VFX on Television: Siren
Linda Romanello
August 28, 2018

VFX on Television: Siren

On Freeform’s newest series,  Siren ,   mermaids are real. But in the series’ fictional coastal town of Bristol Cove, they’re not the cute and lovable sorts like Disney’s Ariel who live “under the sea….” Instead, they are vicious predators, with claws and fangs, who are in a battle with man to reclaim the ocean. 

In the series’ two-hour opener, which premiered the end of March, viewers learn of the town’s folklore and mermaid tales, while meeting a mysterious new visitor, Ryn. It’s later on that we learn her true identity, after witnessing her dramatic, underwater transformation into a fierce mermaid. We also meet Donna, her mermaid “sister,” who is being held in captivity in a secret government tank.

To pull off the series and make it all as believable as possible, each episode features approximately 100 to 110 visual effects shots. Requirements range from almost entirely CG mermaids to set extensions and CG environments. 

Here, producers are relying on the talents of Vancouver-based VFX studios Pixomondo (the heavy-lifters that are completing the mermaid shots and transformations in water and swimming, and the character Donna in the tank), Atmosphere Visual Effects (for boat scenes, water extensions, and CG boats), and Artifex, all working under the leadership of VFX Supervisor Mark Savela.

“When I came on board, it was after the pilot had been shot — which was gorgeous, by the way — and the show was picked up, and so the biggest direction that we got from the producers was that we just needed to sell these mermaids so that viewers would believe they were real,” says Savela. 

No stranger to completing visual effects for television, Savela has worked on a number of series, including the original Stargate SG-1 series, as well as Stargate Atlantis

“I’ve never done anything before like what I’m doing on Siren,” Savela says, “and I’m not sure of any other TV show that has the technique of replacing an actor or actress entirely, except for their head and face, for a TV series. A lot of shows have had CG creatures or monsters, but this is taking the actor’s facial expressions and using them. It’s not full CG, but it’s about 90 percent, and I think it is really different because you look at the shots and you can see [actress Sibongile Mlambo’s] expression, you can see through her eyes and feel her emotion, but it’s 90 to 95 percent CG. If you did 100 percent CG, you’d lose a lot of the acting and that connection with the camera.” 

According to Savela, the main bulk of the show’s effects are centered around the mermaids themselves. In fact, he says that when the pilot was shot, there’s a scene where Ryn jumps in the water and transforms into a mermaid. There, she’s wearing a prosthetic with some added visual effects. 

“Small things, like trying to take out her knee bends,” Savela explains. “When we went to series, it was kind of a group decision with [executive producer and show creator] Emily Whitesell and [executive producer] Eric Wald, and our supervising director Nick Copus to kind of move away from the prosthetics entirely. So, for instance, when Donna swims in the tank, it’s our actress — Sibo — in a black suit with tracking markers. Her whole body is replaced by the CG model of the mermaid, and all that’s left, basically, is her hair and eyes — her face, really. Every shot from the chin down is completely CG.”

That was done for a variety of reasons. The producers wanted more control over how the mermaid and her skin looked, according to Savela. For the Donna character, there’s an iridescent quality to her skin, a reflective quality. “Also, getting in and out of prosthetics was a bit hard on our actors. We wanted to give them as much freedom as we could with the least amount of restrictions, and I think they really felt it, especially [lead actress] Eline Powell (Ryn),” he says. “It was much nicer to be able to be free and not under a ton of makeup. There were certain things in the pilot where we had to go in and reduce wrinkles in the prosthetic anyway, so we figured, rather than having to pay for shots twice, let’s go the path of least resistance.”

It was all quite a challenge, Savela says, noting you have a lot of variables, like some shots were below the water, then above water, bodies have to be replaced, there are air bubbles. 

“Some of the work Pixomodo has done on the show with our mermaids is just incredible, and it just keeps getting better and better. Plus, a big shout-out has to go to our actors, Eline and Sibo. I believe they could actually now hold their breath for three and a half to four minutes underwater while acting, doing all the motions,” says Savela. “When we have them actually swimming [in order] to track, and the CG is rotomated onto their bodies — there are some shots in Episode 4 where it just looks beautiful — it’s all just stunning, and it’s such a nice marriage having live action with CG.”

The series is shot mainly on location in Vancouver with Arri Alexa cameras, with the visual effects teams working in standard ProRes 4:4:4:4. According to Savela, the main tools are Foundry’s Nuke for compositing and Autodesk’s Maya for 3D. Toolwise it isn’t anything groundbreaking, he notes, but really more of the technique, approach, and commitment they all had to do it this way.

Other work includes full-CG environments with boats in the water and, later on in Episode 7, a fishing trawler that was actually tied to a dock that needed to be placed in the middle of the ocean for the scene. 

“There’s also a scene where Ben (co-star Alex Roe) jumps into the water and discovers a tracking device that’s stuck in the rudder of the ship,” explains Savela. “That was shot in a tank on our stage with a lot of extension work and a CG propeller that was going around, to make it feel like that character was in danger. It really feels like the underside of the ship in the ocean. It does not look like a tank, which I think was really nice work. That was done by Atmosphere Visual Effects here in Vancouver.”

Savela says that of all the effects required for the show, the mermaid transformations are the most challenging. “Those scenes are always difficult because it’s a very organic thing,” he says. “Nobody wanted it to be like, ‘Oh, they just transform.’ Everyone wanted to show it as a painful process. They really had to convey that to the actors. And getting those shots right is very tricky because they are very subjective — what parts are going to be growing, how does a foot grow into a tail. Some people have an idea in their head, which might differ from what other people are thinking. It’s not like there’s a mermaid swimming around for us to compare it to or to see if what we’re doing is right or wrong. It becomes the challenge just to please everybody and make something that looks very cool.” 

According to Savela, when he first heard about the show, he was working on a different project. “But when I actually got a glimpse of the pilot, I was sold right away. I just thought it was really an amazing story that Eric and Emily were telling, and it looks so nice. It’s not your typical mermaid story. I was intrigued where we were going with it, and I knew the effects would be a challenge.  And I really love challenges.” 

When asked about the quality of visual effects on television and how they have evolved over the years, Savela quickly responds, “It’s getting better and better. So much better with tracking software and the integration. On a show like Siren, the directors can shoot the show how they want and don’t have to worry about as many restrictions. They don’t feel handcuffed, and that’s been the biggest thing in the advancement of the technology.”

He continues: “What we’ve tried to do with Siren is make everything as believable and invisible as we can. People have never seen a transformation from a human to a mermaid in real life, but we want to make those as real as if they really do exist.”

 And all the other effects – the set extensions and the water – there is a lot of work in there, and Savela doesn’t want people to ever notice. “What we’ve all gotten from the show is, let’s make it as real as possible, as if there are real mermaids out there and we hired a mermaid actress and we filmed her in the midst of a transformation. That’s our biggest goal, and I think the audience will appreciate that.”

He sums it up with: “I know the show is going to carry itself, based on the stories and the characters, and I feel like the show itself is a full dinner and we’re a little bit of that extra gravy on top.”