“Host” – Interview with VFX Supervisor Steven Bray

February 18, 2021

I recently saw a great little horror movie called “Host”, set entirely within the world of a Zoom seance. I reached out to VFX Supervisor Steven Bray to chat about the challenges of creating VFX in this format, as well as filming and remote working during a lockdown.

WARNING! If you haven’t seen the movie (available to rent on Amazon Prime) then be aware that there will be SPOILERS ahead

RF: Hi Steven- thanks for chatting. Could you tell me about your background?

SB: I’ve been in VFX since 2004, working mostly as a compositor. In the last few years I’ve done more leading and supervising.

RF: It looks like you were on the original short prank video (also by director Rob Savage) that was the prototype for the movie (along with many of the actors who were involved). Tell me about how you all know each other and how you came to be involved in the Host project. Was the short almost like an audition for the full movie?

We’d all worked on other projects together. I met Rob and Doug (Doug Cox, Producer) when they needed a few shots done for a short called ‘Absence’, that was about five years ago. So we were all hanging out online, like everyone else in Lockdown, doing quizzes and watching films together while on Zoom. Rob’s prank video blew up on social media, then got a lot of press, and along with that it got a lot of attention from companies interested making it into a longer film of some kind.

When that happened it made sense for us all to be part of it. We were a ready made cast and crew.

RF: How did Rob get the final effect of him being killed in the short? Was it pre-recorded?

SB: He pre-recorded and edited everything we saw from the point he goes to investigate the attic. Rob built a little rig out of cardboard for his phone and attached it to his laptop. He played the video on his laptop and the phone camera filmed it off the laptop screen. Like the Mandalorian’s Volume, but much, much smaller. The monster in the attic is a few second taken from the film ‘Rec’.

It was a genuine prank, we didn’t know in advance and he did it for fun.

RF: At a time when Covid has basically shut down filming, this is a clever (and presumably cheap) way of getting a movie made. How did it effect shooting?

SB: Everyone worked remotely. The only exceptions were stunts, where Lucky13 Action could send small crews in PPE into flats and houses to keep everyone safe. Even then, the stunt performers mostly shot their stunts separately from the rest of the cast, but together in small teams, as many were already sharing accommodation and in Lockdown together.

Emma’s house is actually a combination of locations, all filmed separately, with big stunts like her being pulled into the air, and her fall from the window, filmed by stunt performers in and around their own homes. Teddy is a stunt man as well as an actor and did a real burn for the film. Jinny is also a stunt performer, so she did her own death scene stunt as well.

I was involved in some planning, we did a few tests for ideas (like the flour footprints) but mostly the shots were rigged as best they could be in the circumstances, and VFX came in afterwards, adding or removing whatever we had to. I was never on location for any filming.

RF: Tell me about your role in post. Was it a small VFX team all working remotely?

All VFX was remote, we used Dropbox for most of the file transfers. We added compositors as we went along.

Figuring out a simple pipeline for everyone and then keeping track of things was the challenge. The cut evolved a lot over time, shots changed, some were dropped, others were added, and the last VFX shot was thought up, executed and delivered while the film was in it’s final day in the grade.

Everything is 2D, there’s no CG. We removed a lot of ropes and wires, plus some very large stunt rigs. We also combined takes and removed sections to change the timing of some shots. All those choices were made by the editor Brenna Rangott and Rob. VFX did the final versions.

Mike Knight’s special effects company supplied some live action equipment to open cupboard doors etc. and there was a lot of fishing line used in those “poltergeist” shots. We removed anything that showed up in the final footage.

RF: Was it actually shot on better quality cameras and then given a “webcam” treatment? Or was it really shot on Zoom?

SB: The film was shot on iPhones, which the cast attached to their laptops using a velcro rig. This gave us more consistent recording and slightly better image quality but the lowlight nature of the filming meant that we had compression/noise on pretty much everything. Rob wasn’t on location either, he used Zoom to interact with the cast and view their performances in real time.

RF: So how did this effect VFX working on such low quality footage? Were you having to downgrade the quality of your work to fit in with the plates? Was camera tracking even possible?

SB: Tracking was possible for some shots, partly possible for others and impossible for many. A lot of work was done by hand tracking patches and paint etc.

Matching the compression/noise was also a challenge. It’s quite different from film grain or the noise from a cinema quality camera. A lot of it was clone-painted and/or looped.

RF: The “in-camera” Zoom effects like the “mask” overlay on Emma and Caroline glitching through her virtual background – how were they achieved then?

SB: The social media “filters” the mask, pig face and lizard etc. were created by Dan Hawkins, who also did about a million text and graphics animations that replicated the Zoom interface and interactions. No actual Zoom appears in the film at all.

The floating mask that Emma encounters was filmed by Rob Savage in his own flat with graphics added by Dan. Rob placed a couple of bits of tape on the blank curtain in the room to add something to track, and then we (or in this case Dan) had to remove those too of course.

The image breakup and Caroline smashing through the Zoom background were done in Nuke and a shot of a bad connection in Hayley’s flat was done in After Effects (we had one comper doing his work in AE). It’s a combination of luma keying and roto. We referenced what real Zoom backdrops look like when creating their edges and when they go wrong, and then we did a version, but it was subject to creative choices by Rob of course.

RF: When Hayley is getting dragged around by the invisible presence that must have been a proper stunt rig (with you just doing wire paint out) right?

SB: Hayley’s partner (who’s also a cinematographer and was consulted for advice by production) is a climber, so he attached some black climbing ropes to her chair, and then to her leg. VFX painted those out, and in the case of the leg, we combined a shot of her being pulled over with another of her being dragged out the door. Stunts supervised all of these sorts of shots for safety.

RF: I loved the gag with the cloth being thrown over the invisible presence – was that a practical effect with some rig removal?

SB: Emma threw the blanket over a mannequin wearing a stripy top. I removed the mannequin and it’s reflection. The shot was made possible by Emma carrying the camera on a tripod, which she then placed on the floor to give us a locked off plate. I added camera shake to blend from real handheld to the VFX “handheld”.

RF: What VFX were involved with Teddy being lit on fire and Jemma being hit by the bottle?

SB: Teddy did a real live burn, we moved some fire over his mouth when he’s screaming (he couldn’t take deep breathes while on fire). It’s 100% stunt. We cropped and repositioned this shot, and a few others, to make them more random looking, like someone had dropped the camera for real.

Jemma’s hit by a breakaway bottle that was puppeteered/thrown by stunt coordinator Nathaniel Marten. VFX had to remove him, and his shadow from behind Jemma. There are no cutaways so we also had to clean up the hundreds of frames because he had nowhere to hide. He just crouched in the corner to be as small as possible.

RF: Any other ‘behind the scenes” insight you could share that might not be obvious from seeing the finished movie?

SB: Costume continuity (by costume designer Alexi Kotkowska) helped sell the combining of multiple locations a lot. Emma’s bunny slippers were worn by multiple performers, including the director, and when they were in shot you knew you were with her character and somewhere in, or around, her house. Very simple and very effective.

RF: Thank you so much. Really appreciate you taking the time.

Steven’s VFX breakdown reel can be seen below

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