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September 01
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

TALES FROM THE LOOP Brings Evocative Retro-Futuristic Art to Life

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

Fantasy and science-fiction-themed artwork has often helped form the basis for TV and motion picture design. This is very much evidenced by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon IV, a painting that led to the artist’s Academy award-winning involvement on Ridley Scott’s Alien, and echoed by how an illustration by futurist architect Lebbeus Woods – Centricity Series, Upper Chamber, Neomechanical Tower – apparently influenced the design of a chair in which Bruce Willis is interrogated in Terry Gilliam’s film of 12 Monkeys.

The art department built a practical full-size frozen stream on location,  which MPC embellished to suggest it had become frozen in time, while maintaining the established photoreal aspect. (Images courtesy of MPC and Amazon)

The art and stories in author/painter Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop have likewise informed and inspired Amazon Prime’s adaptation, which for its first season delivers eight interconnected episodes. Set in an alternate version of the 1980s, one where the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics has built experimental apparatus, dubbed ‘the Loop,” which generates all manner of manifestations, ranging from the physical to spatial and temporal events, some of which turn up in the surrounding area as magical and potentially very dangerous artifacts. Showrunner Nathaniel Halpern’s (Legion) take on Stålenhag’s material captured the interest of many filmmakers, with acclaimed directors including Jodie Foster, Mark Romanek and Andrew Stanton each signing on to helm episodes.

VFX Producer Andrea Knoll (Stranger Things) met with Halpern and the show’s producers to discuss his overall vision for the series. “I did a breakdown on each script for what we imagined would be the VFX end of things,” she recalls. “You get some idea up front of what the issues will be in terms of shot count and the breadth of work, but it’s equally interesting down the line to discover the surprises that you didn’t imagine would require VFX – which is why we were touching nearly every shot in some shows. Every episode was very different, each with its own unique set of challenges.

“Since we had Simon’s source material as well as Nathaniel’s scripts,” she continues, “those helped ground things in a way that mandated a more intimate and emotional approach to storytelling. In order to maintain the necessary level of simplicity and subtlety, that meant not pushing things like the robots too far into Transformers territory, because that wouldn’t fit with Simon’s vision or Nathaniel’s. Instead, we tried to achieve more with less, which was a really exciting challenge, thinking outside the box from what is typically done currently with animation. The work also had to withstand more than the typical level of viewer scrutiny, with numerous shots running up to two minutes in length.”

Legacy Effects built a variety of practicals that saw extensive action on set, while, to accomplish the necessary post magic, Knoll engaged the services of MPC, BOT VFX and primary vendor Rodeo FX. “I got Rodeo to start building assets for later episodes while work was still going on for the pilot,” she reports. “That was only possible because the scripts were already done – which I thought was an amazing early development!”

“I did a breakdown on each script for what we imagined would be the VFX end of things. You get some idea up front of what the issues will be in terms of shot count and the breadth of work, but it’s equally interesting down the line to discover the surprises that you didn’t imagine would require VFX – which is why we were touching nearly every shot in some shows. Every episode was very different, each with its own unique set of challenges.”

—Andrea Knoll, VFX Producer

MPC provided paintings of the Loop facility as well as the surrounding landscapes. (Images courtesy of MPC and Amazon)

MPC Supervisor Ashley Bernes was on set for the pilot, while VFX Supervisor Robert Bock covered those duties on the remaining episodes. They captured all the HDRI data needed to match lighting for the interior and exterior scenes acquired in 6K RAW on Panavision Millennium DXL2 cameras by cinematographers Jeff Cronenweth, Craig Wrobleski, Luc Montpellier and Ole Bratt Birkeland. Halpern also established an in-house group of compositors to facilitate post.

“When first reading the script, I figured the Eclipse at the center of the Loop would be full CG, but [Production Designer] Phillip [Messina] built it practically, doing an extraordinary job of designing this fantastic underground setting, which was built onstage in Winnipeg. … Phillip was happy that visual effects could support his effort in a photorealistic way.”

—Andrea Knoll, VFX Producer

MPC Supervisor Ashley Bernes and VFX Supervisor Robert Bock captured HDRI data on set in order to match lighting for live-action scenes requiring VFX enhancement that ranged from paint touchups to set extensions and 3D animation. (Images courtesy of MPC and Amazon)

During pre-production, Knoll met with pilot Production Designer Philip Messina to determine which specific aspects would be physical versus CGI and figure out specifically what aspects would be practical,” she relates. “When first reading the script, I figured the Eclipse at the center of the Loop would be full CG,” she notes, “but Phillip built it practically, doing an extraordinary job of designing this fantastic underground setting, which was built onstage in Winnipeg. We just provided the necessary set extensions. Phillip was happy that visual effects could support his effort in a photorealistic way.”

