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January 23
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

CHANNELING THE VISUAL EFFECTS ON SET FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME SEASON 2

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Prime Video.

Many different iterations were attempted for the reveal of the Heroes of the Horn before settling upon what appeared in the show.

Many different iterations were attempted for the reveal of the Heroes of the Horn before settling upon what appeared in the show.

Essential for any successful digital augmentation is having a member of the visual effects team present during the live-action shooting to ensure that are the required elements, whether it be plate photography or LiDAR scans of sets, are acquired and provided to vendors, thereby establishing a solid foundation for the work to be done in post-production. In the case of the second season of The Wheel of Time, the on-set visual effects supervision was equally divided between Roni Rodrigues and Mike Stillwell.

It was always important to have practical plate photography to build from when creating CG environments.

It was always important to have practical plate photography to build from when creating CG environments.

“When living away, you start immersing yourself in the project 24/7,” explains Roni Rodrigues, On-Set VFX Supervisor.  “I did block one which was Episodes 201 and 202 and then straightaway did block two which was Episodes 203 and 204. Then Mike Stillwell did blocks three and four. When shooting block one, you will do some scenes from Episodes 201 and 202 together because we’re revisiting a lot of those locations. For block one, we had Thomas Napper as the director and for block two Sanaa Hamri as the director, so the team changed as well, including the DP and 1st AD.”

No matter the type of element, an effort was made to incorporate the weaving associated with channeling.

No matter the type of element, an effort was made to incorporate the weaving associated with channeling.

“We did previs and then postvis [of Heroes of the Horn] with the stunt team trying to work out how these heroes would appear and be involved in a battle. We wanted to shoot in a visceral handheld -in-amongst-it way, but it didn’t lend itself to shooting one plate with them and shooting it again without. We thought going back to the smoke gave them that ethereal quality without looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

—Mike Stillwell, On-Set VFX Supervisor

Location shooting took place in the Czech Republic, Italy and Morocco.

Location shooting took place in the Czech Republic, Italy and Morocco.

Overseeing the fantasy series is creator and showrunner Rafe Judkins. “Rafe’s position was important to give consistency on the visual identity of the show,” Rodrigues notes. “Even though the directors changed, we always kept everything in the same universe. That’s one of the reasons why it was so important for us to spend quite a lot of time in pre-production, because we managed to plan ahead for many of the details in every single scene. It was easy for us to transfer that information from the first block to the second block and achieve the desired results.” A lot of time was spent developing relationships with other departments, “from the collaboration with the DP discussing on-set light interaction to the production designer and how we want to build sets so there is a seamless line between what is practical and a CG extension,” Rodrigues adds.

A major new environment in Season 2 is the city of Falme.

A major new environment in Season 2 is the city of Falme.

“The relationships that Roni had started in the first four episodes made it so much easier for me because I was able to come in and build upon on what was already there,” remarks Mike Stillwell, On-Set VFX Supervisor. “The stunt guys would be showing me their stuntvis before they’ve shown other people and asking, ‘What do you think? Is this going to work?’ Jan Petrina, the Stunt Supervisor, would do incredible stuntvis with fantastic After Effects work in it. It paved the way for what we wanted to do. It was a constant dialogue. He never promised something that we couldn’t deliver and vice versa. We had each other’s backs wherever possible.”

Waygates are important means of travel – and tricky to pull off, especially when horses are involved.

Waygates are important means of travel – and tricky to pull off, especially when horses are involved.

The smoke reveal of the Heroes of the Horn was not the original idea. Stillwell observes, “We did previs and then postvis with the stunt team trying to work out how these heroes would appear and be involved in a battle. We wanted to shoot in a visceral handheld -in-amongst-it way, but it didn’t lend itself to shooting one plate with them and shooting it again without. We thought going back to the smoke gave them that ethereal quality without looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

Witness cameras capture every single body gesture and finger movement to get the proper channeling interaction.

Witness cameras capture every single body gesture and finger movement to get the proper channeling interaction.

“It was nice to work with Andy Scrase [Visual Effects Supervisor] as he was on the same page about the details, and the more information that we actually give to the post-production team, the more they can do,” Rodrigues states. “The cyberscan booth was there [in the studio] 24/7 for us. Hats off to the visual effects production team, production manager and production coordinators because we wanted not just everyone being scanned, every time our lead actors changed their clothes, we wanted that variation as well.” A variety of exterior locations were found in the Czech Republic. “The whole city of Cairhein was built, and was so vast and rich in details that it was incredibly helpful,” Rodrigues notes. “Also, we went to Italy and Morocco. There is a scene where the guys are riding horses, and those epic mountains in the background are real. Obviously, we as visual effects did enhancements that make it better. However, having a good location and production designer are not just good for the showrunner but for the actors as well, as it’s easier for them to perform and to get into the character.”

Practical and digital smoke were combined to create the dramatic reveal of the Whitecloaks calvary just before it attacks Falme.

Practical and digital smoke were combined to create the dramatic reveal of the Whitecloaks calvary just before it attacks Falme.

