Supernatural From Script to Screen: VFX Supervisor Mark Meloche
"It’s very easy for me to geek out when I’m talking about the show, because I am so enamoured by the process as a whole. I really feel like this is where I’m supposed to be, and I consider myself very fortunate. "
– Mark Meloche, Supernatural VFX Supervisor
Supernatural From Script to Screen is a series of interviews with the crew of Supernatural by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Administrator.
Without the skill and artistry of its visual effects team, Supernatural would be a show about two good-looking guys firing prop guns at nothing. Whether it's decapitations, eviscerations, rainbow-farting unicorns or ravenous Leviathan, Supernatural Visual Effects lab each week transforms the ordinary into the fantastical.
Visual effects (VFX) is the art of the integrating live-action footage with computer-generated material. At Supernatural, the VFX lab is headed by Mark Meloche, who has been with the Show since the first season.
The airing of Hunteri Heroici, which saw the world of cartoons manifest in our own, seemed like a perfect time to talk to Mark about how he and the rest of the VFX lab make the unreal become real each week on the Show.
MAKING AN EPISODE
Jules: How is the VFX team is involved in production, from the moment you first see the script for an episode?
Mark: Originally we get the scripts and then we go in for our first meeting, which is our concept meeting. That’s where everybody gets together: we have all the department heads there, we have the director, and Jim Michaels is there as well. We sit down and basically we do a read-through of the episode. Exactly what it means is we start throwing out concepts. So, particularly for this episode here (Hunteri Heroici), when you’re talking with the director, he’ll have his own take on what he’s interpreting from the writers and the script that we’re looking at.
Probably more than any other department I think VFX has a relationship with the special effects department. Randy Shymkiw, he’s the head of the special effects department, we sit across from each other at that big long boardroom table, and we’ll come up with ways to accomplish what's written.
Once we break from that actual concept meeting, then everybody goes off and that’s when everybody starts preparing for the meetings that come ahead.
As an example, in Hunteri Heroici there’s a giant anvil that’s going to fall on a person. I have in my head the size of the anvil, and the director has the size of the anvil in his head, and so everybody goes away and then somewhere in that mass chaos of emails and phone calls, it’s established exactly how large this thing will be.
It still fascinates me, the fact that when they yell “action” on the day, everything comes together. There have been hundreds of people that have kind of piled in their ideas but it all gels on that one day.
In an episode that’s coming up, Dean has a gash taken out of him. Well, it’s kind of like a running joke that I look over at Randy and he looks over at me and we’re like “OK, so is that you or is that me?” My favourite part of that whole thing is when it’s a collaboration of both. I think that that’s when we get our best effects.
If there are any questions, I will contact Jeremy Carver to run concepts by him. Ultimately, as the very pinnacle of the show, everything’s filtered through him; it’s usually Jeremy and Bob Singer that are the ones that are going to be giving the yay or nay.
So the birth of it for us, is in the concept. Everybody disperses from that point. They start doing their calls. They start doing their research. They start doing their R&D (research and development). For us we can start working on particle systems or character development.
There’s a whole other part to this process which I’m not privy to. There’s tone meetings between the director and Jeremy so that they can work out the beats in the show and the kind of emotion that they want to do. That’s all stuff going on in this big swirly cloud around this department. If things change or they want a particular effect, that’s when we get involved.
We start communicating with the different departments, figuring out what we need. We have visual effects meetings, prosthetic meetings, special effects meetings, meetings with wardrobe, there’s casting. It’s in these meetings that everybody gets a chance to meet up and solidify ideas of exactly what the approach is on the day. We have the director and the first Assistant Director in those meetings.
That’s when I get a chance to say, for example, if we’re doing elaborate split screens or something, I may need a video switcher, which allows us on the day to film one portion, leave it up on the screen and then put the newest what we’re filming beside it or on top of it so we can do the lining up. Special pieces of equipment like that, that’s when we put in our requests.
