By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Apple.
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 TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Apple.
Lessons can be learned from history, and such was the case with author Isaac Asimov who was intrigued by the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, which lasted 1,000 years. Transposing the circumstances from an earthly to galactic scale, the science fiction visionary wondered what would happen if an algorithm was invented that could actually predict when future events will occur, with one of them being the fall of the ruling imperialistic power. This is the premise of the Foundation series, which David S. Goyer (Da Vinci’s Demons) has turned into an epic streaming event for AppleTV+ with plans for it spanning 80 episodes over a period of eight seasons. “David does not get bogged down with the visual effects,” observes Kathy Chasen-Hay, Senior Vice President, Visual Effects at Skydance. “It’s more about the story. He is such an eloquent writer and has so many ideas in his head, we will be in a visual effects review and David will say, ‘I have this idea for Season 3 and in Season 6.’ His brain never turns off.”
Central to the story that is essentially a chess match between mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) and the Galactic Empire, which sees his invention of psychohistory as a tool of insurrection rather than innovation, is a protégé with a rare ability to match Seldon’s intellectual prowess. “Gaal Dornick [Lou Llobell] is essentially the POV character for Asimov’s first Foundation short story, so it felt like a natural progression to extend that POV into the first season,” remarks Goyer. “We are introducing a lot of big concepts – a lot of big worlds – and it helps if the audience can latch onto someone who is effectively a proxy. As the scope of the show widens, we will introduce other POV characters.”
“[I]f things would be prettier if we nudged it in one direction or cheated the scale a little bit here or there, we made the decision based on composition and overall beauty. It was definitely trying to come from a well-thought out and grounded place in science.”
—Michael Enriquez, Visual Effects Supervisor
Approximately 4,000 visual effects shots were created by primary vendors DNEG and Rodeo FX, as well as Important Looking Pirates, Chicken Bone FX, Crafty Apes, Mackevision, Outpost VFX, Rocket Science VFX, Scanline VFX, Tendril and Whiskeytree; overseeing the digital augmentation needed to achieve the necessary scope with Overall Visual Effects Supervisor Chris MacLean looking after on-set duties and Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Enriquez communicating with vendors. “The biggest challenge was the volume, the concept, and trying to get it done with the time that we had,” states MacLean. “In terms of the visual effects, the biggest challenge was keeping consistency across all of the vendors that we had to bring on because of COVID-19. It’s a strange thing trying to teach people how to lean into an aesthetic, especially with how photoreal we were trying to make everything.”
NASA space footage was amongst the reference material. “We started at a real place as far as figuring out the size of planets in relation to where they are and how far away they were from their star and what the orbits of the moons would be,” explains Enriquez. “We always tried to start from a scientific place for all of that. However, if things would be prettier if we nudged it in one direction or cheated the scale a little bit here or there, we made the decision based on composition and overall beauty. It was definitely trying to come from a well-thought-out and grounded place in science.” Conveying the proper size and scale was not easy. “Trantor Station from space was a big conversation because it’s a city planet when you’re that far away from it. Like we were in some of the shots, you might just barely see lights on the planet,” states MacLean. “We talked about doing tier things where you would see it all and see the layers of the city from space, but it broke scale too much. We kept the city lights on the dark side and just played it as a blue planet.”
CG fighter crafts were designed by Arnaud Brisebois, Visual Effects Supervisor at Rodeo FX. “We were responsible for building the Thespin Lancer ship, which is an agile air-to-air combat craft,” states Brisebois. “Working from early production design concepts, we refined and detailed its design and functionality as well as its paintwork and look development. We also developed flight, landing and take-off maneuvers to try and give some personality to these cool-looking ships. Lancers were used in a few episodes, but we mainly used them for Episode 109 where Thespins land on Terminus, and Phara Keaen [Kubbra Sait] then ambushes and destroys two ships. It was a fun little action sequence. We helped quite a bit at structuring the cut for this scene, and executed postvis to help convey our intent. Everyone was pleased that we took the initiative of rethinking the cut to up the tension and, of course, show off more cool stuff about the Lancers.”
“The biggest challenge was the volume, the concept, and trying to get it done with the time that we had. looking after on-set duties and Michael Enriquez communicating with vendors. In terms of the visual effects, the biggest challenge was keeping consistency across all of the vendors that we had to bring on because of COVID-19. It’s a strange thing trying to teach people how to lean into an aesthetic, especially with how photoreal we were trying to make everything.”
—Chris MacLean, Overall Visual Effects Supervisor
Beggar’s Lament and the Deliverance were physically constructed. “For Beggar’s Lament, we built the airlock, corridor spaces, sleeping quarters and bridge,” reveals Supervising Art Director Conor Dennison. “The bridge was built in two sections because there is a lot of action; it needed to be able to move around to get some movement into it. That was all built at D Stage at Troy Studios [in Limerick, Ireland].” The Deliverance was an entirely different situation. “We filled up one of the stages, which was 70 meters long by 40 meters wide; that entire studio was the Deliverance set, which was two stories high,” reveals Dennison, “The whole idea of the Deliverance ship is that it’s a massive shipping container that works in space. All of the containers that it takes are big enough to become inhabitable modules once they get to Terminus. Those modules are what we sent over in shipping containers to Fuerteventura [one of the Canary Islands]. The modules are rearranged to create what looks like a start-up town.” The central question was, “What would you do if you were planning to colonize a planet?” “The only person who has done any serious work on that was Elon Musk and his concept for Mars, which we used as reference.”
