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May 10
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

WORMHOLES, TIME JETS AND TIME SOLDIERS BRING SCI-FI SIZZLE TO THE ADAM PROJECT

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of DNEG and Netflix.

A time jet getting ready to jump across decades. Height references included weather balloons and footage of Felix Baumgartner’s record freefall as a reference point for the curvature of the Earth.

A time jet getting ready to jump across decades. Height references included weather balloons and footage of Felix Baumgartner’s record freefall as a reference point for the curvature of the Earth.

Netflix’s The Adam Project is a family drama embedded in time-traveling, world-saving science fiction. To help with the sci-fi aspect, Overall Visual Effects Supervisor Alessandro Ongaro tasked DNEG London with conjuring up unique-looking wormholes, decades-hopping “time jets” and digi-double “time soldiers.”

The wormholes were a key visual effect in The Adam Project. It was decided that the wormholes would have some kind of funnel in the middle through which a jet could disappear. Then each wormhole had to disappear after the jet had gone through.

The wormholes were a key visual effect in The Adam Project. It was decided that the wormholes would have some kind of funnel in the middle through which a jet could disappear. Then each wormhole had to disappear after the jet had gone through.

In the Shawn Levy-directed story, Adam (Ryan Reynolds) is a time pilot from 2050, on an illegal mission to rescue his wife Laura (Zoe Saldana). He crash-lands in 2022, and, as he heals himself and fixes his jet, enlists the help of his 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell). It is the year following the death of their father, Louis Reed (Mark Ruffalo), from which they have never recovered emotionally. Reed was a brilliant quantum physicist who accidentally invented time travel, which has been used by Reed’s former partner, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), to enrich herself and create a dystopian future. To undo this terrible timeline, Adam and his younger self travel to 2018 to seek out the help of their younger father. Once there, they must also find a way to make peace with his future absence. Jennifer Garner also stars in the film, portraying Adam’s mother Ellie Reed.

“The wormhole was the main pivot of the movie. DNEG has a great history of doing wormholes and black holes for movies, so we had the tricky task of coming up with something innovative that had not been done before.”
—Mike Duffy, VFX Producer, DNEG

The time jets needed to project velocity and urgency when leaving Earth’s environment. Vibration and camera shake were added to Adam’s jet to give the chase a more frantic feel.

The time jets needed to project velocity and urgency when leaving Earth’s environment. Vibration and camera shake were added to Adam’s jet to give the chase a more frantic feel.

The single most important effect in The Adam Project was, arguably, the wormholes that the time jets create for time jumping. Explains DNEG VFX Producer Mike Duffy, “The wormhole was the main pivot of the movie. DNEG has a great history of doing wormholes and black holes for movies, so we had the tricky task of coming up with something innovative that had not been done before.”

“There was also one instance where we had to digitally replace young Adam’s legs. There is a scene where they are plummeting so quickly towards Earth that they had to rig young Adam on wires to make him appear weightless, but to add to the comedy value we added [a boy’s] legs dangling behind him, which really helped to sell the gag of those couple of shots.”
—Alexander Seaman, Visual Effects Supervisor, DNEG

Time soldiers drop from the jet of Sorian (Catherine Keener) and begin pursuit on hoverboards. Stunt actors in time soldier outfits were digitally scanned on set, with the data used to create digital versions.

Time soldiers drop from the jet of Sorian (Catherine Keener) and begin pursuit on hoverboards. Stunt actors in time soldier outfits were digitally scanned on set, with the data used to create digital versions.

Time soldiers drop from the jet of Sorian (Catherine Keener) and begin pursuit on hoverboards. Stunt actors in time soldier outfits were digitally scanned on set, with the data used to create digital versions.

Older Adam (Ryan Reynolds), younger Adam (Walker Scobell) and Laura (Zoe Saldana) are in a classic GMC Jimmy truck as they flee the time soldiers through the forest.

Older Adam (Ryan Reynolds), younger Adam (Walker Scobell) and Laura (Zoe Saldana) are in a classic GMC Jimmy truck as they flee the time soldiers through the forest.

Older Adam (Ryan Reynolds), younger Adam (Walker Scobell) and Laura (Zoe Saldana) are in a classic GMC Jimmy truck as they flee the time soldiers through the forest.

