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May 01
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

INTERSECTING DIGITAL AND PRACTICAL EFFECTS FOR CONSTELLATION

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of AppleTV+.

If the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once has proven anything, it is that parallel universe storylines are not confined to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following that trend is the AppleTV+ series Constellation, which explores the concept of transitional points in time and space known as liminal spaces. The science fiction psychological thriller created by Peter Harness consists of eight episodes and revolves around a mysterious experiment onboard the International Space Station causing a devastating accident that prompts an astronaut to question her reality. Tasked with 1,582 shots and ensuring that everything was visually coherent and consistent upon repeat viewings was the visual effects team supervised by Doug Larmour and consisting of One of Us, Outpost VFX, Jellyfish Pictures, Mathematic Studio, Spectral, Studio 51 and Dazzle Pictures.

Morocco stands in for Kazakhstan where Roscomos Mission Control is located.

Morocco stands in for Kazakhstan where Roscomos Mission Control is located.

“We were aware through the editing process, how much do you reveal of the alternative realities while still tricking the viewer into thinking that it is a linear story. We would put little quirks in the plates so that you think, ‘Was that the right or wrong thing I just saw?’”

—Doug Larmour, Visual Effects Supervisor

The computer operating systems onboard the International Space Station are from over 20 years ago because that was when the ISS was constructed.

The computer operating systems onboard the International Space Station are from over 20 years ago because that was when the ISS was constructed.

“In terms of the style and feel of what directors Michelle MacLaren, Joseph Cedar and Oliver Hirshbiegel and Peter Harness were going for, it was along the lines of putting yourself outside of your comfort zone to make you feel as if, ‘Are you sure as a viewer yourself that you have seen what you have seen?’” Visual Effects Supervisor Larmour explains. “We were aware through the editing process, how much do you reveal of the alternative realities while still tricking the viewer into thinking that it is a linear story. We would put little quirks in the plates so that you think, ‘Was that the right or wrong thing I just saw?’”

Reflections are one of the visual elements utilized to imply the existence of multiple realities.

Reflections are one of the visual elements utilized to imply the existence of multiple realities.

Liminality influenced the visual aesthetic of the show. “We experimented with several different ideas involving reflections, light changes and lens warping. Whenever you see Jo Ericsson (Noomi Rapace) in Sweden or in a liminal moment where she is transitioning from one reality to another, we used quite a lot of lens effects to create a more tunneled view with a wavering double imaging so you felt the change. Within that, you have the idea of slowness of time. We had to create a particle system of snow, build those individual snowflakes and make them slow down or speed up whenever going through the liminal forcefield.”

Actors did tricks like standing on one leg to simulate floating through the frame.

Actors did tricks like standing on one leg to simulate floating through the frame.

“We experimented with several different ideas involving reflections, light changes and lens warping. Whenever you see Jo Ericsson (Noomi Rapace) in Sweden or in a liminal moment where she is transitioning from one reality to another, we used quite a lot of lens effects to create a more tunneled view with a wavering double imaging so you felt the change. Within that, you have the idea of slowness of time. We had to create a particle system of snow, build those individual snowflakes and make them slow down or speed up whenever going through the liminal forcefield.”

—Doug Larmour, Visual Effects Supervisor

A spacewalk takes place in an effort to repair the damaged ISS.

A spacewalk takes place in an effort to repair the damaged ISS.

Jo Ericsson (Noomi Rapace) literally and figuratively sees double representations of herself as she watches her colleagues head back to Earth.

Jo Ericsson (Noomi Rapace) literally and figuratively sees double representations of herself as she watches her colleagues head back to Earth.

Natural elements like embers were treated differently in outer space as opposed to on Earth because of the absence of gravity. “We shot lots of elements of embers for the fire that you see in the cabin later on in Episode 107, but the zero-g embers were fully made in Houdini,” Larmour reveals. “There has not been much in the way of experiments with fire in space because obviously it’s quite dangerous. No one knows what a big zero-g fire would look like other than it’s not withheld by gravity and is not so up and down but a broader flame. It was the embers that gave the fire a floaty feel because they were moving every which way.” The snow was treated completely differently from the embers. “We had some effects guys who were able to create on-set snow in the Arctic Circle, but at the same time we had two units shooting across a frozen lake and forest, so it was impossible for us to cover the entire area all of the time. There was a whole continuity thing where we had to match the bits that had snow with the ones that did not,” Larmour adds.

“We had a famous American astronaut, Scott Kelly, as our expert advisor, and he had created some experiments in space with fluid. We completely used those as a reference guide for what a blob of fluid would look like floating through the frame. The special effects makeup guys spent two weeks making me some zero-g blood. It was an aloe vera-type substance that would stick and wobble like jelly, but it wouldn’t drip. Quite often on set, when it was going to be a blood scene, we would put a blob of this zero-g blood on the wall behind them so we could dress it as if it floated off and stuck to the wall.”

—Doug Larmour, Visual Effects Supervisor

Practical sets were constructed for the mid and wide shots where characters would be traveling and/or touching various parts of the ISS.

Practical sets were constructed for the mid and wide shots where characters would be traveling and/or touching various parts of the ISS.

Rather than having a space capsule splash down off the coast of Florida, the water has been replaced with the desert environment of Kazakhstan. “I don’t think it’s a pleasant experience landing in a Soyuz capsule!” Larmour notes. “When it works well, they land in Kazakhstan which is a flat area of tundra. There are rockets that fire just before it hits to slow it down. We did a lot of research in making sure that our landing matched all of the footage that we had of Soyuz capsules landing.” A dog-wolf crossbred threatens Jo upon the capsule door opening. “Thankfully, it wasn’t CG, but it took a lot of handling to make it to do the right things at the correct time, like growl. There were different bluescreen plates for Jo in the capsule and of the wolf. We didn’t have them onsite, so we had to shoot the background when we were in Morocco. It was a three-plate composite whenever you see Jo and the wolf together.”

