Heads above: the VFX of Sleepy Hollow

Fox’s Sleepy Hollow is closing in on the end of its first season and has already been renewed for its second. The show features a diverse mix of visual effects work, from the hero Headless Horseman to matte paintings, particle sims and other animation. Visual effects supervisor Jason Zimmerman helps us go behind the scenes for a recent episode – ‘Necromancer’ – that has around 500 VFX shots.

De-heading the Headless Horseman

In ’Necromancer’, the Headless Horseman is interrogated, necessitating close-up views of his upper body and of course the missing head. “This demands that our CG model is of the highest quality and the match move and compositing are spot on,” says Zimmerman. “Additionally, having over 120-plus headless shots in the show was by far the highest number we’ve had, and we had to deliver them along with 400 other shots in less than two weeks.”

Watch a breakdown of a Headless Horseman shot.

Synaptic realized the Headless Horseman shots, taking plate photography of the actor wearing a green hood, and then clean plates and making subtle CG additions for the collar area. “We had created a very high res collar model from set photography to add to the full body scan we did on the Pilot,” explains Zimmerman. “This allowed us to get very close to everything while making sure the gory details inside the Headless Horseman’s gory collar held up. Taking measurements of the set and the actor allowed us to get matchmoves that worked with the subtle movements of the various independently moving layers of the closeup character.”

“These shots had to be flawless because the Headless Horseman isn’t just VFX,” adds Zimmerman. “He’s a living breathing character that has to tell the story.”

From minions to dust

Hellish creatures known as Acolytes are summoned in this episode. When they are killed the Acolytes rapidly disintegrate, a task handled by Pixomondo. “The challenge,” says Zimmerman, “was to create a new interpretation on how these could die that wasn’t just disappearing into smoke, and to lean more towards giving these guys some weight by having them explode into large chunks of a stone-like particulate – like statues collapsing.”

See Pixomondo’s sim work for the Acolytes.

Skulls brought to life

Pixomondo also produced the animation of the Phiale, an ancient artifact that comes to life to indicate a hex has been lifted. Says Zimmerman: “We used 123dCatch to create a photogrammetry model of the Phiale on set which helped quite a bit in providing a animatable base model to build from that was true to the inanimate prop built by the art department. As soon as the scene was shot the assets were sent to Pixo to get started on while editorial worked on the edit. Anything we can do to speed things up on our extremely tight schedule helps. From there the riggers and animators went to work and came up with a really cool version of the shot where the skulls essentially come to life before our eyes.”

Watch the Phiale animation and see how the scene was made.

Sleepy Hollow from the sky

An aerial view of the town of Sleepy Hollow reveals a power failure that allows for the Headless Horseman to escape. “We started with an aerial day plate that had to be darkened to be night with lights added,” says Zimmerman, “including the lights for the passing cars etc. We had to animate the lights going out in various sections of town as if part of a grid. FuseFX really did a great job making something that I felt was fairly seamless.”

Before and after for the power outage scene.

“It’s quite an achievement to deliver 500 shots on a network TV schedule,” notes Zimmerman, “but to be able to achieve the level of VFX we had on ‘Necromancer’ is something we are very proud of. Our vendors have consistently stepped up to the plate and continued to deliver high quality VFX.”