Director Vallée Melds Invisible VFX with Epic Led Zeppelin Tracks to Create the Haunting Atmosphere of HBO’s "Sharp Objects"

Sharp Objects, the HBO miniseries that just landed 8 Emmy nominations, is widely respected as a psychological thriller masterpiece. Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s and the creative team on Sharp Objects faced a challenge as old as filmmaking: portraying the inner life of a character to audiences. 

“It’s all about Camille’s perspective,” says Vallée about Amy Adams’ powerful character Camille Preaker and her past and present world. “I want the audience to see what she sees, see what she remembers, even see what Camille dreams.”   

“The kind of stories I like to tell are character-driven, emotional, and in order to tell these stories, my creative collaborators and I developed through the years a different way of working and thinking, and a different method of visual development”. 

Vallée starts by planning shots that favor the main character’s perspective. “There are no establishing shots; we see everything they see. It’s shot hand-held with only one camera, using natural lighting only, it’s designing shots on the spot based on what the actors do, it’s allowing them to use the space and to go where ever they want to, it’s being able to shoot in 360 degrees if needed be, it’s shooting non-stop for 30 to 40 minutes, different shots, different takes.  After shooting, it’s using editing and visual effects to push the perspective management even further.

An important component of the EditAvance process is combining the performances from multiple takes into a single new take. Image courtesy HBO.

An important component of the EditAvance process is combining the performances from multiple takes into a single new take. Image courtesy HBO.

Vallée developed this approach with his team of editors (Maxime Lahaie-Denis, Véronique Barbe, Justin Lachance, Dominique Champagne, David Berman, and Émile Vallée) along with the visual and post artists at REAL by FAKE led by Marc Côté. “With Marc and his team,” he says, “we can test ideas rapidly, keeping what works, discarding what doesn’t. Nothing is impossible.”

Marc Côté even coined a name for what we did on the show : ‘EditAvance.’ ‘Edit’ because it all comes together during the editing process, not as a separate post process. And ‘Avance’ which is simply French for ‘advance.’’

One of the major areas of collaboration between Vallée and Côté on the show occurs in scenes in Camille’s iconic family home. Much of Camille’s story centers around what happened there during her childhood. 

But reality does not always cooperate.

The location team found a great house in Northern California. “It was beautiful, and so isolated. It was so remote it had this Alfred Hitchcock feel: You can scream but nobody can hear you. But we didn’t have enough time and budget to stay on location through the entire show.

“So we built the house interior on a stage with a 360-degree translight (a large illuminated film backdrop). However, there are issues with perspective when using a translight. We then just repositioned things with VFX, so anytime you look out a window, you see a completely accurate visual re-creation of the environment around the house.

The interior of Camille’s childhood home was created on a stage with a 360 degree translight. A drone survey and image may were done to create an accurate representation of the outside. The translight was then replaced with actual elements, keeping the proper perspective. Image courtesy HBO.

The interior of Camille’s childhood home was created on a stage with a 360 degree translight. A drone survey and image may were done to create an accurate representation of the outside. The translight was then replaced with actual elements, keeping the proper perspective. Image courtesy HBO.

This is just one example of the EditAvance approach used in hundreds of shots in the series. “By the end of the show, between the shots of the house, augmenting the scars on Camille’s body and the other assorted clean-ups, replacements and greenscreen shots, there were over 2,300 visual effects shots in the show.”

The other key component of the EditAvance process is music. For SHARP OBJECTS, like for all of his previous films, Vallée didn’t choose a traditional composed score but source material, songs that the characters play. “In the real world, we live our lives surrounded by music. Same with these characters, including Camille.”

In the show, Camille and major characters have unique “playlists.” Vallée shapes the sound atmosphere around the playlists by tweaking and repurposing the music’s themes, durations, volume, presence, and distance. Says the director, “I knew I wanted Led Zeppelin to be the sound of the show. That defines a character.  Or two.  Alice and Camille.

To realize his music-centric vision for telling Camille’s story, Vallée’s team used classic invisible visual effects and post-production techniques such as speed ramps, sound and picture overlays, extraction and repositioning, morphs, split screens, digital extensions of sets and locations. These techniques helped Vallée match each character’s visual story to their musical story. 

Music is a crucial element of EditAvance. The process matches the visual rhythm of the scene to the music- not the other way around. Image courtesy HBO.

Music is a crucial element of EditAvance. The process matches the visual rhythm of the scene to the music- not the other way around. Image courtesy HBO.

“I’m no musician, but it seems to me that the process is a lot like making music. It’s like creating a score with pieces of songs, and with spaces in the right spots where silence can breathe. As I work with the editors, visual effects artists and sound designers, it gets more and more precise. Once we find the scenes, one at a time, once we find the right pacing, and the quality of emotion of each of them, we move on to find the right transition between them, the right music cue in and cue out.”

Is this “EditAvance” approach the next wave for producing prestige streaming series? 

Perhaps it’s too early to say. One thing’s for certain, however, it’s an approach that aims for truth in the performances and puts the story and their characters first.  So far, the results speak for themselves.

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