By OLIVER WEBB
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By OLIVER WEBB
At the 74th Primetime Emmys, The Book of Boba Fett scooped Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Season or Movie, with The Mandalorian taking home the award the previous year. It remains to be seen whether the much anticipated third season of The Mandalorian will take home the award after successive wins for the Star Wars universe. In the Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Single Episode category, Squid Game won for the “VIPS” episode. With several new productions and more prequels and sequels from acclaimed trilogies and series such as The Lord of the Rings, Vikings and Game of Thrones, as well as an Addams Family spin-off, it has been an excellent year for visual effects. It will undoubtedly be a significantly close race at this year’s awards.
At the 2023 VES Awards, The Rings of Power garnered three awards for the episodes “Adar” and “Udun.” “Rodeo did 580 shots on the series,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Ara Khanikian. “I associate Lord of the Rings with epic landscapes, so having a hand in that was really interesting for us, in terms of classic matte paintings and CG environments. We had a lot of fun with the Harfoots, with the scale comps and just kind of playing with the scale of the smaller species versus human size. We had all the work surrounding the stranger as well. That started with him crash-landing in Middle Earth where he creates a crater of fire, and that involved some very complex work. We had a lot of very complex effects of the stranger not being in control of his powers and just seeing how his powers interact with the environment for the first time.”
“The most challenging sequence in terms of scope was definitely the one from the final episode with the battle between the mystics because of how much had to happen in it,” adds Rodeo FX Effects Supervisor Nathan Arbuckle. “We had all of the nature effects such
as leaves and trees and power from the stranger. We also had all of the fire that the mystics were going to put in there. We had all the celestial energy, and we had to have the wraith look as well when the stranger hits them with the celestial energy. The final episode involved a full CG forest build and doing lots of simulations for all of the CG plants as well as the effects between the stranger and the mystics. Then, of course, having the mystics get blasted away and turned into moths. We also did the Morgul blade effect, the glowing sword that builds out of a dark energy.”
The Netflix series Wednesday features an array of visual effects from fantastical monsters to supernatural abilities. The Rocket Science visual effects team delivered more than 300 shots across the series, with the majority of the scope of work focused on Thing, along with Wednesday’s Scorpio-Pet, digital doubles, dynamic CG fire, explosions and FX simulations with additional supporting visual effects. “Tom Turnbull, Overall Production VFX Supervisor/RSVFX President was very clear that the visual effects needed to be grounded in reality while set in this fantastical world,” says Visual Effects Supervisor John Coldrick. “As good as the miming of a disembodied hand was, there were shots where issues such as incorrect center of gravity and appearances of hovering over the ground would crop up. While the motion of a hand with no arm was magical, it still had to obey the laws of physics. This would sometimes involve altering the fingers so they connected with the ground during runs and gallops, removing sliding and altering axes of rotation. The goal was to make it difficult to imagine a ghostly arm on the end of that wrist, and make Thing live in a natural way.”
“The biggest challenge was to seamlessly integrate Thing into each shot, regardless of any obstacles on location, set and time of day,” Coldrick adds. “The disembodied hand needed to interact with the surrounding environment as well as with other actors, imparting its own personality and performance.
Production landed on a combination of hand-acting from Victor Dorobantu dressed in a blue suit, and prosthetics to add the stump to his real hand, and the Rocket Science visual effects team seamlessly integrating Thing into frame. The RSVFX team created a partial rig consisting of the wrist and the hand down to the finger base. This was tracked onto the stunt performer in the plate. We often had to tweak the wrist performance to create the illusion of a bodiless hand.”
“Realizing Thing was more challenging than it looks,” explains Kayden Anderson, Rocket Science Visual Effects Producer. “For many of the complex shots, we had to troubleshoot to devise unique solutions. Maintaining the actor’s hand performance and recapturing the environment with fidelity was not a one-size-fits-all scenario.”
MARZ Visual Effects Supervisor Ed Englander also worked on the series. “We did a couple of sequences of shots with Uncle Fester, when he first runs into Wednesday out in the forest and she tries to draw a sword on him and he shocks her,” Englander remarks. “There were a couple of shots when Fester is resuscitating Thing, and we did some of the electricity effects there as well. One of the larger shots we had to do was an environment shot, which was an aerial drone shot of Jericho. It was a wide shot of the whole town and you can see across the river. We had to fill in the backsides of many of the buildings on the main street because outside of this one shot, you never see the whole town. It was all standard fronts and facades, and we had to build out the backs of those and do a bit of aesthetic modification on some of the edges of the town. There were houses in rural residential areas that extended out past the main street which we had to add as well. They wanted it to feel like one of those fall postcards for anywhere out in Vermont. I believe the entire production was filmed in Romania, but we had a lot of reference footage, and you can’t do a Google search of Vermont without autumn trees showing up everywhere. There were plenty of good bits of material to flesh that out.”
