VFX Voice

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.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


August 30
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

IT’S NOT JUST ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE FOR SEVERANCE

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of Apple TV+.

Symmetry rules the blindingly bright hallways of Severance that take Mark and Lumon workers to and from offices. The set had several long corridors, then the VFX team extended them and made them even more narrow, symmetrical and endless.

Symmetry rules the blindingly bright hallways of Severance that take Mark Scout (Adam Scott) and Lumon workers to and from offices. The set had several long corridors, then the VFX team extended them and made them even more narrow, symmetrical and endless.

On her first day on the job at mysterious Lumon Industries, Helly Riggs (Britt Lower) undergoes the “severance” procedure, which involves placing an implant in her brain to bifurcate her memories. From then on, her office self remembers nothing of her non-work life, and her outside self knows nothing of her experiences on the job. She is effectively split into two versions of herself, the “innie” and the “outie,” in a twisted kind of work-life balance in the Apple TV+ series Severance.

Executing a zolly (zoom + dolly) shot of Mark in the elevator. The elevators are the site of the “innie/outie” transformation entering or leaving work, in which the workers’ faces reflect the switching of selves.

Executing a zolly (zoom + dolly) shot of Mark in the elevator. The elevators are the site of the “innie/outie” transformation entering or leaving work, in which the workers’ faces reflect the switching of selves.

The darkly comic sci-fi mystery has generated critical acclaim and been renewed for a second season. Dan Erickson created the show, which Ben Stiller (six episodes) and Aoife McArdle (three episodes) directed. Stiller and DP Jessica Lee Gagné “had a very specific look in mind to fit the story,” according to Visual Effects Supervisor Vadim Turchin. The story’s retro-futurist work setting is mostly stark and striking, with influences from modernist architect-designer Eero Saarinen and filmmaker Jacques Tati. To help achieve that vision, MPC’s visual effects team extended interiors, altered exteriors and provided many invisible effects.

Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman), a supervisor, takes Britt’s photo. The room is sparse, even bare, as are other offices at Lumon.

Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman), a supervisor, takes Britt’s photo. The room is sparse, even bare, as are other offices at Lumon.

“When we were filming in New York, Bell Labs came up as an option for us. I thought it was defunct, but someone had restored it and they let us use it. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, it’s in New Jersey, and it’s just amazing. A lot was inspired by him. It was the same vibe, the same landscape, and feeling. The exterior is mind-blowing. Of course, the [Lumon] interior is on a stage, but we design it in this same vein – grand, eerie, but beautiful.”

—Jeremy Hindle, Production Designer

Mark Scout (Adam Scott) and Helly Riggs (Britt Lower) face each other before a vast expanse of astroturf-green carpet and lowered, patterned, symmetrical ceilings. Both interior and exterior shots filtered influences of architect/designer Eero Saarinen and filmmaker Jacques Tati.

Mark Scout (Adam Scott) and Helly Riggs (Britt Lower) face each other before a vast expanse of astroturf-green carpet and lowered, patterned, symmetrical ceilings. Both interior and exterior shots filtered influences of architect/designer Eero Saarinen and filmmaker Jacques Tati.

Irving Bailiff (John Turturro) in Lumon's waiting room, which is furnished with green-leather-upholstered seats and decorated with fake green plants. Using an off-putting green as a foundational color was meant to convey elements of envy, illness, pastures and life itself – all mixed together.

Irving Bailiff (John Turturro) in Lumon’s waiting room, which is furnished with green-leather-upholstered seats and decorated with fake green plants. Using an off-putting green as a foundational color was meant to convey elements of envy, illness, pastures and life itself – all mixed together.

