How HBO’s ‘The Baby’ Turned a 9-Month-Old Into a Titan of Terror

·4-min read

TV shows create all kinds of boogeymen, particularly this season where we even have one plucked right out of a role-playing game, featured on “Stranger Things” to much viewer interest. But how do you make a cooing, adorable newborn the subject of constant peril throughout a horror-comedy?

HBO’s “The Baby”, which acts as both a thriller and a sly commentary on child-rearing, finds its central figure Natasha (Michelle de Swarte), a single woman with zero designs on family, as the sudden caretaker for a baby (played by brothers Arthur and Albie Hills) that literally falls out of the sky and into her arms, and also has a pesky penchant for finalizing the lives of those it comes into contact with. However, making that a realization in visual effects is another matter, according to VFX producer Anne Akande and VFX supervisor Owen Braekke-Carroll.

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“I immediately knew that this is a show that’s going to require us to think about the visual effects in a different kind of way,” says Akande, a veteran of projects such as “Devs” and “Altered Carbon”. “I knew that we had to be very careful and had to get vendors on board that kind of understood the nature of the work we’re going into.”

So the team enlisted the Oscar-winning London visual-effects house Framestore to assist on the eight-episode season, which consists of around 650 effects shots, though viewers may struggle to see many of those given they were often a means of extracting dangerous environs and creating real-life scenarios for that sweet cherub that didn’t actually exist on set. Braekke-Carroll, who has recently worked on big effects-laden projects like “Lovecraft Country” and “The Witcher” adds, “just in regard to how much our baby talent we’re able to use was also how much would have to be resolved potentially through visual effects to help make those scripts work as intended; even the most simple shot suddenly becomes a big issue if we ran out of shooting time with one baby, or one wasn’t feeling it.”

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The various scenes could have the titular character, for example, sitting in a laundry basket in a moving car, or near a roiling fire, or watching a group of young people stabs themselves in unison, a scene that they were initially encouraged to go “a little bit Tarantino,” says Akande. But the hardest effects to achieve were often the humblest. “It’s almost impossible to capture a baby sleeping,” says Akande with a laugh, noting that visual manipulation is a must to create a seamless transition. “We ended up having a standard baby with a digital head replacement for the whole thing that you don’t notice [for some moments], and high-frame digital photography for the features,” a process that often combined use of prosthetics and “jelly” babies if a shot proved too puzzling or dangerous.

Ross Ferguson/HBO
Ross Ferguson/HBO

But despite labor laws which allowed them only about four hours with each baby, there is one cardinal rule for working with them in the United Kingdom. “It’s different in the U.S. I believe, but in the U.K., you absolutely cannot make a baby cry,” says Akande. “So, if there was a scene where the babies needed to be crying, unless they were actually crying, we can’t induce it. Or sometimes they would not be feeling well or clinging to their mom, and it would be hard to lock down something.”

But the production strongly enforced the use of child wranglers, and it was often all-hands-on-deck to get the captures down in most cases. Adds Braekke-Carroll: “More often than not, the people holding the baby in position or keeping them calm were the parents. And you know, we’ve painted them out [of the frame] every time, but it was really nice to see them come through the whole way in the process in front of the blue screens holding them.”

“The Baby” is now streaming on HBO Max. The show’s season finale airs on HBO on Sunday, June 12

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