Same thing with special effects. A lot of times we’re using wires for our ratchet and wire pulls and our stunts where people are pulled out windows or across roofs. They’re hooked to wires for all of that. So they’re the ones who will ask us, “This is how we’re intending on doing it. Will that work for you in order to be able to paint it out?” Sometimes we have to say shoot us a clean plate, allowing us to erase things. Other times it’s not necessary.
Same thing with wardrobe. We have a creature coming up that’s going to be mauling a guy's neck, which is all going to be done in 3D, which will be awesome. That’s all effects instead of practical make-up. We requested from wardrobe that the shirt is low and open-collared to allow us to be able to get in and to showcase the effect.
Those are the small details you really have to try and track, because on the day, if they’ve shot a bunch of stuff and we show up and he’s got a turtleneck on, we can’t ask “well can we take the shirt off” because it’s not up to us any more at that point. So you have to make sure you get in there early, so it’s part of the entire process.
Then we have the production meeting, where all the departments get together, make sure our ducks are all in a row, and everybody knows what part they will play when we start shooting the episode.
It’s easy for us to flip through the show when we’re doing our visual effects, because what we’re trying to sort out exactly - technically - is how things are fitting into it. For us it's - filler, filler, filler, visual effects! But it seems to always come together at the very end.
I’m visual effects-centric obviously because that’s our job on the show, along with the eleven other people that all work together to bring the visual effects to you guys. Now we sometimes forget that there’s a whole storyline. And it’s very much a process, and actually I think I’m quite fortunate to be involved; part of the reason why I love my job is because I do get to see the evolution of the show as it goes along.
Adam Williams is our I/O Co-ordinator. He’s got close ties with post production in L.A. and they keep us as current as they can during editing. Adam works with post and as we’re developing the shots, he can cut them into the show so we can see how they fit.
We see the final cut when you guys see the final cut, and that’s part of the reason why I really do try to keep current with the show. It’s a gas to be able to see our effects in full bloom, colour corrected, merged into the show with sound effects, which is just another layer of artistry on top of ours that just helps the whole thing come to life. So it’s important to actually see the final products as we go along.
Jules: So how many episodes are you working on at once? What's the timeline like? When do you sleep?
Mark: We can have as many as three episodes, maybe even four depending when we have to jump back and fix stuff. Typically there’s about two-and-a-half episodes that overlap as we move along. So as we’re putting the final touches on one, the other one is already in the pipe being worked on.
That's the only way that we can get the types of effects that we have onto the show, because typically it's maybe eight days, twelve days, from the time that everything folds through and we get a chance to put everything together. If we had to do everything that we do within that timeframe, we would never be able to do it. So we have to utilise any downtime we have in the run-up to those shows to do all our R&D and to get a lot of the technical stuff out of the way.
Ryan Curtis is the VFX Co-ordinator. He keeps me sane, because he’s the one who fills the calendars with events and tracks where I’m supposed to be at certain times, which is great because it leaves me to do more of the conceptual work for setting up the shots to doing the actual supervising to talking with the other departments on how we’re going to handle things on the day we shoot.
THE EVOLUTION OF VFX IN SUPERNATURAL
Jules: Supernatural is now in its eighth season -- how have visual effects changed on the show in that time?
Mark: There’s been a noticeable ramping up in terms of not just the quantity but the integration into the show and maybe just being a bit bolder in the first place.
When the show started out, I remember in season one there was an effect that we were doing with a vampire standing in front of a car with headlights. The vampire dies, and there was a flash of a figure that kind of charged out - this skully wingy kind of creature, which was the vampire's spirit. We fought to actually get that in the show.
Eric Kripke was always pushing to have things very, very understated. I mean, we are dealing with complete fiction. But the effects themselves were always kind of muted.
Over the course of eight seasons, we’ve become a little more over-the-top in our approach with scenes. So, whereas before it seemed to be a little less-is-more, now we tend to push it a little bit further. And now usually the only time we’re actually pulled back is for gore by Standards and Practices!
We’re still trying to figure out exactly how that process works, because sometimes we can sneak stuff by and it’s like “wow, I can’t believe they let that on the air”, and then other stuff that we think is pretty innocuous ends up being pulled out of the show.
