How the VFX Team Raised the Bar for Monster-Making, Set Extensions and Environment Work on Basic Cable
Dan Simmons has won acclaim for his many science fiction and horror novels, but while his Hyperion series has often been under consideration for filming, the writer’s 2007 novel The Terror actually wound up being the first of his works to be adapted. AMC and Scott Free Productions chose the project, a horror-minded take on the true-life tragedy of two British ships, Terror and Erebus, lost in the arctic during an attempt to find the Northwest Passage. In Simmons’ tale, the malnourished and stranded crews of the so-called Franklin expedition fall prey to a bear-like creature, the Tuunbaq, which devours not just their flesh, but their very souls.
Senior visual effects supervisor Viktor Muller, a three-time Emmy nominee and feature supervisor for Perfume, The Walk, Blade Runner 2049 and Wonder Woman, came aboard a year before shooting began, developing the look of the project with showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, along with Scott Free Productions, while conceptual artist Neville Page (Prometheus, Avatar, Star Trek Discovery) created designs for the creature. When shooting was delayed, Muller took on another project, returning after production had commenced. By that time, VFX/creature supervisor Frank Petzold (Legend of Tarzan, The Golden Compass, Starship Troopers) was supervising the shoot on set and choreographing the battles between man and Tuunbaq. “Frank’s experience with animation made him a natural to deal with the creature work,” says Muller. “He prepared animatics for those scenes, which helped the actors with how to play to this menace and really aided with the staging.”
Ultimately, the show required 2000 VFX shots to be delivered in four months, with the work divided between Universal Production Partners (UPP) and Framestore London. UPP delivered environmental work while Framestore, led by supervisor Pedro Sabrosa and animation lead Jed Fisher, handled character animation. Petzold worked from Page’s sketches, adapting them for the series.
“You always have to figure out the creature’s actions while also determining his attitude,” notes Petzold, a longtime mainstay at Tippett Studios. “Character performance emerges from these factors, and we built a more human component into the face with the eyes and brows and moved away from beast-like teeth. In this case, the performance evolves, because the victims have all gotten sick from lead poisoning and scurvy while stranded, so the more he kills and eats them, the sicker he himself becomes, which shows in his movements and appearance.
“That parallel evolution was a smart idea from the showrunners, and VFX had to reflect that for the creature when Framestore animated him. The creature goes through four different stages of illness, growing pale and sickly and losing a lot of weight, and also becomes bloody after being shot at — by gunfire and also cannon. So that visual progression becomes more evident towards the end, though early on, everybody just assumes a polar bear is responsible.”
Though Muller had hoped production could actually shoot on location at the North Pole or in Greenland, budgetary considerations eliminated this possibility. “My recommendation was to find a really big stage,” he recalls. “I hoped that would help offset my concern that faking it all indoors might look too stylized and distract from the drama.”
The show ended up shooting at Stern Film Studio just north of Budapest, but had a hard time finding a big enough space to accommodate its needs. For example, Muller says the ship couldn’t be built to its full height, so the masts extended only about nine feet above the deck; the rest, including ropes, lines and mast-tops, was a set extension. And the area was fairly narrow, necessitating some alterations to the production’s previs and animatics to keep the action in the available space.
A single ship’s exterior set piece pulled double duty as both Erebus and Terror. “We had a super-wonderful production designer [Jonathon McKinstry] who put this huge ship on rails,” says Muller. “That permitted us to move it forward and back on set. It was a one-day process to accomplish, but the look on screen with our green-screen comps was wonderful when we shot the ship from the front or the back, which maximized that axis of movement.”
Built on a steel gimbal, the mockup was capable of tilting, emulating how the vessels shifted due to the encroaching ice. Practical ice pieces were sculpted from styrofoam and mounted on wheeled frames that could be repositioned as needed, while the “snow” beneath the actors’ feet was a mix of hundreds of pounds of Epsom salts and liquid. “There was a section of the ice surrounding the ship built very large on stage for when the actors go out on the surface, but we enhanced those with digital figures in the far background,” he explains.
Ensuring the ships’ arctic entombment looked a bit more credible than Ice Station Zebra’s equally stagebound north pole required the use of digital set extensions throughout. While motion-control was not used during the shoot, Petzold employed tracking markers on set and conducted lidar scans to ensure VFX would have all data needed to integrate their work.
“From the start, I always wanted to show a range of conditions in the various backgrounds,” Muller says, “so we weren’t always seeing the same look to the water or to the landscape, since conditions are always changing in the freezing north. Working shot-by-shot, we would never have the time to do this amount of work, so our [UPP] programmers created an engine that facilitated this kind of simulation. That let us modify a look pretty quickly, and in the main these sims were done using [Side Effects Software] Houdini, which let us create at speed, rendering between 15 and 20 iterations per shot.”
These looks were derived from actual arctic imagery. “We scheduled two trips to North Pole, during both day and night seasons,” he continues, “taking more than 10,000 still images and hours of reference video. We knew we’d have to replace the ice and water, but grabbed as much as possible of the skies and atmosphere, so digital leveraged that real-world footage. I always find starting from something real gives a huge advantage, as opposed to creating it all from nothing.”
