The new Syfy series Aftermath was shot by Jon Joffin, ASC, who cut his teeth on the original run of The X-Files. VFX supervisor Mark Savela tapped various freelance artists, including Creative Post veteran Derek Grime, to bring supernatural creatures to life, all seemingly harbingers of a coming apocalypse.
Jon Joffin, ASC, has seen his career come full circle working on Aftermath. He got his big break on the original run of The X-Files, the classic ’90s sci-fi series that also shot in Joffin’s adopted home of Vancouver. He became Director of Photography on the show—but that was 20 years ago, and Joffin explains how the industry has changed.
“Now it’s ‘how can you make it look as good as The X-Files in a quarter of the time with less resources?’” quips the Johannesburg native. “The bar on TV quality is extremely high today. Aftermath is a prime example, full of visual opportunity, but operating on a tight budget with limited time. We’re pushing hard to make it look like a world-class show.”
Created by showrunners William Laurin and Glenn Davis, the thriller follows the Copeland family as a series of natural disasters and supernatural creatures signal a coming apocalypse. Patriarch Josh (James Tupper) is a Cultural Studies professor trying to decode recent phenomena, while wife Karen (Tupper’s real-life partner Anne Heche) draws on her Air Force training to protect son Matt (Levi Meaden) and twin daughters Dana (Julia Sarah Stone) and Brianna (Taylor Hickson). The Halfire Entertainment production is set to air on Syfy and Space (Canada) this fall.
Principal photography began in May and stretched throughout the summer. Each block of two one-hour episodes was shot over 13 days. Adding to the hectic pace was the road-show nature of the series, one that follows the story’s family after they flee their farmhouse in an RV. Aside from a breakaway version of that RV built on a stage, the series is completely shot on location in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
Joffin was the lone cinematographer on Season One, and he initially discussed the look of the show with Jason Stone, director of the first two episodes of the sci-fi series, and says their main idea was to shoot fast without dollies.
“We wanted it to feel loose and achieve as much coverage as possible in single shots,” he says. “All these horrible, unreal things are happening in the story, but it needed to have naturalistic lighting. We’re trying to show a world that could disappear at any moment, yet still remain a beautiful place.”
The crew maintained two cameras on set at all times. Chris Fisher operated the A camera, and Jos Oman was on the B, with occasional C camera work by Jan Wolff. The documentary-styled ARRI AMIRA originally served as main camera(s), with the ARRI ALEXA Mini joining as C camera—but after one week this reversed, with the ALEXA Mini promoted to both A and B cameras.
“The Mini is fantastic,” explains Joffin. “It’s ideal handheld when there’s action happening because the package is so light. I’ve always been an ARRI guy, and the look from the camera just feels so organic to me.”
Production was captured at 2K resolution in the ProRes 4444 XQ format on ALEXA Mini, recording to a 128 GB or 256 GB Lexar 3600X CFAST 2.0 memory card.
“Shooting XQ helps retain the maximum amount of quality and detail without adding the complexity and cost of a full RAW workflow,” explains David Skidmore, the series’ DIT. “The streamlined ProRes workflow, on the other hand, is ideal for fast-paced TV work.”
The production also used ARRI Artemis Maxima gimbals, handheld stabilization systems capable of carrying up to 30 kilos of weight in a highly mobile design. It was possible to hang the Maxima on a SlingShot support rig and move in for dolly-style shots. The self-leveling system also enabled quick battery, lens and filter changes that never altered camera-body position. The compact system was also wirelessly remote-operated with wheel controls.
“We were able to walk around with heavy 100mm lenses attached to the camera and you never bumped the horizon,” Joffin gushes. “I think the Maxima is going to impress everyone when they sees what it can do. The package even allowed for dynamic long takes. The director had just seen The Revenant and wanted to cover action in real time. Plus, if we did coverage in one shot, we had more time to focus on the next scene.”
The crew shot mainly with Leica Summilux-C primes complemented by Canon CN-E Cinema primes and Canon zooms, especially the CN-E 30-300mm.
