A day in the life of a VFX supervisor: Lettuce wrangling on <i>The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel</i>
Lesley Robson-Foster & Dan Novarro
May 19, 2023

A day in the life of a VFX supervisor: Lettuce wrangling on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

VFX supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster and assistant VFX supervisor Dan Novarro share a day on set of the Emmy Award-winning comedy series.
Dan Novarro: At 5:30 in the morning on a warm summer day, Lesley and I packed our car full of gear. The streets in Brooklyn were empty as we started our drive towards our set for the day: a kibbutz in Israel. Luckily, we were not actually driving to Israel, but rather Chester, New York; a farm town that we were tasked with transforming into a kibbutz. 

We had our work cut out for us as the lush greenery of upstate New York hardly resembled the dry, arid climate of Israel. Our art department did a wonderful job of transforming the farm itself into a kibbutz, however, it would fall on our shoulders to fix the tree lines and the rest of the environment in the distance. We had shot plates in Israel to use in the background earlier in the year. 

As we arrived at the farm, we were greeted by the sounds of helicopter blades chopping through the air. This was a welcomed sight, as it provided a cool breeze on a scorching 95-degree day, but it was also a reminder of the next two challenges our department was tasked with: making the helicopter more period accurate and enhancing the dirt and debris the helicopter blades would kick up in the scene. If you’ve never stood below a helicopter before, it creates a ton of wind. When the helicopter landed on the farm, it blasted anyone within a 100 ft. radius with dirt and dust. I realized how big that radius was when I returned from set that day to find that the great tan I thought I got from working in the sun was actually just dirt. 

The art department had carefully planted a lot of fake lettuce to decorate the scene, and we did not want the helicopter uprooting everything and blowing our actors away. For those reasons, amongst others, we obviously did not have the helicopter running for any of the shots it’s not seen in. Instead, we relied on a big fan to simulate the wind. 

Lesley Robson-Foster : A lot of on-set VFX work is prepped to make adjustments on the fly if something isn’t working. When we filmed the scene with the big fan, it wasn't kicking up enough dirt, and more importantly, it wasn’t throwing enough lettuce around. We knew right then and there we’d most likely be asked to add more debris to the shot in post. Instead of going the CGI route, we decided it would be better to get plates. 

In order to ensure that our plates would be successful, the first thing we did was set up the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro on a tripod in the field and shoot reference footage of the helicopter landing. The camera’s internal NDs came in extra handy on that sunny day, and we were able to get excellent reference of the level of dirt and debris we should be aiming for. A camera like the Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro is great for a lot of the work we do in the field because of its small form factor and ease of use. It fits easily in the set bag, and the setup time is extremely fast. This comes in handy when the ADs are rushing to get through the day, and we only have a short window of time to get the plates we need. In addition, we are never worried we will miss the shot thanks to the 6K resolution and the ability to shoot Blackmagic RAW. 

Novarro: Eventually the director came to us and asked if we could add more lettuce leaves to the helicopter shots just like we predicted. We promptly headed to the parking lot of our studio and set up a plate shoot that must have looked very strange to anyone who was passing by. We set up our show's main picture cam, as well as our Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 12K behind several industrial sized fans and threw fistfuls of plastic lettuce leaves into the wind. Our rigging grips set up a large black background in the distance, and thanks to the reference footage we took on set, we were able to perfectly match the look of real helicopter debris. Once we shot a couple of different takes, we were able to quickly offload the footage from our URSA Mini Pro 12K and did a quick test composite in DaVinci Resolve Studio to confirm we had what we needed. When all was said and done, we had an excellent VFX salad. Not everyone can say they’ve thrown lettuce into the wind for work, but it’s just one of the many perks in the job of a VFX supervisor.

Robson-Foster: Even after five years with a show, you never know what a day might bring. With The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I’ve been lucky enough to shoot in many amazing locations and work on finding solutions for many complicated shots.  

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is streaming on Prime Video.