In 2018, Adrian de Wet explained his work on THE MEG. He’s back today with the post-apocalyptic Apple TV+ series, SEE.
Eve Fizzinoglia began her career in visual effects in 2009 at Stargate Studios. She has worked on a many shows including CALIFORNICATION, HOUSE OF LIES, RAY DONOVAN and COLONY.
How did you get involved on this show?
Adrian de Wet: I’ve been lucky enough to work with Francis Lawrence (director and executive producer) on three films prior to this. He contacted me back in early 2018, and he explained the premise to me, which sounded so original, ambitious and exciting that I said yes on the spot.
Eve Fizzinoglia: I was approached by a VP at Endeavor Content, based on a recommendation from Legendary, after my work on COLONY. I read the scripts and met with Adrian over Skype, where we agreed that the project was a unique opportunity, and found that our views on how to approach the VFX were a good match.
How was this new collaboration with the showrunners and the directors?
AdW: SEE is “feature television”, a marriage between cinema and television. The directors, showrunners and cinematographers of SEE have a wealth of experience in both areas, and this collaboration produced a series that looked unique, epic, cinematic, and original.
What was their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
AdW: The visual effects of SEE are purely in support of the story. For instance, there are a lot of digital environments that are meant to be seamless, immersive and totally believed in by the audience. Also, the blind eye effect is a digital effect on almost every character in almost every shot in the show. It’s essential to the story, but crucial that the audience is not distracted or alienated by it.
How was the work organized between you?
EF: Adrian and I first started prep by breaking down the scripts, estimating cost, and projecting work distribution together. I traveled to Vancouver for some prep on each episode, but once production & editorial were both underway (simultaneously in different countries), my role was to manage the post process in LA, while Adrian was supervising production. Particularly at the beginning, I was tasked with setting up the VFX post-production infrastructure. SEE was part of Apple’s first slate of shows, and we expected to have a heavy load of shared VFX (due to the blind eye effects), so we needed to create a custom workflow.
Once shooting was complete, Adrian joined post full-time, where we were both able to concentrate on the vendor work in editorial. Adrian headed up the creative process while I focused on making sure he had the schedule and resources to create the best work possible with our talented teams.
Throughout the project, whether it was regarding main unit production, elements shooting, or post, Adrian and I collaborated on each decision daily, which allowed us to work quickly and come up with creative solutions together.
How did you work with the art department for the design of the post-apocalyptic work?
AdW: We worked very closely with the Art department all through pre production and principal photography. The show is shot almost entirely on location, and a lot of these locations featured abandoned industrial structures which needed to be extended and aged. So nearly every set was designed with some component of visual effects in mind – whether it was adding in some extra buildings in a village, digitally aging an inaccessible ceiling, or replacing a hydroelectric dam with a digitally aged version of itself. So there were often discussions about the division of labour between art dept and VFX.
What kind of references and indications did you received this post-apocalyptic world?
AdW: The landscape of SEE is littered with remnants of contemporary society: solar panels, wind turbines, the hydroelectric dam, a container ship graveyard, half-submerged vacation homes, and abandoned amusement park rides. These all exist in some degree in the real world right now, so it was fairly straightforward to gather references and textures that we could provide our teams with. The question was more how how often we would see these remnants, and where. We wanted them to have quite an unsettling effect: to see something that is so familiar in today’s environment but in the world of SEE it is centuries old and derelict. It comes down to shot design : when and where to use these assets. We populated them throughout the landscape sparingly so as to not reduce their visual impact.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the various environments & destruction?
AdW: SEE is set 600 years in the future so everything that couldn’t be practically aged had to be digitally distressed and covered with layers of CG overgrowth: lichen staining, moss, vines of ivy and bindweed. The hydroelectric dam was replaced with a damaged and aged version of itself. But I think the biggest and most complex environment was the Payan Village, which we’re introduced to in episode 101, at the end of the Hawk’s journey. Production Designer, Caroline Hanania’s idea was that it should be somewhat reminiscent of a favela, but more rustic, and, of course, built by people without sight. Ghost VFX in Copenhagen were charged with building this entire city digitally. The environment had to be modeled, based on a lidar scan of the location topography, which consisted of a ravine, a forested river valley, and a hydroelectric dam with a reservoir. The rocky banks of the ravine were populated with furnished shacks, walkways, guide-ropes, cooking fires, and people walking. We had to clear away a fair amount of the trees from the valley so that we could place huts high up on the valley sides. And all this had to be rigged for destruction – the entire dam collapses in the opening scenes of Episode 105, and washes away the entire city, killing everyone in its path. Digital versions of everything in this scene had to be built, including the trees, which were all physically simulated as the giant torrent of water breaks through the dam structure, and spills through the forest.
