John Heller Interview: ‘Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,’ ‘The Outsider’ VFX
“The most important thing was authenticity,” says visual effects supervisor John Heller of his recent television work. He crafted effects for Showtime’s noir period piece “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” as well as HBO’s detective thriller “The Outsider.” Both series uniquely demand that he deliver supernatural elements within stories that are grounded in reality. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Heller praised “Penny Dreadful” creator and showrunner John Logan for his vision and attention to detail, which greatly impacted the artist’s own work. “John has a long history on Broadway, so he has this design aesthetic that I think translates very beautifully to film,” explains Heller. “It’s all crafted very specifically around his vision.” For many shots, this meant digitally expanding the large physical sets to deliver the look of Los Angeles in 1938. This could result in the addition of buildings or eliminating small details like double-lined streets.
Of course, the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s shapeshifting demon Magda provides the chance to include some impressive superpowers. In the premiere, Magda conjures a fierce wildfire. It was ultimately decided that the sequence “should be a pretty grandiose beginning” and immediately showcase the “full force” of the character, according to Heller. He settled on a design that emanated and flowed around her like a cape, with the goal of making the supernatural moment feel organic. “It’s controlled by her, but it’s not hyper fantastic,” he explains.
The line between reality and fantasy is also carefully towed in “The Outsider,” where detectives face down a morphing monster. As viewers watch in horror as the titular boogeyman transforms, Heller hopes the effect is “unbelievable but believable.” The series is based on a novel by Stephen King, and Heller takes a page from his playbook in his efforts to make his effects fit the world of his story. “King asks us to accept the abnormal in our normal world,” he says. So, an effects moment might look bizarre but it should not draw attention to itself so much that it breaks the world.
“There’s thousands of visual effects in these shows, but they’re all there really to support the narrative,” adds Heller. To him his series are both “about people” and he is happy to contribute to their rich worlds in ways that are often seamless or invisible. There is challenge and satisfaction that comes with producing photo-real effects that pass for the real thing. “So much work goes into what appears on the surface as either a simple type of work, or unnoticeable work,” describes Heller. “In many ways I think it’s more difficult to produce work that goes unnoticed.”