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April 01
2020

ISSUE

Winter 2020

SNOWPIERCER: A Speeding Train Through Mankind’s Frozen Future

By TREVOR HOGG

A volatile class struggle that takes place onboard a massive train speeding through a post-apocalyptic frozen wasteland was originally conceived as a graphic novel called Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette in 1982. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) co-wrote and directed Snowpiercer (2013), a cinematic adaptation that was his English language debut, and it garnered such acclaim that the rights were optioned to develop a television series, produced by Joon-ho, which airs on TNT in the U.S. in May, and globally streams on Netflix.

Like the story which is built upon conflict, the journey beyond the page has not been a peaceful one. Controversy erupted when The Weinstein Company removed 25 minutes of footage from the director’s cut of the film before restoring it after critical acclaim for the film and the pilot episode was entirely re-shot with showrunner Josh Friedman (Emerald City) being replaced by Graeme Manson (Orphan Black).

A greyscale model layout of the Snowpiercer. (All images courtesy of Turner Broadcasting System.)

The lighting is composited into the shot.

The final shot which reveals the entire nighttime environment.

“We have a completely different train and effects,” states Showrunner/Executive Producer Manson. “There are no sets from the original [film] production and the pieces we did reuse were heavily modified.”

“When I got the chance to pitch for the job, I was a huge fan of Bong’s Snowpiercer,” states Manson. “When I saw it, I actually thought it would make a great series, then forgot all about it. When I began looking into pitching for the gig, I got the graphic novels and discovered this whole other world that is more abstract and has great themes. There was a marrying between the movie and the graphic novels. For the visual style, I was inspired and pushing towards the visceral quality of Bong. It’s an action adventure and so are the graphic novels; that’s a key thing about it. It’s about class struggles as well as climate change, environment, class structure, migration, immigration and detention. All those things were great to form the base of a TV series that could keep going, and be about resistance and revolution.”

“Graeme likes to write big, even back then, which is always good and a challenge,” notes Snowpiercer Visual Effects Supervisor Geoff Scott. “There’s nothing worse than somebody who thinks, ‘Let’s play it off of expressions or have the magic happen behind the camera.’ We always try our best to make it so no one hopefully notices what we’ve done.”

Selecting the visual effects vendors was a long process, with work being divided among Method Studios, FuseFX, Torpedo Pictures and Zoic Studios, while The Sequence Group was responsible for the animation design. “Then we had an internal team of six artists who concentrated mainly on 2D-centric work,” states Visual Effects Producer Darren Bell (Reign). “We had a fairly decent amount of time to create the effects. Overall, we had about 1,200 shots for the season with 100 plus per episode.”

Previs was used to determine the positioning of the train and avalanche.
An effects pass of the avalanche.
The final shot with the snow simulation.

“Our train is two and a half stories tall and a 1,001 cars long, so the amount of drag and cavitation that is continuously pulling up and pushing snow was huge. Our average speed was supposed to be 100 km an hour, but we changed it shot by shot. The train had to look faster than that because it’s so big. We did camera tests to see what looked good in different types of shots.”

—Geoff Scott, VFX Supervisor

Designing the Snowpiercer train was the biggest challenge. “It was a several months-long process,” states Bell. “We collaborated with Alex Nice (Underwater), a concept artist I’ve worked with before. Alex, Geoff, Graeme, the producers, the network and I worked together to come up with a fantastic design.” A point of reference was the Art Deco trains from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

“The one in particular that we started with was The Mercury,” explains Scott. “Coincidentally, we recently found a train that looks like a scaled-down version of it called The Zephyr.”

The Snowpiercer is a central character. “Our train is two and a half stories tall and a 1,001 cars long, so the amount of drag and cavitation that is continuously pulling up and pushing snow was huge,” adds Scott. “Our average speed was supposed to be 100 km an hour, but we changed it shot by shot. The train had to look faster than that because it’s so big. We did camera tests to see what looked good in different types of shots.”

Considering the action occurs within the confines of a train, it was originally thought there would not be many set extensions. “Early on in shooting we started adding more set extension work as doors open,” reveals Scott. “Each of the cars have a mini-airlock system, so if there’s ever a breach the revolt can be retained within one car. Watching people go through doors got crazy.” Bell agrees.

“The show is all about the doors!” The number of windows also reflect class status, with none existing in the cars situated towards the back of the train. “Putting bluescreen out of everything doesn’t buy us that much. Instead of doing chroma keys we used a lot of white and black, if it was night. We did good old-fashioned roto and luminous keys.”

The amount of visual effects evolved along with the scripts. “When we got the feel for the world, then we could write to it, such as being able to follow an actor down a hallway and stop on a window and look outside,” remarks Manson. “Or start outside, push in on an establisher of the train, push into a window and find the character on the move. Those kinds of transitions have been fun.”

The production team embraced the idea of telling a story within the confines of a train. “It’s about claustrophobia,” notes Manson. “Part of the tension of the piece is that there are 3,000 people stuck in a 10-mile-long steel tube and they’re all going crazy together. We love shots that have a floor, ceiling and converging walls, and pressed the directors to work with that. Thematically, we’re constantly interacting with our environment. It’s nasty out there, and the fact that it keeps us in the train is a story plus. You’ve got to lean into it. I also did shoots, so I know how to shoot a movie in a 14 by 14-foot location.” Not everything takes place indoors. “When we do an exterior shot it usually feels like a breath of fresh air,” states Scott. “The world that we see out there is barren. We roll through destroyed cities. Initially, we were using exteriors as an establisher or at least a location demarcation. As Season 1 evolved exteriors became more story dependent.”

