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June 29
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

ZELDA AND THE HUB ARE MADE FOR LOVE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of HBO Max.

Noma Dumezweni portrays Fiffany, who befriends the dolphin known as Zelda, owned by her employer.

Technology and surveillance achieve a new level of creepiness in the HBO Max series Made for Love when tech billionaire Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen) implants a chip into his wife (Cristin Milioti) that allows him to see the world through her eyes even after she attempts to escape from their 10-year marriage. The dark comedy is based on the novel by Alissa Nutting, who collaborated with Dean Bakopoulos, Patrick Somerville and Christina Lee to produce eight episodes. Not everything could be achieved practically, so Peter Crosman (Fear the Walking Dead) was hired to supervise 650 visual effects shots.

Looming over the production was the lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic that occurred two-thirds of the way into shooting, as well as the impending launch of HBO Max. “Once we re-enacted the progression of shooting, we quickly knew that they were going to impose a tight deadline on all of our post efforts,” states Crosman, who saw the post-production period reduced from 12 weeks to nine weeks. “I talked extensively with our main vendor in Toronto, MARZ, and our vital dolphin vendor Gradient FX in Los Angeles about being careful to understand that there may be overages associated with a tight schedule, but we were going to go into this with all afterburners on and try to get the thing done in a short amount of time.” The delay also allowed time for the footage to be assembled together, leading to major changes to Episodes 101 and 102 that had a ripple effect on the overall narrative. “It gave us a whole new slate of shooting proposals back in early October 2020,” adds Crosman. “We used our Los Angeles resources and went back to as many as possible. What would have been tough is if the principal house that we had decided upon was not available coming back, but fortunately it was.”

YouTube was a great resource to find various studies of dolphins that display their reactions, such as seeing themselves in a mirror.

The major visual effect was to create a believable domesticated dolphin that was entirely CG.

“The showrunners were looking for reality, and the dolphin was probably the toughest part. … The director’s agency got a call from PETA for us to tell them one way or the other whether there was a real dolphin involved – that’s a high compliment! Zelda was always conceived as a CG character. The bar was high because they wanted direct interaction and potentially touching of Zelda underwater.”

—Peter Crosman, Visual Effects Supervisor

An emphasis was placed upon depicting tangible and near-future technology that viewers could imagine becoming a part of their lives. “The showrunners were looking for reality, and the dolphin was probably the toughest part,” reveals Crosman. “I did express concerns in the beginning about the scientific nature of the studies that they were doing with the dolphin. Potentially, putting a larger swimming area in the back might be required. But they had their reasons for Byron being non-practical, and putting stress on Zelda was not something he cared about – that was part of his insensitivity. The director’s agency got a call from PETA for us to tell them one way or the other whether there was a real dolphin involved – that’s a high compliment! Zelda was always conceived as a CG character. The bar was high because they wanted direct interaction and potentially touching of Zelda underwater.”

There was water replacement everywhere to make Byron and the dolphin swimming together look absolutely real. “I made sure that we had a couple of alternative eyelines in case we enlarged the work of Zelda to make everyone feel like they were in her presence,” explains Crosman. “YouTube is a fabulous resource, and I was able to get all kinds of studies that have been done with dolphins such as their reactions to seeing themselves in a mirror. We tried to evoke things that would be part of Zelda’s personality including doing research on what happens when dolphins are domesticated. We went one step at a time with the showrunners including getting them on Zoom with Gradient FX. We showed everything from the ground up to make them understand how their impressions and needs would impact our process in the end. How big are the eyes? We won’t do as many scarring things as might have been a domestic dolphin’s problem. We dialed everything in with them.”

The iPhone and iPad were points of reference points for the UI.

“The showrunners said, ‘We don’t want to feel the technology when Byron says, ‘Snap your fingers where you want to be.’ In some ways we weren’t prepared for the full impact of having to support 360-degree environments that were from all over the world. We ended up using 360 views from Amazon and other sources, and got something that everyone could agree was fun, had enough of the personal and human scale, and could feel real.”

—Peter Crosman, Visual Effects Supervisor

Bennett (Caleb Foote) is a loyal executive assistant to tech magnate Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). (Photo: John P. Johnson)
Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti) escapes from her husband, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), through the water filtration system.