Oceanic planet Synnax was split over locations and sets in Ireland, Iceland, Germany and Malta. “We shot the exterior of Synnax in Iceland,” states Dennison. “When Gaal gets on the boat with her parents and they take the boat out to get the lift from the FTL [Faster Than Light] ship, the boat was built in Limerick and shipped over to Iceland. We shot it on a lake in Iceland using a helicopter overhead to give the illusion of something overhead splashing on the water. That element was built in Iceland with environment in the background altered with visual effects. The interior of the church and where Gaal went to school was built at B Stage at Troy Studios. But other scenes like the exterior of the church and a few other elements were built on the edge of a water tank over in Malta. All combined afterwards to give the illusion that it was all in one place.”
“The Prime Radiant … has its own language and doesn’t look like math as we’re used to. It’s beautiful, visual, intuitive, and so is the technology. Everything had its own internal logic. All of the technology as well as the math exists in the world. The Prime Radiant is a great example of something that you don’t understand. It’s roughly based on Fibonacci’s spirals and natural mathematical shapes like that. You don’t know what it’s doing, but your brain understands that it is doing something extremely complex, and if you know how to read it you would understand it.”
—Chris Keller, Visual Effects Supervisor, DNEG
Combining practical and CG water was a complex task for Nicolas Hernandez, Visual Effects Supervisor at Important Looking Pirates. “We had 30 shots of Gaal crashing a cryopod into Synnax. She is in a canoe and goes underwater. We had to tell the story of her journey and tried to get the shots working as continuity and make sure that the scale was right. If you see some of the original plates in the tank, the scale of the way it was looking was so fake and big. It looks like a miniature, so for a shot like this we had to make sure that we neutralize the water, annunciate it, and make sure from this shot to the next shot that there is not such a jump. It was an organic process. Because everything was modular and procedural, we could render a first pass for each shot with the global set up. Then after that, go into another phase of shot-specific tweaks.”
Looming over the narrative of the first season is a mysterious black monolith that hovers above the surface of Terminus and generates a forcefield. “The Vault is an enigmatic structure that is always in the background until it reveals its true nature in the last two episodes,” states Chris Keller, Visual Effects Supervisor, DNEG. “The trick was to make it look like a simple obsidian shape but with a bunch of detail. We added multiple layers of texturing of these scratches and runes that resemble complex mathematical shapes that we researched. It has this internal glow that reveals this skeleton that is built into the Vault that can turn transparent.”
“We shot the exterior of Synnax in Iceland. When Gaal gets on the boat with her parents and they take the boat out to get the lift from the FTL [Faster Than Light] ship, the boat was built in Limerick and shipped over to Iceland. We shot it on a lake in Iceland using a helicopter overhead to give the illusion of something overhead splashing on the water. That element was built in Iceland with environment in the background altered with visual effects.”
—Conor Dennison, Supervising Art Director
The nighttime scenes were shot with an extremely strong onset light. “It created a beautiful anamorphic lens flare,” observes Keller, “and to justify this the Vault has this beating heart at the bottom that creates an extremely strong glow. In daytime, it was a standard integration with HDRIs from the set.” The POV Vault effect occurs when individuals approach the artifact. “It is a psychedelic effect that was meant to mimic a strong migraine. We ended up doing a bunch of cool flame elements, like flames crawling over ceilings and walls – that gives you that cell-like structure to drive distortions and layer them in. Then a lot of the effect is also inspired by the Google Deep Dream algorithm, which sees wild patterns in images. As reality melts away, you see these weird peacock-feathered-type shapes and spirals. The idea is that the closer you get to the Vault the stronger that field gets, and eventually you will pass out.”
Hari Seldon stores the revolutionary psychohistory algorithm in a device known as the Prime Radiant. “The Prime Radiant was interesting to work with,” notes Keller. “I liked the idea that David came up with that it has its own language and doesn’t look like math as we’re used to. It’s beautiful, visual, intuitive, and so is the technology. Everything had its own internal logic. All of the technology as well as the math exists in the world. The Prime Radiant is a great example of something that you don’t understand. It’s roughly based on Fibonacci’s spirals and natural mathematical shapes like that. You don’t know what it’s doing, but your brain understands that it is doing something extremely complex, and if you know how to read it you would understand it.” Matter is compressed in the air to make imagery referred to as sandograms, according to Keller. “Various devices generate these sand-crystal-type particles that are not self-illuminated, which is the major difference between the sandogram and hologram.”
“The biggest challenge creatively was to create this entire universe and make sure that everything is believable and has an underlying sense of logic,” notes Keller. “I absolutely loved the world-building. I enjoyed the opportunity of getting to design not just one little aspect but an entire civilization spanning the entire Milky Way galaxy. The technical challenge was getting these gigantic assets to behave and be manageable. Lastly, we need to mention the pandemic, which was a huge obstacle that cannot be underestimated, and a lot of people sacrificed a lot to get the show done. But we all went through it together, are slowly coming out of it and have learned some valuable lessons that we will take with us and make our lives easier in the future.”