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Finding the Right VFX Equation for ‘Foundation’ Season 2

VFX supervisor Chris MacLean talks about the stunning visuals – 3,215 shots in all - that depict the worlds, characters, ships, and creatures of the hit sci-fi series, based on Isaac Asimov’s famed Hugo Award-winning sci-fi trilogy about Dr. Hari Seldon’s mathematical ‘psychohistory’ predictions; now streaming on Apple TV+.

We live in a digital age where algorithms suggest and predict the choices of individuals and groups, which is a core concept of Isaac Azimov’s famed “Foundation” book series he authored the decade before government researchers laid the foundation for the Internet and search engines in the 1960s. The trouble with predictions, even those based upon problem-solving equations, is the randomness of life, which causes anomalies to emerge.  Such is the case of mathematics professor Hari Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, which combines history, sociology and mathematics to determine future economic and societal events. It is these miscalculations that heighten the drama and conflict of the Apple TV+ Foundation adaptation, recently renewed for a third season, with Chris MacLean along for the entire ride as the production visual effects supervisor. MacLean received a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Season or a Movie for his work on Season 1.               

“When we started Season 2, we were all still masked up and getting tested,” MacLean notes about the production still having to contend with the pandemic. “But eventually, we were able to go back to the normal process of making films without that impedance. We had to remind ourselves how to work at that pace again!”  The Season 2 time jump of 130 years meant that previous designs had to evolve while new ones had to be developed.  “The Stone Eaters that you see in Episode 203 were completely new design while the Whisper-ships were a combination of Anacreon and Thespian technology from Season 1 brought together by the Invictus and the jump drive that the Foundation had found and parked above Terminus,” he says. “We definitely tried to keep everything in the same wheelhouse without going too crazy.” 

Returning for Season 2 are genetically and cybernetically enhanced humans with the ability to remain conscious and functional during faster-than-light travel while piloting Imperial jumpships.  “Something else that we did was evolve the Spacers and their look; they became more cyborg as they integrated more with their technology,” explains MacLean.  “In Season 1 we did full CG replacements which worked okay.  In Season 2 we wanted to maintain the actor’s performance as much as possible, so we cast She-Bends-Light [Judith Skekoni], She-Is-Center [Brucella Newman-Persaud], and She-Shines-Brightly [Evelyn Miller].  Imagine Engine took this task on of integrating the actor’s performance with the CG.  Depending on how well the lineup worked they even kept hands or replaced the hands completely and kept the mouth performance.   We also had prosthetic circuitry which we used as tracking markers for the CG that held up for some of the wider shots. The blue light was based off fiber optics and quantum computers.  Basically, in their abdomens they pulled out all the unnecessary organs and replaced them with quantum computers; that’s what we based the design on.”   

Also, having a more prominent role is the predatory Bishop’s Claw with one in particularly being domesticated by Brother Constant.  “Beki was played by a six foot two 250-pound stuntman named Chris,” says MacLean. “We had a big foam head for him to use and for the actors to interact with. When Constance was riding Beki, we had taken a horse buck from Game of Thrones because our special effects team had worked on that in Ireland and we turned it sideways to get the rocking motions as opposed to the back-and-forth motions of a horse because Beki was more cat-like.   We had to figure that out without a motion base that you can remotely control from a gizmo at your table. It needed something analog.”  Nuances were digitally incorporated into the performance by Framestore.  “It was more about the physicality and making sure that Beki felt like she had weight.  As well as secondary animation like nostril flares, forehead wrinkling and the way that they did eyes all became important in Beki’s performance.  We started off looking at things like cheetahs, jaguars and panthers to get the base and worked on making her feel cat-like.” 

Adding to the creature catalogue were the Moonshrikes.  “That was an interesting one to try to figure out because they were written, but no one knew what they were,’ admits MacLean.  “Cows with dragon wings was the first description.  Then we decided to base them more off bats.  It’s as if bats had become a domesticated food source.  We reinverted their arms and gave them the ability to run on their elbows. The whole idea behind them was they had to run towards a cliff and then dive to get enough lift to be able to make it to the moon on Helicon so they can go and graze and breed.  We never actually go to the moon. There is a great sequence where Hari Seldon [Jared Harris] figured out the pattern of the running. The whole sequence was design to show how smart Hari was as a child and how he was able to see patterns in nature.” 

Water simulations were not in short supply when depicting the Beggar’s Banquet crashing through a wave of high-rise proportions while attempting to leave the aquatic planet of Synnax.  “I shot the exterior of that with the stunt team and David Goyer [Creator, Executive Producer, Showrunner, Director, Writer] did all of the interior work with Lou Llobell,” explains MacLean.  “We had a set in a parking lot, put up black screens, had a bunch of lightning strikes, and had rain towers and wind.  We had less than a quarter of the set for the actual size of Beggar’s Banquet that we needed so we ended up doing a lot of French reverses and flipping things around to make sure that we made that all work.  Important Looking Pirates built the model of Beggar’s Banquet for Season 2 and were heavily involved in developing the water simulation.  Some rain was shot as reference and replaced as wholesale CG.  But a lot of it was real rain and wind.  It was stunt performers and Leah Harvey doing the stunts because we wanted the actor’s performance to be driven by the real practical rain and water.” 


