'Chernobyl,' 'Orville' and More Series' VFX Pros Reveal Secrets to Creating Burning Reactor Cores, Fiery Galactic Battles

11:22 AM 8/19/2019

by Carolyn Giardina

The Emmy-nominated visual effects supervisors on 'Deadwood: The Movie,' 'Catch-22' and 'The Man in the High Castle' also share how they made the Black Hills of South Dakota, flew a squadron of B-25s and destroyed the Statue of Liberty.

  • 'The Orville'


    Courtesy of FOX

    This fully CG shot appears in a roughly eight-minute space battle from season two of Seth MacFarlane's The Orville that required the creation of a CG Earth, spacecraft and simulated destruction, including "breaking up the ships into millions of pieces," says Tommy Tran, VFX supervisor at FuseFX, which shared the work with VFX houses including Pixomondo. "The debris and fire was one of the hardest assets to get right, and the lighting that comes with the fire," Tran explains. "The ships are extremely large — hundreds of meters across. The scale breaks if you don't use the right math and figure out the size of the ships to engulf in a fireball." Tran adds that the team also wrote some new software to create debris and fire that could be implemented across multiple shots in the climactic sequence.

  • 'The Man in the High Castle'


    Courtesy of Amazon

    In this alternate history based on Philip K. Dick's novel, Axis forces dominate the world post-World War II, and the Nazis strip New York of the Statue of Liberty in an effort to erase American history. This involved creation of a digital statue, Liberty Island and water, as well as destruction. "The sequence combines dynamic explosions, smoke and fire simulations, along with hard-body and water simulations from [VFX software] Houdini. A combination of hand animation and simulation created the final look," says VFX supervisor Lawson Deming. "Throughout the sequence, all shots involving the digital Liberty Island incorporated varying degrees of water simulation, ranging from the harbor water surface to the dramatic impact of Liberty's spinning torch."

    For the smoke simulations, the team "utilized a custom-made smoke solver to dial in the look of the rolling dust cloud," he says, adding that videos of real-world stadium demolitions were referenced "to portray the circular ring of controlled explosives."

  • 'Catch-22'


    Courtesy of Hulu

    This scene from miniseries Catch-22, the World War II satirical comedy based on the Joseph Heller novel, shows a squadron of American B-25s on a bombing run as they fly clear of the bombing zone and avoid clouds of enemy flak. The background was shot over Sardinia, and the VFX team from DNEG created and added CG and 2D elements, including all of the CG B25 bombers, flak, smoking ground destruction and atmospheric effects.

    DNEG CG supervisor Gavin Harrison and VFX producer Alun Cummins shared their process in a joint email to THR: "There were a number of challenges to overcome in the composition of this shot, as it involved a good amount of action," they explain. "To make it look real, we had to match the lighting of the plate photography when adding CG elements — fortunately we had a good deal of reference photography to help in this. Additionally, we had to perfect the movement nuances of the B-25 to really sell the CG planes as real objects. We also included little features such as CG pilots, exhaust fumes and interactive flak bursts."

  • 'Chernobyl'


    Courtesy of HBO

    In this scene from the HBO miniseries about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Legasov (Jared Harris) and Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) watch as men in helicopters attempt to release their boron loads over the burning reactor core. This began with a live-action shot at Lithuania's Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, and VFX house DNEG digitally created the damaged Reactor 4, including the surrounding environment, chimney, helicopters and the tower of dark smoke. "The biggest challenge was creating a realistic and plausible-looking smoke column," says VFX supervisor Max Dennison. "This was achieved after much in-depth research that in turn led us to develop a series of smaller, highly complex bespoke smoke simulations that, when combined, gave us the correct look, dynamics and quality of one huge graphite smoke column."

  • 'Deadwood: The Movie'


    Courtesy of HBO

    This image was shot at California's Melody Ranch Studios, the same place where the original 2000s series was filmed, then augmented with digital effects. "The main challenge was to create the environment that honored what was done for the show more than a decade ago and also show the passage of time," says VFX supervisor Eric Hayden of FuseFX. "We completed the environment to make it look like it was filmed in the Black Hills of South Dakota" by adding CG mountains and trees as well as set extensions on some of the town's buildings, including the hotel.

    "We used a lot of images of the Black Hills for reference and also went to Pine Mountain near Frazier Park in California for reference," notes Hayden. "The series had a lot of scenes filmed at Pine Mountain, and it was important that the movie looked like the show." This work "had to feel alive and real so that you don't notice that [the scenes] were VFX," which also involved careful control of the lighting for the various times of day.

    The project had special meaning to VFX supervisor David Altenau, who also is FuseFX's founder and CEO. "Deadwood was the first episodic production I supervised after working in features through the 1990s," he explains. "That production in 2003 laid the foundation for the work and the relationships that would lead to the founding of FuseFX just a few years later. So to be able to provide the visual effects for the movie 16 years later, and do it through FuseFX, was an incredible experience."

    This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.