Petzold had hoped to build pools of water around the ship set piece to allow for that unique play of caustic light, but that wound up being unaffordable, so the comps all required CG water and ice, mandating green-screen throughout — no painted backdrops or translights.
When the ships become trapped and a diver is dispatched to review the situation below the waterline, the VFX crew took it as an opportunity to depict the waterscape as a strange new world. “We convinced the showrunners to go with a very dreamlike approach to the whole sequence – which actually is how it was described in the script – so we could do something unique that still worked for the mood of the story,” explains Petzold. “We shot dry-for-wet, which, when you suggest that, makes people think back to ’50s Technicolor movies. But we tempered that level of stylization by studying how an old-fashioned diving suit would react underwater, since there was some question about whether it would become puffy or compress. There were various CG layers that went into our underwater environment, including a particle pass for floating flotsam and little water droplets that ran down inside the glass [helmet].”
Petzold also lobbied for a gigantic creature head to serve as visual reference for the creature during shooting. “I’m old-school enough to want something real,” he says. “That mock-up head included patches of fur so we could see how they reacted to the stage lighting. The whole show is very moody and dark, deliberately so, which makes lighting the creature very tricky. We wanted a bit of that Alien or Hitchcock way of revealing things, so you only got a glimpse of his foot here, and then some movement through the frame there. It’s only really in episode 10 that you get a full reveal, during the big showdown when nearly everybody gets killed. This approach paid off early, during episode 2, when there’s just a glimpse of the creature. The test audiences all seemed to see something different! Generating that range of responses was very exciting and let us know we’d created something memorable.”
Building as many practical gags as possible into the creature scenes was also a major objective. “I like working with the special effects guys on set, finding out what they knock over to help sell the creature’s passage as it runs left to right,” Petzold says. “For their part, those guys were always very excited to be able to rig these kinds of gags, so when the Tuunbaq runs around the deck of the boat, stuff is shaking and breaking. Then, in post, Framestore built a bunch of [digital] props that could be knocked over while adding the creature, and their efforts extended to include a number of digi-doubles when people get eaten on-screen.
“A lot of those gory deaths were done very close-up, so that meant having to closely match the actors. But again, we benefited from having so much done in-camera, with actors willing to get strapped into a green gurney-type apparatus that would cause them to wriggle like the creature had them and was thrashing them.”
Petzold found that bringing out a cut-out of the creature helped focus the crew on how to approach the shots in which the character would be added digitally. “When the director sees this, it immediately starts him thinking, ‘Oh, wow, yeah, it’s that big.’ It helped in other ways too, since the DP could start framing based on something physical, which is a big plus. And the collaboration there was a good one, since I often had input on lens selection, which was important in how the creature would be portrayed.”
Petzold relied on tried-and-true approaches when shots required many cast members to be firing on the approaching creature. “You can’t have them firing in the wrong direction, so that’s usually just me waving a stick,” he laughs. “This worked just fine for me as far back as Starship Troopers, and I’ve never really seen a need to change. I always shot the first take [with the stick] as a reference, because three months later, the editor in London is going to need something beyond just the empty plate.”
The 10 episodes were divided into three blocks of shooting, each with its own director. “One director was very experienced shooting visual effects, while another had never done it before at all, so that affected how quickly we could proceed in many instances,” says Petzold, adding that many of the big action shots wound up being handled by second unit, shooting on the same Red Epic Dragon cameras.
While every effort was made to create a credible LUT during shooting, and dailies by Colorfront established continuity in looks, the show still required a heavy color-correction pass during post to bring everything together. “We had one scene shot for daytime that was altered to night during editorial,” says Petzold. “And it worked fine – once we changed out the skies and got through all the rotoscoping! Nearly all of the series is shot on the low end of the exposure range, which worked to keep things creepy.
“For post-production, that can be a tricky aspect, as they do have to watch out for the compression so there isn’t banding across skies. If you put light up on the green screen, it suddenly looks like spinach against the smoke. We’re dealing with hair and furry clothing, so there are many issues with edge characteristics. Shooting on a blacked-out stage with lots of mineral smoke gave us our general night look, augmented by practical snow. When you cannot see your hand in front of your eyes, it is a pretty good justification for not seeing the distant horizon!
“You have to make sure the green screen has enough of an exposure to work, even if the scene takes place so far into night that you’re talking almost complete darkness,” he conitnues. “So we’d use the LUT for the composite, but go back to the raw image for the green screen, which is not a very elegant way of working, but it lets you not have to worry about crap like green spill. With 12-bit or 16-bit color space, you can rescue just about anything shot against green screen, but I actually miss all the attention that used to go into balancing a green screen in the film days.”
The ambitious nature of the material was evident to one and all right from the beginning, showing how the valley between films and broadcast has narrowed in recent years. “When I read the script, I thought, ‘This wants to be a feature,’ Petzold admits. “But there was so much material, and you needed all of it to tell this story properly — to honor the reality of the actual events while also exploring this spooky creature idea. We actually joked with the showrunners about the idea of this being presented as a fake documentary that you could show to history students!”
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