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July 13
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Peeling Away the Layers of the Mysterious Multiverse in DEVS

By TREVOR HOGG

Secretive technology companies provide the narrative backdrop for novelist turned filmmaker Alex Garland in Ex Machina and the FX on Hulu series Devs. Where Ex Machina dealt with a female android, Devs involves the quest to produce a software program that can manipulate time and space. After collaborating with Garland on two feature films, Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Whitehurst makes the transition with him to the small screen.

Andrew Whitehurst, Visual Effects Supervisor

A practically-built entrance is placed alongside a portion of bluescreen in California. (Images courtesy of FX Networks)

The headquarters of Amaya, a quantum computing company run by Forest (Nick Offerman), is added in digitally.

“Alex is someone who likes to find a core group of people that he has a good working relationship with and then carry on working with them,” remarks Whitehurst. “Apart from the editor, the heads of department were the same on Ex Machina and Annihilation. In truth, we were making this up as we were going along because none of us had done TV before. The work was done in the same manner as if we were doing film visual effects. What you don’t have much of in TV is the ability to try and change things for long periods of time because the deadlines are tighter.”

A major plot point for Devs is the ability to witness various scenarios for a particular moment in time occur at the same time – this is referred to as the multiverse. “In the screenplay it does describe this idea of there being visible multiple versions of an action happening,” explains Whitehurst. “We tried doing multiple layering up of slightly ghostly versions of an action. These are things where I literally sat the camera in my backyard with greenscreen and did a whole bunch of moving around in front of the camera and then attempted layering things together. We tried stuff where we took one frame in every 10, stretched that out and re-sped that back to normal speed so there was this smeary movement. That was aesthetically interesting as it had this Francis Bacon quality to it, and was unsettling and odd.

“We went down that route for awhile,” continues Whitehurst, “but the problem is that it doesn’t narratively explain the multiverse clearly. I said, ‘Let’s make everything much more discreet.’ The next step was to make all of the multiverse versions ghostly – that was what we were originally going to plan. When [Visual Effects Editor] Steve Pang started mocking up the Avid temps, he tried doing that and also did one where the multiverse versions are solid. We went, ‘That works better.’ There’s an oddness to the multiverse when they’re all in the same space, which worked in it’s favor.”

A plate serves as a backdrop.

The weathering was kept to a minimum for the memorial statue of the deceased daughter of Forest (Nick Offerman) which was entirely CG.

“In truth, we were making this up as we were going along because none of us had done TV before. The work was done in the same manner as if we were doing film visual effects. What you don’t have much of in TV is the ability to try and change things for long periods of time because the deadlines are tighter.”

—Andrew Whitehurst, Visual Effects Supervisor

A plate shot of the past being revisited.

A dusty, dreamlike aesthetic was developed for the visualizations of the past.

A practical gathering spot was constructed for where the statue was going to be placed digitally.

The creative decision was made to lean more towards the pop-art style of a Big Boy’s Donuts statue.

A gimbal was created for the elevator.

The gimbal is painted out to create the impression that the elevator is floating across the gap.

“[To] explain the multiverse clearly. I said, ‘Let’s make everything much more discreet.’ The next step was to make all of the multiverse versions ghostly – that was what we were originally going to plan. When [Visual Effects Editor] Steve Pang started mocking up the Avid temps, he tried doing that and also did one where the multiverse versions are solid. We went, ‘That works better.’ There’s an oddness to the multiverse when they’re all in the same space, which worked in it’s favor.”

—Andrew Whitehurst, Visual Effects Supervisor

The beginning of the freeway crash was shot in San Francisco and the end part was shot at Oxfordshire in England where a section of road could be controlled.

Color grading was critical in seamlessly blending the footage from the two different locations.

“The only exception for [shooting in California] is the crash on the freeway. The beginning was in San Francisco and the end part was shot at Oxfordshire in England where we could control a section of road. It was tricky. We got some good, low sun and our colorist, Asa Shoul, helped with the grading of the sequence to bring everything even closer together.”

—Andrew Whitehurst, Visual Effects Supervisor

Principal photography primarily took place in California for the exterior settings of San Francisco and the campus of the Amaya Corporation. “The only exception for that is the crash on the freeway,” states Whitehurst. “The beginning was in San Francisco and the end part was shot at Oxfordshire in England where we could control a section of road. It was tricky. We got some good, low sun and our colorist, Asa Shoul, helped with the grading of the sequence to bring everything even closer together. The other location that we had to do a digital version of was a multiverse shot where we see multiple Lyndons (Cailee Spaeny) falling off of a dam and then Katie (Alison Pill) walking away. Looking at things in the edit even as the shoot was progressing and refining what the multiverse was going to be, we realized what was shot in Santa Cruz wasn’t right. We ended up shooting a small set piece with greenscreen in a car park by the studio space in Manchester. Then we had to create a full CG environment. That was very late as well.