For the interiors of Queen Kane’s palace, we used a different location – an abandoned paper mill on the other side of Vancouver Island. Art Department were able to dress and age it only partially, due to the vastness of the space. FOLKS and MELS, both in Montreal, provided the rest of the digital aging and overgrowth, including further damage to the walls, and light beams, and also added birds flying high up in the rafters. Folks had to tie the two locations together by compositing in the view of the water spray from the actual dam location into the view out of the door of the Queen’s bedroom.
Our first introduction to the Alkenny Tribe is an aerial drone shot, establishing the village in its strategic position on a hilltop surrounded by higher peaks. CG environment alterations were created by Soho VFX in Toronto to accommodate the digital village extension nestled among CG derelict solar panels, which is our first remnant of old, 21st century society.
We go straight into the battle of the boulder wall, a choreographed sequence of vicious blind combat in which Pixomondo Vancouver augmented almost every shot – with either a CG blade extension, a physically simulated rope weapon, a CG blood spurt or a digital wound on a horse’s neck. Art Department built a static wall as a set piece which was extended digitally into the forest to make it appear as if it continued for much longer. Pixomondo handled the wall collapse and digitally simulated all the tumbling boulders, to which digital fx elements were added: moss, soil, water, gravel, ferns and uprooted trees.
Another complex environment is the rope bridge / ravine. In episode 101 – when the Alkenny tribe escape via a precarious rope bridge which spans a vertiginous steep-sided chasm with a raging torrent at the bottom. Framestore in London modeled the whole thing digitally, including the cliffs, all the vegetation, the trees, and the swirling mist that rolls in and occasionally clears. At the climax of the scene, we see Baba Voss cut the ropes and Framestore rendered the whole thing as a CG shot including the falling soldiers, bridge, and ravine environment.
Where was filmed the various parts of the series?
AdW: SEE was shot almost entirely on location in British Columbia, Canada. Too many specific locations to mention but we wanted stunning, unique locations with lots of green, lots of nature, and tons of drama. We were thousands of feet up mountains in blizzards; on the shores of a serene alpine lake in the pouring rain, deep in the forest, entrenched in mud, on top of a hydroelectric dam looking over a ravine, or in a deserted paper mill on Vancouver Island. It wasn’t until Episode 106 that we moved to the stage, for the cave sequence.
Many environments are seen by night. How did you handle this lighting challenge?
EF: In the world of SEE, fire is used only for warmth (and burning witches!), so all night scenes were a challenge to show the audience what’s happening, in a realistically dim world. To provide the latitude necessary to bring out the action in a dark sequence, we shot day for night, and used various post workflows. The episode 103 festival sequence had a lot of hard sunlight during shooting, so we first brought the footage to our Colorist, Dave Hussey for some initial color timing, before applying the abandoned amusement park rides. Conversely, in episode 107, when Haniwa and Kofun cross the bridge to meet Jerlamerel, the day was overcast, so the footage was more flatly lit. In this case, the Mels VFX team created the night look when they replaced the bridge with the CG destroyed bridge, and then the darkness was finalized in color timing afterwards.
Can you explain in detail about the creation and animation of the various animals?
AdW: We had a live hawk on set for certain shots – but there is a sequence where we travel alongside the hawk as it carries a message for the queen from the ravine location to the Payan Kingdom, over mountain ranges, rivers and deserted cities. For this sequence, the hawk had to be digital, so we did a quick photogrammetry “scan” of the real bird and Mr. X built it, animated it and composited it into the aerial photography. We shot aerial footage from a helicopter, so the speed of the Hawk is cheated quite a bit – it’s actually traveling impossibly fast in the shots where it appears slightly ahead of us, given the speed of the helicopter.
For episode 104, the team at Framestore London created a deadly caged spider based on a Brazilian Wandering Spider. It was animated to mimic the spider’s actual reaction to danger – rearing up on its hind legs, raising its front legs, ready for attack.
Can you elaborates about the bear fight?
EF: As with all the VFX in SEE, realism was extremely important for the bear sequence, and on this schedule, there was not enough time to create a CG bear. We shot elements with a real actor bear, both on location in the forest, and also on greenscreen, and then shot Jason’s fighting moves separately. Because a real animal’s performance can be unpredictable, a lot of the sequence was ultimately created in the edit process. Francis & Adrian of course knew the main beats that they wanted, but the challenge was figuring out how to transition those moments with the footage we had, to tell the story. Spin VFX used a variety of techniques to match up the bear’s action with Baba Voss, and create continuity with the bear’s movements.
