By TREVOR HOGG
Images copyright © 2020 Sony Pictures Television Inc. and Amazon Content Services LLC.
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By TREVOR HOGG
Images copyright © 2020 Sony Pictures Television Inc. and Amazon Content Services LLC.
An epic fantasy series conceived by Robert Jordan, where the past and future coexist simultaneously and a select group of individuals have the ability to channel the forces of nature, has been adapted for Prime Video. Overseeing the production of The Wheel of Time, which has been renewed for a second season, is creator, Executive Producer and Showrunner Rafe Judkins (Hemlock Grove), who collaborated with Production Designer Ondrej Nekvasil (Snowpiercer), Visual Effects Supervisor Julian Parry (The Witcher) and Special Effects Supervisor Ondrej Nierostek (Carnival Row) to make his cinematic vision a reality.
Considering the literary inspiration and influence of The Wheel of Time, Rafe Judkins had to balance being authentic to the source material while not feeling too derivative. “As much as possible we tried to lean into the stuff that is fresh to television audiences.” The biggest job was condensing the narrative for the eight episodes of the first season. “When the writers’ room was getting started,” Judkins observes, “we hired a bunch of concept artists from around the world, coming from different backgrounds, genres and mediums to tackle some of the big elements of the show. What does channeling, Trollocs, Fades and the landscape of this broken world look like? Then working with our heads of departments and an internal concept team, we took those ideas and began to flesh them out into this world.”
The Wheel of Time is a cultural melting pot. “The first conversation that Rafe and I had in 2018 was about the cast and the concept of the world,” explains Nekvasil. “You have a village in the mountains with all of these different cultures influencing each other, which means that the style of the architecture is a mixture of everything that we know. I used elements from Asia, Europe, Africa and South America to create our own culture. The mountains look like the Alps, but the village is a mixture of European Alps plus a little bit of China and Malaysia.” The setting influenced the selection of building materials. Adds Nekvasil, “It was in the middle of a pine tree forest, so it would be a wooden village that is situated on a lake, and we are also using clay and straw. Our mood boards were always a mixture of different styles and cultures.”As for technology and vehicles, the first season is set in 16th or 17th century Europe. “There is no black powder, which means that they don’t have shotguns. Everything is about swords, spears and arrows,” he says.
Nierostek enjoyed the opportunity to work in the fantasy genre. “We did smoke, rain, wind and snow to make the look of the show more dramatic and realistic. There was a huge scene in Two Rivers village where we had to create a large amount of rain. Smoke, rain and wind seems like an easy effect, but this is not the case. The lighting especially at night is different for each camera. We got rain towers and spinners above the set. When the shooting starts you cope with the rain, and for one camera it looks great and another it is too heavy, or there is nothing. Sometimes visual effects will come and say do not worry because they have tools to improve the rain.” Also in the effects realm of interacting with a body water, the Taren Ferry was constructed to make a crossing. “We built a floating boat to carry the hero actors and horses across a lake,” says Nierostek. “There were underwater pulleys and cables, and we had an engine just in case something fails. This was one of the first gags to get shot.”
Relying entirely on greenscreen was not an option. “One thing that was important for me from the beginning was that this world feel authentic and real,” explains Judkins. “Even for the actors and crew, trying to go to places and, as much as we can, put stuff in camera, even if we end up augmenting or enhancing it later with visual effects. There is a scene where two of our leads, Rand al’Thor [Josha Stradowski] and Egwene Al’Vere [Madeleine Madden], have a conversation sitting on a rock looking down at their home in this Alpine environment. We could have easily used a rock with some grass around it in Prague, but we actually took the actors to the top of a huge mountain pass in Slovenia. What we did was add in their home village of the Two Rivers and the two actual rivers at the bottom of the shot, but the rest of it is in camera.”
Because of the pandemic, a shoot had to be shifted to a quarry near Prague. “We had plans to go to the Canary Islands for the final block of Season 1,” notes Judkins, “but because of COVID-19 we were not able to do that. It had been scouted, so we sent our drone and visual effects teams to build where we were going to go into a 3D digital world that we could then put our actors into.”
“For the village, we are using a lot of CNC [Computer Numerical Controlled] cards for the details and carvings,” states Nekvasil.
“There were some carve details that were like a 2D CNC card, carved into the wood, and that was then given to a woodmaker. It is always a mixture of high and low tech. The high tech helps to make the basic shape and pattern, and after that the skills of a cabinetmaker or woodmaker can give the feeling of the carving and details. The most challenging set was the place called The Blight, which is described differently in the books. It’s a strange forest organism that is able to kill everything, and is supposed to look alive but is not alive. You need a lot of good sculptors to work with you to create the organic shape that you are looking for. If you have something more architectural, you can always do proper prints for the details. I hope that the audience will enjoy it.” Digital extensions expanded the scope of the big-scale sets. Adds Nekvasil, “We share all of the information in regards to references for the styles and designs. We do SketchUp models which can be transferred into Maya and be used as base for visual effects.”
