Back in 2014, Nicolas Hernandez explained the work of Milk VFX on Hercules. Then he went to work on movies such as Ex Machina, The Martian, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Annihilation.

How did you and Important Looking Pirates get involved on this show?

ILP started to work on Foundation in December 2019. The show was led and Supervised by Niklas Ström back then, and had to pause all work in August 2020 as the Production halted due to the pandemic. Shot production finally resumed in April 2021 and that’s when I got involved.

What was your feeling to work on an such an iconic show?

Foundation was a highly rewarding project for me. It was a small size show with an intimate core crew but we had a great mix of creative challenges and involvement. It was a privilege to contribute and be part of such an ambitious show.

How was the collaboration with VFX Supervisors Chris MacLean and Mike Enriquez?

Working with Chris and Mike was an idyllic experience – they perfectly translated the Executives and Showrunners vision, gave us support and were always on hand to answer any questions.

What were their expectations and approach about the visual effects?

Both VFX Supervisors gave us specific briefs but were also welcoming and open to ideas and suggestions. They supported and understood the intentions of rough work in progress, and were never unreasonable with their feedback.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?

I felt very lucky to have worked with the Production Manager Kajsa Kurtén and Executive Producer Måns Björklund. They both worked their magic making sure the project and the team were sailing in the right direction. Kajsa did most of the show planning, and once we agreed about milestones we religiously tried to stick to the plan.

What are the sequences made by Important Looking Pirates?

ILP worked on most of the shots involving the planet Synnax, seen from space, from a terrestrial point of view and underwater.

Can you elaborate about the design and the creation of Synnax?

For the rings, we dissected all the resources available from the Cassini–Huygens space research mission exploring Saturn’s System. The groundbreaking images were a great inspiration for the rings. We also collected references from Nasa’s pictures of nebulas and star maps. For the water and the sky we also collected lots of references for paradisiac islands. We really tried to build a coherent universe and created some VFX grounded to reality.

What kind of references and influences did you receive for Synnax?

Production shared with us the Foundation’s art bible. This gave us a good understanding of the visual intention of the show. ILP did some early concepts and RnD before turnover.

How was filmed the sequences on Synnax and especially with the people walking on the water?

To introduce Synnax in Episode 1, a portion of the village was practically built in Germany. The set was super impressive and gave us some very valuable references for the CG build. Later on in the episode, Gaal is on her way to Trantor and in Episode 10 when she is back on her flooded planet – Both were filmed in a water tank in Malta. In every instance and as a bare minimum we had to extend the water to infinity, and replace the sky.

Can you tell us more about the village creation?

We received extensive reference photography from the practical set build and photogrammetry from drone data – we extended in a logical way what was built. Adrian Tsang, ILP Build Supervisor, orchestrated the whole workflow. The Build team created a library of individual assets: walkways, platforms, houses, stairs, canoes, fishing ropes, props and so on. The whole village layout was done using proxy geometry then exported as point cloud to light, where the proxy geometry was swapped to high resolution geometry. In parallel each asset was detailed, and random props and ropes were scattered throughout the whole layout whilst Houdini proceduralism facilitated the task. Finally we added CG villagers, walking, chatting and hanging out in the CG village.

ILP has a huge experience with water. How does that help you on this series?

Indeed ILP has got a great expertise and a solid pipeline to deal with the challenges of CG water. Houdini is the main package for Scene assembly for FX and Lighting so the workflow is streamlined and very efficient. We used and improved ILP’s ocean toolset for the project, and added some very neat new features.

How did you handle the water simulations?

Most of the shots involving Synnax ocean extension were handled by Lighting, using ILP’s ocean toolset – with the ability to control wave/wind speed and scale, cross wind and mix multiple water descriptions for water breakup. But, for more complex shots, such as the sea sirens interacting with the water surface, Gaal’s crypod splashdown, or the giant wave we required custom water simulation. The interactive water was simulated using houdini Flip solver. Multiple FX layers were generated : meshed water splash, white water, underwater bubbles and wet maps.

Can you elaborate about the creation of the beautiful sky and the rings?

Perspective, light and shading were very important in order to create beautiful reflections so we decided to create each component in 3D instead of a more traditional DMP workflow. The rings were made of little rocks scattered along curves, the skies were a mix of HDRI’s and hundreds of individual clouds as VDB scattered in the distance. The ring, clouds, atmospheric, pocket of vapour, background nebula, starfield were all in fact 3D elements. Also as the landscape was seen under different lighting scenarios (night, sunset, daylight, overcast) this modular approach gave us the ability to manipulate the mood in a very organic way.

How did you manage the lighting work?

As rendering water is pretty expensive, the Lighting Team which was Supervised by Erik Johansson, in tandem with the Compositing Team, lead by Comp Supervisor Victor Sanchez, brainstormed a very nice workflow. The sky 3D components (ring, bg / mg clouds, sky position and intensity) were baked out as 360 render layers. Once the shots were tracked, Comp did a layout mockup of the sky by translating, rotating and grading each layer. It gave us a super quick preview of the sky so we could sanity check if the sequence worked in context of the cut. Once approved the 2D sky layout was exported back to light for rendering of the water. As the planet is solely made of water we knew that the reflection from the environment would be essential and the collaboration of Lighters and Compositors was very successful.

How did you create the underwater creatures and the ship?

The sea sirens were the stars of the Synnax’s creatures, their design was inspired by stingrays with alien addons, and the fishes were a mix of baby hammer shark and barreleye. Subtle details like translucent skin and iridescent textures were added to make them otherworldly. The creatures were hand animated but the motion of the school of fish was driven by particle simulation. One anecdotal story, for a lot of shots we often suggested adding sea sirens, even if very subtle, to make the universe more coherent.

The ships and cryopod base model were provided – variations, paint job and alterations were handled by ILP.

Which shot or sequence was the most challenging?

The giant wave sequence for ep105 was quite challenging as it was tricky to tell the story mostly in one shot. We had to start again and go back to layout a few times to improve the shots execution. Also it was quite a challenge to light as the shot was backlit by the moon, and a realistic shader wave is hard to control.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?

The mix of wonderful clients, skilled teams and strong planning helped me have the best night a VFX Supervisor could dream of.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?

I am proud of all the shots, but if I have to choose, I would pick the sequence of Gall returning to Synnax in episode 10. I just loved the look of it, dramatic and eerie.

What is your best memory on this show?

All of it really! The combination of working with collaborative nice clients and the over talented pirates crew made it an amazing and exciting ride. It was a special experience for me as it was my first show after joining ILP.

How long have you worked on this show?

In total, almost 6 months.

What’s the VFX shots count?

We worked on 89 shots across 3 Episodes.

ILP was also involved in doing the previsualisation on a few sequences for episode 10 before filming which became shots that we later worked on.

What was the size of your team?

We had a core team of 6 during most of the project ramping up which became 12 during our delivery crunch time.

What is your next project?

I am currently working on a crazy cool sequence for a Netflix show and also starting to prep ahead for some exciting confidential projects for 2022.

A big thanks for your time.

Chris MacLean & Mike Enriquez: My interview of Chris MacLean & Mike Enriquez, VFX Supervisors on Foundation.
Apple TV+: You can watch Foundation on Apple TV+ now.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021


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