VFX Supervisor Stephan Fleet tells us about his VFX journey and how he became involved with Amazon Prime Video tv-series THE BOYS.
Can you tell us a little about your VFX journey – where you started and how you got to the position you are today?
After the writers’ strike in 2007, when I was unemployed (having just worked as “digital media guy” on Ghost Whisperer) I got the opportunity to do some motion graphics for a reboot of Knight Rider. The opportunity came to me from my filmmaking partner at USC film school, Rajeev Dassani. He and his twin brother, Elan, had worked their way into graphics for TV and were kind enough to think of me.
I was an aspiring filmmaker, but graphic design had always been my side hustle. Just something I picked up as a kid. So my love and study of film kind of merged with graphic design at that moment. Me, Rajeev, and Elan somehow ended up doing ALL of the VFX for that show. We didn’t know how or what we were doing, but we ended up building our own little company of, I think, up to about 20 people. And we just figured it out.
After that gig came to a natural end, I took a gig as a compositing artist at Encore Hollywood. I thought it would be a short-term stop-gap gig. Well, the way the world works I ended up there for 8 years, creative director for about 3 of them. It was there that I supervised many TV shows. I think it was my natural ability to speak publicly, and my love for being on set and filmmaking that got me on set more and more. I did a lot of network TV, day playing an episode here or there (Castle, Beauty and the Beast, etc.), then ended up doing a lot of Amblin TV. I met and worked with a lot of feature directors. At that time feature people just started dabbling in TV. So it was a really great way to learn and make great contacts.
It was the show Timeless that really did it for me though. I worked on the pilot for that show while briefly working as a VFX Supervisor at Zoic Studios. I met Eric Kripke on the pilot and we hit it off. I didn’t get to work on Season 1 due to a previous commitment, but when season 2 he looked me up and asked if I was interested in supervising the show.
So season 2 of Timeless was actually my first independent gig. The Boys is my second. I’ve been doing TV for about 15 years now in one way or another but always working for a company. It was a risk leaving the security of a company, but ultimately I chased my dream and it’s worked out so far.
What inspired you to work in Visual Effects?
Truthfully, it was a mix of something I was kind of good at and my passion for filmmaking. I’ve always had this idea that if I just found a way to be close to what I love I’d get to do more of it. There were long periods where I really struggled being in VFX actually. I’ve always wanted to direct/create myself – but in the industry, not independently (I work better in structured environments, that’s just me) – so for a long time I felt like I was hiding, cheating myself out of my real dreams, by sticking to VFX.
And you know what. I was half right. I was hiding. I used the work to delay personal dreams etc. Then one day I woke up and said I need to be happy with what I am doing. That means either quitting VFX and starting over or finding a way to make VFX work for me. I needed to literally bend VFX into my life, or move on.
I did the former. I decided I was going to completely cease thinking of the job in standard terms. What are standard terms anyway? I’ve never really worked for other VFX supervisors, save one two-week stint under one really cool dude that taught me most of what I know (In two weeks, lol). I was always making up the job as I went along. I decided VFX Supervisor isn’t just about technically doing things on set or achieving great VFX shots. I decided it was about being a creative partner to the show I was working on. Helping tell the story and shape the product. I think people came back to me cause they knew I was going to fight to make their show the best show I could.
One thing that dawned on me is – the VFX supervisor, in TV and streaming is actually one of the few creative roles that is on from the beginning of prep to the end of post. We outlast the directors most of the time. We’re there with the showrunners and we end up being conduits to so much more than just the technical or even creative of singular VFX shots.
The other thing I learned is that it’s a managerial job. You very much have to help guide people. And nobody teaches you how to do that anywhere. That’s why so many people are angry leaders. They literally don’t know what they are doing. I know I was one of them! The job is just as much about finding and shepherding talent and making sure people get to live decent and humane lives in a crazy world as it is about anything else. And that is very rewarding.
I have two simple rules now – only work with good people and only work on a project I care about. If I can’t put my heart 100% into it, or the people suck, it’s not worth it.
And you know what, I even get to direct some too, now. Things come full circle.
How did you get involved with THE BOYS?
Through Eric Kripke. I was on S2 of Timeless and heard about The Boys and wanted in. I’ve been a fan since I read the comics in college. Eric got me an interview with Seth and Evan. It was a real business meeting where I had to step up and prove myself to some really smart businessmen. I mean, they know what they’re doing. You don’t have like 50 shows and other successful ventures without being super sharp.
So yeah, it was intimidating, but I was like – I will throw the fck down and cut through the bullsht stuff to make sure this show is the grounded, real, unprecedented thing you want it to be. I didn’t know it at the time, but it also kinda meant re-inventing how I approached VFX from the ground up.
But that’s the cool thing. Every good project requires a custom (Bespoke as my British friends say!) way to work. You can’t box creativity into one format. That sh*t gets stale. You have to feel the tone, rhythm, character, plot of the project you are working on and weave your magic into that. Don’t force square pegs.
What were the main challenges when working on the show?
Hahahahahahhahahah. Uhhh… everything? No just kidding. I mean, we’re this crazy ambitious satire that wants to put insane things and superheroes into a grounded world. The bar is really high for what “real” is. For starters, like I said, I had to change the game a little. For example, we use very little green screen. Why? Lots of reasons, but mainly because we’re not that show that can have an entire scene play out in a CG environment. Even the best CG environment – isn’t real. So we go out to a lot of locations. I, the VFX guy, push for real explosions and stuff all the time. All the stuff that makes production harder – we do.
