgot that it wasn’t drama. We almost wanted to get them to a point where they accepted what was happening in front of them as true reality. I know that’s kind of a long stretch, but really if they are engaging with it and they’re reminded occasionally by having this light on top of the camera that there’s a crew there, who are referred to quite a lot but never seen, I think it just helps make that world a little bit more realistic.”

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There were other tricks Stipsen employed to give What We Do in the Shadows a more believable documentary style. “The other tool was trying to remind the operators to get just a couple of frames or beats late to something that was happening so that they were reacting, not preempting because they knew it was going to happen,” Stipsen explained. “And normally in drama if you did that, you’d probably be sacked within about an hour. So you really had to throw out all of your learning and go, ‘No, I have to pretend that I’m 20 years old. I’ve never operated a camera before, and this is my first gig.’ And if you went in with that premise, you can react to things better.”

That being said, there are challenges to lighting a show for vampires, who must spend all of their time away from sunlight. “As Jemaine said to me a couple of times he’s like, ‘Look mate, I know we got to keep it dark, but it’s a comedy. I’d kinda like to see their eyes.’ So it’s a really fine line to walk because a performance is in the expressions as well,” Stipsen said. “And the biggest thing was all the ceiling pieces in the house had to come out because you’ve got stunt wire work happening in the house quite often, and that’s really tricky. I’m not a big fan of using top light through ceiling pieces, but when the camera can go anywhere it wants following the actors, you kind of need a get out of jail free card. And that is generally very subtle top light. I didn’t have that in the film… we couldn’t afford to ceiling the entire set.”

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The dark but subtly lit sets stood in stark contrast to some of the public scenes, even Colin Robinson’s daytime office. “The vampires had to love that house and love living in it, and they had to feel really uncomfortable when they went outside,” said Stipsen. “The outside world had to be baffling to them. They knew the house intimately. That was all great, but as soon as they went out — and I think it’s evident in the Staten Island Council episode — they get on a fluorescent bus that’s pretty ugly. They go to a council chamber; it’s pretty ugly. But they’re also constantly bamboozled by bureaucracy. And why do people do stupid things that they’re doing? So visually we were always hunting for the ugliest locations to try and bring a bright, fluorescent lit feel so that the house really stood out against the locations.”

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Quite often, Taylor and Stipsen had to work together to keep the effects looking realistic even when the camera shook during handheld scenes. “It was very rare we locked the camera off. Most of the time the camera was on the shoulder of the operators,” admitted Stipsen. “We tried not to zoom over those effects but sometimes Brendan would go, ‘No, just do it. We’ll get rid of it later.’ And so he alone and Mavericks as a company enabeled us to continue shooting in a documentary style and not have those shots handbrake the style of the show by all of a sudden the audience going, ‘Hang on, that looks weird. What’s wrong with that?’ And the ‘look weird’ would be that the camera was locked off and the handheld put in later, which never looks any good.”

Taylor credits the camera operators and the collaboration with Stipsen as director of photography and the episode directors themselves with the success of his effects. “When we were doing these bat transitions, it’s very choreographed even though it doesn’t look it,” he said. “It’s like at this moment, we tilt up to the sky with the bat. And very frequently it was the two operators who were sort of blocking it out and helping problem solve, which was a testament to the crew as well and everyone feeling they had the authority to help make story decisions like that. I thought it was awesome.”

Viewers can witness the amazing bat transformations and characteristic lighting that Taylor and Stipsen bring to What We Do in the Shadows when the series wraps up its first season on FX on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. The show has already been renewed for a second season on the network, so there will be more of the vampire comedy to enjoy in 2020. For the full audio of this interview, coming in June, be sure to subscribe to The Fourth Wall podcast, which highlights the creative talent of many behind-the-scenes artists such as those featured here.

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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and coordinates interviews for The Fourth Wall podcast.