Jules: It’s always been a show that’s grounded in reality and these working-class guys on the road, but I wonder if over time you've realised that your audience will still keep that connection even if you push the envelope with the VFX and that a bit further?
Mark: I think that’s very true. I think that that’s the reason that the show has had the longevity that it has, is the writers’ ability to be able to balance that. If the show was just blood and guts through the entire thing and filled with visual effects from beginning to end, I think people would get bored very quickly.
Ultimately it all reverts back to the writers themselves... Jeremy is the show-runner. He’s really at the helm of the ship and he gives the tone of the show. This year in particular, the tone of the show has shifted a little bit from the Dick Roman days. The types of effects that we’re being given, these are some of the effects we would’ve loved to have done in past seasons but really never got a chance to.
Jules: Over that time, technology in your area has also advanced. How has that changed what you can do within your time and budget constraints?
Mark: Our producer, Grant Lindsay, who is a technical whiz as well; he keeps us up to date on all the latest tools, all the latest software. We've got a good set of toys here and we try to utilise them the best we can.
We're doing a lot more now with facial tracking, such as being able to put on CG heads, track wounds and digital make-up onto faces. There’s a lot of stuff that we weren’t able to accomplish even three seasons ago, in the time we were given, where it was like no we’re pushing that too far, or don’t move your head around too much, or we have to lock down the camera in order to be able to do our effects.
This year you’ll notice that a lot of the effects, the camera’s moving around instead of having to lock down the camera for a specific shot where we want to add an effect. If I had a mandate this year, it would be to start moving the camera a little bit more.
The simulations we can do that are very computationally heavy such as dust, liquids, those kind of things, they take a huge, huge amount of rendering power, and an inordinate amount of time would be spent just waiting for those renders to come through. We don’t have that kind of time. However, now it makes it a little bit easier because we don’t have to wait like we used to, so we can pump things through a lot faster.
The problem is because we can do it ten times faster it means we want to do ten times more, so it kind of all evens out!
As for the programs we use, our main 3D is done in Maya. We do use some Max as well. Our compositing programs are After Effects and a little Nuke. We track using Boujou, and we’re using Avid for piecing it all together.
Jules: Eight years is also a long time for people to work together, what's that been like?
Mark: It’s not PR stuff when they talk about the Supernatural family, because really it is. There’s full relationships. It can get tense. It can be quite loving. It’s all of those things.
And it really does show in the ways in which people are being given those opportunities to move and grow within the confines of the show. That really is invaluable, and I’m not going to say it’s rare but if you’re in a position that you get a chance to experience that I would say consider yourself very lucky. I certainly do. I consider myself very lucky to be part of the family.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS – LEVIATHANS, CARTOONS, DEMONS SMOKE AND JENSEN'S ZIT
Jules: I've loved the scenes in Purgatory this season and especially getting to see more of the Leviathans on their home turf.
Mark: You know, we love the big long effects. A good example of that is our leviathan. We had a blast doing those. They were so much fun.
That was Mladen who actually developed the particle systems we used to develop that. Ryan and I were on set and we had a steady cam which came all the way around the crater. This thing folded out of a full puddle of goo. It did this beautiful elaborate type pirouette, which was the way it was designed from the beginning. However, once it reached editorial, the cut is very, very snappy.
So, for as much as I would like to say that yes that big long meandering effects shot would’ve looked great, really it had to get cut back because as far as the timing goes, it would've slowed down the action. So it was probably a third of the length of what anybody saw, but it still worked really well.
Our lead artist, Christopher Richardson, who saw those shots when they were in developing, I think summed it up the best. He said “you know what? I think these are some of the sexiest shots we’ve ever done”.
Jules: With Supernatural you can never be sure what's turning up in the next script. How did you react when you read Hunteri Heroici with its cartoon world?
Mark: When we first read the episode, I’m like “how can they pull this off”? Jensen has made mention as well that sometimes they read the scripts it’s like “OK, we might be pushing it a little far with this one”, but somehow it always comes out in the end.
