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VFX in Series: The Man in the High Castle, Westworld

By Karen Moltenbrey

The look of television changed forever starting in the 1990s as computer graphics technology began to mature to the point where it could be incorporated within television productions. Indeed, the applications initially were minor, but soon audiences were witnessing very complicated work on the small screen. Today, we see a wide range of visual effects being used in television series, from minor wire and sign removal to all-CG characters and complete CG environments — pretty much anything and everything to augment the action and story, or to turn a soundstage or location into a specific locale that could be miles away or even non-existent.

Here, we examine two prime examples where a wide range of visual effects are used to set the stage and propel the action for a pair of series with very unique settings. For instance, The Man in the High Castle uses effects to turn back the clock to the 1960s, but also to create an alternate reality for the period, turning the familiar on its head. In  Westworld, effects create a unique Wild West of the future. In both series, VFX also help turn up the volume on these series’ very creative storylines.

The Man in the High Castle

What would life in the US be like if the Axis powers had defeated the Allied forces during World War II? The Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle explores that alternate history scenario. Created by Frank Spotnitz and produced by Amazon Studios, Scott Free Productions, Headline Pictures, Electric Shepherd Productions and Big Light Productions, the series is scheduled to start its fourth and final season in mid-November. The story is based on the book by Philip K. Dick.

High Castle begins in the early 1960s in a dystopian America. Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan have divvied up the US as their spoils of war. Germany rules the East, known as the Greater Nazi Reich (with New York City as the regional capital), while Japan controls the West, known as the Japanese Pacific States (whose capital is now San Francisco). The Rocky Mountains serve as the Neutral Zone. The American Resistance works to thwart the occupiers, spurred on after the discovery of materials displaying an alternate reality where the Allies were victorious, making them ponder this scenario.

With this unique storyline, visual effects artists were tasked with turning back the clock on present-day locations to the ’60s and then turning them into German- and Japanese-dominated and inspired environments. Starting with Season 2, the main studio filling this role has been Barnstorm Visual Effects (Los Angeles, Vancouver). Barnstorm operated as one of the vendors for Season 1, but has since ramped up its crew from a dozen to around 70 to take on the additional work. (Barnstorm also works on CBS All Access shows such as The Good Fight and Strange Angel, in addition to Get Shorty, Outlander and the HBO series Room 104 and Silicon Valley.)

According to Barnstorm co-owner and VFX supervisor Lawson Deming, the studio is responsible for all types of effects for the series — ranging from simple cleanup and fixes such as removing modern objects from shots to more extensive period work through the addition of period set pieces and set extensions. In addition, there are some flashback scenes that call for the artists to digitally de-age the actors and lots of military vehicles to add, as well as science-fiction objects. The majority of the overall work entails CG set extensions and world creation, Deming explains, “That involves matte paintings and CG vehicles and buildings.”

The number of visual effects shots per episode also varies greatly, depending on the story line; there are an average of 60 VFX shots an episode, with each season encompassing 10 episodes. Currently the team is working on Season 4. A core group of eight to 10 CG artists and 12 to 18 compositors work on the show at any given time.

For Season 3, released last October, there are a number of scenes that take place in the Reich-occupied New York City. Although it was possible to go to NYC and photograph buildings for reference, the city has changed significantly since the 1960s, “even notwithstanding the fact that this is an alternate history 1960s,” says Deming. “There would have been a lot of work required to remove modern-day elements from shots, particularly at the street level of buildings where modern-day shops are located, even if it was a building from the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s. The whole main floor would have needed replaced.”

So, in many cases, the team found it more prudent to create set extensions for NYC from scratch. The artists created sections of Fifth and Sixth avenues, both for the area where American-born Reichmarshall and Resistance investigator John Smith has his apartment and also for a parade sequence that occurs in the middle of Season 3. They also constructed a digital version of Central Park for that sequence, which involved crafting a lot of modular buildings with mix-and-match pieces and stories to make what looked like a wide variety of different period-accurate buildings, with matte paintings for the backgrounds. Elements such as fire escapes and various types of windows (some with curtains open, some closed) helped randomize the structures. Shaders for brick, stucco, wood and so forth further enabled the artists to get a lot of usage from relatively few assets.

“That was a large undertaking, particularly because in a lot of those scenes, we also had crowd duplication, crowd systems, tiling and so on to create everything that was there,” Deming explains. “So even though it’s just a city and there’s nothing necessarily fantastical about it, it was almost fully created digitally.”

The styles of NYC and San Francisco are very different in the series narrative. The Nazis are rebuilding NYC in their own image, so there is a lot of influence from brutalist architecture, and cranes often dot the skyline to emphasize all the construction taking place. Meanwhile, San Francisco has more of a 1940s look, as the Japanese are less interested in influencing architectural changes as they are in occupation.

“We weren’t trying to create a science-fiction world because we wanted to be sure that what was there would be believable and sell the realistic feel of the story. So, we didn’t want to go too far in what we created. We wanted it to feel familiar enough, though, that you could believe this was really happening,” says Deming.