Another practical element was the Legacy-built ‘shard’ found by characters in Episode 1, which was scanned so Rodeo would be able to match it perfectly for shots requiring it demonstrate a remarkable range of fantastic abilities. “We worked hand-in-hand with Legacy’s amazing puppeteers to create a hybrid approach as needed for effects,” she states. “They built a practical two-legged robot called Jakob. We analyzed video of the robot’s range of motion to get a sense of how it moved. The performance of that practical robot turning away forlornly at the end of Episode 2 is something that seemed very respectful of Simon’s original work. We all responded to it, and Nathaniel just loved it.

“For the most part,” adds Knoll, “close views were achieved just using their practical, with our end limited to rig paint-outs. So carrying the look and feel of that further along in the animation was, in a way, the best kind of tribute to Legacy’s efforts. Plus, having the practical Jakob robot as a reference for lighting, composition and to aid the actors is a time-tested approach. Legacy personnel achieved this for Spielberg on Jurassic Park [under the aegis of Stan Winston Studios], which is just one classic example, and so this set the bar really high for Rodeo’s CG work to measure up.”

Other robots featured in the series fell more into the traditional realm of post VFX. “Those robots didn’t have a fully articulated practical basis,” remarks Knoll. “The Scrapper robot that turns up in Episode 5 had only a rod-puppeteered head from Legacy that could be pushed around on a dolly. The scrapper mimics the action of a person controlling it, so we had a very human reference for animating that performance. But the spider robot in Episode 8 was a very different situation, where we were creating nearly everything in CG for this big battle between the two ‘bots. There were just a lot of clean plates shot in the woods, along with reference imagery of stand-ins for the robots.”

In addition to building the Eclipse at the center of the Loop’s interior practically, Production Designer Phillip Messina also constructed partial exteriors, with MPC providing set extensions.

Knoll approached Halpern and Episode 8 director Jodie Foster with an eye toward postvis for the fight. “That idea received enthusiastic responses,” she reveals. “We took an early Jodie-approved cut to Rodeo,  where they put together a rough concept for how the fight might look.  This postvis could then inform Jodie’s later director’s cut, helping everyone visualize things better than just this blank, empty forest. When Rodeo had animation turntable tests ready, Nathaniel and I gave notes to the supervisors.

“Going very big with the battle would have been the easy solution,” Knoll explains, “but it would also have been an exercise in showing off. Instead we wanted to concentrate on the emotional aspects, rather than deliver an epic battle. You’re always getting the request to do something that hasn’t been seen before, and, oddly enough, going smaller seemed a way to do just that. The menacing qualities of this spider robot got conveyed in less overt ways, with small, concise movements that could be perceived as more threatening. We had Skype sessions with the animators every other day, stepping through all aspects of performance.”

Legacy Effects built a variety of practicals that saw extensive action on set. (Images courtesy of Legacy Effects and Amazon)

In addition to scenes featuring the robots, other Loop-created aspects of the series, ranging from the ethereal to hard-surfaced elements, were created through VFX. One startling vision shows a house shattering into debris – but instead of falling, the destruction elements rise skyward. “The house disintegration scene from the pilot required considerably more conceptual work than the rest,” acknowledges Knoll. “The whole notion of a house falling apart with pieces being drawn upward into the sky was a very interesting one, and so there was an in-house artist during prep who helped work out aspects to all of that. Then MPC produced a whole previs for it that aided Rodeo’s final work, one that varied the rate of assorted pieces of house as they fell upward. By introducing a level of chaos to the effect, it seemed to look more real and less like a computer simulation.”

MPC also contributed a complex final for Episode 8. “That show opens with a frozen stream, for which the art department did this amazing job, building it practically in the woods of Winnipeg,” continues Knoll. “MPC’s end of things had to maintain the established photoreal aspect, while also delivering the idea that the stream became frozen in time. It’s a very long shot, and the look of the ice, a very unusual visual quality, along with the water freezing over a log, were all aspects that fed into this beautiful final image.”

Pilot director Mark Romanoff, in foreground, during the location shoot. Legacy Effects built a practical Jakob robot featured in the series. Rodeo FX scrutinized footage of the partly-mobile bot in order to build on the sense of character established on set for their more elaboration 3D animation. (Image courtesy of Legacy Effects and Amazon)

Legacy also contributed partial robot pieces and other physical gags for the series. The major battle with a spider robot in Episode 8, however, was nearly all the result of Rodeo FX CG work, evolved from extensive postvis. (Image courtesy of Legacy Effects and Amazon)

Looking back on the assignment, Knoll readily agrees that there is “a  beauty and benefit to doing so much practically. Even though so much of this kind of work can be handled digitally these days, it sometimes makes better sense to use that tool only at the end of the day to enhance what can be built and shot on set. An awful lot of Tales from the Loop was about finding the right balance between approaches while maintaining credibility.”

Author/painter Simon Stålenhag’s Tales From the Loop is set in an alt-1980 where an experimental construct dubbed the Loop generates various physical and ethereal manifestations. The series drew a bevy of talented filmmakers ranging from Jodie Foster to Andrew Stanton. (Image courtesy of MPC and Amazon)

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