The series is quite gore. How did you enhance the various fights and wounds?
AdW: All our vendors had their own methods for adding in gory blood spurts and wounds. Some used elements and some used fx fluid simulations. We had arterial blood spurts, sprays, pulses, spills, drips, and blood soaking through fabric. We had throats slit, bellies eviscerated, fingers and thumbs chopped off, decapitations, jaws torn off, eyes gouged out, bullet wounds, and crushings.
How did you work with the SFX and stunts teams?
AdW: Tom Blacklock, our SPX supervisor, was key to the look of many of the VFX sequences. The SFX guys provided mist for the ravine sequence, fire for the burning huts scenes, and many other live effects, including a few days of VFX elements shooting.
It was also essential to work closely with Scott Ateah, our stunt coordinator, who designed all the fight scenes. In a big complex fight sequence like the episode 103 slaver fight, the action needed to be choreographed in such a way that allows us to add in the weapons after the scene is shot. It is really important for the actors to mime the actions very accurately, because of the rigid physicality of the weapons, which we are putting in in post. The actors and stunt team worked to be sure that they were accommodating the needs of the digital effects, providing us with exciting footage to work with.
Which death was the most complicated to enhance?
EF: The episode 103 slaver fight sequence was one of our biggest challenges, specifically the final « sword swallowing » killing of Wech. This scene is meant to display Baba Voss’ unique fighting style, hint at the story of his past, and show how he learned some of his blind battle techniques from his former slaver boss, Wech. So while some traditional techniques like CG blood spatter and weapons were used, the unusual choreography, and particularly Wech’s final moments, required some creative solutions. We were lucky to have Outpost VFX on this sequence and committed to making the sword swallowing death as shocking as possible.
Can you elaborates about the eyes work?
EF: One of the earliest conversations about the visual effects in SEE was about how to achieve the blind eye effect. All options were discussed, including contacts, but ultimately, we wanted to be sure the eye effect naturally complimented the actors’ performances, so we needed to be able to customize each character, just as all eyes have some variation. Since nearly everyone in SEE is blind, we knew this would be a massive undertaking, requiring a large team of artists and a custom workflow for incorporating additional VFX work into each shot. In order to track the various eye looks for each character, we started with some camera tests and created an « Eye Guide » of stills for each character, in various lighting set-ups. Throughout the process, the team referred back to those original looks to make sure it was consistent. The dedicated eye teams at Pixomondo and Bot VFX were gradually able to complete shots faster and faster as they nailed the details of each character’s look.
AdW: We did quite a bit of soul-searching as we explored the “blind eye” concept, and we were very conscious that there really is no one thing that physically makes an eye look “blind”; but we definitely didn’t want anything too spooky or alien-like, such as a white out across the eye, or glowing eyes or anything like that. We wanted to preserve the connection between the characters and the audience, yet also wanted the effect to be noticeable.
Did you want to reveal any other invisible effects?
AdW: Episode 101 begins with the birth of twins to Maghra, of the Alkenny Tribe. The VFX team at Mr X in Montreal provided digital fluids – amniotic fluid and blood, which soaked into the furs on the cave floor. Real newborn twins were used on set – which VFX enhanced by tracking the texture onto the baby’s body, as well as adding a CG umbilical cord. Also, the team at Lola Visual Effects did some additional anatomy work on Bow Lion when she is in the form of the Shadow, as well as removing Jason’s dry suit during the River Battle in episode 104.
EF: One of our biggest sequences that may not be initially identifiable as VFX is the episode 106 elevator escape sequence. The entire environment was CG. We started with a clean rock set, which Jason climbed, to escape the cave dwellers. But the overall look of SEE is very green and overgrown, telling the story of a world that has been reclaimed by nature. So we wanted to bring some of this concept to the elevator shaft and cave walls. We started with a lidar scan of the set, and the team at Folks Montreal created a detailed shaft replacement, featuring a range of color and texture with moss, ferns, lichen, slime, and moisture. There is even a grad in the growth – the bottom of the shaft has less greenery, as it is furthest away from the sunlight. But the area at the top, closer to the cave opening, has much heavier texture and growth.
Can you tell us how you choose the various VFX vendors?
EF: All the vendors selected for SEE with have worked on either one of my past projects, or one of Adrian’s. Based on early creative conversations, team availability, and budget, the big sequences were prioritized first. We knew in this case, that we needed to split up the work amongst many strong teams, since they would be working on 8 hours of footage simultaneously, in various stages.