That’s one of the times when there may be a little bit of a disparity between what the director wants and what the mothership in L.A wants. That episode, I think, during the planning process was going to be a little bit more over-the-top, a little bit more cartoony than what it actually ended up being. But a lot of these sight gags, a lot of the sound effects that were going to be built into that, some remained and some were taken away. It comes back to the tone of the show as far as taking it too far – the fans, there’s only a certain amount that they’re going to be able to swallow.
When they ended up in Fred’s head in the synthetic environment there, that was based on the cartoon that you saw that they’re playing. We’ve pulled out a still, cleaned it up to make it high-res, then projected it back onto geometry and tracked back to the camera moves that the actors and the director had asked for on the day, on the green screen. So we created an environment, tracked a camera and then put it back into the scene.
Working with Mike was awesome, because he was one of my favourite characters on M*A*S*H, so I still get awestruck, although professionalism dictates I can’t be like “Oh Mr. Mike Farrell, I can’t believe it’s you”.
Jules: You fangirl him in private when you go back to your office...
Mark: Exactly. That’s when I gush. I’m a little more professional on set! We really have to be careful that what we’re doing is able to be accomplished in the amount of time we have, and I think it worked out well that because we’re in this cartoon-land of his, that once he starts to realise that he’s being invaded by Cas and Sam, it all starts to fall apart around him. Then we kind of throw it into that blank room, open space area to showcase his confusion as he’s playing the part.
Jules: I thought that segue from the cartoon through the sort of test pattern into that white noise, it also mirrored that shift in tone which was from sort of whacky through to almost tragic in that, and I think that’s a good example of everything lining up I think.
Mark: Again, that was a great collaboration between post and us. VFX can do anything you want. However, it's important to do our own tone meetings, to find out exactly what are you trying to accomplish, and post-production really helped us out with that because they’re the ones that talked about the static and about doing the test pattern, and then actually fading it back and forth between the static background and the desert background. That kind of information is extremely valuable for great story-telling. I’m glad that everybody enjoyed it.
Jules: I think something many fans commented on in What's Up, Tiger Mommy? was Crowley’s red-tinged smoke.
Mark: Now here’s a little inside information for you too. We knew that it was scripted that it was going to be red smoke, but in my conversations with the mothership in L.A, they were still a little bit “I don’t know if we want to go red”.
So we made sure that when we did the first tests, that we went a little further than what we would normally go in a test that we were showing them, because we were jazzed about having that smoke red because after seven years of working on black smoke, we finally get to do something a little different.
I think it was so fitting that Crowley actually, it was devoted to him, because I really do – Ryan is a huge fan of his. I’m still a little shell-shocked that I get a chance to work with these actors. And Mark is a riot. He knows what he wants and he’s fairly direct about it. He understands the characters. He loves his character. He really does. So it’s always wild to be working with that. As far as the red smoke was, I think it was very fitting that it was saved for Crowley.
When we get a chance to shake things up a little bit, we actually enjoy that because it helps – we’re creative types and we really like what we do and jumping into something different where we actually get to push the boundaries a little bit or just shake up what the fans are expecting. That’s the fun part.
Jules: So those are the big items that we associated with VFX, but what about the little things, the effects that you do all the time but which viewers probably don't even realise are there?
Mark: Those are too numerous to mention, but can give you some examples. There’s a boat that’s going to be coming up where we’re changing the name on the ass-end of the boat, because it has Vancouver BC on it and we’re supposed to be someplace else.
There’s things like, in Jensen’s episode, which was the first one that we actually shot, but it aired third, that big camera move that comes down, [over the jogger in the park in Minnesota] that’s actually one of the lagoons in Stanley Park, but we built the city above it and the water was actually CG’d at the very end there. The city is Vancouver, but we’ve strategically placed the larger buildings in order to disguise it. So hopefully people either think that that’s completely CG, which it isn’t, or they’re going to think that we shot it someplace other than Vancouver.