“[In addition to the Czech Republic] … we went to Italy and Morocco. There is a scene where the guys are riding horses, and those epic mountains in the background are real. Obviously, we as visual effects did enhancements that make it better. However, having a good location and production designer are not just good for the showrunner but for the actors as well, as it’s easier for them to perform and to get into the character.”

—Roni Rodrigues, On-Set VFX Supervisor.

Killing Turak (Daniel Francis) was not as easy for the production team as it was for Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski). “When Rand is approaching the tower and Turak [Daniel Francis] has his heron-marked blade and does some fancy moves, we had so many meetings where I was presenting different ideas on, ‘How do we kill Turak?’” Stillwell recalls. “Rand has unbelievable power and is pissed. How would he do this?  We were talking about turning someone to stone and then shattering them. Or having Rand fill them with lava and they explode from within. Or Rand whipping through these blades of air and doing the classic thing where they look fine and then slowly slide apart because of being sliced in half. What Rand ends up doing is so nonchalant, but it shows the power that he has. We spoke to Josha about it. Josha even plays it like he didn’t expect it to be that easy.”

Hardened air can be effective in producing weapons and shields.

Hardened air can be effective in producing weapons and shields.

Lessons were learned, in particular, when it came to characters channeling the One Power, which involves manipulating intricate illuminated weaves of water, fire, earth, air and spirit. “They used interactive light on Season 1, and when we received the plates, the lighting was baked into the plate, and it was too much,” Rodrigues explains. “We ended up painting out interactive light from all of those scenes. We wanted the showrunner to have a full scope of flexibility to decide in post-production which direction he wants to go. What we did was to do a performance take without interactive light and then we did it again, but with interactive light. The idea was once they decided on the take to use, we would get the plate with the interactive light and paint light in. In this way, we had the flexibility to paint the light as many times as we wanted in any position we wanted.”

The fire dragon required careful attention to detail to stand out properly in the daylight.

The fire dragon required careful attention to detail to stand out properly in the daylight.

“It was a case of myself, Rafe, directors and writers throwing ideas out. No idea is a bad idea. ‘What if every time we see him it’s a different person, but they all have his face?’ And then we would discuss how possible is that? How good is it going to look? We wanted people to be as confused as Matt was. We looked at a lot of different concept art from different shows, and we watched a lot of different films,  like those of Gasper Noé. We were trying to get reference from not-obvious things.”

—Mike Stillwell, On-Set VFX Supervisor

Prosthetic makeup was digitally enhanced for the Trollocs.

Prosthetic makeup was digitally enhanced for the Trollocs.

Hallucinations allowed for surreal imagery. “For the psychedelic visions Matt Cauthon [Barney Harris] has after drinking the tea, we did a lot of work on how things would work with the mirrors, how it would look when his hands and veins are becoming distorted and enlarged,” Stillwell states. “There were lots of discussions about how to make that trip look terrifying, and the switching out of him and his mother. It was a case of myself, Rafe, directors and writers throwing ideas out. No idea is a bad idea. ‘What if every time we see him it’s a different person, but they all have his face?’ And then we would discuss how possible is that? How good is it going to look? We wanted people to be as confused as Matt was. We looked at a lot of different concept art from different shows, and we watched a lot of different films, like those of Gasper Noé. We were trying to get reference from not-obvious things.” A character gets turned into stone and dissipates into the air. “The art department did a couple of busts for us to use as reference. I remember having so many show-and-tells about dust and discussions about how fine a grain we wanted for the ashes. We shot a load of reference of all of this stuff blowing away and being shattered and thrown around. But the main thing was to make sure to get clean plates because we had to have a tight body track with witness cameras to create a good CG model.”

Rather than be a straight white light, the Waygates reflected the environment about to be entered.

Rather than be a straight white light, the Waygates reflected the environment about to be entered.

“[For a character that gets turned into stone and breaks up] the art department did a couple of busts for us to use as reference. I remember having so many show-and-tells about dust and discussions about how fine a grain we wanted for the ashes. We shot a load of reference of all of this stuff blowing away and being shattered and thrown around. But the main thing was to make sure to get clean plates because we had to have a tight body track with witness cameras to create a good CG model.”

—Mike Stillwell, On-Set VFX Supervisor

A dramatic moment occurs when Moiraine does fire channeling on a beach that goes through the water like torpedoes to destroy the Seanchan fleet.

A dramatic moment occurs when Moiraine does fire channeling on a beach that goes through the water like torpedoes to destroy the Seanchan fleet.

One of the cool visual effects are the shields created by channeling air. “The ideas for that were still broad when we were actually shooting,” Stillwell reveals. “It was a case of talking to the actors and giving them something to work with, because so often they’re having to do all of this channeling and having to imagine what it is and how it’s affecting them. When Marcus Rutherford [Perrin Aybara] is protecting them from Ishamael [Fares Fares] at the end when we were rehearsing it, I asked if it was okay for me to go and show something. I was slamming my body onto his shield and saying, ‘This is the weight of what’s hitting you. You’re not just deflecting bullets like Captain America. These are massive large forces, not little pinpricks.’ I was just trying to give him something to work with so he can imagine it, because if the actor’s performance works, the visual effects work so much better.”


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