“Zelda by far was the toughest thing because there was no letting down of the quality of the real look and feel of a dolphin, but also the expression and behavior. We re-did animation a lot to make sure that there was enough life in her, and was concentrated and focused on the interactions she was having with Hazel to make it engaging and dramatic.”

—Peter Crosman, Visual Effects Supervisor

The plane flight could not be executed for real, so it needed to be entirely CG.

Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti) looks at the estate belonging to her husband, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen).

Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti) is observed boarding an airplane by her father Herbert (Ray Romano) and his sex doll named Diane.

Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti) has a conversation with Bennett (Caleb Foote) before her escape.

“I made sure that we had a couple of alternative eyelines in case we enlarged the work of Zelda to make everyone feel like they were in her presence. YouTube is a fabulous resource, and I was able to get all kinds of studies that have been done with dolphins such as their reactions to seeing themselves in a mirror. We tried to evoke things that would be part of Zelda’s personality including doing research on what happens when dolphins are domesticated.”

—Peter Crosman, Visual Effects Supervisor

The Hub where Byron and Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti) live is a practical house which serves as largest of the cubes. “We ended up not doing as much with the purely virtual technological solution for showing the cube,” remarks Crosman. “But we did build a practical cube with a practical door and used that to texture all of the virtual cubes that we had in the rest of the show. We could stage things with a different lighting inside of it. It was a fantastic environment that needed very little visual effects cleanup.” The restaurant scene in Episode 104, which showcases The Hub 1.0, was tough to create as initially it was supposed to unveil the behind-the-scenes technology. Explains Crosman, “The showrunners said, ‘We don’t want to feel the technology when Byron says, ‘Snap your fingers where you want to be.’ In some ways we weren’t prepared for the full impact of having to support 360-degree environments that were from all over the world. We ended up using 360 views from Amazon and other sources, and got something that everyone could agree was fun, had enough of the personal and human scale and could feel real.”

A water tank was buried for the shot when Hazel emerges in the desert environment after swimming through the water system to escape The Hub. “There were a lot of safety considerations to be taken into account as Cristin really did perform underwater,” notes Crosman. “It was a sensitive area that couldn’t be trampled, so we had to be careful how we approached the shooting. A Technocrane made that possible.” UI had to be designed for the commercials. “We looked at interfaces for the iPhone and iPad. It was felt that the screens should be on the surfaces the way that Jumbotrons operate inside of a virtual stage, like The Mandalorian.” A sex doll makes an appearance. “That’s a great subject! It needed to have a face and character. Alissa Nutting volunteered to be the face of the doll. It was amazing to have the two of them on set because the doll did look like her! We never had to enhance the doll as it wasn’t asked to do anything fantastical.”

“The tough stuff was acquiring enough of every environment that we visited to make sure that I didn’t have to come back because things change,” notes Crosman. “On the day, you’d have to be on the attack with 360-degree video and stills. We had HDRIs for virtually every set because of the demands of having to light it for the vendor in post and match what we did. We ended up limiting the outdoor environments that had to become cube environments. Zelda by far was the toughest thing because there was no letting down of the quality of the real look and feel of a dolphin, but also the expression and behavior. We re-did animation a lot to make sure that there was enough life in her, and was concentrated and focused on the interactions she was having with Hazel to make it engaging and dramatic. After that, it was about making The Hub cubes feel like they were working. I wish that we were able to go to even more places and make those environments an even greater challenge.”

Nothing could be done badly for Made for Love. “Even the plane flight we couldn’t execute with a real one,” states Crosman. “I love the moment when Malibu gets turned into a real place in South Africa. The Hazel and Zelda encounter underwater is magical. The restaurant 360 is exciting. It was a great exercise in sensitivity that the showrunners brought to bear on everyone participating in the show. It was a product of patience, attention to detail, and the inclusion of all of the departments in an amazing way that I don’t see on every show. It’s not a luxury. The inclusion of the DP [Nathaniel Goodman] and Production Designer [Jordan Ferrer] in post contributed to a successful and cohesive feel to Made for Love.”


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