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'The Strain': Translating Guillermo del Toro’s (Virulent) Visuals to TV

'The Strain' is an ambitious summer series that’s got a lot to recommend it—not least is the fact that it’s helmed by director Guillermo del Toro6/20/2014 10:15 AM Eastern
'The Strain' focuses on Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the chief of the Centers for Disease Control’s Canary Team rapid response unit. Photo by Michael Gibson/FX.

The Strain is an ambitious summer series that’s got a lot to recommend it—not least is the fact that it’s helmed by director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy). Del Toro also happens to have co-written the trilogy of novels upon which the 13-episode series is based. The Strain begins July 13 on FX.

The CDC is thrust into the escalating chaos of a viral outbreak in Manhattan that begins on an airplane. Photo by Michael Gibson/FX.

 

Filmed last winter in Toronto by FX Productions, The Strain is described in press notes as a high-concept thriller that “totally reimagines and reinvents the genre.” The story focuses on Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the chief of the Centers for Disease Control’s Canary Team, whose crack staff is thrust into the escalating chaos of a viral outbreak in Manhattan. The virus closely resembles an ancient (and evil) strain associated with vampirism. As the infection spreads, health officials and a growing army of everyday New Yorkers struggle to save themselves, waging a war that will ultimately decide the fate of humanity.

 
 

Besides Stoll (House of Cards, Midnight in Paris), the cast features David Bradley, Mia Maestro, Sean Astin, Kevin Durand, Natalie Brown, Jonathan Hyde, Richard Sammel, Robert Maillet, Jack Kesy, Ben Hyland and Miguel Gomez. Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) is executive producer/showrunner. Del Toro directed three episodes, while he and his novelist collaborator, Chuck Hogan, co-wrote the pilot.

While not all viewers will be familiar with the source material, line producer J. Miles Dale says the series follows the plot of the books closely. “Making a worthy and faithful adaptation of the books, both in scope and tone, was important. To depict a society falling apart definitely had its challenges in terms of production design, VFX and our shooting style,” he says. “It’s easy to write in a book, but finding a way to shoot some of those sets and sequences from the source material was setting the bar very high.”

On The Strain, as on most TV productions, time is a precious commodity. “Guillermo had a decent amount of time to shoot the pilot, but each episode was done in eight days, with varying amounts of second-unit shooting. The luxury was that FX was smart enough to greenlight the entire 13 scripts very early, so we had the ability to do more advance planning than a normal series might’ve. That was especially true with the creature design, specifically with the Master and some of the other key vampires,” Dale says.

Checco Varese, one of The Strain’s directors of photography, says, “It was the biggest opening of a pilot I’ve ever done—and I’ve shot more than ten. It included a Boeing 767, hundreds of extras and lots of vehicles. We had to light more than ten football fields of tarmac at the same time. It was great!” Photo by Michael Gibson/FX.

Checco Varese, the director of photography for three episodes, chose to shoot with RED EPIC cameras. “Guillermo had a good experience with RED for Pacific Rim. After many conversations with Guillermo, we came to the conclusion that the EPIC’s color rendering, saturation and flexibility in terms of different [shooting] speeds made it our camera of choice,” Varese says.

Much of it conducted in the bitter cold of a typical Canadian winter, the entire shoot had four DPs, although Varese had the responsibility of designing the series’ overall thematic look since he shot the pilot, with del Toro directing. “We created a bible of colors, filters, lighting, camera language and so on, which became the signature of the series. Every other DP followed this pattern, so when you watch the series, the ‘world’ that was originally created carries through the [entire] season. And color correction helps maintain the consistency of the product,” says Varese.

Varese’s key challenge early on was lighting the pilot episode’s opening sequences, which take place on an airport tarmac. “It was the biggest opening of a pilot I’ve ever done—and I’ve shot more than ten. It included a Boeing 767, hundreds of extras and lots of vehicles,” he says. “We had to light more than ten football fields of tarmac at the same time. It was great!”

Colin Hoult, the DP for episode eight, worked primarily with two RED EPICs, and often a third when dealing with more complicated scenes. “We even used a fourth camera during some fire sequences. I lit everything to T2.8 or T4, and as a result stuck mainly with lightweight zooms. This helped us react quickly within a scene or shot, and capture images as quickly and fluidly as possible,” says Hoult, who’s also a writer/actor—including one stint as a comedic vampire on BBC Three.

Director Guillermo del Toro, with Corey Stoll, stands under a RED camera on the set of The Strain.

“The first-act scenes of my episode were done on Steadicams and dollies, and then as all hell breaks loose and things go from bad to worse, the cameras became handheld to help increase the tension. All our high-angle shots were static, so we opted for Condor cranes as camera platforms instead of traditional camera cranes,” says Hoult.

As line producer, Dale notes that Toronto has been a popular choice as a stand-in for New York City for years. “Toronto also has a very refined production center with extraordinary crews, massive film infrastructure, stable tax credits and all the rest. Whether it’s from TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] or shooting something else, all our actors and directors [know] Toronto. So there’s no mystery like you have when you trundle off to Eastern Europe or some hot new tax haven,” Dale adds.

Given the otherworldly nature of the series, quality CGI is of utmost importance. Effects work represents “a healthy portion of our budget,” Dale says. “The post finishing is in Toronto, with Technicolor doing the front end, DI color and sound, and Mr. X in Toronto doing all the VFX. Between the creature work, the worms, those stingers firing out of vampires’ throats, plus all the matte work to make New York City crumble convincingly, we’ve kept Mr. X very busy. But Guillermo is a big fan of practical effects as well, and we had a fairly large creature shop running all year to do as much as we could practically without compromising the possibilities,” Dale adds.

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