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How HBO’s Watchmen recreated a harrowing moment from the graphic novel

Episode 5 delivers an iconic comic image

Close up of Watchmen smily face with blood arrow like a watch

Damon Lindelof uses the term “remix” to describe his new Watchmen show. Five episodes in, the description holds: The show has served as both a sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel, and a sort of remake, with parallels to the original characters and the mystery of The Comedian’s death.

While Watchmen has nodded to the source material through Easter eggs and character references, the show hasn’t directly recreated a moment from Watchmen graphic novel.

Until now.

[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for Watchmen.]

This week’s episode, “Little Fear of Lightning,” opens with a young Wade Tillman (later known as Looking Glass) at a carnival in Hoboken, New Jersey. Young Wade is a pious Jehovah’s Witness, and while evangelizing at a state fair, he’s sucked into a hall of mirrors by a teen girl. After being tricked into stripping, Wade condemns himself in the mirror. He’s interrupted by what feels like an act of god.

We hear the sound of an explosion, and as the camera pulls backward across dead after dead body, we realize we’re watching the ending to the graphic novel. A cross-dimensional giant space squid has decimated New York City. Or that’s what Adrian Veidt wants him and the world to think.

Not only is the sequence visually impressive, it’s also the first time anyone dared to bring it to life; Zack Snyder’s feature film version of Watchmen infamously altered the ending. How did HBO’s Watchmen-but-not-Watchmen make it happen? Polygon spoke to a few of the chief creatives on the show to find out.

watchmen the alien squid monster hangs on new york city with the words “a stronger loving world” underneath the image DC Comics/Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons

The squid begins on the page

Lindelof has talked about how he and his writers treat the graphic novel as historical fact, and wanting to be as faithful as possible to it. So when it came time to actually bring one of the scenes from the comic to live-action, the key was to treat the squid as a sacrosanct image. “For Damon it’s been a life-long ambition to tell a story related to his beloved Watchmen,” said visual effects supervisor Erik Henry. “So from the beginning we wanted it to look just like those iconic images Damon and the fans saw as kids.”

The key difference, and what makes the scene so surprising, is that we don’t really see the moment the squid appears in Manhattan. Instead we witness the aftermath, the terror, from Looking Glass’ perspective.

“Any kind of specific reference to the source material gets people very excited, but it’s fun to go to a different place than has ever been imagined,” Nicole Kassell, one of Watchmen’s executive producers, told Polygon. “We’re not in Manhattan and we’re also seeing the origin story to one of our main characters. It was important to show how it all affected this person we’ve never thought about and we see where he was on the day.”

Even if the show (and the graphic novel) is set in an alternate version of our reality, the carnival where we meet Wade does look like any 1980s carnival. Production designer Kristian Milsted said that the Watchmen production was aware of how far they were pushing the “alternate universe” angle, and stuck as close to reality as possible.

“We decided to go straight ’80s with the show so people wouldn’t get too confused. Throughout the making of the show we decided that we couldn’t make the world too different, as it would distract the audience from the fairly complex storyline. So we have the ’80s punk hairstyles, the wardrobe, and some Knot Tops from the comic, but we don’t have as many airships in the sky as the original comic.”

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Like most of Watchmen, the scenes in Hoboken were actually shot in Atlanta, which doubled as a New Jersey county fair and which contains plenty of nods to the source material for fans to spot. “The set decorators had a lot of fun with those little surprises,” said Milsted. “We obviously had the ad for the band [Pale Horse] that was going to have a concert that night in Madison Square Garden, and I think there even was an advertisement for Nostalgia on a wall.”

As Wade exits the fun house to discover almost everyone in the carnival is dead. Then comes the money shot of the harrowing sequence: The camera pulls back to reveal the full extent of the destruction, and a familiar cephalopod.

HBO Watchmen: a giant cosmic squid slumps over on a skyscraper with tentacles running through NYC buildings HBO

“It is an incredible combination of practical and visual effects in that take,” Kassell said. “We had the camera on a cable and pulled it back, so that you could start with a close up on [Wade]’s face, moving through an actual set with actual actors as if they’ve just experienced this aftermath, until it really starts to sweep up and back wide and the effects take over.”

Erik Henry and his visual effects team put a lot of detail to both the larger Hoboken area, going into the iconic shots of Manhattan. “The Ferris wheel is CG, as is everything after that,” Henry told Polygon. “We show the boats overturned, fires, police activity and traffic jams. We also show the lights going out on a grand scale, which I think looks amazing. The idea should be that you are transported back to the book, so we not only show actual New York landmarks, but Watchmen landmarks for those fans of the book who are going to say ‘that’s the moment come to life’ … the actual squid was as close as we could get it to the actual panel from the comic.”

When making the actual squid, size mattered for Watchmen. As Milsted told us, the visual language of a graphic novel doesn’t translate to screen easily. “The size of things are not relatable necessarily when you draw on a comic panel,” Milsted said. “There’s only one frame in the graphic novel where the squid is next to the door where it is teleported, and it’s the only thing that really gives us scale. Also the tentacles are like, maybe two to four feet in diameter, while ours are way bigger. Damon said he wanted this thing as big as like a five-story building if it stood up, he was very precise about wanting it to be fucking huge.”

“We felt we can only do a shot like this once,” Henry told us. “a shot where the camera backs up and reveals things a bit at a time to the audience. So we felt like the fire and the damage could only go so far. I felt that least halfway through we were going to start showing something about why this is all happening. So we took inspiration from the graphic novel and started showing bits and pieces of tentacles buried in the side of a building, in a way that you go ‘that’s weird’ since it’s half in and half out of the building, like it was teleported.”

Then we finally get the iconic shot of the giant squid on the crashed building, with the beak and the single eye and everything. “I started with a classic kind of octopus and made it an alien squid,” said Milsted. “We pretty much just took the graphic novel and turned it into a real thing.”

“The difficult bit was mostly about lighting,” Henry explained. “We were very careful to try and not over light the squid, not because we wanted to hide anything, but to give the feel that maybe a drone of helicopter could have shot the scene. We did our best to try and translate the iconic colors from the graphic novel, but in the end it’s got to look real and in the kind of natural lighting we went for with the moon and the fires, it was not going to be conducive to see those sort of nuanced colors.”

“We used the graphic novel extensively,” Milsted explained. “It was important to hammer home that we are really big fans of the graphic novel and that we wanted to pay homage to this thing and give people what they want and what they deserve. We’re only doing this show because there was a graphic novel called Watchmen.

Now if only they finish showing the real Doctor Manhattan in all its big and blue form.