One of the standout episodes for visual effects is “Jahr Null” (Season 3, Episode 10), which has been nominated for a 2019 Emmy in the Outstanding Special Visual Effects category. It entails the destruction of the Statue of Liberty, which crashes into the water, requiring just about every tool available at Barnstorm. “Prior to [the upcoming] Season 4, our biggest technical challenge was the Statue of Liberty destruction. There were just so many moving parts, literally and figuratively,” says Deming. “So many things had to occur in the narrative – the Nazis had this sense of showmanship, so they filmed their events and there was this constant stream of propaganda and publicity they had created.”

There are ferries with people on them to watch the event, spotlights are on the statue and an air show with music prior to the destruction as planes with trails of colored smoke fly toward the statue. When the planes fire their missiles at the base of the statue, it’s for show, as there are a number of explosives planted in the base of the statue that go off in a ring formation to force the collapse. Deming explains the logistics challenge: “We wanted the statue’s torch arm to break off and sink in the water, but the statue sits too far back. We had to manufacture a way for the statue to not just tip over, but to sort of slide down the rubble of the base so it would be close enough to the edge and the arm would snap off against the side of the island.”

The destruction simulation, including the explosions, fire, water and so forth, was handled primarily in Side Effects Houdini. Because there was so much sim work, a good deal of the effects work for the entire sequence was done in Houdini as well. Lighting and rendering for the scene was done within Autodesk’s Arnold.

Barnstorm also used Blender, an open-source 3D program for modeling and asset creation, for a small portion of the assets in this sequence. In addition, the artists used Houdini Mantra for the water rendering, while textures and shaders were built in Adobe’s Substance Painter; later the team used Foundry’s Nuke to composite the imagery. “There was a lot of deep compositing involved in that scene because we had to have the lighting interact in three dimensions with things like the smoke simulation,” says Deming. “We had a bunch of simulations stacked on top of one another that created a lot of data to work with.”

The artists referenced historical photographs as they designed and built the statue with a period-accurate torch. In the wide aerial shots, the team used some stock footage of the statue with New York City in the background, but had to replace pretty much everything in the shot, shortening the city buildings and replacing Liberty Island, the water surrounding it and the vessels in the water. “So yeah, it ended up being a fully digital model throughout the sequence,” says Deming.

Deming cannot discuss the effects work coming up in Season 4, but he does note that Season 3 contained a lot of digital NYC. This included a sequence wherein John Smith was installed as the Reichmarshall near Central Park, a scene that comprised a digital NYC and digital crowd duplication. On the other side of the country, the team built digital versions of all the ships in San Francisco harbor, including CG builds of period Japanese battleships retrofitted with more modern equipment. Water simulations rounded out the scene.

In another sequence, the Japanese performed nuclear testing in Monument Valley, blowing the caps off the mesas. For that, the artists used reference photos to build the landscape and then created a digital simulation of a nuclear blast.

In addition, there were a multitude of banners on the various buildings. Because of the provocative nature of some of the Nazi flags and Fascist propaganda, solid-color banners were often hung on location, with artists adding the offensive VFX image in post as to not upset locals where the series was filmed. Other times, the VFX artists added all-digital signage to the scenes.

As Deming points out, there is only so much that can be created through production design and costumes. Some of the big things have to be done with visual effects. “There are large world events in the show that happen and large settings that we’re not able to re-create any other way. So, the visual effects are integral to the process of creating the aesthetic world of the show,” he adds. “We’re creating things that while they are visually impressive, also feel authentic, like a world that could really exist. That’s where the power and the horror of the world here comes from.”

High Castle is up for a total of three Emmy awards later this month. It was nominated for three Emmys in 2017 for Season 2 and four in 2016 for Season 1, taking home two Emmys that year: one for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series and another for Outstanding Title Design.

Westworld

What happens when high tech meets the Wild West, and wealthy patrons can indulge their fantasies with no limits? That is the premise of the Emmy-winning HBO series Westworld from creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who executive produce along with J.J. Abrams, Athena Wickham, Richard J. Lewis, Ben Stephenson and Denise Thé.

Westworld is set in the fictitious western theme park called Westworld, one of multiple parks where advanced technology enables the use of lifelike android hosts to cater to the whims of guests who are able to pay for such services — all without repercussions, as the hosts are programmed not to retaliate or harm the guests. After each role-play cycle, the host’s memory is erased, and then the cycle begins anew until eventually the host is either decommissioned or used in a different narrative. Staffers are situated out of sight while overseeing park operations and performing repairs on the hosts as necessary. As you can imagine, guests often play out the darkest of desires. So, what happens if some of the hosts retain their memories and begin to develop emotions? What if some escape from the park? What occurs in the other themed parks?

The series debuted in October 2016, with Season 2 running from April through June of 2018. The production for Season 3 began this past spring and it is planned for release in 2020.

The first two seasons were shot in various locations in California, as well as in Castle Valley near Moab, Utah. Multiple vendors provide the visual effects, including the team at CoSA VFX (North Hollywood, Vancouver and Atlanta), which has been with the show since the pilot, working closely with Westworld VFX supervisor Jay Worth. CoSA worked with Worth in the past on other series, including Fringe, Undercovers and Person of Interest.

