How 'Westworld's' VFX Pros Turned Evan Rachel Wood Into a Humanoid Robot

10:45 AM 8/18/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

Emmy-nominated visual effects supervisors from 'American Gods' to 'Vikings' break down how they used motion capture, 3D printing and thousands of CG extras to make the impossible seem real.

Evan Rachel Wood in 'Westworld'
Evan Rachel Wood in 'Westworld'
Courtesy of HBO

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

  • Black Sails


    Courtesy of Starz

    During a battle in this period story, one pirate gets tangled in the ship's rigging and sinks beneath the sea. The live action was filmed in a shallow tank in South Africa that was only about 15 feet deep, but the narrative called for the sea to be much deeper. "We turned the camera on its side and moved it through the tank to make the actor appear to be sinking much deeper," explains VFX supervisor Erik Henry. "We also had to have a virtual camera filming the CG background. This was complicated by the fact that up wasn't up." The actor was combined with the CG environment, which included digital cannonballs, blood, debris, the sea floor and lighting. The lead VFX house was appropriately named Important Looking Pirates, based in Stockholm.

  • American Gods


    Courtesy of Starz

    Performance capture was used to create a close-up of Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) when, in what the mystical series calls a Godflash, he's revealed to be a God. Langley was shot (wearing tracking markers on his face) on set with a main camera and four additional cameras. A photogrammetric mesh then was created using data captured by the cameras. "Then we started to manipulate the data — adding geometry to the mesh as well as lighting and shading," says VFX supervisor Kevin Haug, who worked with VFX house BUF in Paris. "His face is fully CG, and there was zero animation; the performance is entirely driven by the motion capture. It was fun. You rarely get to do this on a TV schedule." Haug, whose background primarily is in features, adds that the total effects for the season numbered a whopping 2,500 VFX shots — and all on a TV schedule.

  • The Man in the High Castle


    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    In presenting an alternative ending to World War II, the series included this shot of Heinrich Himmler (Kenneth Tigar) addressing an audience from the Volkshalle. Tigar was shot at a podium on a bluescreen stage. Visual effects were used to complete the shot with a building (based on an actual design by German architect Albert Speer) that was to have been built in Berlin, assuming Germany successfully won the war. "We had to do research and be faithful to a period that didn't really exist. This building was meant to be one of the largest dome structures in the world," says Lawson Deming, VFX supervisor and founder of VFX house Barnstorm Visual Effects. The shot also had to support an estimated 200,000 CG actors in the crowd, which were based on motion capture of actors giving the "Heil Hitler" gesture. Says Deming: "The idea was to make everyone feel small. We also added more human-size elements to help sell that this is a real space."

  • Westworld


    Courtesy of HBO

    Westworld tells the story of a futuristic amusement park inhabited by AI-driven humanoid robots, and in this shot, viewers get a look at the robotic structure of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). "We shot her in a blue jumpsuit and added everything afterward as digital effects," explains VFX supervisor Jay Worth, who worked with VFX house Important Looking Pirates. "There were a lot of conversations about what the structure and body should look like to convey this robotic feel. I tried to find something based on reality that would help ground it. It's based on 3D printing — we had a 3D printer going in the office for much of the season for production design reference." The team also took some cues from an Audi factory in Germany. Says Worth: "We talked about every layer, because you have to feel the world. We also had to replace the table and anything you see [through the mechanical body]."

  • Vikings


    Courtesy of HISTORY

    This shot of the army commanded by Prince Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford) was filmed on location in Ireland. But the production had 220 extras, and 2,500 warriors were needed. The answer? VFX supervisor Dominic Remane of VFX house Mr. X used crowd simulation software Massive (the system first used to create armies in The Lord of the Rings) to add thousands of CG extras — some based on motion-capture performers and others animated by hand. "We peppered in specific moves so that it didn't feel like they were carbon copies. We spent a day or two at a motion-capture facility to add to the realism," says Remane, adding that the size of the crowds, battles and set extensions for the series has grown each year. "We spend quite a bit of time with the production designer and writers to match what would be appropriate for the time."