There were always a couple of screen graphics being captured in-camera while the rest were composited later in post.

There were always a couple of screen graphics being captured in-camera while the rest were composited later in post.

“The ISS was built 20 to 30 years ago, and a lot of the operating systems of the personal computers that are up there are different and older. We had to make sure that our screen graphics were matching the actual screen graphics in the ISS now. Also, it being an Apple show, you have to make sure that your Apple products are exactly right in terms of their operating systems, how they work and when and how you swipe.  A lot of effort went into making sure all of these screens were exact.”

—Doug Larmour, Visual Effects Supervisor

The CAL (Cold Atomic Laboratory), which is the cause of the multiple reality chaos, was treated as an electrical device rather than a magical contraption.

The CAL (Cold Atomic Laboratory), which is the cause of the multiple reality chaos, was treated as an electrical device rather than a magical contraption.

Special effects deployed fog machines used by the Navy to create the desired atmospheric effect.

Special effects deployed fog machines used by the Navy to create the desired atmospheric effect.

Invariably, comparisons with Gravity will be made because of the destruction of the ISS, which is ironic because both projects had the same Production Designer, Andy Nicholson. “It was a brilliant piece of hiring because of the whole wealth of experience that Andy brought from Gravity, not only from having done that show,  but the problems that they had shooting that and where it had gone well and hadn’t gone well,” Larmour states. “The first thing I did was to get The Third Floor involved, which allowed us to do a virtual tour of the whole ISS and give Michelle one or two months just sitting with The Third Floor, flying her way through the ISS and working out where she would like to put things, where the actors would be and go from one to place to another; and where to put the camera so at least we shot the whole scenes in the ISS before we actually had to shoot the [full scene]. Based on that, we were able to go to Andy and say, ‘These are the shots. For the big wide expanses of the ISS, let’s do those CG. The things where you are seeing a real close-up, it doesn’t matter as long as it has something in the background. The hard ones are the mid to wide shots where you see them travel and touch lots of bits of the ISS. Those are the bits we have to build with enough room to fly there.’ That meant roofs that they could take off and big greenscreen teasers all of the way down the massive stage we had in Berlin. Previs helped us to know exactly what we had to shoot.”

A practical fire setup was the burning cottage.

A practical fire setup was the burning cottage.

CG snow had to be art directed to ensure that it seamlessly matched with the shots where the snow was achieved practically.

CG snow had to be art directed to ensure that it seamlessly matched with the shots where the snow was achieved practically.

Anti-gravity movements were mimed by the cast. Larmour explains, “When it came to moving slower than usual, the actors stood on one leg so they could drift through a frame. After a certain period of time, you get used to the idea of what that feels like to shoot. Stefan Sosna, our camera operator, got used to the idea of having a little bit of float. There are so many videos of NASA astronauts or cosmonauts filming while they’re floating, and the camera is always slightly moving because itself is floating. It never felt static. Having seen that with the full CG shots, we tried to integrate that as well. Whenever there wasn’t enough of that, we tried to integrate it in post in order to get that feel. Then you have lots of CG objects.” Carnage unfolds inside of the ISS resulting in blood simulations. “We had a famous American astronaut, Scott Kelly, as our expert advisor, and he had created some experiments in space with fluid. We completely used those as a reference guide for what a blob of fluid would look like floating through the frame. The special effects makeup guys spent two weeks making me some zero-g blood. It was an aloe vera-type substance that would stick and wobble like jelly, but it wouldn’t drip. Quite often on set, when it was going to be a blood scene, we would put a blob of this zero-g blood on the wall behind them so we could dress it as if it floated off and stuck to the wall,” Larmour says.

Noomi Rapace and Henry David are supported and move through the set for the ISS via a wire system.

Noomi Rapace and Henry David are supported and move through the set for the ISS via a wire system.

UI had to be created for the various computer monitors. “We worked with [graphic designer] David Henry, who had previously collaborated with Michelle on The Morning Show, which also had a lot of screens,” Larmour remarks. “Whenever you see a lot of screens, there are some that are practical. There was never just a whole wall of blue. Usually, there were at least two or three screens out of the 35 that had something on them. However, we didn’t always keep what was there. The ISS was built 20 to 30 years ago, and a lot of the operating systems of the personal computers that are up there are different and older. We had to make sure that our screen graphics were matching the actual screen graphics in the ISS now. Also, being an Apple show, you have to make sure that your Apple products are exactly right in terms of their operating systems, how they work and when and how you swipe. A lot of effort went into making sure all of these screens were exact.”

Previs was crucial in determining what sections of the ISS had to be built practically.

Previs was crucial in determining what sections of the ISS had to be built practically.

The ISS sequences were shot at Turbin Studios in Berlin.

The ISS sequences were shot at Turbin Studios in Berlin.

Black screens were deployed for the spacewalk sequences to get the proper bounce light.

Black screens were deployed for the spacewalk sequences to get the proper bounce light.

In the middle of the multiple-reality chaos is a container called the Cold Atomic Laboratory (CAL). “We did that in-house. It’s a lot about feel because you don’t want it to feel too magical; you want to base it on the idea of being an electrical appliance. It has to react in a way that creates double realities. There are these massive mad experiments that are a kilometer underground with gold rooms, which are there to capture small particles from the sun. What you see are little sparks, so we used the idea that you would have little pinging particles along with the double exposure because that’s what it’s creating and it’s electrical so it feels like a blue LED running through it. You put it all together and go, ‘That’s nice, isn’t it!?’”



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