Older Adam (Ryan Reynolds), younger Adam (Walker Scobell) and Laura (Zoe Saldana) are in a classic GMC Jimmy truck as they flee the time soldiers through the forest.

DNEG Visual Effects Supervisor Alexander Seaman recalls, “The creation and animation of the wormhole was actually quite a simple 3D task with some fairly rudimentary 3D volumes and shapes which could then be easily animated to be scaled up and down.” The real challenge was working out the unique design of the wormhole, which had to disappear after the jet flew through it. Seaman adds, “Director Shawn Levy guided us towards optical flares and lens distortions as references. We looked at the way that different prisms behaved, and then ultimately decided that the wormhole needed to have some kind of funnel in the middle of it which the ship could disappear through.”

DNEG augmented the time jets’ original designs and designed their cloaking effect. The spectacular dogfights of the swift and agile jets – piloted by older Adam or Sorian’s head of security, Christos (Alex Mallari Jr.) – were “a fairly complex process,” according to Seaman. “We were provided with a few rounds of pre-visualization, as well as some aerial footage and plates of mountains from above the clouds in North America, which we then repurposed to create the same camera angles and speeds. Where this wasn’t possible, we digitally created the parts of the environment, including a digital valley, a digital rock surface and a digital cave. We would then block all of that out and animate the chase. Next, we would assess whether the scene was thrilling or fast enough and augment each shot accordingly. On some occasions the aerial footage wasn’t fast or high enough, so we had to look for ways to re-speed the plates we already had or simply replace it with a CG version of the same thing from a different perspective.”

A time jet in pursuit of the GMC Jimmy in the forest. DNEG had to replace forest, build forest extensions and blend it all with existing plate material.

A time jet in pursuit of the GMC Jimmy in the forest. DNEG had to replace forest, build forest extensions and blend it all with existing plate material.

Continues Seaman, “Once we had established how high and far away from the Earth they wanted to put the chase, we looked at references such as weather balloons and Felix Baumgartner’s world record freefall [in 2012]. This footage proved useful as a reference point for the curvature of the Earth and sense of serenity at that altitude. We also used the Hubble space telescope footage as a reference for how the clouds cast shadows onto the oceans and land masses. We then used some of our own proprietary tools to generate some of the atmosphere effects that you see from the Earth.”

The time jets needed to project velocity and urgency once they were leaving the Earth’s environment, at the edge of space where everything is calm and serene, Seaman explains, “We had to use a few film-making tricks, including adding a certain amount of vibration and camera shake to Adam’s jet in particular to give it a more frantic feel. We also used an element of ‘space dust’ through the air, which gave a sense of traveling through something that we could justify as water particles. Anytime that the jets got close to each other, we could justify haze or vapor from the jets washing past and over them. When the Sorian jet starts shooting at the time jet, we’ve got the tracers from the guns, which are able to convey a sense of speed and danger as well.”

The older Adam and younger Adam in the cockpit at a dramatic yet comical moment during a chase sequence with Sorian’s jet pursuing them.

The older Adam and younger Adam in the cockpit at a dramatic yet comical moment during a chase sequence with Sorian’s jet pursuing them.

The older Adam and younger Adam in the cockpit at a dramatic yet comical moment during a chase sequence with Sorian’s jet pursuing them.

The older Adam and younger Adam in the cockpit at a dramatic yet comical moment during a chase sequence with Sorian’s jet pursuing them.

Adds Seaman, “One of the features of that sequence was a huge Earth that the environment team did a really good job of creating. If we had kept Earth in the correct position throughout that sequence, you would have only seen it in a couple of shots, so we had to really cheat where the Earth was in relation to the camera in order to keep some kind of visual anchor point as to where they were going and how fast they were moving. In some cases, we even cheated the scale of the Earth to make it feel like they were traveling faster away from it.”

