VFX Producer Samuel Dubery and VFX Supervisor Kyle Goodsell explain how they created vast Neoclassical sculptures and a transformed London cityscape for the futuristic Amazon show

How did you become involved in this project?

BlueBolt became involved with the show through previous working relationships with the Production team who connected us with the US VFX Supervisor. Our initial role was to help plan and Supervise the entire UK shoot, followed by taking on a wide variation of work in Post.

How much planning and preparatory work did you do before the shoot?

We joined the show in January 2021, the shoot began in March. We were brought on early before shooting commenced to join production planning and begin meeting the shoot crew and executives. From there, we were involved in the planning led by the show VFX supervisor Jay Worth, along with Jonathan Nolan and Kilter Film productions.

What kind of involvement did you have during filming?

We covered all of the onset supervision and weekly running of the entire shoot under the leadership of Jay back in the USA, who would guide us on what was required for Post. Each week required specific planning, staffing and constant problem solving as the shoot and the schedule evolved with sets, locations coming and other department requirements. The show had a lot of location work at some incredible locations which provided exciting challenges for myself and the team. With an on set crew of seven, we needed to plan and supervise three stages, location work, night shoots, LED stages, aerial shoots and six weeks in North Carolina with a US based team.

Tell us about the thinking behind the futuristic London cityscape, the giant statues and the dilapidated buildings.

We were tasked with expanding upon early designs of these futuristic structures called “Airscrubbers” and incorporating new ideas into the design. Based on classical statue designs, the look of these structures needed to be elegant, but also have a practical function of cleaning the atmosphere of carbon over decades. As they did this, the carbon was deposited and refined in each statue with the blockiness being removed as they were built into their final statue form. It was a challenge with some of them being 5000 feet tall!

The statues were influenced by Neo-Classical sculptures, such as David, Athena, Venus, Doryphoros and Discobolus with Our CG lead, Dave Cook, concentrating heavily on the asset stages to make sure each statue was robust for changing lighting conditions between the many shots. After the statues were modelled the team developed a greebling process to procedurally grow the cubic nature you see on the statues in the show. Each statue had a set of rules around where the greeble would grow and by how much to make sure the application was aesthetically pleasing but made sense in a practical fashion. Two sets were made, one for day and one for night, with the night time versions referencing real lighting on statues seen in Japan, Brazil and the UK, it was quite a task with the statues being seen from so many views. There are actually two large rings of statues in a compass arrangement around the future London of the show. This is visible in some of the aerial shots.

The process for shooting the aerial plates began with tech vis from us. It allowed Jay, the Directors (Vincenzo Natali and Alrick Riley) and Jonathan Nolan to plan the scale and positions of the statues and where they would be seen from different views of London. We did this by placing the statues in a model of London and imitating flyby passes of locations visualising the speed and views a practical helicopter would be able to capture on the day.

The aerials were shot in November 2021 during early morning runs in a helicopter from outside London into the city. On the show there was a mantra of capturing practical footage as much as you can and it really pays off when you see the footage. It was a four day shoot with director Alrick Riley and we got extremely lucky with the weather on the first day. The sun was perfectly raking over low hanging mist on top of the city, the lighting mist and atmosphere you see is all in camera. Adding in our scrubbers really played into the show aesthetic of the statues scrubbing the air of carbon and the practical footage approach really benefited our scrubbers once added.

What kind of work did you do on the London streets? Was there any other environmental work?

In addition to adding Airscrubbers to the cityscapes, the other main creative aspect of the London streets was to add what we called the ‘Glossy Roads’, where we created a mirror-like surface reflecting the surrounding environment. The Chevrons were another addition added further in the design process to show the speed and direction of the vehicles in the futuristic narrative of self-driving cars.

Yes, we have many moments of additional environmental work on the show. We’re quite proud of a flashback sequence in Parliament Square which involves heavy fog and ruined buildings. It was great to build upon the exceptional Production Design, Set Decoration and Special Effects to add our work on top. It was a collaboration with SFX on the day to get practical fog on the set to create the mood and add our additional environment and fog to the plates. The team really came together to create a great looking sequence.

We also created the environment outside the walls of Lev’s garden. The team created an environment to replicate back gardens of mansions in Kensington. This was a nice challenge for us as the set was lit with LED arrays and it meant we had to keep up with subtle lighting changes from the LEDs that mimicked cloud movements from one side to the other.

Tell us about the close up shot involving a character’s eye.

A bit of a stomach churner! This was a fun sequence to work on where Burton’s Peripheral eye is removed and replaced with another eye, lots of close up in your face surgery moments. Shot practically on the surgery table with Jack Reynor (who plays Burton) and mixed with prosthetics. Jack was on the table and filmed his part of the scene which was then repeated with the practical dummy and prosthetic eye lining up with mix and overlay. Tiago Faria, our 2D Lead, did an excellent job of combining the two while retaining all the micro movement and twitching, detail, blood and goo. There’s a lot of attention to small details which helps pull it off! I always knew the shot was ready to final when we got an audible reaction in dailies with our team.

What were some of the biggest challenges on this project, artistically and technically?

The Bee sequence with Cherise Nuland. Simulating, lighting and rendering hundreds of thousands of bees swarming onto glass, interacting and crawling over each other proved to be tricky to get the nuances right to make the bees feel photoreal in movement and look.

Keeping up with the Scrubber positions around the city was also a challenge. We had a master layout of their actual locations but this didn’t always work for the location being shot as we might see an odd angle, framing or none at all. There were many times where Dave Cook (CG Supervisor) and I were asking each other if this scrubber had been seen before in new shots and if a scrubber was needed for a specific shots framing we had to be particularly careful to make sure it worked for continuity and layout of the master plan.

Were there any other VFX vendors? How was the work split up?

The show was certainly grand in scale and provided a wide range of VFX challenges so multiple Vendors were required for the show. When we started on the show, we expressed a lot of interest in the environment work for Future London, along with the bees, so that formed the bulk of our awarded work. Some other interesting groups of work such as the Graphics for Interactive keyboard and Orb were given to us as well. The rest of the work was delegated by the Production VFX Producer, Mark Spatny, and Jay Worth as Post progressed.

Tell us about the team you put together for this project.

Besides saying what a fantastic team it was, we had a crew with a variety of creative skills to tackle the different methodologies that came up in Post. During our busiest periods, our crew reached roughly 50 artists across all disciplines, in addition to 9 members of Production and Supervisors / Leads.

Here’s the reel:

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.