VFX Supervisor Chad Wanstreet: four Robert Downey Jr.s and fleeing Vietnam in The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer is a 7 episode espionage thriller and cross-culture satire about the struggles of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the final days of the Vietnam War and his new life as a refugee in Los Angeles, where he learns that his spying days aren’t over.  The show stars Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Phanxine, Vy Le, Ky Duyen, Kieu Chinh, Duy Nguyen, Alan Trong, Emmy winner Sandra Oh and Academy Award winner Robert Downey Jr., who plays four roles at times – all at once. Chad Wanstreet was the visual effects supervisor on the project, which was shot in LA and Thailand – which doubled for Vietnam.

The show involved a lot of environment work, explosions and careful visual effects, especially as the Director decided to riff on the racist cliche that “all Asians look alike” by having the primary white male leads actually be all alike. In other words, having one actor playing all of the primary white male leads.

Four Robert Downey Jr.s

Robert Downey plays four roles in the series, and in episode 3, all of these characters gather on screen for two significant sequences. The first is in a steakhouse; the second is in a private lounge /piano bar with various semi-naked women. The two sequences were handled completely differently technically, and yet both avoided motion control. The first steakhouse sequence was effectively solved with an updated version of split screens. The second used body doubles and digital face replacement.

To work out the various looks of the four characters, Robert Downey was scanned, and four marquettes were produced. These were then sculpted to each of the four character looks. But these scans were just for hair and makeup. Chad Wanstreet additionally scanned Robert Downey Jr. During one of these scanning sessions; Chad discovered a late change in plans for the later lounge scene. This leads Chat to have to quietly ask Downey – in character as the Congressman – to pose and be scanned as if licking whipped cream off a naked woman – Downey who is no stranger to VFX or detailed scanning after so many years in the Ironman /MCU admitted – even for him that was a first!

In the steakhouse scene, the Captain is joined at dinner by his mentor Claude, Congressman Ned Godwin, Professor Hammer, and filmmaker Niko Damianos—all four of whom are played by Downey Jr. It was decided early on that the steakhouse scene would utilize the more minimalistic approach and the production devised a plan to shoot all of the Robert Downey’s roles in each of his different prosthetics in just two days. Managing camera placements from each setup to the next during the shoot was a delicate process, not least of all because each character change took hours in prosthetic makeup time. Chad and the first AD carefully planned the day to balance shooting Robert Downey’s performances balanced with shooting the various background plates for each of the setups while Robert was in his trailer being prepared by hair and makeup for his next character or being scanned in a scanning truck – ready for the later lounge/piano bar sequence.

On set, Downey was shot on a green screen. This allowed the background character to cross from one side of the frame to the other during a split screen. Each split screen was a combination of multiple plates, one for each Robert character and then a background plate for crossing BG talent and restaurant goers.  “All this was to create shots that felt more practically shot rather than a traditional static split screen,” Chad explained. “Having conserved our budgetary resources in the steakhouse, it was decided with Director Park that we would embrace the spectacle of face replacement in the private lounge, and through storyboarding, we created two shots that would be seamless and more dynamic that would give us a good creative reason to utilize this technique.”

Final shot

The Ingenuity VFX team was awarded these shots and executed them successfully with full CG face replacements for three of Robert Downey Jr.’s four characters. Doing this allowed all four of Robert’s characters to be in the same room during key tracking shots without needing motion control.

The Tarmac Sequence

Chad Wanstreet started in July 2022 and worked on set in both the USA and Thailand. “The Thailand location was secured for the tarmac sequence early on,” he explains. “Allowing us to Google Map it and work out the timing.” This sequence changed a lot in look from what was planned. The LA shoot was in late Sept/Oct 2023, and then Chad went to Thailand in February 2023 for almost three months.

Director Park is known for storyboarding everything in his shows, and The Sympathizer is no exception. “Director Park storyboards everything; he is very precise, highly regarded, and respected,” Chad explains. 75-80% of shots were direct from previz in the first episode.” The tarmac sequence at the end of the episode was laid out with multiple rounds of storyboards and then further refined with previz. Zoic prevised the entire scene, with 7 minutes of screen time and 57 shots.

While the shot structure followed the previs, the lighting and look of the tarmac changed extensively. The sequence was shot in a much brighter light than it ended up in the series, and the tarmac was shot dry, while the final needed to be converted into a wet-looking tarmac. This meant that every person running for the plane had to be isolated with roto. Then, each became a card in nuke so that an individual reflection could be created for them. In fact, in many sequences, everything was replaced except the actors. Furthermore, the actors needed to be relit as they needed to not only be much darker primarily – but also lit up by explosions and other fires burning in the now dark environment. All of this meant this sequence took enormous care and crafting in compositing and the final grade.