On a tangent I mentioned how great Jensen was at pulling funny faces.
Mark: He’s really quite brilliant and such a nice guy too. The crew loves him to death.
Jules: But sometimes, VFX has to step in and lend a hand?
Mark: Yeah, things like blemishes on actors’ faces, you know? Technically yes they are gods but they do get acne... It was one of the first episodes and I think Jensen ended up with a zit on his forehead, up on the side, and that was one of those things where they call us in.
We’re like “What do they want us on set for now?” So then we come and they’re like “Do you think you can paint that out?” to which you look at them in reply and say “Uh-oh, we’re going to need an 18 millimetre lens and bust the budget for that one”. [Laughs]
So, you know, we do things like that all along. And that’s all part and parcel of what we do. It’s disguising reality.
A CHILDHOOD PASSION
Jules: How did you get into this business?
Mark: As a kid I was always quite enthralled with movies - what kid wasn’t - but for me it was always the movies that showed what was happening behind the scenes, so movies that took place behind other movies. I was ten years old when I saw Star Wars, and it’s totally cliché to say that I think that that was the defining moment, because that movie completely sent me over the moon, literally.
Jules: I remember that moment... The opening shot of that ship going over you - it keeps coming and coming and suddenly you’d moved away from plastic models where you could see the fishing wire and – yeah, it was a really paradigm-shifting moment.
Mark: That is so true Jules too, because that was such – I remember sitting, it’s like a flashbulb memory, sitting in the theatre watching this thing and going “Oh, My, God”.
I think really I became a little obsessed after that. My parents were quite good with supporting what I wanted to do, so I ended up getting my hands on my grandfather's wind-up keystone eight-millimetre camera, they bought me my film, and they developed my film. My best friend Randy and I started off with Dracula and then we started making models out of cardboard and hanging them from strings and doing all of that. That was when I first got kind of the movie bug.
Then through high school, I was artistic but I didn't know how to get into the business, so that all kind of faded away. I ended up getting into graphic design which turned into doing typography.
Later I ended up going into typesetting and graphic design, and again computers came along and then animation came along, moving text. I started getting into title design with – everything was Chrome. So that, and then that working with computers eventually led to my interest in compositing and animation.
When I moved to Vancouver, I went to Vancouver Film School, graduated and was hired out of school to Lost Boy Studios as a 3D person. I got the chance to supervise while I was there in Mexico City, mostly for the Latin market for commercials, which was a hoot. That was the start of the supervision thing.
After that I did some movie work. In 2005, Ivan Hayden hired me on for Season One of Supernatural. Ivan Hayden was gracious enough to give me a chance to supervise. And then once Ivan moved on it seemed like the natural fit for me to move up into this position.
"It astounds me that, when it’s all said and done, by the time it reaches everybody, it’s just a bunch of ones and zeros that are floating in space, and yet somehow there's a connection that everybody has with these characters, and with each other."
Jules: Like others on the crew, you've joined Twitter which has bought you into direct contact with us, the fans.
Mark: I certainly feel like I’m part of something, because I started to link a little bit more with fans through things like Twitter. We have our heads buried so far into the show that really we can barely come up for air sometimes.
As far as the addition of social media with the show, it adds another dimension to the way fans read the show. They can gain so much information about the stars themselves. There are things like Supernatural Wiki, where you can hop through to go back and find out “what was that”? We even use it on the show; we go back and we actually check through it.
The show has taken on a life of its own, and really its own universe. It astounds me that, when it’s all said and done, by the time it reaches everybody, it’s just a bunch of ones and zeros that are floating in space, and yet somehow there's a connection that everybody has with these characters, and with each other. Again, it’s one thing to watch a show, but it’s excellent to be able to talk with someone, I don’t know, say in Australia, to be able to say “what did you think?" and "I think Dean’s character should do this”.
These characters – the writers treat them like real people, and people perceive them as real people, and I think the key to any show, particularly the longevity of this show after eight years, is the fact that the writers, and Jared and Jensen themselves, have made these such endearing characters. Social media I think just allows it all to come together, and to really have a community based on the shows.
