Bringing Real-World VFX to the Supernatural World of HBO’s ‘The Outsider’

Heading into this Sunday’s season finale, HBO’s The Outsider has spent the last nine weeks deftly weaving together an old-fashioned crime investigation drama with a supernatural thriller.  The show’s photorealistic, invisible visual effects come courtesy of VFX supervisor John Heller and his team at FuseFX, an award-winning VFX house, founded in 2006, that provides visual effects services for episodic television, feature films, commercials, and VR productions. They currently employ over 300 people across three studios: a flagship office in Los Angeles and facilities in New York City and Vancouver, BC.

The Outsider, based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel of the same name, begins by following a seemingly straightforward investigation into the gruesome murder of a young boy. But when an insidious supernatural force edges its way into the case, it leads a seasoned cop and an unorthodox investigator to question everything they believe in.

Heller, an industry veteran whose credits include Big Miracle, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The Bourne Legacy, joined the show early in pre-production, working on initial prep, through shooting, and all the way through post-production. The show’s visual effects run the gamut, from blood and gore effects, to 2D digital matte paintings, CG set extensions, environments, greenscreen work, CG effects, animation and creature work. Heller’s largest sequences appear in Episode 6, which include set extensions and a partial CG bus crash, as well as work in the final episode that, according to the VFX supervisor, “I can’t currently talk too much about yet!”

“Creating complex visual effects that are never noticed, or appear unrealistic, is always our goal,” Heller explains. “The biggest compliment I receive is when people ask me what we did for a particular film or show. We did around 800 shots for The Outsider, and the hope is that they aren’t necessarily seen. Complete photoreal imagery is more challenging, in my opinion, especially when presenting images that we are intimately familiar with, such as a human face or domesticated animals. We all refer to even the most subtle departures in these as the uncanny valley effect. Just one little clue can throw you off even if you’re not sure why.”

The show presents as quite the slow burn, gradually, and dramatically, shifting from a “whodunnit” murder mystery into a hunt for a mythical predator. Creating visuals that believably supporting the shifting tone, while staying true to Stephen King’s source material, required considerable effort. “Presenting the supernatural in a way that stays grounded, convincingly, in our very real world was the most significant creative challenge we faced,” Heller shares. “We paid close attention to whether we were riding the line of VFX supporting something that could be real or creating something that took us out of the tone of the show. We generally relied on real-world, or seemingly real-world sources that have traditionally inspired the same type of lore that our character comes from. Stephen King is a master of making us believe in and be frightened by the improbable. We tried, and hope we succeeded, in honoring that.”