Despite visual effects having a supporting role, the shot count for the eight episodes totaled 3,500 and were divided among Cinesite, MPC, Union VFX, Automatik VFX, RISE, Framestore, Ombrium VFX, Scanline VFX, Outpost VFX, DNEG and in-house Zissis. “I tried to avoid shot sharing because moving stuff from one vendor to another takes time and on television it’s all about time,” states Parry. “When the pandemic struck, we carried on with the previs and had an animatic of Episode 108 by the time we went back into production in September 2020.” It is important to have aspects of the familiar even when developing supernatural powers, says Parry. “I try to ground all of the ideas in some kind of reality. If things are a bit too fantastical, the audience might not be as engaged. When there is a lot of thought put into the effect and people believe the philosophies, there is more of a chance of them buying into the story.”
“If possible, I like to keep things within the set and shoot above the line. We couldn’t avoid bluescreen or greenscreen,” remarks Parry. “The world building was managed by Ondrej Nekvasil and the art department team. Any questions that I had for that I would go back to Ondrej, who would give me countless designs and concepts; that collaboration was great. They went to fantastic locations in and around Prague and a short flight away in Slovenia. A lot of those vistas are there, but they also gave us the guideline to how our world had to be, which was to keep the scope and scale there. In Episode 102, there is a city we go to called Shadar Logoth, and that’s big lensing, vistas, establishing shots, and that was something which was consistent over the episodes.”
Collaboration is paramount. “When you’re working with the stunt teams and special effects, you’re getting the best of both worlds,” observes Parry. “It’s about having conversations. If we’re doing stunts on wires, you make sure that they’re not crossing the face.” Digital doubles were extensively used for the armies and creature replication. “In these types of shows, for safety reasons we do prop replacements. When you get an axe close frame, it’s not holding up,” says Parry. “You can see it’s fiberglass and a blunt edge. We were doing a lot of classic weapon repair. Also, when it came to stabbings or other contact moments, we were having to use the 3D extensions.”
Magic is ingrained into the narrative. “Moiraine [Rosamund Pike] draws upon the One Power, an ethereal energy that surrounds the character,” explains Parry. “It is called ‘channeling’ and is heavily written about by Robert Jordan, so we had quite a bit of source information. We designed that magic from the ground up because it needed to be called upon many times throughout the series. What you’re looking at is called the ‘Weave,’ which has five different layers [wind, spirit, earth, air and fire] to it. The research to understand the physics of it helped to inform the people around us while filming what exactly is going on.” Each element being channeled is given a different color. “Our channeling is predominantly white, but if you look closely there are hints of the different colors,” notes Judkins. “As different things are woven together, you get a slightly different color as well. We looked at closeups of cosmic particles, flames being brought up for the first time, and ink moving through oil. The elements of those that worked best were blended together to create the look of channeling.”
Parry has been involved with producing creatures for 30 years. “The choice was made early on to go with physical creatures in the room. Our Makeup Effects Supervisor, Nick Dudman [Penny Dreadful], provided us with a seven-foot Trolloc, but we couldn’t have hundreds of them, which were needed for the show. We were lucky to have the hero Trolloc for eyelines and performance, and in post-production we would enhance those creatures.” Critical was having a fast editorial turnover. Observes Parry, “This stuff on a feature film timeline is difficult enough and on a television timeline it’s madness! We worked with post-production hand-in-hand. ‘We need a turnover of this… A blocking sequence.’ In this case, we would get it over to MPC for them to start roughing out the blocking of the animation. We had enough time to put the blocking in for Rafe and the directors to see how it was all looking, to get their notes back to make the alterations, and then go on to develop the final shot.
“The biggest challenge has to be the expectation of doing these high-end visual effects projects on TV schedules and budgets,” continues Parry. “More and more I’m dealing with ‘feature film standard’ expectations with half the time and half the budget, but somehow we do it, and coupled with COVID-19, it was a challenge and then some.”
Events mentioned but not described in the books have been brought to life. “Amazon has given us the resources to bring something incredible to life, and people will be excited to see the Battle of Two Rivers for the first time,” notes Judkins. “As we move into future seasons, we keep going to new worlds within the world of The Wheel of Time, so we are developing new cultures, characters, visual effects and creatures. But we now have this foundation of the first season to look at and see whether these new things are too different or different enough. It gives you a point of comparison from which to approach everything, which is a much easier process than that first ideation phase.”