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And the VFX Emmy Goes To…

VFXWorld and AWN break down the 10 shows nominated for Outstanding Special Visual Effects and Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role, and the studios behind their spectacular visuals.

The Primetime Emmy Awards honour invisible digital craftmanship alongside spectacular, blockbuster onscreen moments by awarding Outstanding Special Visual Effects and Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role.  At the upcoming 72nd edition of the prestigious annual event, two-time Emmy winner Erik Henry is a double nominee, appearing in both categories for his work on HBO’s limited series Watchmen and Amazon Studios’ Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.  Represented genres include espionage, history, comic books, and the most dominant of all, science fiction.  As for the CG effects themselves, we’ve been treated to everything from a massive monster on Stranger Things, a robot fight in Lost in Space, autonomous flying vehicles in Westworld, oceanic environments in Vikings, and the headquarters of a mysterious high-tech company in Devs.  Here is brief overview of the shows competing for the right to give a virtual acceptance speech during the virtual ceremony, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, at the Staples Center on September 20, 2020.  

Outstanding Special Visual Effects

Lost in Space, Netflix

While the 2,250 shots of the second season was 500 less than the Emmy-nominated first season, Image Engine, Important Looking Pirates, Digital Domain, and Mackevision had to deal with a lot more complex work.  Over 400 shots were devoted to the flight of the Resolute Repair Pod. And then there was the matter of heavy water simulations for the Jupiter 2 being repurposed as a boat and encountering an enormous waterfall…and a massive robot fight that takes place on the Resolute, which is subsequently blown-up.    

“The thing that we refined from Season 1 to 2 was the color pipeline, making sure that we were rock solid from production all the way through delivery to DI,” remarks VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani. “On the vendor side they definitely had to ramp up. In Episode 202, the waterfall simulation that ILP created was a petabyte of data when it was fully completed.”  A critical part of the process was the inhouse previs team led by Dirk Valk.  “They worked from pre-production to two months before final delivery doing the previs, techvis, and postvis,” he notes. “We had a good plan and a real understanding of what was supposed to be filmed rather than winging it on the day.”

Stranger Things, Netflix

Along with teenage leads growing up each season, so does the desire to integrate more digital effects to expand the scope of the series set in the 1980s. Despite the fact that Season 3 had eight episodes, rather than nine, it still had 500 more visual effects shots than Season 2, bringing the total to 2,500; Rodeo FX handled all the monsters, including the Godzilla-sized Mind Flayer, while Scanline VFX and Spin VFX took care of the Russian machine that fires a high-powered laser beam. “The gaffers rigged it with cool LED lights because the machine is a light source that creates electrical charges and big beam comes out of it,” remarks VFX supervisor Paul Graff.  “For when the machine explodes and starts shooting off rays, we had this mirror rig with light sources that could spin.”  With the psychic powers of Eleven decapitated, a creative solution was required to destroy the monster attacking Starcourt Mall, which also houses the secret Russian base. “For the cataclysmic fireworks in the mall, we had mapped out the first eight or so hits,” Graff adds. “They are different color lights: purple, green, red, yellow, and blue. All of these lights occur at the same time and create a massive impulse.”

The Mandalorian, Disney+

Combining the best of practical effects with revolutionary digital technology, the hype surrounding The Mandalorian is not something to be ignored.  As much as the talk has centred around ILM’s virtual production methodology – ILM StageCraft - that made use of Unreal Engine and LED walls to create on location quality photography within a studio environment, the real onscreen star was born out of old-fashioned puppetry.  The impact of both successes has been felt industry wide.  Virtual production is seen as the answer for travel restrictions and managing COVID-19 protocols.  In a behind the scenes featurette, VFX supervisor Richard Bluff states, “The volume is 21 feet tall and 75 feet in diameter run by seven machines pumping their visuals onto the screen that had been created in pre-production and can be on a screen within 24 hours of being finalled.” As for the newly minted Pop icon, Baby Yoda, the digital child / future Jedi master has led to an after the fact rush in merchandising and one VFX supervisor, on a high-profile streaming show, to confess that a request was made to give a particular character the same big eyes.            

Watchmen, HBO

A “blockbuster” approach was taken with the HBO limited series; a total of 30 vendors were responsible for the 2,600 visual effects shots featured across the nine episodes. Key contributions came from Raynault VFX, Important Looking Pirates, Framestore, Mackevision, Hybride and MARZ. “In the earlier episodes we did have concept art but for the later ones we came up with that as we did it,” states VFX supervisor Erik Henry.  “For example, the centrifuge of the Millennium Clock was designed after production had wrapped.” The original graphic novel was referenced for the giant squid attack of New York City.  “We were faithful right down to the name of the building that the squid is sitting on,” he notes. One concern was being able to record the reflections for the mask worn by Looking Glass without slowing down the tight production schedule. According to Henry, “We had a rig on the head of actor Tom Blake Nelson with two Rylo cameras, because they have a built-in gyro stabilization and that enabled us to get rock solid images to map back onto the reflective surface. We came up with some interesting solutions.”      

Westworld, HBO

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown caused 1,500 of the 3,500 shots for the eight episodes of Season 3 to be completed remotely by DNEG, Pixomondo, Crafty Apes, COSA VFX, Important Looking Pirates, RISE FX, Profile Studios, Deepwater FX and El Ranchito.  LED technology was utilized to produce various environments, in particular, the personal flying drones and the office of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson).  “We had gone to the City of Arts and Sciences, picked our exact angle and were able to build it in Unreal so we knew what we were matching it to,” remarks VFX supervisor Jay Worth.    “It was still like shooting in a normal office.  All of the perspectives and angles were correct.  When the camera moved, the background translated correctly.  Because it was a real location, we didn’t cheat the location of the sun that much.  There is moving water and walking people, all of those little things that make it feel real even though it’s a completely fabricated environment.”    

Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role

Devs, FX Networks

Over a period of 11 months, 600 visual effects shots were created for the show’s eight episodes by DNEG, Nviz, Outpost VFX and an inhouse team.  A technology developed by a computer genius that allows him to go back in time to prevent the accident that killed his wife and daughter. One visual riddle to sort out was being able to visually show within the same frame the various possible choices that one can make in an instance otherwise known as the Multiverse.  “If you have a whole bunch of ghostly or solid images doing the same thing, you have a similar problem [with directing the eye],” remarks VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. “In most of the Multiverse shots there isn’t a hero. The only one is when Katie [Alison Pill] is walking out of the university when Forest [Nick Offerman] runs after her.”  The statue of Forest’s daughter was entirely CG.  “We shot Amaya Mizuno-André in the volume, Alex Garland picked the pose he liked the best, we processed the geo, and had to figure out how to turn that into what felt like a 100-foot tall statue,” he states. “There was some repositioning of the limbs because her hands weren’t as symmetrical as he wanted.”     

Tales from the Loop, Prime Video

In creating imagery inspired Simon Stålenhag’s famous artwork, which juxtaposes nature with discarded high-tech machinery, 1,300 visual effects shots were produced by Rodeo FX, MPC, BOT VFX and Legacy Effects.  Fortunately, scripts for the eight episodes remained largely intact as the post-production schedule tightened to a period of five months.  Among the series’ directors were Mark Romanek, Andrew Stanton and Jodie Foster.  “A lot of the challenging visual effects shots that we had were in the pilot,” reveals VFX producer Andrea Knoll.  “Snow is going upwards and there is the big shot of the house disintegrating. We were using the typical effects simulations for these kinds of shots and had to be surgical about the details. Even though these are surreal moments and events that you are witnessing we still wanted them to look and feel real.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu

Visual effects on the show have grown in scope and complexity, with the number of shots produced by Take 5 Productions and Mavericks VFX going from 390 in Season 1, to 465 in Season 2, to 565 in Season 3.  “In the first season, the visual effects were mostly invisible,” notes VFX producer Stephen Lebed.  “Season 2 gave us a chance to see an unused and dilapidated Fenway Park, and a new Gilead Red Center, which gets blown up.  For Season 3, we’ve done everything from simulations of fire and smoke, to full crowd simulations.  We’ve created matte paintings of Gilead buildings and amputated Serena’s finger and Commander Putnam’s hand.  A majority of the work is removing signage in the backgrounds or touching up make-up and stray hairs.” 

The most challenging scene was the final shot of Season 3, when a wounded June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) is carried off by her fellow handmaids.  “It’s a long shot that starts up high looking out at the woods and tilts down to find June being carried by her friends,” Lebed explains. “The camera then drops down until we end in a close up of June’s face, all while she is being carried. It took a huge amount of effort to remove the dolly track and restore the muddy, leaf covered ground.  There was gear holding up the platform that June was laying on that had to get painted out, and extra animation was needed to make the handmaid’s look like they were struggling to carry June’s weight.  It’s the kind of shot that doesn’t look or feel like a visual effects shot, but it took over a month to finish it.  It was the final shot of the season and it needed to look perfect.”

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Prime Video 

Approximately 1,500 visual effects shots were created for the eight episodes with Goodbye Kansas joining series stalwarts Rodeo FX and Hybride for the second season; the mandate was to create effects that supported the story and did not draw attention to themselves.  “We had set pieces like the helicopter landing on a rooftop of the Presidential Palace to rescue James Greer [Wendell Pierce],” states VFX supervisor Erik Henry. “A buck with a non-functioning helicopter was considered to be too heavy to place on the rooftop. You can’t even fly helicopters in the main city. We shot plates there, shot a real helicopter landing on a grass field, and combined the two of them.  The art department built the doorway that the actors would go in and out of, a little strip of rooftop material, and a round patch for the actual Black Hawk helicopter to land.  A blue vinyl was added to nine cargo containers; that was all we had to surround the helicopter.  It meant that there was a lot of roto.  The helicopter’s rotors had to be removed and put in as CG.  Stills were used as reference to apply textures to surrounding rooftops and buildings around the Presidential Palace.”                         

Vikings, History   

Each of the show’s six seasons have provided the opportunity to push new technology and deliver even more believable visual effects, whether it be expanding towns, creating Icelandic landscapes or depicting numerous battles. “Battles and fleets grew from a handful in Season 1, to the massive 4,000 plus armies of Paris in Seasons 3 and 4,” notes VFX supervisor Dominic Remane.  “That led us into Season 6, where the Rus battle needed to feel like there are ships as far as the eye can see and a relentless army that couldn’t and wouldn’t give up.” 

Whereas Season 1 had a total of 500 visual effects shots, Season 6 required 1,200 which were produced by Mr. X with Take 5 Productions looking after clean-ups and small DMP work.  “In Episode 601, it was critical for us to design the city of Kiev in a way that looked believable and full of life for the sequence where the hot air balloon flies over. We worked closely with the production designer to ensure it felt like a living and breathing city. In Episode 610, we were faced with technical challenges pertaining to the massive crowd simulations, specifically, making sure the Rus soldiers disembarking their rafts interacted with the water appropriately. They adjusted their speed and balance when they got onto the beach and their performance would adjust when they ran up the large embankment. Also, in Episode 610, we’re back with the ships as they engaged in battle – the last time was the Paris battle in Season 4; this posed a creative challenge in breathing life into the midground and background ships without them becoming a distraction, as only the foreground boats were practical.”

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.