On her first Lumon morning, Helly wakes to find herself splayed out on a conference table, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. The filmmakers considered that the birth of her innie self. To begin this existence, she watches a video of herself from some time earlier, agreeing to participate in the severance program. She is told she can elect to leave, which she chooses, but then finds she’s utterly unable to exit the building until the close of work. In the meantime, she is kept under constant surveillance on the job. In a sense, the Lumon office is like a heavily monitored playground for her new self and others. In the Macrodata Refinement (MDR) department, she meets her fellow workers Mark Scout (Adam Scott), Dylan George (Zack Cherry) and Irving Bailiff (John Turturro), who work in cubicles clustered in the center of an 80 ft. x 40 ft. office with bare white walls and deep green carpeting. The windowless room has low ceilings that contribute to the claustrophobia. Trapped together, the workers sit in front of vintage computers and sort numbers into files to no discernable end. Treated like children, they receive silly incentives like “waffle parties.” They live and breathe work because, as innies, that’s all there is. At the end of the workday, they enter an elevator that transforms them into their outside selves through some invisible means. Gradually, while inside, the four workers get curious about their captivity and their “outie” lives. They venture deeper into the building, seeking to uncover the secrets of Lumon, including what it is they and the company actually do.

MPC's VFX team extended interiors and backgrounds, altered exteriors and provided invisible effects, always adherring to the show's relentless symmetry. In the foreground are Irving Bailiff (John Turturro), Helly (Britt Lower) and Mark Scout (Adam Scott).

MPC’s VFX team extended interiors and backgrounds, altered exteriors and provided invisible effects, always adherring to the show’s relentless symmetry. In the foreground are Irving Bailiff (John Turturro), Helly (Britt Lower) and Mark Scout (Adam Scott).

Production Designer Jeremy Hindle says that he and Gagné “had the same ideas about making Severance visually interesting, about pushing the boundaries a little. I wanted it to be playful, and in my look book I actually referenced the movie Playtime, a 1960s movie by Jacques Tati. Their art department was strange and interesting.”

“[VFX artists helped the art department] with creating symmetry in different sets, which otherwise would be impossible to achieve practically, especially when it comes to the interior lobby of Lumon. We put a lot of effort in finding subtle ways to add that symmetry, going for almost surreal.”

—Vadim Turchin, Visual Effects Supervisor

Patricia Arquette as Mark’s boss Harmony Cobel in her office at Lumon, which is eerie and beautiful, like many of the show’s settings.

Patricia Arquette as Mark’s boss Harmony Cobel in her office at Lumon, which is eerie and beautiful, like many of the show’s settings.

Serendipitously, the modernist Bell Labs Holmdel Complex (a famed research facility now redeveloped as Bell Works) would contribute to the look sought by the filmmakers. Hindle continues, “When we were filming in New York, Bell Labs came up as an option for us. I thought it was defunct, but someone had restored it and they let us use it. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, it’s in New Jersey, and it’s just amazing. A lot was inspired by him. It was the same vibe, the same landscape, and feeling. The exterior is mind-blowing. Of course, the [Lumon] interior is on a stage, but we design it in this same vein – grand, eerie, but beautiful.”

The Bell Labs exterior served as that of Lumen Industries, with some exterior matte-painting work. “That is a wonderful location, but unfortunately for the story, it had too many residential details, as well as the asymmetrical nature of landscaping, Turchin remarks. “We reshaped the traffic flow, mirrored the ponds on both sides of the building, created symmetrical tree lines, and filled the parking lots with cars that matched the tone of the story.” In other VFX for the Bell complex, “we heavily reworked a lot of the lighting for the exterior of Lumon. Ben and Jessica wanted cooler tones for the parking lot and the building, so we replaced a good portion of it with CG lights,” Turchin adds.

Helly Riggs (Britt Lower) wakes up on a conference table in a windowless, green-carpeted boardroom, her memory erased, following what the filmmakers call the “birth” of her “innie self.”

Helly Riggs (Britt Lower) wakes up on a conference table in a windowless, green-carpeted boardroom, her memory erased, following what the filmmakers call the “birth” of her “innie self.”

The MDR (Macrodata Refinement) department team, left, runs into Burt Goodman (Christopher Walken), second from right, head of the Optics and Design department, in the maze-like network of corridors at Lumon Industries.

The MDR (Macrodata Refinement) department team, left, runs into Burt Goodman (Christopher Walken), second from right, head of the Optics and Design department, in the maze-like network of corridors at Lumon Industries.