The biggest visual effects challenge was how individual vendors dealt with exterior shots.

3,000 passengers are contained within a speeding 10-mile-long metal tube.

The train is constantly interacting with the environment, rolling through a cold, barren wasteland and destroyed cities, using exterior shots to establish location.

“When we got the feel for the world, then we could write to it, such as being able to follow an actor down a hallway and stop on a window and look outside. Or start outside, push in on an establisher of the train, push into a window and find the character on the move. Those kinds of transitions have been fun.”

—Graeme Manson, Showrunner/Executive Producer

Previs of the cattle car.

The cattle car destroyed by the avalanche.

A tricky balance needed to be maintained in allowing the viewer to see what is going on within the deadly winter conditions.

“It’s quite a daunting task when you have to translate movement with actors but also have them interact with the movement in a way that works for camera. Some of the cars were gimballed while others were on airbag risers so we could add movement to the set piece. Sets get changed but what remains the same is the ability to move platforms. Not only did the movement need to be consistently repeatable, but be something that the director will ask for. They can say, ‘10% more for shake.’”

—Chuck Desrosiers, Special Effects Supervisor

A particular Canadian province served as a visual reference. “Darren, Chuck [Desrosiers] and I are from Ontario, so we know what a winter wasteland looks like,” states Scott. “Graeme ran Orphan Black in Toronto for five years during the winter and has experienced minus 30.” An effort was made to be authentic while still being cinematic. “At minus 120 there should be nothing in the air. I don’t even know that, realistically, the sky would be blue as the water would have dropped out of the air. But we didn’t go that far.”

The biggest visual effects challenge was how individual vendors dealt with exterior shots. “Even in our earliest days of determining which vendors it was going to be, everyone has a different setup whether they use a proprietary software or an off-the-shelf solution when it comes to building environments,” observes Bell. “There’s not an easy way to share assets. Last year we had two vendors do exterior train shots, Method Studios and FuseFX. The assets did not get shared until later on in the season because the work became too great for one vendor to handle. FuseFX took on approximately 50 exterior shots in episode 10.”

Practical vibrations were incorporated into the sets courtesy of Special Effects Supervisor Chuck Desrosiers (The Predator). “It’s quite a daunting task when you have to translate movement with actors but also have them interact with the movement in a way that works for camera. Some of the cars were gimballed while others were on airbag risers so we could add movement to the set piece. Sets get changed but what remains the same is the ability to move platforms. Not only did the movement need to be consistently repeatable, but be something that the director will ask for. They can say, ‘10% more for shake.’ That meant we needed to have a mechanical system in place and I had a really good crew. I’ve been on this show since the pilot, so I had a lot of time to prepare and make this work.” The class distinctions have an impact on the quality of the engineering. “The further up you go in the train the smoother the ride. The idea is that they have dampening systems in place that can control how much vibration is brought across which leads to a calmer ride. It’s like the difference between a jalopy and a BMW.”

Various worlds exist within the different cars. “We worked hard to create distinct worlds within each class,” notes Manson. “The tail is a jail. Third class is a working class. Second class is a professional class. First class has it all. As you move up train everything changes, like the design and sound, as well as the condition of the people and the amount of plenty. When you get to these ‘Wow sets’ they’re cool environments where we have small constructed elements.”

Season 1 was shot entirely on soundstages at Martini Film Studios in Langley, British Columbia. The art department did a great job of making the interior sets look weathered, while the exteriors and ‘Wow sets’ were created in visual effects, Manson adds. “We literally have our actors on bluescreen when they’re in the tunnel of the aquarium.”

Violence erupts with bloody consequences that combines practical and CG elements. “What is fascinating about the blood and gore is that it’s driven by the story,” remarks Desrosiers. “It does not feel like it’s overdone. It’s in the reality of being stuck in such a small space. It’s on a scene-by-shot basis. We determine if we have time for resets and then use blood pumps, squids and sponges. If we have quick forceful action where spears have to go through somebody and don’t have the time to reset the set then we do it digitally. We found a way to marry both worlds.” Creating smoke and fire was made more difficult within the soundstage environment. “We have cutting or welding torches,” states Scott. “Chuck has used a grinder against titanium to create sparks that are nonheated, and when needed the prop department has a torch that has a high-density LED in it and visual effects adds the weld. We would always go and shoot elements with Chuck.”

“Even in our earliest days of determining which vendors it was going to be, everyone has a different setup whether they use a proprietary software or an off-the-shelf solution when it comes to building environments. There’s not an easy way to share assets. Last year we had two vendors do exterior train shots, Method Studios and FuseFX. The assets did not get shared until later on in the season because the work became too great for one vendor to handle.”

—Darren Bell, Visual Effects Producer

A plate shot of Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs.

Animation is added of the aquatic life that lives inside the aquarium car.

The final shot with all of the effects and lighting passes to digitally create what was referred to as a ‘Wow set.’

Exterior sets were built on a soundstage. “There are going to be scenes where we see people outside in this wasteland,” reveals Desrosiers. “Treating those in a functional way when you’re interacting with the actors and also making it reasonable for Geoff to make realistic was a challenge.” Bell is proud of the CG set extensions. “People are going to be blown away by the aquarium and a particularly awesome cattle car.”

Snowpiercer has been a major team effort. “I’m not a filmmaker showrunner,” admits Manson. “I run the show from the writers’ room. The writers’ room is always the biggest struggle. This is my second series with Geoff, and I give credit to him, Darren and Chuck as well as Producing Director James Hawes (Black Mirror) for holding it down and being able to translate the page. We take the scripts from the writers and go into these in-depth meetings to make it all one thing.”


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