“Once we had established how high and far away from the Earth they wanted to put the chase, we looked at references such as weather balloons and Felix Baumgartner’s world record freefall [in 2012]. This footage proved useful as a reference point for the curvature of the Earth and sense of serenity at that altitude. We also used the Hubble space telescope footage as a reference for how the clouds cast shadows onto the oceans and land masses. We then used some of our own proprietary tools to generate some of the atmosphere effects that you see from the Earth.”
—Alexander Seaman, Visual Effects Supervisor, DNEG

DNEG also worked on the truck chase sequences that involved the Adams and Laura fleeing Sorian in a classic GMC Jimmy. They drive along and through a forest with Sorian’s jet and flying time soldiers in hot pursuit. DNEG had to replace forest and build forest extensions and blend it all with existing plate material. Explains Seaman, “There was a real forest complete with various types of vegetation and a dirt road running through the middle of it. To make the sequence more thrilling, they wanted to replace the dirt road and instead show the [truck] weaving to and fro between various bushes. We used the on-set reference for what the trees and plants looked like and then had a very talented modeling team recreate the same vegetation, as well as a very good environment team effectively fill in the forest for the pieces that were absent.”

Older Adam pilots a time jet through a CGI canyon. Much of that environment was digitally created, including a digital valley, a digital rock surface and a digital cave.

Older Adam pilots a time jet through a CGI canyon. Much of that environment was digitally created, including a digital valley, a digital rock surface and a digital cave.

Older Adam pilots a time jet through a CGI canyon. Much of that environment was digitally created, including a digital valley, a digital rock surface and a digital cave.

When the time soldiers flew through the forest in pursuit of the truck, cutting between trees while riding hoverboards, it is reminiscent of the Star Wars: Return of the Jedi chases in the forests of Endor. Responds Seaman, “We also felt that there were some influences by Return of the Jedi in the style of the forest and the speed at which the heroes were being chased through it. But this wasn’t something that we were asked to match or reference.”

The time soldiers often required digi-doubles. Seaman notes, “There were real-life stunt actors in time soldier outfits that they digitally scanned on set. They then sent us the data, and we recreated digital versions of the stuntmen in their costumes. We did a couple of varieties of them holding their weapons in different ways with slightly different imperfections to their armor. We then modeled and rigged the hover platforms to their feet. The team had done a really good job of filming the stunt performers through the sequence, but sometimes they were not going quite fast enough. So, in a lot of cases, we digitally re-produced them, using the footage as a reference to see how they moved and how their costumes reacted to the environment, but ultimately digitally replacing them to make them go faster.”

Digi-doubles were also used as replacements for actors in aircrafts, especially during the flying scenes. Comments Seaman, “There was also one instance where we had to digitally replace young Adam’s legs. There is a scene where they are plummeting so quickly towards Earth that they had to rig young Adam on wires to make him appear weightless, but to add to the comedy value we added [a boy’s] legs dangling behind him, which really helped to sell the gag of those couple of shots.”

“We had to use a few film-making tricks, including adding a certain amount of vibration and camera shake to Adam’s jet in particular to give it a more frantic feel. We also used an element of ‘space dust’ through the air, which gave a sense of traveling through something that we could justify as water particles. Anytime that the jets got close to each other, we could justify haze or vapor from the jets washing past and over them. When the Sorian jet starts shooting at the time jet, we’ve got the tracers from the guns, which are able to convey a sense of speed and danger as well.”
—Alexander Seaman, Visual Effects Supervisor, DNEG

Closeup of a time jet in the canyons. DNEG was tasked with adding extra detailing to the time jet exteriors and their cockpits.

Closeup of a time jet in the canyons. DNEG was tasked with adding extra detailing to the time jet exteriors and their cockpits.

Closeup of a time jet in the canyons. DNEG was tasked with adding extra detailing to the time jet exteriors and their cockpits.

DNEG has a history of creating wormholes and black holes, and was challenged to come up with something innovative for The Adam Project.

DNEG has a history of creating wormholes and black holes, and was challenged to come up with something innovative for The Adam Project.

DNEG has a history of creating wormholes and black holes, and was challenged to come up with something innovative for The Adam Project.

DNEG contributed more than 350 shots spread over eight sequences, out of the 1,432 total VFX shots in the movie. The other visual effects studios working on The Adam Project included Scanline VFX, Lola VFX, Supervixen Studios and Clear Angle Studios, and there was an in-house VFX team. Cameron Waldbauer was Special Effects Supervisor.


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