The number of VFX shots per episode varies, depending on the storyline, and that means the number of shots CoSA is responsible for varies widely as well. For instance, the facility did approximately 360 shots for Season 1 and more than 200 for Season 2. The studio is unable to discuss its work at this time on the upcoming Season 3.

The type of effects work CoSA has done on Westworld varies as well, ranging from concept art through the concept department and extension work through the studio’s environments department. “Our CG team is quite large, so we handle every task from modeling and texturing to rigging, animation and effects,” says Laura Barbera, head of 3D at CoSA. “We’ve created some seamless digital doubles for the show that even I forget are CG! We’ve done crowd duplication, for which we did a fun shoot where we dressed up in period costumes. Our 2D department is also sizable, and they do everything from roto, to comp and creative 2D solutions, to difficult greenscreen elements. We even have a graphics department that did some wonderful shots for Season 2, including holograms and custom interfaces.”

On the 3D side, the studio’s pipeline js mainly comprised of Autodesk’s Maya and Side Effects Houdini, along with Adobe’s Substance, Foundry’s Mari and Pixologic’s ZBrush. Maxon’s Cinema 4D and Interactive Data Visualization’s SpeedTree vegetation modeler are also used. On the 2D side, the artists employ Foundry’s Nuke and the Adobe suite, including After Effects and Photoshop; rendering is done in Chaos Group’s V-Ray and Redshift’s renderer.

Of course, there have been some recurring effects each season, such as the host “twitches and glitches.” And while some of the same locations have been revisited, the CoSA artists have had to modify the environments to fit with the changing timeline of the story.

“Every season sees us getting more and more into the characters and their stories, so it’s been important for us to develop along with it. We’ve had to make our worlds more immersive so that we are feeling out the new and changing surroundings just like the characters are,” Barbera explains. “So the set work gets more complex and the realism gets even more heightened, ensuring that our VFX become even more seamless.”

At center stage have been the park locations, which are rooted in existing terrain, as there is a good deal of location shooting for the series. The challenge for CoSA then becomes how to enhance it and make nature seem even more full and impressive, while still subtly hinting toward the changes in the story, says Barbera. For instance, the studio did a significant amount of work to the Skirball Cultural Center locale in LA for the outdoor environment of Delos, which owns and operates the parks. “It’s now sitting atop a tall mesa instead of overlooking the 405!” she notes. The team also added elements to the abandoned Hawthorne Plaza mall to depict the sublevels of the Delos complex. They’re constantly creating and extending the environments in locations inside and out of the park, including the town of Pariah, a particularly lawless area.

“We’ve created beautiful additions to the outdoor sets. I feel sometimes like we’re looking at a John Ford film, where you don’t realize how important the world around you is to the feel of the story,” Barbera says.

CoSA has done significant interior work too, creating spaces that did not exist on set “but that you’d never know weren’t there unless you’d see the before and afters,” Barbera says. “It’s really very visually impressive — from futuristic set extensions, cars and [Westworld park co-creator] Arnold’s house in Season 2, it’s amazing how much we’ve done to extend the environments to make the world seem even bigger than it is on location.”

One of the larger challenges in the first seasons came in Season 2: creating the Delos complex and the final episodes where the studio had to build a world inside of a world – the Sublime –as well as the gateway to get there. “Creating the Sublime was a challenge because we had to reuse and yet completely change existing footage to design a new environment,” explains Barbera. “We had to find out what kind of trees and foliage would live in that environment, and then figure out how to populate it with hosts that were never in the original footage. This was another sequence where we had to get particularly creative about how to put all the elements together to make it believable.”

In the final episode of the second season, the group created environment work on the hills, pinnacles and quarry where the door to the Sublime appears. They also did an extensive rebuild of the Sublime environment, where the hosts emerge after crossing over. “In the first season, we did a great deal of work on the plateau side of Delos, as well as adding mesas into the background of other shots — where [hosts] Dolores and Teddy are — to make the multiple environments feel connected,” adds Barbera.

Aside from the environments, CoSA also did some subtle work on the robots, especially in Season 2, to make them appear as if they were becoming unhinged, hinting at a malfunction. The comp department also added eye twitches, subtle facial tics and even rapid blinks to provide a sense of uneasiness.

While Westworld’s blending of the Old West’s past and the robotic future initially may seem at thematic odds, the balance of that duality is cleverly accomplished in the filming of the series and the way it is performed, Barbera points out. “Jay Worth has a great vision for the integrated feel of the show. He established the looks for everything,” she adds.

The balance of the visual effects is equally important because it enhances the viewer experience. “There are things happening that can be so subtle but have so much impact. Much of our work on the second season was making sure that the world stayed grounded, so that the strangeness that happened with the characters and story line read as realistic,” Barbera explains. “Our job as visual effects artists is to help our professional storytelling partners tell their tales by adding details and elements that are too difficult or fantastic to accomplish live on set in the midst of production. If we’re doing our job right, you shouldn’t feel suddenly taken out of the moment because of a splashy effect. The visuals are there to supplement the story.”


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer/editor covering VFX and post production.


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