Other outside scenes featured the corporate duplex residences of Scout and next-door neighbor Mrs. Selvig, played by Patricia Arquette, who also plays his boss Harmony Cobel inside (she has not undergone severance). The scenes were supposed to be taking place during winter in Nyack, New York. The invisible VFX work there included “snow, snow, snow. Lots of it,” Turchin says. “Shooting in late March forced us to add a significant amount of snow and wet downs.” For the inside scenes, the VFX artists also helped the art department “with creating symmetry in different sets, which otherwise would be impossible to achieve practically,” Turchin comments, “especially when it comes to the interior lobby of Lumon.” Indeed, the visuals of Severance have a rather relentless symmetry. He adds, “We put a lot of effort in finding subtle ways to add that symmetry, going for almost surreal.”

Mark Scout (Adam Scott), Dylan George (Zack Cherry), Irving Bailiff (John Turturro) and Helly Riggs (Britt Lower) are filmed in a confrontation with Supervisor Milchick (Tramell Tillman).

Mark Scout (Adam Scott), Dylan George (Zack Cherry), Irving Bailiff (John Turturro) and Helly Riggs (Britt Lower) are filmed in a confrontation with Supervisor Milchick (Tramell Tillman).

Workstations, where the four core “innies” work at sorting numbers into files to no discernable end, are clustered in the middle of the office and outfitted with round, retro computers. The cubicles are surrounded by the ever-present bare white walls and green carpeting, drenched in fluorescent light, with no windows, and a low ceiling to suggest both a playground and a claustrophobic menace.

Workstations, where the four core “innies” work at sorting numbers into files to no discernable end, are clustered in the middle of the office and outfitted with round, retro computers. The cubicles are surrounded by the ever-present bare white walls and green carpeting, drenched in fluorescent light, with no windows, and a low ceiling to suggest both a playground and a claustrophobic menace.

Inside Lumon, the maze of hallways between rooms is confusing and seems endless. Even though the office corridors occupied three soundstages, visual effects were called upon to stretch them out and to make it all one consistent space. Turchin explains, “As amazing as the set was, there were definitely shots where we had to add extensions, creating more complexity.”

One particularly creepy Lumon area explored by the office workers is called the Perpetuity Wing, an odd, cult-like shrine to company founder Keir Eagan that includes a replica of his childhood home. “The set was meant to feel like a replica of the actual location, housed in a museum-like setting. We found a great spot along the Hudson and then built an exterior portion to represent a museum space, encompassing the real location. The DP did a great job of lighting that exterior location to make it feel as if it was lit by interior lighting, and really helped us with integration,” Turchin says.

“The [Perpetuity Wing] set was meant to feel like a replica of the actual location [of the founder’s childhood home], housed in a museum-like setting. We found a great spot along the Hudson and then built an exterior portion to represent a museum space, encompassing the real location. The DP did a great job of lighting that exterior location to make it feel as if it was lit by interior lighting, and really helped us with integration.”

—Vadim Turchin, Visual Effects Supervisor

The eerie Perpetuity Wing has a replica of the childhood house of Lumon founder Keir Eagan (to the right), housed in a museum-like setting, completed with VFX. The exterior of the Lumon building was shot at an existing modernist mid-century building, the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex in New Jersey.

The eerie Perpetuity Wing has a replica of the childhood house of Lumon founder Keir Eagan (to the right), housed in a museum-like setting, completed with VFX. The exterior of the Lumon building was shot at an existing modernist mid-century building, the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex in New Jersey.

Other scenes required visible VFX work, such as the “reintegration” scene with former worker Petey (Yul Vasquez), who had undergone severance and now has fused his memories back together, resulting in a scene where he’s whipping back and forth between two places. Turchin explains, “It’s an interesting one. A huge credit has to go to the editorial team to create the right feel, as well as [VFX Producer and Supervisor] Ashley Bernes, who did an amazing job of pre-planning and supervising a lot of those moments. Since we had to shoot on multiple locations, it was essential that the lighting and camera positions were consistent. The camera department took highly detailed notes, so we were able to match scenes really well.”

