MAKE THE FANTASTIC BE­LIEV­ABLE

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - BY DAREN JAMES cal­en­dar@la­times.com

There’s a new par­a­digm in tele­vi­sion laced with high-end vis­ual ef­fects for a more so­phis­ti­cated view­ing au­di­ence. “Game of Thrones” has set the bar for the vis­ual ef­fects award, hav­ing won five of its pre­vi­ous six nom­i­na­tions. With its ab­sence this year, hav­ing launched its sev­enth sea­son too late for Emmy el­i­gi­bil­ity, the com­pet­i­tive VFX field has con­jured the likes of pi­rate bat­tles in 1715 Nas­sau and an­droids wan­der­ing a ver­sion of the Old West. Here, a quick chat with this year’s nom­i­nees.

Vis­ual ef­fects de­signer Kevin Haug and VFX su­per­vi­sors David Stump and Jeremy Ball fo­cused on re­al­ism to de­velop the look and feel of Starz’s “Amer­i­can Gods” with di­rec­tor David Slade. “We tried des­per­ately to make sure the vi­su­als had a sense of pho­to­graphic ve­rac­ity so the VFX shots didn’t stick out,” says Haug.

There were over 200 CG shots in the pi­lot, none of which used green screen. The most dif­fi­cult were the lu­cid dream se­quences of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whit­tle). “We laid out so many dif­fer­ent types of re­al­ity side by side — the ex­ag­ger­ated and hu­mor­ous Vik­ings’ story, the sub­jec­tive re­al­ity of Shadow do­ing time in prison, the loom­ing su­per­nat­u­ral, the deeper sub­con­scious, and ... we in­tro­duce a new mod­ern mode of re­al­ity,” con­tin­ues Haug. “In all, we were able to ef­fec­tively cre­ate seven dis­tinct en­vi­ron­ments that all worked to­gether seam­lessly.”

For se­nior VFX su­per­vi­sor Erik Henry of “Black Sails,” an un­der­wa­ter se­quence that pins John Sil­ver (Luke Arnold) in a life-or-death sit­u­a­tion be­came the fo­cal point for episode “XXIX.” As the pi­rate drops to the ocean floor, he strug­gles to un­tan­gle his wooden leg from rig­ging. The cam­era floats past him to re­veal the chaos above, where ships are sink­ing and bloody car­nage seeps into the sea.

“The amount of de­tail to that scene took 20 weeks for us to com­plete,” Henry says. “You have boats get­ting hit by can­non fire and oth­ers streaking through the wa­ter — hun­dreds of bod­ies are swim­ming and the cam­era is 60 feet be­low. It’s a rich ta­pes­try of de­tail shared be­tween our live-ac­tion ships, full-scale sets and our vis­ual ef­fects crew who de­sire to make sure ev­ery­thing is ac­cu­rate.”

In Ama­zon’s “The Man in the High Cas­tle,” VFX su­per­vi­sor Law­son Dem­ing and team brought to life the “Volk­shalle,” an im­mense domed struc­ture where Hitler would have held his ral­lies had Ger­many won World War II. “Ex­ten­sive plans ex­ist for it, and while we ref­er­enced them, the chal­lenge was tak­ing some­thing kind of in­her­ently un­be­liev­able and mak­ing it not look ar­ti­fi­cial,” says Dem­ing.

In the episode “Fall­out,” the true na­ture of Hitler’s death is re­vealed in­side the 1,000-foot-tall build­ing where vis­ual ef­fects sim­u­lated a crowd of over 200,000 Ger­mans and a large army, cov­er­ing the se­quence and speech from rank­ing of­fi­cer John Smith (Ru­fus Sewell) with cam­era shots of the era as op­posed to do­ing some­thing too fancy.

The in­tense bat­tle be­tween Aethel­wulf (Moe Dun­ford) and Ivar (Alex Hogh) on “Vik­ings” had vis­ual ef­fects led

by VFX su­per­vi­sor Do­minic Re­mane turn­ing 250 ex­tras into thou­sands of sol­diers for the episode “On the Eve.”

“It’s be­come a goal for us to dive into what makes a be­liev­able crowd,” says Re­mane. “Once we build its den­sity, we find where the au­di­ence’s eye will be drawn and fo­cus on adding tiny nu­ances.” In­stead of ev­ery­one do­ing sim­i­lar ac­tions, they’ll change a fighter’s speed or switch one to be left-handed or make some­one trip. “When you watch it you’re never go­ing to no­tice the dif­fer­ences, but when you keep watch­ing, you’ll be­lieve that it’s real.”

“West­world” pushed the lim­its of prac­ti­cal film­ing to tell its story. “As a rule, vis­ual ef­fects are the fla­vor not the dish,” says VFX su­per­vi­sor Jay Worth. “When it’s not pos­si­ble in the nat­u­ral world, that’s when we step in.” The

chal­lenge in “The Bi­cam­eral Mind” episode was cre­at­ing the birth of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) where an­i­ma­tron­ics blended with her hu­man form. “It needed to be robotic but el­e­gant in a beau­ti­ful, re­al­is­tic way,” he notes.

Host per­for­mances were ma­nip­u­lated slightly to en­hance the robotic feel in di­ag­nos­tic mode. When a host is wak­ing up, VFX would re­move three frames or the team would add jerk­ing, me­chan­i­cal-like mo­tions. “Our ac­tors were in­cred­i­ble at em­body­ing the role, the only time we changed some­thing was story-de­pen­dent,” Worth says. “Some­times we would take the small­est bit of sheen off their eyes so they would look less hu­man.”

VFX nom­i­nees de­tail bring­ing pi­rate bat­tles, an­droids and more to life.

HBO

DOLORES (Evan Rachel Wood) is one of the “West­world” hosts.

Starz

“BLACK SAILS” ac­tion is seen in progress, left, and af­ter vis­ual ef­fects. “It’s a rich ta­pes­try of de­tail shared be­tween our live-ac­tion ships, full-scale sets and our vis­ual ef­fects crew,” Erik Henry says.

Starz

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