By Barry Goch
Netflix’s Altered Carbon is now streaming Season 2, with a new lead in Anthony Mackie as Takeshi Kovacs in a new skin. He’s the only surviving soldier of a group of elite interstellar warriors, continuing his centuries-old quest to find his lost love, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). After decades of planet-hopping and searching the galaxy, Kovacs finds himself recruited back to his home planet of Harlan’s World with the promise of finding Quell. In this world of Altered Carbon, lives can be continued after death by taking on a new skin and using the person’s stack — or brain.
As you can imagine, there are a ton of visual effects used to tell Takeshi’s story. To find out more, we reached out to Jay Worth, an Emmy Award-winning VFX supervisor with 15 years of experience working in visual effects. His credits include Fringe, Person of Interest and Westworld, for which he won the Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in 2017.
How did you get involved in Altered Carbon?
I have a relationship with showrunner Alison Schapker. We go way back to the good old days of Fringe and a few other things. I had worked with the head of visual effects and post for Skydance, Dieter Ismagil, and then I had just come off of working on a Netflix show. It worked out for all three of those parties to come together and have me join the team. It was a fun bit of a reunion for us to get back together.
At what point did you come on board for Season 2?
I came in after it was shot in order to usher things through post and the final creative push through the final delivery. VFX producer Tony Meagher and I were able to keep the ball rolling and push it through to the final. The VFX team at Double Negative and the other vendors that we had were really able to carry it through from the beginning to the end as well.
Tell us about your review process. Where were you based?
We were in Los Angeles — the showrunners, Tony Meagher and I — but the rest of the team was in Toronto: our VFX coordinator, VFX editor, post team and DI facility (Deluxe Toronto). The VFX vendors were spread across Canada. The interesting thing for us was how to set up the review process while being in Los Angeles. We relied really completely on ClearView and that amazing technology. We were able to do editorial reviews and full-range color UHD review sessions for final VFX shots. It was a beautiful process. Being able to review many things in the edit and make a checklist was useful. Then we needed to look at this one in color, so being able to go downstairs and just flip a switch in our bay and have our beautifully calibrated setup was amazing. That afforded us the ability to work seamlessly even though we weren’t all in the same place.
This was the first time I had done a show that was so remote. I’ve done many shows where editorial is in one place and the VFX team is in another, but this was the first time I’d done something this ambitious. We did everything remotely, from editorial reviews to effects reviews to color and even the sound, and it was really an amazing, far more seamless process than I thought it would be when we started. The team at Skydance, the production team and the post team really had all the variables dialed in, and it was really painless considering we were spread out. The editorial team and the VFX team on the show side were just phenomenal in terms of how they were able to coordinate with everybody.
Before and After
This production predates the COVID-19 restrictions. Do you think that would have impacted your production?
It would have been a challenge, but not impossible. We would have probably ended up having more ClearView boxes for the team in order to work remotely. I’ve worked recently on other shows that have the colorists working from home, and they’re all tapping into the same box; it just happens to be a pipeline issue. It was doable before, but now there’s just a little bit more back and forth to set up the pipeline.
What was the hardest sequence on “Broken Angels,” the last episode of the season, and why?
One of the larger challenges in visual effects is how to convey something visually from a story perspective and still have it feel real and organic. A lot of times, it ends up being a more challenging hurdle to get over from a visual standpoint when the storytellers are trusting you to help convey these different story points. That’s really where visual effects shine: When you are willing to take on that risk and that narrative responsibility, that’s really where the fun lies.
For the finale, it was telling the story of Angelfire. People kind of understand the overarching idea of satellites and weapons from space, but we had to help people understand the communication between them. We also needed them to understand how it connects to the older technology and what that’s going to mean for our characters. That was by far the biggest challenge for that episode and for the season.
Tell us about the look development of the Angelfire.
It was definitely a journey, but it started with the page and trying to visualize it. Alison Schapker and EP James Middleton had written up what these moments were going to be: a communication tower and a force field around a planet they didn’t quite understand. That was part of the mystery for the viewers and the characters as they were going through the season.
Our goal, from a visual effects standpoint, was to show this ancient-yet-modern communication and to figure out how to visually tell the story of how these things are communicating … that they’re all kind of like-minded and they’re protective. We key that up when Danica fires off the rocket with the rebels attached to them so we can see firsthand what these orbitals can do. Then we see Angelfire come down on the soldiers in the forest.
We’re starting to understand more and more what this thing does so that we can understand what the sacrifice really means … to figure out what the orbitals are and how they could look and feel organic and threatening as well as benign and ultimately destructive. I feel like we ended at a point where it makes sense and it all works together, but at the beginning, when you have a blank canvas, it’s a rather daunting task to figure out what it all should look like.
We had so many conversations about how to depict Angelfire. Should it be more like glass breaking? Should it be like lightning? Should it be like a wave? Should it just crackle? Should it splash in? We had so many iterations of things that just didn’t feel or look quite right. It didn’t convey what we wanted it to convey. “It looks too digital; it looks fake.” To end up with something that felt integrated into the environment and the sky was a testament not only to the team’s perseverance but to Alison’s and James’ patience, leadership and ability to explain creatively what they were going for. I’m really happy with where we finally landed.
How did you lock in the final look?
We wanted it to feel organic and real for the audience. We had a lot of different meetings to talk about what perspective we were going to take — how high up we need to be, how close we need to be to understand that they were communicating with each other and still firing — and whether those different perspectives should be down on the ground or up in the sky. We figured it out with editorial while we were locking episodes, which is a fairly normal process when you’re dealing with full CG shots mixed with pieces that we shot on the day.
We obviously had numerous versions of animatics, and we had to figure out how it was going to work in the edit before we could lock down animation and timing. Honestly, for the final moments when Kovacs sacrificed himself and Angelfire was going off, we were tweaking those with editorial, and our editorial team did a phenomenal job of helping us realize the moment.
Any people or companies that you want to give a shout-out to?
Bob Munroe (a production-side VFX supervisor) and Tony Meagher. All the work they did was groundwork for everything that ended up on the screen. And all the vendors, like Double Negative, Mavericks, Spin, Switch and Krow. Also our VFX coordinating team and everybody up in Toronto. They were the backbone of everything we did this season. And it was just so much fun to work with Alison and James and the team.
Any advice for people wanting to work in visual effects?
From my standpoint, there are not enough people on the show side of things, and if they have a passion for it, there’s a lot of opportunity to get into that.
I would say try to find your lane. Is it on the artist side? Is it on the coordinating and producing side? There are so many resources out there now. And now that the technology is available for everybody, it’s an amazing opportunity for creatives to get together and collaborate and to make things that that are compelling.
When I’m on a show or in the office, I can tell which PA or assistant has a fascination with VFX, and I always encourage them to come along. I have hired from within many times. It’s about trying to educate yourself and figure out what your passion is, and realizing there’s space for almost any role when it comes to visual effects. That’s the exciting thing about it.
Barry Goch is senior finishing artist at The Foundation and an instructor in post production at UCLA Extension.