Johnny Han (‘The Nevers’ VFX supervisor) on period appropriate superpowers: ‘The beauty of understated subtlety’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“I learned to appreciate the beauty of understated subtlety,” reveals Johnny Han. He serves as visual effects supervisor on HBO’s period/sci-fi epic “The Nevers.” The series depicts individuals of Victorian London who have been granted superhuman “turns” by a mysterious event. But unlike many contemporary stories of enhanced humans, these superpowers have to fit in with the time. “Period is all about referencing what we are familiar with,” says Han. “I was challenged with trying to evoke the familiar, and evoke what one perceives as tangible.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

In early discussions about the look and tone of the new series, Han knew that his effects would have to support the historical setting. “The effects should feel amazing for the other 19th century people in the world,” he explains, “What does a Londoner in 1896 see as amazing and spectacular?” The concept of “subtlety” became a creed for the VFX team as they worked to visualize the various superpowered phenomena. It’s a shift away from the many superhero blockbusters that contemporary audiences are used to, where everything is drenched in particle effects and glowing light.

SEE Laura Donnelly interview: ‘The Nevers’

One of the most unique uses of a character’s power occurs in Episode 3, “Ignition.” A villainous brute called Odium reveals he can walk on water, and traps protagonist Amalia (Laura Donnelly) under the surface of a lake in a brutal fight sequence. Han describes wanting “to preserve the characteristics of water” when designing the rippling and stretching effects of the liquid under Odium’s weight. The effects team wizards experimented with every kind of “squishy surface we could think of” (including a day trip to a trampoline park) to nail down the look of the water morphing around the bad guy’s feet.

“It’s so fun to watch and I don’t think it’s because of the spectacle,” admits Han. To him, the success of the tense scene lies in the focus on the primal battle between the characters. Han’s effects are unique while allowing for the actor’s emotions to take center stage. He notes that there were “no CG camera moves, no CG characters” in the sequence. This was an important detail to make the scene flow freely in the final cut, especially when compositing the fight (shot in a water tank at a studio) into a digital environment. He praises Donnelly for doing her own stunts, which made the sequence easier to animate. “That made the effects work that much more believable because we had a real person in the water,” he explains.

Johnny Han has four nominations from the Visual Effects Society. Three bids come from his work on “Smallville,” with his most recent nomination for the documentary “Welcome to Chechnya.”

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