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July 11
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

WHEN A VOLCANO NEEDS TO ERUPT IN KATLA, NORDIC VFX STALWARTS ANSWER THE CALL

By OLIVER WEBB

Images courtesy of Lilja Jonsdottir and Netflix.

Katla was shot in a small Icelandic village called Vík, as well as at RVK Studios in Reykjavík. Additional work was done in Denmark and Canada.

Katla was shot in a small Icelandic village called Vík, as well as at RVK Studios in Reykjavík. Additional work was done in Denmark and Canada.

After the eruption of Katla volcano, nearby community Vík is faced with the devastating consequences, and the community is soon plagued by mysterious events. Created by Baltasar Kormákur and Sigurjón Kjartansson, Katla is an Icelandic television series available to stream on Netflix.

Davíð Jón Ögmundsson served as Visual Effects Supervisor on the show. “After a few small projects, I started my own company where we mostly serviced the local film industry both on set and in post-production,” Ögmundsson says. “On a handful of occasions, I worked for Ghost VFX in Denmark doing bigger projects and expanding my portfolio. I ended up moving with my family to Denmark in 2018, working for different studios working on both local Danish movies and international shows. Moving back to Iceland in 2020 at the very start of the COVID pandemic, I was hired to do on-set VFX supervising on Katla, which then led to me becoming the VFX supervisor on the show.”

“My first thought was, “Yes, finally a true Icelandic sci-fi on a Netflix scale!” But after the first meeting, it was clear that we had our work cut out for us. I was hoping that we could do some nice simulations of smoke and ash plumes and really just go full VFX on it, but the deadline was too tight for that kind of work. We needed to find a way to finish all the shots in comp and skip the 3D part as much as we could.”

—Sigurgeir Arinbjarnarson, Digital Compositor/On-Set Visual Effects Supervisor

In addition to making the volcanoes, all the sets needed to be ash dressed, which was initially managed by the art department on set.

In addition to making the volcanoes, all the sets needed to be ash dressed, which was initially managed by the art department on set.

“Monopix approached me and invited me to join the project. I have worked with Monopix on numerous projects before but not on this scale, so I was really excited to take part in it,” says Sigurgeir Arinbjarnarson, Digital Compositor and On-Set Visual Effects Supervisor on the show. “My first thought was, “Yes, finally a true Icelandic sci-fi on a Netflix scale!” But after the first meeting, it was clear that we had our work cut out for us. I was hoping that we could do some nice simulations of smoke and ash plumes and really just go full VFX on it, but the deadline was too tight for that kind of work. We needed to find a way to finish all the shots in comp and skip the 3D part as much as we could.”

The VFX team looked at a volcanic eruption in Japan for reference, as one of the characters in Katla gets engulfed in an ash storm.

The VFX team looked at a volcanic eruption in Japan for reference, as one of the characters in Katla gets engulfed in an ash storm.

“It was quite challenging when we came to the post aspect of things because we had a lot of shots. Apart from the extensive environmental ash work solved mostly in the grading room, we had around 280 VFX on the show ranging from crew removals and split screens to large set extensions. The cloning effect was solved with body doubles, split screens and clever camera work. Underwater dream sequences were shot in a studio with the actress on wires, and everything was shot in slow motion.”

—Davíð Jón Ögmundsson, Visual Effects Supervisor

In terms of visual references Ögmundsson looked at actual footage of volcanic eruptions. “We were lucky enough to have one of the most documented and filmed volcanic events of the century happen right on our doorstep, so acquiring footage to insert the volcanic plume was not hard. The team had a wide variety of footage to choose from, so the volcanic plume did not present too much of an issue. We were quite set on this particular look and we knew that this material was what we could use and could afford to use, so we were locked in from the get-go. We did look at other eruptions, such as an eruption in Japan. There was this wave of volcanic ash that went over people, and we looked at that for the scene where one of the characters gets engulfed in an ash storm. Then we looked at sandstorms from the Middle East as well,” Ögmundsson continues.

There were plenty of visual references of volcanoes to look at, including a library of old Icelandic volcanoes, as well as consulting eyewitnesses to local eruptions.

There were plenty of visual references of volcanoes to look at, including a library of old Icelandic volcanoes, as well as consulting eyewitnesses to local eruptions.

Arinbjarnarson looked for references everywhere he could. “The production had already gathered some clips that were used for lookdev and placeholders in the edit, but in the end we found a really good library of old Icelandic volcanoes that we could use for the project. We also had a lot of people around us that have seen volcanoes up close and could give us pointers with the look and feel for some of the key shots,” he adds.

Making the volcano shots look real proved to be particularly challenging for Digital Compositor/On-Set Visual Effects Supervisor Sigurgeir Arinbjarnarson.

Making the volcano shots look real proved to be particularly challenging for Digital Compositor/On-Set Visual Effects Supervisor Sigurgeir Arinbjarnarson.

In total, there were around 1,100 shots that can be considered VFX shots on the show, a considerable amount for a Nordic series. “It was quite challenging when we came to the post aspect of things because we had a lot of shots. Apart from the extensive environmental ash work solved mostly in the grading room, we had around 280 VFX on the show ranging from crew removals and split screens to large set extensions,” Ögmundsson says. “The cloning effect was solved with body doubles, split screens and clever camera work. Underwater dream sequences were shot in a studio with the actress on wires, and everything was shot in slow motion.”

“The bulk of the work [was] done here in Iceland, but some of it in Denmark and a small section in Canada. Most of the split-screen work that was done with the doubling effect was done in-house with RVK Studios, with an in-house team, and almost all of the volcanic plume shots were done by Monopix, a local studio. Short Cut in Denmark handled the underwater scenes, and NetFX handled the ash storm. In the VFX world, six months isn’t a long time.”

