This year’s crop of visual effects Emmy nominees brings together an impressive tapestry of imaginative work. Toss in a pandemic, and teams were hard-pressed to find ways to collaborate on a global scale through the unprecedented challenge. Still, the nominees were able to deliver an alluring visual punch that further pushes the needle of what can be accomplished in today’s television landscape. From vast world-building to creating the supernatural, VFX supervisors from each show detail a myriad of undertakings.
'Foundation': Grounded sci-fi
The captivating sci-fi series designed its visual effects to “honor cinematic reality” with an in-camera first approach. “VFX wanted to backstop story, acting and directing with concrete and visceral visuals,” says overall VFX producer Addie Manis, who shares duties with overall VFX supervisor Chris MacLean and VFX supervisor Mike Enriquez.
Each VFX shot is crafted in a way a cinematographer could do so in terms of camera position, speed and lens choice. “We wanted the grit and weight of a physical camera even when the scenes are happening in open space,” MacLean says. “Even in full CG work, the digital is rooted in practical scans, miniatures, special effects, stunts, reference photography and matched into intercut physical locations.”
For its signature faster-than-light space travel, which bends space and time, VFX referenced the slit scan effect from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “We shot real elements, like high-speed cloud tanks [to simulate realistic clouds] and burning wire wool [for sparks] that became the basis for the look,” Enriquez says. “These elements were then integrated and used as reference by the CG artists to generate the wild ride.”
'Lost in Space': Curating story
In the climactic season of the Robinson family’s journey in space, visual effects retooled its methodology by combining the art department and VFX teams. “There was very little division between us,” notes senior VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani, who also directed the final episode. “This made sure there wasn’t any double work and what was being done practically, we could execute well digitally and anything that couldn’t be done practically, we took the lead on digitally. It was a real marriage.”
The VFX on the series has a story-above-all mentality. In prep, previs is created to support the emotional beats, which is further developed in the cutting room before visual effects steps back in to add the “flavor and flair.” Otherworldly locations are curated through reference pulls and style guides where custom concepts are then drawn from the imagery. Sets and locations are scanned and photographed before everything is packaged and sent off to vendors to create the final look. “Once we know we have really nailed the story, we then add the spice,” says Raisani.
'Stranger Things': De-aging drama
There was an onslaught of diverse visual effects in “Stranger Things” Season 4. Not only did the team expand the eerily creepy Upside Down and conjure an entirely new mind-numbing villain Vecna, but to pull off its most difficult challenge required the team to de-age a then 16-year-old Millie Bobby Brown to appear as a younger, pre-Season 1 Eleven.
"We looked into deepfake technology, but we couldn’t rely on how fast it could iterate, especially at 4K,” says VFX supervisor Michael Maher Jr. The photorealistic imagery was a result of a meticulous process that required casting child actress Martie Marie Blair to play Young Eleven where VFX replaced her face and head with a younger version of Brown. Using VFX vendor Lola’s specialized lighting rig known as the Egg, they captured dozens of facial expressions from Brown to be applied on her younger digital self. “It’s a lot of projection, 3-D modeling, 2-D work and shooting Bobby Brown present day and then grafting her head on the body of Martie. It’s a tricky process, and each shot required its own placement to get the right balance.”
'The Book of Boba Fett': Practical matters
Expanding the “Star Wars” underbelly, “The Book of Boba Fett” blends rich storytelling with striking visual effects that revivify beloved planetary creatures and distant worlds (even returning a young Luke Skywalker, thanks to face swap technology).
The test for VFX was creating the sprawling cities of Tatooine from a tiny studio backlot where a number of practical facades were constructed. From the sets, VFX took on the task of designing a vast number of city districts. “The village of Mos Espa has over 8,000 buildings, which was the largest set extension we ever created,” says VFX supervisor Richard Bluff. “It was also the longest we ever spent outside in direct sunlight, and one of the challenges was marrying that look across many months of shooting.” The show’s photo-real visual language is, in large part, thanks to the amount of prep that goes into each sequence. “I think the work we do practically in the previs and design stage is hugely important to make sure what we photograph on the day is what we expect to work on in post,” Bluff adds.
'The Witcher': Epic battles
Overseen by VFX supervisor Dadi Einarsson, “The Witcher” crafts its epically monstrous fight sequences with thorough preparation. “Starting with the script, we create previs and develop them until we have approval from our showrunner and producers,” Einarsson says. “Then we work with the stunts team to incorporate all of our ideas into an edit, which becomes our shooting boards.”
On set, Henry Cavill, who plays Geralt of Rivia, rigorously rehearses with stunt performers who give him cues for scale and placement. From there, VFX uses multiple witness cameras to track the action and characters in the space. They also deploy a tool called Cyclops from vendor the Third Floor, an augmented reality app that can load a 3-D version of the monster that can then be placed into the scene.
“It’s a great tool for Henry and the stunt performers to see the monsters in the space and for our directors and camera operators to block the scenes with accurate framing,” Einarsson says. The entire process allows production to shoot “organic fight sequences” that play out authentically in-camera.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.