Jules: What is it that makes for a good day at work, what leaves you feeling satisfied at the end of the day?
Mark: Honestly, it’s the collaborative nature of this show. It’s the fact that there’s this one idea that starts off as just some letters on a page, and then we sit here and Adam brings it up on the screen and we all look at it and we either go “OK we can probably push that a little bit further” or we go “wow, that looks awesome”. It’s the progression.
The biggest challenge I think, and I’ll talk from my position, is just keeping the lines of communication open between everybody. There’s a certain amount of checking that has to go on to make sure they’re not saying “Oh you know that would be cool” and then finding out that we have a meteor flying through the scene when we weren’t supposed to, you know? Ultimately, we’re dictated by the powers that be and the show itself, so although we think something may be cool, it may not fit into the show.
I’m over the moon with the effects, and I think the reason that they are just so stellar this year, is really there’s a bit of a balance that I have to play with giving input for what my vision is to an artist, and letting them follow their idea of what the shot should be, keeping in mind that they are the artist.
It’s kind of like “this is your box right here. You can do whatever you want inside this box, but these are your parameters”. So it’s really trying to let them fly and do their thing and we have some of the best artists in Vancouver here. Our team is so strong this year, and it’s really showing in the effects.
And plus, with the help of post letting us fly, and writing this stuff to begin with, and letting us even attempt it or having the faith in us that we’re able to pull it off, that really means something. It means something to me. It means something to the artists, you know?
Grant Lindsay is really the brains behind the operation because he does all the communicating, the scheduling and the budgeting. We have to go over how much time things are going to take, this whole process, it’s still a business unfortunately, and it’s trying to shelter the artists from all of the BS that we put up with outside. The more we can kind of isolate them, the better their work will be.
Our new lead artist, Christopher Richardson, is an absolute brilliant artist. I mean I chose him myself because he’s just such a well-rounded artist, and a true gentleman. He really is. He does a great job over there, and he and I work back and forth and that allows the transfer of information to run smoothly.
We come in and we start at 8.30 and we work until 7. Those are about our hours, but production doesn’t work that way. So Ryan and I leave here at 7 o’clock, we go to set, we work there and then we’re back the next morning for 9 o’clock. So it can get a little hairy.
It’s important to have someone here, like Grant and Christopher, to be able to make sure that in my absence those lines of communication and artistry are still smoothly, you know? So like I said, that’s part of the reason that the team is so strong.
I still have a very hard time, like even on Twitter and stuff, when people say “you did a great job on the show” and I really have to defer, because although I’m kind of helping keep things together and setting up the bubble that everything works inside, really it’s everybody else. It’s the artists.
They’re the ones that push this whole thing forward. They’re the engine behind this entire VFX biz, so it’s really important to make sure that they have what they want and they get the credit that they deserve too.
The Supernatural VFX team is:
• VFX Supervisor - Mark Meloche
• VFX Producer - Grant Lindsay
• VFX Coordinator - Ryan Curtis
• Lead Artist - Christopher Richardson
• 3D lead - Trevor Chong
• Senior 2D Artist - Steve McLeod
• Senior 2D Artist - Kevin Genzel
• 2D Artist - Derek Rein
• 2D Artist - Werner ten Hoeve
• 3D Artist -Mladen Miholjcic
• 3D Artist - Jason Macza
• VFX I/O Coordinator - Adam Williams
• IT/Render Manager - John Marshall
Check individual entries for more information. Our Twitter entry contains a list of crew with Twitter accounts.
Many thanks to Mark Meloche for his generosity in doing this interview. Also thanks to Ryan Curtis and Grant Lindsay in helping this happen. Nothing in fandom is a solo activity, and this work was made better by beta and proofreading input by counteragent and redteekal.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Please link back to this article if quoting from it.
For inquiries about the Supernatural Wiki, you can contact Jules at email@example.com
Interview conducted 29 November 2012 ; posted 22 January 2013