CHERNOBYL: Max Dennison – VFX Supervisor – DNEG TV

Max Dennison has nearly 25 years of experience in visual effects. He has worked in many studios such as Weta Digital, ILM, Cinesite, Framestore and joined DNEG in 2013. He has worked on many films such as the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, THE GOLDEN COMPASS, OUTLANDER and KRYPTON.

What is your background?
I have been in the VFX industry for nearly 25 years and started my career as a Matte Painter at the Magic Camera Company based at Shepperton Studios. I trained under veteran Matte Painter Doug Ferris and cameraman John Grant. Since then, I have been Head of Matte Painting on all three LORD OF THE RINGS films for Weta Digital in NZ and have worked all around the world. However, six years ago I made the leap into TV full-time when I joined DNEG here in London.

How did you and DNEG TV get involved on this show?
I first became attached to the show in early 2018, having initially read the script and been tremendously excited by it. This was undoubtedly the best TV script I’d read in a long time and I was very keen to get started. DNEG TV was able to offer a complete package of works and so it felt like a great fit for us.

How was the collaboration with director Johan Renck?
Collaboration started very early in pre-production. I first met Johan at the Production Offices in Vilnius in Lithuania where the whole production was to be based. From the outset, Johan had very specific ideas about the aesthetic for the show and made it crystal clear that he was not after what he called ‘Hollywood’ style VFX. Straight away, this gave us the context and the boundaries we needed to start work. Thereafter and especially during Post production, we would be in constant communication with him as he was particularly keen to help us get each ‘beat’ right and in keeping stylistically with the rest of the show.

What were his expectations and approach about the visual effects?
In Johans’ world, CHERNOBYL was never about telling the story through gratuitous, scary visuals with the intention to shock. Instead it was to be completely story driven where VFX would provide support for the drama in every shot and not the other way round. Both Johan and showrunner/writer Craig Mazin were concerned that any VFX had to feel and look authentic and ultimately – plausible. While many VFX shots had live action plate integration, we also had many full CG shots which also had to seamlessly match the tone, style and feel of the surrounding drama shots.

How did you split the work amongst the DNEG offices?
At DNEG, we are fortunate to have a broad range of sites across the globe whom we can access on a dependency and/or Tax-break basis. Our teams in Mumbai and Chennai provided us with a wealth of highly skilled support, particularly for Roto & Prep, and also for some Compositing work.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of the Chernobyl power plant?
Creating a full scale replica of the original Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant as it was in 1986 was always going to be our greatest challenge. We filmed at two locations in Lithuania – our first was a set at the Martynas Film Studios just outside of Vilnius featuring a replica set of ‘MASHA roof’ and the rubble pile directly below Reactor #4 along with a small section of the Chernobyl approach road. This would provide the localised environment to film the firefighters and ‘Bio-Robots’.

Secondly, we were incredibly fortunate to also film at the decommissioned Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (also a RBMK reactor) on the Eastern border with Belarus and this would provide an authentic (although not exact) location where we could begin to realise the true scale and magnitude of Chernobyl.

In addition, we were provided with a low-res CGI model of the original Chernobyl site by Production which would enable us to begin construction of a much more detailed model including the INT and EXT of the ill-fated Reactor #4. Extensive use of both LIDAR and aerial photogrammetry at each location helped us to marry all these sets together seamlessly into one large virtual environment. Given the scope and scale of the intended shots, having the flexibility to position our virtual cameras almost anywhere the Director liked proved to be a highly valuable solution.

How did you create the various textures and shaders?
Textures were acquired predominantly with Photogrammetry and extensive texture reference acquisition both on set and at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. Additional textures were reproduced by referencing original photography from the Chernobyl disaster itself. Although largely B&W, enough detailed information was extracted to give us an accurate portrayal of what the exposed Reactor #4 looked like in the days and weeks after the explosions. To add further high-res textural detail on a bespoke basis, extensive use of projected Digital Matte Paintings were employed across the entire virtual set.

What was the real size of the power plant sets?
The total data size and coverage of the CGI Chernobyl asset, including Reactor #4 was:
Poly count = 11 trillion  
Size on disc = 1.1 terabytes 
Real world scale = 2.5km² 
Wider surrounding environment = 12km² 

Martynas Set – Rubble Pile and approach road: approx. 200m².

Can you tell us more about your destruction work?
FX Simulations played a major role in the post-production process. Given the nature of the shots which Johan wanted to portray, we had to develop bespoke simulations to cope with the most extreme eventualities. For example, for many shots in the explosion sequence, Johan wanted an ultra-slow-motion, dreamy quality to them to heighten the sense of storytelling. And that being the case, it was important for us to manage those internal expectations accordingly. In other words, we knew we would have to detail and simulate everything, regardless! Because we also knew we would be getting very close to the explosion, and the fact that everything had to appear completely plausible, we spent many months developing destruction simulations which acted in the appropriate manner. That is, they all had to have the correct sense of volume, gravity and density for the scale that we wanted.

How did you handle the FX work and especially the big column of smoke?
As with the destruction simulations, the smoke plume provided us with another huge challenge. The brief was to create a vast, moving, toxic, graphite smoke column which would, in certain instances, virtually fill frame; extend high into the air, look completely authentic both at night and in flat daylight and react as if it were being emitted from a hot core burning at over 2000K. And finally, it needed to evolve and change over five episodes.