Outer space remains a key battlefield in the fighting between the forces of the Empire and Foundation. “For the space battle, we ended up going back and forth quite a bit on how much exposition we wanted,” reveals MacLean.  “The Whisper-ships are able to short jump, and that’s why they could outperform the Empire. But that ended up on the cutting room floor based on time. The first director’s cut of Episode 209 was almost two hours long, so we focused on Glawen Curr’s performance, how he figured out how to kill the Whisper-ships, and eventually taking out the engines on the Invictus.  That was all orchestrated by Sidney Wolinsky [Editor] and David Goyer.  Then we filled in the blanks with previs and postvis work to help flesh that out for the big climax where we blowup the Invictus.”  It was a blessing and curse destroying the Altair-Class warship that is eight kilometers in diameter.  “If you talk to the producers, I’m sure that they would have loved for us to have kept it for another season. But if you talk to the creatives, it was a great way to destroy Terminus.  A big ship creating a blackhole in the middle of a planet and disappearing. Here’s the thing.  We know that the Invictus destroyed Terminus and it jumped away but we don’t actually know if the Invictus was destroyed.” 

One new planetary environment was Siwenna. “Siwenna was a cactus farm in Lanzarote in an outlook on the other side of the island where Ducem Barr lived,” remarks MacLean.  “That was all based off the books. But David Goyer wanted to play up the religion of Foundation and how they were converting these backwater planets.  Siwenna ended up being this group of people who Constance and the High Cleric convert as they have to leave back to Terminus because the Vault is going to open up again for the Second Crisis.  We had some establishers, but it was mostly the magic effects and the Whisper-ship lighting effects when the High Cleric was putting on his magic show as we called it.  All the animals were practical.  The idea behind Siwenna was it had been seeded by Earth’s DNA bank with the animals, which is why when you come to Siwenna you see parrots, iguanas, and camels.” 

The Canary Islands also served as the basis for the desert planet where the Monuments of Industry are situated.  “Oona’s World was on Fuerteventura and was meant to be an abandoned mining planet the Empire had left, which is why we ended up with the Stone Eaters,” states MacLean.  “Basically, they’re these giant crab mining machines that had been weaponized by the last people who were left there and look for any lifeforms to kill.”  An underground chase takes place between the Stone Eaters and Beggar’s Banquet reminiscent of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.  “Because the mining machines have dug so many holes and tunnels, the surface, all sand and rock, is unstable,” MacLean reveals. “We ended up with a little ode to The Empire Strikes Back before we fly back to the statue.” 

Inglis is where the Mentalics live.  “Other humans like Gaal Dornick [Lou Llobell] who have telepathic abilities have been pulled together by Tellem Bond [Rachel House] who is the strongest Mentalic we have met so far in the series,” explains MacLean.  “We later find out that Tellem is very old, and she is able to transfer her consciousness from body to body. In terms of visual effects work we didn’t have to do much. We did a little bit of wire removal for some of the telepathic manipulation for body movements or transitions into some of the mind environments. But most of it was in-camera effects or a DaVinci Resolve effect that blurred the edges of the frame to tell the audience that something Mentalic was happening.”

He continues, “We did another major crash with ILP on Ingis when Gaal, Salvor Hardin [Leah Harvey] and Hari eventually make it to Ingis; that was a big forest simulation.  We redesigned the sequence to get the most out of the crash. There was a set of rock formations in the Czech Republic right on the border with Germany that we used called the Tisa where we built the village.” 

Reappearing worlds in the new season are Synnax, Terminus, and Trantor.  “The hardest part of Synnax was the visual effects work of CG water,” notes MacLean.  “We actually shot part of Season 2 during Season 1 when we were at the tanks in Malta. Then for some of the dialogue between Gaal and Salvor on the last little piece of the roof of the university where they end up fishing before diving down to find the Beggar’s Banquet, we shot that onstage in Ireland before we left.  That was one of the first things that we did when we came back for Season 2 for Synnax.  Trantor did not change much.  We moved a lot of the sets from Ireland to Prague.  Terminus was Fuerteventura. We didn’t have to go that far.  We kept everything the same in terms of where we were located and expanded everything else digitally for that.  The only thing were these greenhouse planters that we had and extended in CG for Season 2.”    

The script referred “face scramblers,” which became something much more involved as the production proceeded. “Because they ended up scrambling the whole body, we ended up calling them body scramblers,” states MacLean.  “Those are interesting sequences to shoot because we didn’t have motion control.  Some of the shots were Steadicam so there was a lot of rehearsal and cadence that we needed to match between the actors and the people who were playing the holograms.  The way that they spoke, tilted their head, and smiled, had to be matched up.”  The sand hologram technology was capture different this time around.  “What we found was the best way to get that stuff to look good was in compositing and beef it up there,” he adds. “But the Prime Radiant stayed the same. There was a new story point with the ability to actually have someone else other than Hari and Gaal look at the Prime Radiant and be able to understand what is going on, which is where the red and blue lines came from.” 

There was also some de-aging required for the flashback scenes of Hari Seldon.  “Crafty Apes and Outpost VFX did that work,” MacLean says. “Basically, we tried to be subtle with it.  We wanted him to be in his early 40s, not his 20s, otherwise we would have cast somebody else.  It was paint work and 2.5D projection work. Then we also had some weird augmentation to do with all of that.”  Time limited the number of iterations.  “With all the sandogram work we would have loved to massage it a little bit. The ones we got that were good in the end were the water shots on Synnax in Episode 202 and a lot of the Beki work as well, like the balcony fight in Episode 208.  When Beki grabs Day by the shoulder and throws him across the balcony right to the edge; that was a difficult set of shots. The Synnax water work is some of my favorite work and it was some of the most difficult.  It was all moving fast and with the number of shots that we had and the scope that we had to try to convey for Season 2, it was hard to hone into one thing.”  

The final Season 2 VFX shot count was 3,215.  “We continued with Rodeo FX, and brought on Framestore as another big vendor, and they helped us out quite a bit,” remarks MacLean. “Outpost VFX, Crafty Apes and BOT VFX were still there.  Accenture Song took on more for Season 2.  We didn’t need to use as many because the large number of vendors we had on Season 1 was due to the pandemic.” 

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.