Another strong contender is the fantasy drama series The Sandman. Based on Neil Gaiman’s original comic book, The Sandman follows Dream as he embarks on a journey after years of imprisonment in order to regain his power. “The team and I at Union VFX worked on the show for over a year and delivered over 300 shots spread across all 11 episodes of Season 1,” explains Visual Effects Supervisor Dillan Nicholls. “Bringing this rich, complex and much-loved series of comics to the screen was always going to be a challenge and open to interpretation. We read the comics and tried to immerse ourselves in the world of The Sandman as much as possible in advance of joining the project. Initial discussions focused on some key sequences and early concepts from the Warner Bros. team, establishing what kind of aesthetic we were looking for and the level of realism of different sequences as the more abstract, surreal world of ‘the dreaming’ crosses over into the real world.”
“Some of the work had a very open brief, particularly for sequences taking place in the world of dreams, or ‘the dreaming,’” Nicholls adds. “We were encouraged to be creative, using reference from the comics as a starting point, but with freedom to experiment with different techniques and aesthetics to achieve surreal and abstract results. On the other hand, some of the work was very much grounded in reality and required fairly traditional ‘invisible’ effects work such as set extensions and greenscreens. Often in the show, the two worlds of the dreaming and the waking meet and we would create fairly traditional, realistic-looking VFX shots, but with something not quite right, a surreal twist.”
Discussing the most challenging effect to realize on the series, Nicholls notes that the views across the Thames by the tavern in Episode 6 were shot against greenscreens and required extensive full CG/DMP environments and a full CG tavern. “These scenes took place in the ‘real world’ in London but across dramatically different time periods, across 600 years, and required a lot of research as well as an evolving CG build of the tavern through the ages. We needed to maintain a balance between making it recognizably the same location – a crucial story point – while also showing that area of London evolved over hundreds of years, from green fields to present day Canary Wharf,” he says.
Five Days at Memorial won Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode at this year’s VES awards. “In total, UPP delivered 265 shots for this project,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Viktor Muller. “As on similar projects of this kind, it was desirable that the visual effects weren’t apparent at first sight. If a shot revealed itself as a VFX one, it would, in fact, be incorrectly done. For us, the biggest challenge was creating the New Orleans Superdome, where we were depicting the battle with the hurricane. The most demanding aspect of this shot was figuring out how to approach it so that it looked as real as possible but simultaneously remained visually attractive and interesting for the audience. In other words, as on the basis of real references hardly anything would be visible, we needed to find the balance between making sure that the viewers were able to see something and keeping the shot realistic.”
Set nearly 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon depicts the events leading up to the Dance of the Dragons. Visual Effects Supervisor Angus Bickerton and his visual effects team picked up a nomination at the 21st VES Awards for their work on “The Black Queen” episode. Contrastingly, Vikings: Valhalla, in its second season, is set 100 years after the events of Vikings. Valhalla was nominated at last year’s awards for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Single Episode for “Bridge,” with the original series having been awarded Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards. Valhalla could find itself among the nominees once again after a strong start to the second season.
New to the mix is the post-apocalyptic drama, The Last of Us, which masterfully brings the video game to life. Adapted by the game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, and Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, The Last of Us follows the hardened, middle-aged Joel, who is tasked with escorting 14-year-old Ellie across a treacherous and barren America in what may be the final hope for the survival of humanity. Another potential newcomer in the running for a nomination is Amazon Prime’s Dead Ringers. Based on David Cronenberg’s 1988 horror classic, Dead Ringers is centered around twin gynaecologists (portrayed by Rachel Weisz) in a gender-flipped version of the original film.
When the winner of the Primetime Emmy Awards is announced September 18, it will certainly be a close race. Nonetheless, the visual effects work over the course of the last year has been nothing short of remarkable. Visual effects have played a central role in some of the biggest series released this year and each of the mentioned series can be extremely proud of their groundbreaking and beautifully crafted work.