—Davíð Jón Ögmundsson, Visual Effects Supervisor

Ögmundsson and his team had six months in total, and the work was divided between four vendors, “the bulk of the work being done here in Iceland, but some of it in Denmark and a small section in Canada,” he explains. “Most of the split-screen work that was done with the doubling effect was done in-house with RVK Studios, with an in-house team, and almost all of the volcanic plume shots were done by Monopix, a local studio. Short Cut in Denmark handled the underwater scenes, and NetFX handled the ash storm. In the VFX world, six months isn’t a long time.”

Colorist Eggert Baldvinsson played a crucial role behind the scenes.

Colorist Eggert Baldvinsson played a crucial role behind the scenes.

Around 280 VFX shots on the show involved crew removals, split screens and large set extensions.

Around 280 VFX shots on the show involved crew removals, split screens and large set extensions.

“We were the vendor studio for the project, and even though we were only three artists we were really effective,” Arinbjarnarson notes. “Before, we all worked together on LazyTown, and there we often needed to deliver over 200 greenscreen shots per day, so we used that experience in Katla. With this project, we decided that we needed to have a really simple and fast pipeline, so we started to organize the shots into easy and hard tasks. We then finished all the simple ones quickly so we could plan our time for the hard ones and meet our deadlines. We used our prep time to sort our asset library. We needed to have volcanoes, ash plumes, lightning and a bunch of cloud layers ready to go. Most of the volcano clips that we got were quite old, noisy and handheld. The quality in some would not work on a Netflix show, so we were lucky that we had Topaz Video AI to upscale the clips. It was quite remarkable how much detail we could get out of SD [Standard Definition] footage and even old tapes. We then stabilized them and made some new volcanoes by bashing some clips together just to have everything ready.”

Discussing the most challenging visual effects shots to complete, Ögmundsson explains that the ash storm sequences were creatively challenging. “We needed to find the proper balance between what was ‘correct’ and what was visually pleasing while racing round the clock to be able to finish within the six-month deadline that we had. We were locked in budget wise, so we had to get very creative just to get it to work, and that was difficult to push through. The solutions for the balance between what happened in color grading and visual effects was probably the most challenging factor of it all, and finding that balance: Where did we cross the line to go into VFX, rather than solving things in the DI?”

The ash storm sequences were creatively challenging for Visual Effects Supervisor Davíð Jón Ögmundsson.

The ash storm sequences were creatively challenging for Visual Effects Supervisor Davíð Jón Ögmundsson.

Making the volcano shots look real proved to be particularly challenging for Arinbjarnarson. “Even though we had true reference clips, they often looked unreal. The scale and color can often be off somehow, so to recreate that took some time. Along with making the volcanoes, we needed to ash dress all the sets. The art department did a fantastic job on set, but we needed to extend the ash for the wider shots. We planned for this to take a big chunk of our time, but luckily we had a great colorist [Eggert Baldvinsson] who found a good way to prep the plate for us so the ash dress was much easier and often not needed,” he explains.

“We used our prep time to sort our asset library. We needed to have volcanoes, ash plumes, lightning and a bunch of cloud layers ready to go. Most of the volcano clips that we got were quite old, noisy and handheld. The quality in some would not work on a Netflix show, so we were lucky that we had Topaz Video AI to upscale the clips. It was quite remarkable how much detail we could get out of SD footage and even old tapes. We then stabilized them and made some new volcanoes by bashing some clips together just to have everything ready.”

—Sigurgeir Arinbjarnarson, Digital Compositor/On-Set Visual Effects Supervisor

Volcanic ash was a constant challenge for the VFX team as the show required extensive environmental ash work, including extensions for wider shots.

Volcanic ash was a constant challenge for the VFX team as the show required extensive environmental ash work, including extensions for wider shots.

Ninety-two shooting days were split between a location in a small Icelandic village called Vík and a studio where all the indoor elements were shot. ”The most obvious challenges right off the bat were primarily the sheer magnitude of shots in the outside setting and being shot in the summertime, with the environment completely green presenting an obvious issue with the story happening a year after a massive volcanic event covering everything in grey ash. The other was an ash storm in Episode 5 where we knew from the start we could not go for large simulations and had to look for alternate solutions,” says Ögmundsson.

There were around 1,100 VFX-related shots on the show, a considerable amount for a Nordic series.

There were around 1,100 VFX-related shots on the show, a considerable amount for a Nordic series.

The volcanic eruptions were mostly compositing only. “The process began by finding a plate of the volcanic plume that fit the narrative and sticking it in there in a convincing way, and finding moments and sections where the lighting matched. It is ridiculous how big this thing actually is,” Ögmundsson details. “If you have ever seen footage of this actual plume, the base of it is 3km wide, and you can’t really tell from the photographs or videos that you see, unless you see something with a helicopter in it. Getting the correct scale was quite challenging too, while keeping beautiful framing. The process wasn’t more complicated than that and was quite simple in a way, especially in the grand perspective.”

“I remember one tricky shot where a jeep is driving from screen left to right and the camera pans with it,” Arinbjarnarson recalls. “Behind the jeep, we have a huge volcano, and the jeep is crossing the plume. Using 2D plates on this kind of movement always felt flat, so it took some time to nail down the track, get the lens distortion to work and, of course, roto the jeep and edge-treat it. There were also quite a lot of split screens in this project. We had the same actor twice in the frame, so we used a body double for her to act with, and then we needed to replace her. In most cases, it was rather straightforward as they were planned shots and done static, but there were some unplanned as well, and they were often handheld, so it took a lot of creative painting and tracking to make it work.”



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