SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers from the entire first season of “Yellowjackets,” and also includes content some readers may find disturbing.
Showtime’s “Yellowjackets,” the newest addition to the television canon of sublime psychological thrillers, is beyond definition. It seamlessly transitions from a coming-of-age story about a high-school girls’ soccer team to a bloody tale of survival after their plane crashes in the Ongtario wilderness, then makes a full 180 to horror, with a healthy sprinkling of buddy comedy and political drama in the mix. The series deftly navigates these twists and turns, largely thanks to the subtle and striking visual effects that range from aircraft explosions to Van (Liv Hewson) getting her face torn off by a wolf.
To the untrained eye, the visual effects on “Yellowjackets” may seem inconsequential, since it doesn’t over-stuff its viewers with horrifying gore like a show such as “The Walking Dead,” and doesn’t play up the camp with pools of fake blood, as seen on the similarly cannibal-themed show “Santa Clarita Diet.” Its effects are semi-realistic when they need to be, but as a result, are often more disturbing.
According to Lawson Deming and Michael Adkisson, two visual effects supervisors from the show’s main effects vendor, Los Angeles/Vancouver-based Barnstorm VFX, the effects on the show, from an amputated leg to the numbers on a scoreboard, were mostly created through a combination of practical effects and CGI. The challenge for Deming and Adkisson was to make sure nobody could tell the difference.
“I’ve always been a fan of doing shows where the visual effects are seamless and hidden and you can’t really tell,” Adkisson said. “I just want to contribute to the story, rather than overpower it. … For this show, it’s about helping with that suspense and telling this kind of twisted story.”
The series sets that “twisted” tone early on when Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) tackles a fellow teammate and accidentally breaks her leg. The player rolls across the field and lets out a blood-curdling scream, and the audience sees what has happened in time with the other teammates: the horrifying image of her bone poking out below her knee. The nauseating impact of the brief shot is partially due to the work of the highly skilled special effects makeup team, but is also amplified by post-production work from Barnstorm.
“We did blood enhancement and helped out with the makeup effects that they used to enhance the look of the bone,” Adkisson said. “Obviously on set, there’s not a lot of time to get things done, and we enhanced it to get continuity with blood and make things look more realistic.”
Speaking of legs, the most notable in the series appears (or disappears) in the second episode, after the plane has crashed and assistant coach Ben Scott (Steven Krueger) is trapped under a large piece of aircraft. The girls lift it up to find his bloody mangled leg underneath, and young Misty (Samantha Hanratty) decides to chop it off below the knee. It’s enough to make a grown man faint — and it does — but the injury proved challenging for the effects team for reasons other than queasiness.
On set, Krueger would wear a sock on the end of his leg, which would later be removed digitally. But because the show was actually filmed in the Vancouver wilderness, the process wasn’t as simple as it sounds.
“It’s not like the type of project where you just shoot around the fact that this one character has their leg removed and put tracking marks on it and they’re shooting it in a blue screen stage,” Deming said. “It’s not like a big Marvel movie or something where they will just subsume the process of making the film to the visual effects. You sort of end up with a bunch of odds and ends … so a lot of it is taking everything one shot at a time.”
The plane crash sequence and its aftermath took anywhere from 30 to 50 shots, Adkisson estimated. That included visualizing a person on fire flailing around the cabin, but also required more subtle tasks, like filling in the view outside the window as the plane zooms into the forest and adding smoke throughout the landing site.
In Episodes 4 and 7, viewers get an even better taste of the visual horror the show has to offer. Episode 4 includes a dream sequence where young Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) is back in her seat during the plane crash, and she sees her deceased father (Derek Hamilton) appear next to her with a huge chunk of his head missing. To make things even more terrifying, he leans in and tells her, “I don’t know why you’re so scared, Natty. You’ve already got blood on your hands.”
And in Episode 7, after a group of girls led by Taissa decides to seek help, the crown jewel of visual effects appears in the form of Van’s mauled face after she is attacked by a pack of wolves in the middle of the night — you can see her molars! Adkisson said those two were standout moments for him to bring to life.
“I think both of those were quite interesting because they’re graphic, right, and adding CGI and making it integrate seamlessly and look real is always a challenge,” he said. “At the beginning of Episode 8, you have Van laying down and she’s next to a campfire, so there’s a lot of flickering light. Making those things look real and integrate properly and track with any movement that might be, is always a challenge and I think we executed pretty good on that.”
But beyond the blood and guts of it all, Deming and Adkisson said their hardest task was not their goriest. They didn’t work on the last two episodes of the season, so excluding those, they pointed to the plane takeoff and subsequent explosion in Episode 8 that occurs after Laura Lee (Jane Widdop) decides to seek help on her own.
Things are looking semi-hopeful as the rusty Cessna 185 whirs its engine and propels itself through a makeshift runway adorned with vines and leaves. But planes don’t fare too well on this show, and things take a turn for the worse in the air when Laura Lee’s teddy bear Leonard catches fire in the co-pilot’s seat and the plane spontaneously combusts over the lake.
From extending the runway with 3D effects beyond what the set dressers were capable of, to make the propeller spin, to that gut-wrenching explosion once the plane gets in the air, the effects team had their hands full. But the explosion especially proved to be a challenge, because it could have easily come across as comical or unrealistic.
“Normally planes don’t just explode in that way,” Deming said. “They have a small explosion and then they crash or something like that, and because of the timeline and the story and the way that they wanted to do it, it was like, this needs to just decisively explode … and all I can say is I’m happy that it didn’t come across as comical when we watched it.”
Adkisson added that the experience of working on an effect like that in isolation can be very different from viewing it in its full context, when the music, editing and color correcting come together.
“At a certain point, it is trusting the showrunners and the directors and that all their pieces that we don’t know about while we’re creating the imagery brings it together,” Adkisson said. “When you see the finished product and it all works, it’s good. It’s rewarding.”
But sometimes, VFX can be as simple as making things that just look cool. When asked if working on the explosion was a highlight for him, Adkisson had a straightforward response.
“I mean it’s always fun to blow stuff up, right?” he said. “It’s every boy’s dream.”