“All of the multiverse shots where you are seeing multiple versions of a character doing slightly different things were motion control and putting greenscreen behind the actors as they’re performing,” remarks Whitehurst. “Often, it was a section of greenscreen attached to a Flag on C-Stand with a grip literally walking behind the actor as they’re doing their thing. The two interior multiverse shots in the apartment were a lot of roto and edge blending because we couldn’t get the greenscreen into the areas that we would have needed to get them into to get keys – that was more labor intensive.”

A close partnership was developed with Series Editor Jake Roberts and Visual Effects Editor Steve Pang. “When the rushes would come in, Steve would do a quick editorial test. For example, at the university where you have multiple Katies walking out when she first meets Forest (Nick Offerman). The finished version was more finessed and the edges were better, but with Steve’s temp we knew that the shot was going to work. That side of things was smooth. The tricky bits were things like the fall off of the dam because it was such a complicated move and there were so many elements. Just before shooting in Manchester I did a storyboard so cinematographer Rob Hardy, Alex and I could look at it and say, ‘Yes. This is what we’re going to shoot now.’ We were able to communicate that to the guys setting up the motion control camera moves. Jo McLaren’s stunt team had a stunt performer doing all of the falls, so we were going to get every angle that was needed to stitch everything together into this one massive shot.”

The chief designer of the Devs system, Katie (Alison Pill), met Forest (Nick Offerman) when she was a university student.

Various scenarios play out in the multiverse on the day in which Katie (Allison Pill) meets Forest for the first time.

Previs did not always help, such as when Forest walks through a multiverse scene of the freeway car accident. “On the first take, Nick Offerman pulled his leg so he couldn’t run anymore and we had blocked it out with him running to get to this car,” reveals Whitehurst. “That morning, we literally had to redesign the whole sequence on the fly. All of the multiverse aspect of it was going to be CG anyway, so we weren’t using a motion control camera. The other sequence that we previs was the lift drop at the end of Episode 8. That was mostly because at that point the set hadn’t been built. We wanted to be able to say, ‘If a camera is placed inside this glass lift with a 35mm lens and we try to frame up on Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), what do we actually see of the set?’ We wanted to be able to stage it in a way that visually made sense.” There was flexibility with the motion control camera shots. “The motion control camera rig was one where for most of the multiverse stuff Rob could operate on a first pass. That would be stored, and it would repeat and repeat. It could be performed rather than just having be programmed in. The only time it was programmed occurred for the dam shot because we had to use a different motion control rig – that’s why I [story]boarded it beforehand.”

Approximately 600 visual effects shots were produced for the eight episodes over a period of 11 months by DNEG, Nviz, Outpost VFX and an in-house team. “Alex, Rob, [Production Designer] Mark Digby and I looked at the pictures and designs and said, ‘We know that this is going to work and look good.’ Then the pressure was on us to make sure that our work was up to the standard that they have created in producing the plates in the first place,” says Whitehurst.

Katie (Alison Pill) in a plate shot of the elevator gimbal.

The environment is darkened, the gold interior enhanced, and the gimbal painted out and replaced with a deep gap.

“All of the multiverse shots where you are seeing multiple versions of a character doing slightly different things were motion control and putting greenscreen behind the actors as they’re performing. Often, it was a section of greenscreen attached to a Flag on C-Stand with a grip literally walking behind the actor as they’re doing their thing. The two interior multiverse shots in the apartment were a lot of roto and edge blending because we couldn’t get the greenscreen into the areas that we would have needed to get them into to get keys – that was more labor intensive.”

—Andrew Whitehurst, Visual Effects Supervisor

A plate shot of a shocked Forest (Nick Offerman)

Forest (Nick Offerman) has invented a quantum supercomputer that can re-create the past and predict the future.

Crew members preparing to shoot a scene in the elevator shaft.

The lighting fixtures are replaced and a ceiling is digitally constructed.

“The end of Episode 8 where our characters suffer their various fates is awesome. The dam shot as a stand-alone is a serious piece of work. The other thing I love is all of the visualizations where you get to see Christ on the cross and the Gettysburg Address in a dusty environment. Those had an aesthetic beauty to them. We tried to design them in pre-production.”

—Andrew Whitehurst, Visual Effects Supervisor

The dolly track is painted out and height added to the building to create a sense of danger.

A plate shot of Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), a software engineer at Amaya, standing on a ledge.

“The end of Episode 8 where our characters suffer their various fates is awesome. The dam shot as a stand-alone is a serious piece of work. The other thing I love is all of the visualizations where you get to see Christ on the cross and the Gettysburg Address in a dusty environment. Those had an aesthetic beauty to them. We tried to design them in pre-production. The room where you see these visualizations happening on in the cube, we tried to have them play live as much as possible partly because they would provide lighting, give the actors something to work with and allow us to get a bunch of shots in-camera. It was amazing having a 4K projection on this screen in the room and watching the actors’ reactions to it. That was something where you go, ‘That was the exactly right decision.” Hopefully,” adds Whitehurst, “the audience will enjoy it as much as we did.”

Watch the trailer for Season 1 of Devs.

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