Another challenge was Irving’s hallucination of dripping and spreading black paint. Turchin recalls, “We shot a lot of practical materials for that but, in the end, we replaced them with full CG simulations. It was fun working on it and getting the right balance of character and realism. I cannot wait to see if we get to make it even grander in Season 2.”

One of the silly incentives that workers receive at Lumon are “waffle parties.” Helly and Seth party in a sterile, symmetrical office, on a dance floor of green carpet.

One of the silly incentives that workers receive at Lumon are “waffle parties.” Helly and Seth party in a sterile, symmetrical office, on a dance floor of green carpet.

The elevators are the site of the innie/outie transformation entering or leaving work, in which the workers’ faces reflect the switching of selves. Turchin notes, “We had to do a few adjustments. Besides standard stabilization, we often had to take out unwanted motions. We also re-timed the background in order to help the performance to stand out, slowing it down or speeding it up, enhancing the zolly effect.”

“I would say the greatest challenge was making sure not to do too much. [Executive Producer/director Ben Stiller] had a very clear vision of what he wanted, and subtlety was so important to him. We constantly asked, ‘How do we complement and support the story without the VFX calling attention to itself?’ I hope we succeeded.”

—Vadim Turchin, Visual Effects Supervisor

A motion-controlled zolly (zoom + dolly) move was used for most of the elevator innie/outtie transitions. Turchin notes, “Jessica really loved the flexibility to be able to operate the camera while still being motion-controlled. It definitely made the zolly process much easier.”

Executive Producer/director Ben Stiller had a specific look in mind that fit the story's stark, retro-futurist work setting.

Executive Producer/director Ben Stiller had a specific look in mind that fit the story’s stark, retro-futurist work setting.

Turchin also gives kudos to Compositing Supervisor David Piombino, VFX Producer Nicole Melius, Managing Director Angela Lupo and “the entire [MPC] Bangalore team, who made most of this possible.” The series was shot with Sony Venice digital cameras with custom lenses.

Turchin concludes, “I would say the greatest challenge was making sure not to do too much. Ben had a very clear vision of what he wanted, and subtlety was so important to him. We constantly asked, ‘How do we complement and support the story without the VFX calling attention to itself?’ I hope we succeeded.”


Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

RISING ABOVE THE NETWORK SCHEDULE FOR SUPERMAN & LOIS
02 August 2022
Television/ Streaming
RISING ABOVE THE NETWORK SCHEDULE FOR SUPERMAN & LOIS
A creative partnership and friendship forged 28 years ago at MGM has Visual Effects Supervisor John Gajdecki (Stargate: Atlantis) and Visual Effects Producer Matthew Gore (Battlestar Galactica) working together again...
COMBINING NATURE WITH CG TO PRODUCE A PREHISTORIC PLANET
19 July 2022
Television/ Streaming
COMBINING NATURE WITH CG TO PRODUCE A PREHISTORIC PLANET
Going beyond the Hollywood portrayals is the Apple TV+ natural documentary series Prehistoric Planet, which travels back 66 million years to the Late Cretaceous period when dinosaurs reigned supreme.
GOING BIGGER TO HONOR THE FRANCHISE DNA WITH JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION
26 July 2022
Television/ Streaming
GOING BIGGER TO HONOR THE FRANCHISE DNA WITH JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION
Prehistoric beasts have had a constant presence in the life of David Vickery, who served as Visual Effects Supervisor on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Jurassic World: Dominion.
DIGITAL DOMAIN ENCOUNTERS DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS
09 August 2022
Television/ Streaming
DIGITAL DOMAIN ENCOUNTERS DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS
Living up to its title is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where filmmaker Sam Raimi infuses horror...
THE RETURN OF HAND-DRAWN AND STYLIZED EFFECTS ANIMATION
27 September 2022
Television/ Streaming
THE RETURN OF HAND-DRAWN AND STYLIZED EFFECTS ANIMATION
If you’ve noticed that a raft of animated films, shows and visual effects projects have been toying with more hand-crafted effects animation lately, you’re not alone.
cialis online buy cialis