Interview: The scary visual effects behind The Haunting of Bly Manor

Netflix delivered a Halloween hit in 2018 with filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s chilling series The Haunting of Hill House, and followed it up this year with another gothic horror masterpiece, The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Adapted from the stories of Henry James, The Haunting of Bly Manor follows a young woman who agrees to serve as the governess for a pair of orphaned children at their family’s secluded estate, only to be tormented by a series of terrifying supernatural encounters that hint at the manor’s dark past. Like its predecessor, The Haunting of Bly Manor offered plenty of nightmare fuel, from the massive, foreboding manor itself to the ghosts haunting its halls — all of which were brought to the screen through a mix of practical, in-camera techniques and clever visual effects.

Digital Trends spoke to Rob Price, Zoic Studios‘ visual effects supervisor on The Haunting of Bly Manor, whose team worked on more than 600 shots across the series’ nine episodes, to find out how much of a role VFX played in creating the series’ most terrifying elements.

Digital Trends: There were so many parts of the series that I suspect visual effects played a role in. What were some of the elements your team handled?

Rob Price: The biggest element was the house itself. I don’t think many people have caught on to the house being an entirely computer-generated element throughout the entire series. The exterior facade is CG and the interiors are built on soundstages. So we kind of married everything together with visual effects.

We also did a lot of the ghosts’ faces. The ghosts all have a unique look to them, which is kind of a marriage of practical special effects makeup and CG faces. We tried to take the best of both worlds and bring it all together. There are also a few ghosts like Edmund who follow our main character around. He has a unique look that’s developed by visual effects. So much of what we do is invisible stuff, which is always part of the challenge.

Bly Manor itself was such a key part of the series. How did visual effects help create the house and establish the tone the creative team wanted it to have in the show?

From the very onset of this project, Mike Flanagan and the creative team knew the story of this house over the entire course of the season. One of the biggest reasons for not using a real, practical house for filming was that the story needed to take place over several hundred years. The house was going to need to make sense, visually, in the 1980s as well as several hundred years earlier. So the house was going to need to be able to change over time.

We went to a castle in Washington state called Thornewood Castle, and we used lidar [a method of scanning 3D environments using laser light] and photo reference to scan the entire house as a base for the creative space that we needed to build. We then went through some iterations with Mike and the art department to form the version of Bly Manor that actually made it to the screen. The wear and tear on the house had to be shown, so little details like the ivy were very important to us during the creation of it — because we knew the ivy was going to have to grow as it aged over the years.

So from the moment we were brought on, that was understood to be the best approach: Not actually shooting at a location, but creating everything digitally so we could have the latitude to tell a bigger story. I think that’s the beauty of it: That it is so invisible, and it’s almost its own main character, but nobody really knows it’s CG.

If the exterior of the house is CG and the interior is on multiple soundstages, what was the process like for making those two elements work together cleanly?

We scanned the interior sets, because we knew we were going to have some practical scenes where we see into the house through windows, so being able to marry what they practically built on set with the magical CG exterior was another way we could take this to another level. I don’t think a lot of people realize the house is so large that they couldn’t build the set in one location. The first floor is separate from the second floor, and they’re actually built on two different soundstages.

There’s a handful of shots throughout the series where you see these two elements together. For example, when we’re shooting on the second floor set and you see down to the first floor, that was actually a green floor. We had to put in our CG version of the first floor to make that shot work. We were able to do that by using that same technique of using a laser scanner — what we call lidar —  and scanning the entire interior of the house to make sure that we have a one-to-one representation of everything they had on set in our CG model.

The set design team and everybody else who worked on this show did such a wonderful job, and it was so important to make sure we could use all of that in the CG we added.

You worked on some of the show’s creepiest characters: The faceless ghosts that haunt the manor. How did those characters evolve from a visual-effects standpoint?

Mike had a vision for them from the beginning, and having rules established early on helps. The idea is that over time, as memory fades, so would your features. In our early, creative discussions, there was a lot of reference to how a statue erodes over time. With ancient Greek statues, the features of their faces can barely be seen now. It’s not grotesque, though. It’s just faded away in such a way that you lose the identity of what was once there. So that idea was there from the very beginning.

We did a lot of concept work in partnership with Mike and the creative team to lay everything out. There are ghosts trapped in this gravity well of the house by the Lady of the Lake throughout time, and each one of them is slightly different, because each one is slightly newer than the last. So you have a full range of early ghosts like the Lady of the Lake or her sister, Perdita, and then you have the newer ghosts, which have more of their facial features. So there’s a spectrum we were able to design into the show with their facial features and how they go away over time.

Much like The Haunting of Hill House, this series hid a lot of ghosts in the background of shots for the audience to spot. Were you involved in any of that?

To be perfectly honest, those ghosts are all practically there. They do a lot of planning when they’re doing their shooting, and we don’t have to do a lot of digital work to make the hidden ghosts possible. They really take that as a point of pride, making those elements happen in-camera instead of with visual effects. It’s amazing how much can be hidden in a frame, isn’t it?

Is there another element of the series you’re particularly proud of that people wouldn’t realize is a visual effect?

At one point in the story, we see Viola (Kate Siegel) getting progressively sicker. We were able to help out the practical makeup effects by making her seem a little more gaunt than she could be in real life. Working in partnership with the practical makeup team, we were able to enhance what they were doing, and take away some of the flesh that builds up on a person to make her seem a little thinner than she really is. It’s a subtle touch, and one of the things that I don’t think a lot of people would notice. We were able to digitally help her makeup in such a way as to take her past where you could go in reality for how sick or how thin a person could or should get.

What was your favorite part of working on The Haunting of Bly Manor? When you think about your experience working on the show, what comes to mind?

The exterior of the house was one of my favorite parts of working on the show, as well as any of the Lady of the Lake scenes. When she’s doing her walk through the house and grabbing people and pulling them into the lake, those scenes are some of my favorites that we worked on.

And really, I’m just happy that everyone’s loving the show. It really does make us happy to not be noticed at all, in this case.

All nine episodes of The Haunting of Bly Manor are available now on Netflix.

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