“We wanted buttery, out-of-focus backgrounds so we shot wide open at T1.4 most of the time,” Joffin elaborates. “It was a challenge for focus pullers Aidan Dungait and Ed Morris, but they worked miracles. We often favored the Leica 65mm, and it was also good to have the Canon 30-300mm to reach in with if we wanted something tighter.”
A Canon lens proved invaluable on an ambitious special effects sequence that Stone designed for the pilot. The scene features a “skinwalker” that invades the farmhouse and abducts Brianna by dragging her out of her home by the legs. The skinwalker gets to the front porch and jumps 150 feet in the air with Brianna in tow, the action accomplished by a stunt man on wires suspended from a construction crane.
For a breathtaking POV shot, a stripped-down Mini with a Canon CN-E 14mm T3.1 L F lens was strapped to the stunt performer looking down on Brianna and the receding ground behind her as they became airborne. Total weight of the package was eight pounds.
“The Canon lenses are much lighter than Leica and cut really well with them,” Joffin notes. “They flare nicely, too.”
The crew also used a Lensbaby Movie Maker’s Kit with a Sweet 35mm, Sweet 50mm, Edge 80mm and a pre-release version of the Twist 60 that Joffin likens to old Russian Petzval lenses for its sharp central focus and swirly bokeh backgrounds.
During preproduction, Joffin and Skidmore rolled camera using filters including Chocolate, Antique Suede, Coral and Tobacco, and loaded the clips into DaVinci Resolve, comparing the recorded material to a live signal of the camera chip chart. They then matched the recorded signal to the chart via Pomfort LiveGrade Pro.
The DIT would tweak color as shooting went along. The lens mix—and greater saturation of footage shot with zooms—made consistency challenging.
“We compared an iPad and a computer screen to our monitors [Sony PVMA250 25-inch OLED and Leader LV5330/LV5333 Waveform] to create a ‘Dailies LUT’ to compensate for any difference in gamma on the viewer’s end from what we were shooting,” Skidmore says.
The final grade is currently being performed by Arlene Moelker at Creative Post, Toronto. Most of the show’s action is exterior, and little of that involved movie lights, as the crew relied mostly on negative fill. Artificial sources came into play indoors, but to naturalistic effect.
In one episode, Josh visits a mythical creatures expert (Leslie Hope, also tapped to direct episodes of the show) in a ransacked, abandoned school with zero electricity. The crew built and wired Coleman-type lanterns to serve as practicals and flare the lens, while ARRIMAX 18/12Kw, ARRI M90 and 18K fixtures re-created sunlight outside the windows.
“I sent the light hard through the window, but made sure it was behind the actors and not hitting them directly, and so kept it soft on their faces,” Joffin explains.
The show balances physical effects with digital work, with VFX supervisor Mark Savela tapping various freelance artists to create the look of the show, including Creative Post veteran Derek Grime. More involved shots and sequences are being handled at vendors such as FuseFX, Artifex and Darkroom Digital Effects.
Savela explains that in the past few years VFX turnaround times have shrunk by more than half. “It’s a challenge to get vendors because Vancouver is so busy,” he reveals. “It’s also a spread-out process that poses its own inherent challenges—and then it all has to be delivered on time and on budget. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s going well.”
Artifex is tasked with creating monster and 3D character effects for Savela, while FuseFX will handle atmospheric effects. Natural disasters that need to be created include storms, meteor strikes, earthquakes and volcanoes. Creature characters that are humanoid in shape, yet fantastical in features have been the toughest things to bring to life.
“Based on the description everybody had something different in mind,” he explains. “There are many characters out there like them, so it was challenging to come up with something new.”
Bringing these monsters to life involved a combination of 3D animation, particle simulation and digital enhancement of actors wearing prosthetics. That meant Savela needed to be on set every shoot day alongside VFX producer Kerrington Harper. The pair were also busy prepping upcoming episodes and overseeing VFX delivery.
“There isn’t one standard path,” Savela wraps on making the effects work. “We look at every unique scenario out there. To be honest, it’s great to have to come up with new solutions for every single show.”
Learn more about the series at syfy.com/aftermath.