The most important starting place for us was acquiring suitable reference. We assembled a huge array of photo’s including oil fires, and volcanic smoke etc., then brought together DNEG’s senior FX artists and said ‘Right – how do we make this, BUT for a nuclear power plant fire?’. Because of the sheer scale and development of this particular smoke simulation, we had to blend a large number of smaller separate simulations into one, as no one simulation could provide us with the necessary scale, quality and movement. One thing we were very conscious of was not breaking the ‘terms of reference’ for the audience. We knew that they had all seen volcanic columns of ash before and huge oil fires, but they would never have seen thick radioactive graphite smoke at that scale. So every bespoke simulation had to be carefully constructed so that when combined with the others, our smoke column would appear completely plausible.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of the helicopters?
As previously mentioned, CHERNOBYL relies on authenticity and so the vehicles had to be equally authentic. While in Lithuania, we had access to a working ‘Mi8’ Russian helicopter. However, despite this workhorse still being able to fly, this one was painted white and was fitted with modern embellishments. Meanwhile over in Kiev, we managed to find an authentically painted Mi8 but this one was owned and flown by the Ukrainian military. Nevertheless, we were given kind permission to LIDAR it, both inside and out and so we were able to reproduce an exact CGI replica.

For all shots where interaction with a live plate was necessary, i.e. where Scherbina steps down out of the helicopter in EP2, we filmed the entire scene with the white Mi8 and then superimposed our own correctly textured CGI version on top of it, keeping as much of the real helicopter as we could, for example, the rotor blades and tail rotors. For all other shots where this was not possible, we used texture variants of our hero CGI Mi8.

We discover many cities such as Pripyat, Minsk and Moscow. How did you recreate the period version of these cities?
Pripyat was a residential area Luke Hull, the Production Designer found just outside of Vilnius in Lithuania which had been built when the country had been part of the Soviet Union. In essence we didn’t have to do much as its architectural design was straight from a Russian blueprint. All we had to do was to remove many of the modern day embellishments such as cars, satellite dishes and UPVC double-glazing. As a final touch, and to make it appear the same scale as Pripyat, we added some Digital Matte Painting to bring the back edge of the city closer in to us so that it didn’t feel as big. As for cities like Moscow and Minsk, we spent a week in Moscow shooting plates but in general most of the locations were filmed at sites in either Lithuania or Ukraine. Again, with a little Digital Matte Painting love, we found it was not hard to take them back to 1986.

How did you create the various vehicles and crowd for the evacuation sequence?
Recreating the evacuation in Pripyat was one of our bigger set pieces. The question was – how do you show the scale of thousands of people climbing aboard thousands of buses without blowing the entire budget? Thankfully, Production had managed to find us ten contemporary buses which were still working and these were used extensively throughout the sequence. A number of these were LIDAR’d so we had the assets available to us to reproduce at our leisure.

As for the Crowd, we had about three hundred Extras available to us on the day and these were to be replicated up the main street. To fill in the gaps, we simulated additional crowd using assets acquired from Photo Scans of actors wearing the costumes.

For another shot in the sequence, we flew a drone over the evacuation with the intention of turning it into a helicopter POV. In this instance and because of the drone, we were not able to ‘crowd-rep’ so we filled the entire shot with CGI crowd. ‘Motion Captured’ running, walking, standing, talking animation cycles were employed to give natural variation.

How did you enhance the terrifying makeup work?
For the most part, this was all done practically by the Prosthetics department with a little enhancement work done by us on the ‘Trainees’ faces as they look down into the open core in EP1.

Are there any other invisible effects you want to reveal to us?
The VFX in CHERNOBYL are designed to be completely invisible, yet despite some shots being obviously VFX such as the open reactor core, the destroyed Reactor #4 and the explosion etc. there are over 800 others which you would never notice. But you’ll have to find those for yourselves…

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Generally speaking there wasn’t much in the show that wasn’t challenging. From authentically depicting Russia & Ukraine in 1986, to showing in detail the slow-motion explosions as they took place, every frame had to look plausible.

Is there something specific that gave you some really short nights?
CHERNOBYL is full of highly conceptual, unusual, and extraordinary phenomena which on 2nd April 1986 were real events. For example, the popping blocks in the Biological Shield seconds before the first explosion, the strange blue glow emanating from the exposed core in the moments directly afterwards, or the open reactor core burning at over 2000K. These phenomena have never been filmed before and at best we had only sparse eyewitness testimony. Therefore, the challenge was to fully research the science behind these phenomena and try to re-imagine them with a high degree of qualified / educated assumptions. By their very nature, the majority of these had to be full CGI shots and therefore would be under intense scrutiny, not least from Johan and Craig, but also from the wider scientific community. So it was imperative that we got them right.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I have many favourite shots / sequences throughout the show, but the ‘Boron Drop’ sequence in Ep2 was a particularly rewarding and successful one, not least because the shots are either almost, or fully CGI. Additionally there are other key shots such as the Vehicle Graveyard or the Biological Shield in EP5 where the VFX are huge, but largely invisible.

What is your best memory on this show?
I think my best memories on the show were filming in Lithuania for 5 months. Although the creative aspect and excitement of Post-Production is always fun and full of highlights, spending time in glorious Lithuania and Ukraine with a wonderful film crew were great experiences.

How long have you worked on this show?
I have been involved with the show for over 16 months.

What’s the VFX shots count?
In total, 846 shots.

What was the size of your team?
We had a core team in London of about 30 artists working on shots over about eight months, and then another team of about 20 in Mumbai and Chennai.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
When I was 16, I was fortunate enough to spend time on-set for the film HIGH SPIRITS. This was a magical experience and gave me my first real love of the film industry, particularly VFX. Other films which I enjoy include THE DEER HUNTER, CONAN THE BARBARIAN (the original), and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE which I was the Matte Painter on.

A big thanks for your time.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
DNEG: Dedicated page about CHERNOBYL on DNEG website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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