Boutique visual effects studio produces photoreal dystopian world where the U.S. is split between Japanese and Nazi control in Amazon Studio’s original series based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel.
Through three gripping seasons, Amazon Studio’s Man in the High Castle has entertained audiences with its chilling, alternate version of world history, a dystopian reality where the Axis powers won World War II and the United States was essentially split in two: the Japanese Pacific States in the West, the Greater Nazi Reich in the East and a neutral zone set in-between. The series, set in 1962, is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by prolific science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.
For Barnstorm VFX, a boutique visual effects studio specializing in high quality digital effects, design, and production, Man in the High Castle is the latest in series of TV projects where their ingenuity and creativity have been called on to produce feature film-level visual effects on an episodic TV schedule and budget.
Barnstorm has been the primary VFX studio on The Man in the High Castle since Season 2, involved from pre-production all the way through the end of post in conceptualizing, supervising, and ultimately creating the vast majority of the visual effects in the show. The studio’s work involves a wide range of effects, including straightforward paint-outs of modern scenery, set extensions, crowd duplication and period-accurate CG buildings, vehicles and other assets. Over the course of a season, the Barnstorm normally handles 500 - 600 shots – since all episodes in a season are released at once, they simultaneously worked on shots from multiple episodes over the course of several months of post-production.
Lawson Deming, Barnstorm co-founder and senior VFX producer on the show, followed the visual effects work throughout the entire Season 3 production. That meant attending meetings early in pre-production where ideas for the effects were initially discussed, helping guide the production towards the best way to execute those effects. “I work closely on this show with both the production designer and cinematographer to determine the right way to film the scenes that involve VFX elements,” he explains. “That means being on set while the director is shooting to gather data, take reference photos, and ensure that the proper plates and additional elements are being captured. I have a cinematography background as well, and, under certain circumstances, I may go out on my own to photograph scenery, buildings, or props as part of the visual effects process. Then, in post-production, I work with my team of visual effects artists to build, animate, and composite the work. I then review and make notes on every shot and work through the creative process for those shots with the producers.”
While the studio worked on numerous sequences, several from Season 3 stand out. “We created digital 5th and 6th Avenues in New York City that are seen throughout the season, including a scene where John Smith [played by Rufus Sewell] is inaugurated into his new rank of Reichsmarschall,” Deming says. “This involved the re-creation of multiple period accurate buildings, cars, signs, and other props as well as crowd duplication and a digital matte painting of Central Park, complete with a giant metal globe that somewhat resembles the Unisphere in the ‘real’ New York.”
For the Japanese part of the story, Barnstorm created an impressive Navy, including updated 1960s versions of the vessels that served in the Japan’s Imperial Navy during World War II. “In the real world, ships such as the Yamato and Taiho were lost during the war, but many of the U.S. ships that fought continued to serve and continued to be upgraded for many years afterwards,” Deming describes. “In our alternate history, we’ve assumed the same kinds of modifications were made to the [now victorious] Japanese fleet. The ships and water were created with CG, as was the helicopter that Kido [Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido] arrives on. The scene where it looks like he’s climbing out of it is just mimed by the actors, with him crawling out of a big green box. Joel de la Fuente, who plays Kido, is a great sport and really helped sell that shot.”
In the final episode of the season, the Nazis destroy the Statue of Liberty as part of a cultural erasure of American history known as “Jahr Null” (“Year Zero”). According to Deming, “Since the destruction is part of the Nazi propaganda, it is portrayed in the episode as an eerily joyous event, with fireworks and crowds of people cheering on the destruction. We created the statue, explosions, water, boats, and airplanes fully in CG.”
It’s critically important for the show’s setting to feel plausible because much of the emotional impact hinges on the “What if?” nature of its premise. The visual effects play a vital part in building that world. For Deming and his team, however, since visual effects are frequently used to create things that can’t be done practically, there is an inherent challenge in overcoming audience disbelief. “Whenever we can, we try to integrate the effects with real elements from the production,” he states. “But, when a shot is almost fully CG, it can be a lot more challenging because there is nothing there to ground it in truth, and the tendency to go for big visual impact can cause things to veer into unreality. For the Statue of Liberty in particular, we had great reference for how the statue itself looked, including images of the original torch. But it was quite difficult to determine how it should collapse in a convincing way.”
In addition, the torch was supposed to break off and sink into the harbor, but Liberty Island has a wider radius than the statue is tall, even at its narrowest point. “We needed to find a way to get the statue to slide down rubble from the pedestal as it fell in order to get it into a position where the torch arm could realistically snap and land in the water,” Deming says. “It was a tough challenge to overcome because we needed the destruction simulation to respond to the movement of the statue, but the statue also had to be affected by the rubble, a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. A lot of the biggest VFX challenges are like that. When you watch an effects breakdown, it makes things look easy and magical, and so people get the impression that the whole process works like that. But there is a lot of hard work that goes into even the most straightforward looking sequences. Even if you’ve done something similar before, no two shots present the same challenges.”
Another challenge for Barnstorm, is that while the upside of photorealistic effects set in a “real” historical setting is that they had explicit references for how things should look, the downside is that audiences know how things should look as well. “It’s always an uphill battle for believability when people are expecting to see effects… when they know subliminally that something could never have been achieved practically,” Deming adds. “So, whenever possible, we try to utilize real-world inspiration. That may involve using photographic textures, or closely mimicking real-world designs for vehicles, or researching construction methods for buildings to make sure we are presenting them in an architecturally plausible way. Anything we can do that gives the work a sense of authenticity helps. Because the show is grounded in reality, we place a lot of emphasis on ‘filming’ the visual effects in an understated way, including picking camera angles that could have been practically achieved.”
While the growing demand for television VFX means greater production values and storytelling opportunities, studios like Barnstorm are expected to produce work approaching a feature-film level of complexity and visual fidelity. Even on the biggest shows, deadlines are tighter and budgets are lower than in the feature world. But that doesn’t deter Deming. “In a way, the combined challenge of tight schedule, smaller budget and high-end production value is very refreshing because the need to make good aesthetic choices quickly means there’s less time to second-guess yourself,” he notes. “But the hunger for visual effects that are equivalent to the latest blockbuster must be tamed with a realistic idea of what can be done ‘well.’ Just because almost anything is technically possible doesn’t mean it’s feasible on a television timetable. There are ways to make a simple shot look really big and impressive. Conversely, you can spend a lot of money on something that ends up feeling cheap.”
Ultimately, as a senior VFX supervisor, it’s Deming’s job to advise show producers on how they can achieve the best bang for their buck. “I can propose alternative camera moves or set designs to help make the visual effects work better, so that money and time aren’t being spent frivolously,” he shares. “Directors run the gamut as far as their experience with visual effects. But, having a lot of visual effects experience isn’t necessarily always a good thing, because the methodology used for one project almost never maps directly to another show’s resources and needs. As long as we can get a clear idea of what they’re trying to achieve, we can figure out a way to do it well. For that reason, I try to steer directors away from discussing methodology and more towards the result they want.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.