And then when we hit VFX, we tend to have a more conservative shot count. That’s cause we play a strong practical game in production… but then the shots we do have in post, we R&D and go over maybe 10x more than any other show I have worked on. I mean we dive deep. Every shot. Monitors, split screens, you name it.
Then there’s the fact that we literally do sh*t that has never been seen before. Show me a speedboat hitting a whale or a giant uncircumcised penis monster anywhere else? It’s hard enough to make photo-real stuff that has a reference, it’s extra hard when the canvas is completely blank. Maybe we have a lower shot count. We’re outliers on the absolute edge of what we do here. It takes a lot of time, invention, patience (learning that one!) and a team. There is no doing this on your own. We have a great team, Shalena, Rian, Kat, Dane, Paul in particular rocked out Season 2 and are every much VFX “Supervisors” as I am.
Were there any specific sequences or shots that stood out as being particularly challenging?
Yep. Robin’s death season 1 and the acid face guy season 2. Both of those took like 400 versions and forever to accomplish. For various reasons, mostly having to do with conceptualization. I am forever grateful to the artists that fought those wars on our behalf.
What sequences or shots are you most proud of when looking back at the work done on THE BOYS so far?
Honestly the whole show. I get asked that a lot and it’s like asking “which child is your favorite?” (The answer is Timmy by the way).
But not just the VFX in the show – I am literally proud of THE WHOLE SHOW. Every crew member, actor, writer, producer, director, and fan of the show has contributed to making something that I love. This show is very, very me. Biting sarcastic satire? Sign me up.
Can you describe a typical day when working on set?
If I’m on set, we start anywhere from 7 am to 5 pm and work for 12 hours +1 hour of lunch. Sometimes longer. I could be on a beach somewhere getting into a helicopter ready to film plates of a whale, or I could be in an abandoned insane asylum 3 hours outside of Toronto filming a penis monster. Or maybe I am on a sound stage filming A-train running in slow motion. Every day is different.
When I am on set, I have a great team these days that gets camera data, chrome balls, HDRIs etc. I focus on making sure what we get will work and feels right. I’m there with the director. Sometimes I’m the one setting things up myself. Also, lots of problem-solving cause things always go wrong, that is the way of production.
I’m also somehow at the same time prepping the next episode. Which is the most important thing for me. That involves lots of meetings, scouts, previs (I do a lot of my own, but also work with great companies that previs for me). I plan THE SH*T out of big VFX sequences. If I don’t have an idea for every single shot, listed out with storyboards, technics, and previs, then I feel underprepared.
Then there’s post. That hits, too. So there’s this time when all three are going on at the same time and that is the craziest, worst time for me…just because it is so overwhelming. In post I spot edit VFX sequences with Eric, then we turn over to our great vendors, and I meet with them and creatively go over every shot with them. Then it becomes a cycle of notes – review – notes review till the sequences are done.
Then eventually prep and production end and it’s all post to the very end. And usually right as post is ending you start prepping the next season!
If there were a typical day, I wouldn’t do this job. Part of what I love is that I have so opposite of a desk job. I worked at a hard drive duplication factory once as a graphic designer and am pretty sure half my soul died in Chatsworth.
For any aspiring VFX Supervisors out there, what would you say are the most important skills to have?
I think it’s a hard job to just jump into, because it actually requires a lot of skills. Skills that you need to know so well that they come off as second nature. First, you need to understand (at least pretty well) all aspects of VFX. The general pipelines, techniques, etc. If you come from being an artist, that gives you an edge there.
Then you need to understand every single aspect of filmmaking. You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to have empathy and understanding. In a lot of ways, you are a translator. You need to speak director, DP, Props, Set Dec, Art Dept, Sound, SPFX, Stunts, etc. The WORST thing you can do is not understand how humans work on a set and try and force them into a VFX understanding of the world.
Then you need to be socially skilled. Not like an extrovert or party-goer or anything. But you need to know how to speak in front of a group of people and at least sound like you know what you are doing.
Lastly, like I mentioned above, when you really think you understand the job, that’s when you realize that actually, you are constantly learning and things always change. You have to, more than any other department, be on the edge of change. Technology and creativity. They all flow. But if you do it right, you transcend any form of department or box and become a storyteller, and that’s where the magic is.
Like anything, for some, it will come more naturally than others. And that’s okay.
What advice do you have to someone just starting out in VFX?
Pick up a camera, turn it to all manual settings, and start shooting stills, then video. At the end of the day, the great unifier of everything is the camera. Everything we do points to composition on a 2D screen. Real-life cameras don’t work like VFX cameras, so you have to learn real-life and apply it to the computer to breathe life into it. Or not, maybe you break all the rules, but you gotta know em to break em.
From there, you gotta learn computers and VFX programs and all that jazz and find what naturally works for you. Maybe you’re a computer or a modeler, maybe you’re an animator or a generalist. Maybe you want to invent something completely new, the sky is the limit.
I also want to say this industry really needs more inclusivity. Last time I checked a computer and a camera could give a sh*t about your race or gender. I think we need more perspective brought in through diversity to keep this art form alive. So I encourage everyone out there to jump in.