VFX Artists Reveal How to Conjure a Yacht From Thin Air

8:30 AM 6/22/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

Visual effects pros reveal how they brought the Twin Towers back to New York in 'Looming Tower,' put a royal ship into the water for 'The Crown,' created a parade down the streets of Barcelona in 'Genius,' conjured a psychic battle in 'Legion' and forged a 'Star Trek'-like universe in 'Black Mirror.'

The Crown - Elizabeth - Elizabeth watches Philip's plane take off - Publicity-H 2018
Stuart Hendry/Netflix
  • 'The Crown'

    The second season of Netflix's historical drama sees Prince Philip (Matt Smith) express a desire to live his own life and have his own adventures. He does that in part by embarking on a five-month worldwide tour aboard royal yacht The Britannia in 1956 (and leaving Queen Elizabeth, played by Claire Foy, to run the country).

    For this shot, in which he embarks from Mombasa Harbour in Kenya, the scene was filmed in Cape Town (sans ship) and then the visual effects team created a fully CG Britannia. They also were tasked with removing anything in the shot that was not appropriate for the 1950s.

    The CG yacht was the season's biggest visual effects hurdle, says VFX supervisor Ben Turner. "We visited the real Britannia, which is now a visitor attraction in Edinburgh," he says of the research. "We flew a drone around it and took thousands of reference photos."

    U.K.-based VFX house One of Us also had to work on the scene. Says Turner, "Anything modern had to go, and we replaced the whole background with a matte painting based on reference images of the period."

  • 'The Looming Tower'

    The Hulu miniseries, based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same name, is set largely in New York and Washington, D.C., during the weeks before Sept. 11, 2001.

    Starring Jeff Daniels as John P. O'Neill, the FBI legend who worked in counterterrorism, the drama series was tasked with morphing 2017 New York into pre-9/11 New York, which meant sometimes changing the skyline to include the iconic twin towers of the World Trade Center.

    A key example is this shot, which was filmed on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

    "The location was selected based on whether you would actually see the twin towers from that point," says VFX supervisor Aaron Raff, of Phosphene FX. "Then we found a ton of photos of the towers at night — where the lights would be on and what patterns of light you would see. And we looked at photos from the neighborhood to see what parts of the towers and what lights would be visible."

    The VFX team removed anything in the shot that would not have been there at the time, and they added a CG model of the towers, at the appropriate position and distance.

    "We took photos of office windows at night and we textured the model with these elements."

  • 'Genius: Picasso'

    The Nat Geo series Genius followed its first season, centered on Albert Einstein, by chronicling the life of Pablo Picasso (played by Antonio Banderas).

    While the show follows the famed artist from his youth through his death at age 91, it also features notable scenes of the world he inhabited, including Spain and France in the early 1900s.

    In one exterior shot in the 10-part series, a military parade is seen marching in front of Barcelona's Arc de Triomf. This scene was lensed on location near the popular landmark, with nearly 1,000 CG extras added, according to Marek Ruth, VFX supervisor at VFX house UPP in Prague.

    He says that the production filmed roughly 300 real extras, and then the CG crowd was created based on those bodies as well as by referencing historical photos. The work also involved removing anything in the original shot that was too modern for the period setting.

  • 'Black Mirror'

    Framestore VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson had to come up with a teleportation effect for Black Mirror's "USS Callister" episode, which is a Star Trek-inspired story about a video game creator who captains a spaceship. "We were trying to make a shot that felt retro but not dated — contemporary with a slight retro effect," he explains, noting that they referenced the original Star Trek series and added "an old low-fi process to modern FX." Dodgson says they created CG versions of the actors and ran simulations and effects on them for the final product.

  • 'Legion'

    The final episode of Legion's second season opens with a "psychic battle" between David Haller (Dan Stevens) and Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban) that was photographed on location in the desert with both actors on rigs. Animation production house Floyd County in Atlanta was commissioned to design, create and animate avatars, characters and props that aid in relating the violent exchange, and VFX house Zoic brought the elements together, also adding CG lighting, clouds and other effects. The shot also includes a matte painting for the background.

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