How did you split the work amongst these vendors?
EF: We initially assigned certain environments or type of work based on past work with each of the vendors, and some of the discussions during the initial bidding process. Later episodes were assigned based on work that had already been done in the season, for example, if there was a scene that was similar to a previous scene. Incessant Rain, our team in Nepal, handled all of the prep work, and subsequently worked on the largest variation of shots throughout the season.
The vendors are all around the world. How did you proceed to follow their work?
EF: Artists worked on SEE in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, London, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Nepal, and India. It was a challenge to manage so many teams in multiple time zones, but it actually allowed us to stagger the scheduling of communication. For example, each team had their own general time for notes calls with Adrian each day. And we were able to ingest new shots while reviewing, so it kept the process moving, allowing us to respond to each team quickly, without letting too much build up.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
AdW: The Dam collapse from Ghost was probably the most complex single shot in the season, because of the sheer number of elements, layers, simulations and dependancies in the shot, along with the added difficulty of making all that water and spray look real, and look huge.
The most challenging sequence, though, was the amusement park rides in the festival in episode 103, which was completed by Method Studios and Outpost. It demanded a lot of creativity to get the balance right between visual impact and seamless realism, and with the added complexity of masses of overgrowth and a moonlit night grade on top of everything made for a highly demanding shot design challenge.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
EF: Completing some last minute additional photography with the Apple TV+ launch date quickly approaching, was a new hurdle that arose in the 11th hour. When discussions began about the possibility of shooting some extra footage, we were asked if we could get the work done. In order for the studio to confirm, VFX had to commit to a short schedule with no extensions. At the time, we were projecting a large workload, and I wasn’t confident it could be done, but I said « yes we can do it », because we knew these new scenes would be valuable to the story. Those last few sequences came down to the wire, to the very last minute, of the last day – but it got done & delivered.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
AdW: I have too many. I love the look of Outpost’s work in the aerial shot of the lavender road in Episode 107 where we see the container ship graveyard, because it’s just so surreal and bizarre. But as a sequence, I am particularly fond of the scene at the bridge at the end of Episode 107 and the beginning of episode 108, where the twins meet Jerlamerel. Mels in Montreal replaced the bridge with an aged / stained version, covered it with digital overgrowth which was blowing in the wind, and not only applied a day for night look, but also added all the interactive lighting from the electric lights that turn on when Jerlamerel appears. They dramatically relit an entire sequence, creating new key light, and new key shadows, and it looks so convincing. If you A/B compare with the plates it’s quite extraordinary. But hopefully no one will think that we did anything!
EF: I was going to say the episode 107 bridge, too! The texture and overgrowth worked really well on that. But I also loved seeing the Battle of the Rock Wall and Rope Bridge Ravine come to fruition. Both sequences were part of our earliest creative discussions, and it’s always exciting when those shots are finally complete. I was especially happy with the fully CG shot of the Payan soldiers falling from the collapsed bridge.
What is your best memory on this show?
EF: The premiere! It was a blast to watch it with a big audience and hear their reactions. We had a lot of fun on this show overall, but I think my favorite time working on any project – especially one as challenging as this – is when you’re in that well-oiled-machine sweet-spot. About half way or three quarters through a project, when the workflow is working, the process is moving smoothly, surprises are at a minimum. It was a particularly satisfying time on SEE because of the efforts of so many great people who committed their talents to this project.
AdW: My favourite memories of the show are sitting in a dark room in West LA with the gang and seeing everyone’s hard work and talents come to fruition.
How long have you worked on this show?
EF: 18 months from prep to wrap.
What’s the VFX shots count?
EF: We completed work on over 3000 VFX shots, but the number varies when you factor in shared-shot work, and shots that were subsequently omitted. Because we were working so quickly, in some cases, we completed full sequences that weren’t necessarily going to end up in the final edit.
What was the size of your team?
EF: Over the course of the project, the production-side VFX team for SEE included the work of about 12 people on set & in editorial, but our core team during the longest stretch of post-production was VFX Editor Peggy Eghbalian, VFX Production Manager Rebecca Burnett, and VFX Coordinator Anthony Cally. Including the vendor teams, the entire project involved over 900 VFX professionals.
What is your next project?
EF: Can’t give out the details yet, but Adrian and I are excited to be collaborating again on another unique concept.
AdW: Can’t wait to tell you more about it when we can!
A big thanks for your time.
SEE – VFX BREAKDOWN
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Framestore: Dedicated page about SEE on Framestore website.
Outpost VFX: Dedicated page about SEE on Outpost VFX website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020