From 'Stranger Things' to 'Westworld': VFX Pros Break Down Their Creative Process

8:00 AM 8/18/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

Teams from 'Game of Thrones,' 'Altered Carbon' and 'Lost in Space' also reveal how they created fearsome dragons and futuristic locations you won't find on any map.

VFX from 'Stranger Things,' 'Lost in Space' and 'Game of Thrones'
VFX from 'Stranger Things,' 'Lost in Space' and 'Game of Thrones'
Courtesy of Netflix(2); Courtesy of HBO

  • 'Lost in Space'

    Netflix

    Stephens (top) and Serricchio seem to be floating in space thanks to VFX.
    Stephens (top) and Serricchio seem to be floating in space thanks to VFX.
    Courtesy of Netflix

    In this reimagining of the 1965 sci-fi series about a family of space colonists, the wide shot seen above (and below) features John Robinson (Toby Stephens) and Don 
West (Ignacio Serricchio) in peril on what remains of their damaged Jupiter spacecraft, in a sequence that combines live action (shot on a Vancouver stage) and CG. "With wires, we elevated the actors to give the feeling of [zero gravity], with cinematography providing spinning light on a greenscreen stage," explains senior VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani. Live-action elements were added to a CG 
background. "As it rotates, we wipe to the set and actors," Raisani says, adding that the VFX team worked with cinematographer Sam McCurdy to match 
the live action and CG. Multiple VFX houses work on the series, with this high-flying sequence led by Stockholm's Important Looking Pirates.

  • 'Game of Thrones'

    HBO

    The fire and ice battle took place in the sixth episode of season seven.
    The fire and ice battle took place in the sixth episode of season seven.
    Courtesy of HBO

    In this shot from the epic battle on a frozen lake (the "Beyond the Wall" episode), the plates and live action were lensed at Wolf Hill Quarry, outside Belfast in Northern Ireland. According to lead VFX supervisor 
Joe Bauer, there were an estimated 500 extras on set, and digital effects were used 
to extend that crowd to 10,000. For shots 
of actors falling into the water, stunt performers were filmed in a 30-foot water tank with a motion-control rig, and these elements were composited into the location plates. "We pre-animated the dragon and used motion control for the fire," 
says Bauer of the shot, seen above and below. "We put a 50-foot flamethrower on a Spidercam 
for more realistic behavior of the fire and better scale." Game of Thrones employs multiple VFX houses on the series. El Ranchito in Madrid was the lead for this sequence, and Rhythm & Hues created the CG dragon. As to why the team often uses in-camera special effects instead of CG, Bauer says: "The [VFX] shot count seems to increase 
30 [percent] to 50 percent every year, but the postproduction time doesn't — so we take advantage of the resources of the production to photograph things that would take tremendous time to create in CG. 
Also we believe the shots ultimately look more realistic."

  • 'Altered Carbon'

    Netflix

    On 'Altered Carbon,' which is set mostly 300 years in the future, San Francisco is known as Bay City.
    On 'Altered Carbon,' which is set mostly 300 years in the future, San Francisco is known as Bay City.
    Courtesy of DNEG TV

    What does San Francisco look like 300 years in the future? Featured in Netflix's trippy futuristic series, which is set in a world where death is no longer permanent, this shot of San Francisco 
is almost entirely CG with the exception of some people and the fog. The production's senior VFX supervisor, Everett Burrell, explains that aerial photography of San Francisco was used as reference for what it should look like in the future, and London-headquartered VFX house Double Negative (Inception, Interstellar) created custom models based on the actual terrain, incorporating a higher water level and housing. Then people were placed in the shot, and it was completed with smoke and other atmospheric effects. "Technically this was a massive challenge," Burrell says. "There's so much detail in this shot, and Netflix demands we deliver in 4K resolution and high dynamic range. Trying to maintain that detail at such high resolution was a huge rendering task."

  • 'Westworld'

    HBO

    The gate allowed some of the robot hosts in Westworld to escape to a new existence.
    The gate allowed some of the robot hosts in Westworld to escape to a new existence.
    Courtesy of HBO

    From a creative standpoint, the biggest challenge in the season two finale of the sci-fi series was the gate that 
split open the Western park. This wide shot started with location photography at the Pinnacles in Australia's Nambung National Park. "We had to add in CG of the final sequence location 
with the ramp and surrounding environment into the footage at Pinnacles," explains VFX supervisor Jay Worth. "Initially we had planned to shoot a practical gate edge and VFX was simply going to extend that vertically. But, 
as things seem to go much of the time, when we got into editorial, we realized we needed to add some elements to tell the story." The team at North Hollywood's Cosa VFX worked on the gate. Adds Worth: "It needs to look inviting, but a bit frightening at the same time. Imagine the light is bending and the particles from our universe are being pulled and tearing open a door."

  • 'Stranger Things'

    Netflix

    Dart was given a distinctive yellow birthmark that the show’s other Demogorgons didn’t have.
    Dart was given a distinctive yellow birthmark that the show’s other Demogorgons didn’t have.
    Courtesy of Netflix

    Pictured is Stranger Things' CG Dart, a baby Demogorgon animated at Santa Monica 
VFX house Hydraulx based on concept art from Aaron Sims Creative in Burbank. Dart's traits include translucent skin, which was "important since we intended Dart to sprout his hind legs at some point," explains senior VFX producer Christina Graff. "It meant modeling, rigging and animating internal organs and the endoskeleton as well as his soft body surface." Performance was key to making sure Dart could be a lovable pet. "Demogorgons have no eyes, and our little pollywog needed to be endearing and provoke you to pick it up and love and play with it. We had to focus on his body language to give him cute and cuddly qualities. We wanted him to be awkward and clumsy."

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