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Channeling the VFX of ‘The Wheel of Time’ Season 2

VFX Producer Brian Shows and Post Producer David Frew helped Framestore, MPC, Outpost VFX and beloFX deliver 2,600 visual effects shots across 8 episodes of the Prime Video show, conjuring up a host of magical visuals depicting different aspects – earth, water, fire, air, and spirit - of the One Power.

Returning to Prime Video for a second season is the series The Wheel of Time, an adaptation of the acclaimed fantasy novels written by Robert Jordan that tell the story of a messiah reborn and the power struggle to turn him into a force of good… or evil.  Driving the creative vision is showrunner Rafe Judkins, who guided and entrusted the VFX team to create his cinematic reality, from expansive environments or the magical weaves associated with channeling different aspects of the One Power: earth, water, fire, air, and spirit. 

“I’ve been involved right from the start of creating this fantasy show where nothing is contemporary to our world and you’re looking to build everything,” remarks David Frew, Post Producer.  “You’re thinking of who the key creatives are you want to bring into the post-production team to help us deliver.  Ultimately, my job is trying to maximize the time that we have with Rafe and find solutions for any problems that arise. Things do happen as you do these shows.”  Communication is essential.  “We sit down with all of the departments together and figure out what’s practical and what needs to be us,” states Brian Shows, Visual Effects Producer.  “Throughout the process, there are tons of visual effects reviews, from assets all the way through to final comps, and lots of spotting sessions, emails, and phone calls.”

A major shift in Season 2 was using a smaller number of visual effects vendors than in Season 1. “That was an area I identified as something we wanted to change and with Andy Scrase [Visual Effects Supervisor] and Brian Shows,” explains Frew.  “We had 14 in Season 1 and that’s 14 different meetings to pass on briefings, coordinate, and have continuous meetings. It’s more streamlined if you narrow down those vendors. We worked with a good split of that shot count between vendors we trust to deliver the shots in the time we make available to them and at the quality they can provide.” 

Responsible for producing 2,600 shots across eight episodes were Framestore, MPC, Outpost VFX and beloFX, plus an in-house team.  “From the end of the last shoot to the end of the last delivery, was approximately 11 months,” states Shows.  “Each episode had a slightly different volume of shots.  We want to be able to close out episodes throughout the season.  If we couldn’t close out the shoot portion of a certain sequence within an episode, then we tried to turnover hero shots and assets so that we could start work as early as possible.”

Certain things were kept in mind when budgeting and going through the bidding process with vendors.  “The first episode is going to be big, one of the middle episodes and the last episode will be typically big,” notes Shows.  “In Season 2, Episodes 207 and 208 were huge in terms of cost and volume of shots. There are particular things that have to be kept in mind.    Visual effects shots have a habit of increasing. Most of the people in my position aren’t as transparent with the people around them about how much things cost.  We worked with the editors and producers, and I shared the breakdowns with the editorial team so they could see on a shot-by-shot basis what those things cost.  We did go into a period of time where we had to reduce our overall shot count, or maybe there were different takes that were preferable to help us out. It’s a little game that we played.  Everybody, from Rafe on down, was on the same budget page.” 

Episodes were broken down in terms of sequences and the time needed to complete them at the desired visual effects quality.  “Normally, we can identify two to four episodes that are going to be heavier in our visual effects count,” states Frew. “They may have a battle sequence, or a lot of channeling work, or some creatures. So, we know that those sequences are going to need more shots and ultimately cost more.  We put that into the schedule knowing that we want to do a director’s pass, or Rafe’s pass, or a studio network pass, and essentially lock those scenes and then turn those scenes over to vendors to start the work on them.  But we can work on the drama around those scenes.  By using that process, we maximize the amount of time that visual effects has to do shots.  There is an element of change that we can adopt. Some shots can be dropped, or added, or reworked within the handles that we turnover.  If there are five sequences in an episode, we’re saying these sequences are part of the visual effects sequences we need 36 weeks+ to do. And for a show like ours, from principal photography to delivery, is a 52-week period at least.  It’s a long process to deliver that type of shot, and go through sound and music.”

Rather than focusing on a virtual production methodology, principal photography took place in the Czech Republic, Italy and Morocco. “I like the multi-location aspect of it,” admits Frew.  “It makes it interesting and keeps it challenging in terms of maintaining schedules, going to the other locations, and workflows that we have to implement.  For us, having locations has been hugely beneficial and has added to the scale. I don’t think we would have achieved the same on a virtual stage as we did going to those locations.  We would have been more restricted.”  

The visual effects department was also able to take part in the location scouting.  “That’s something we talk to Rafe about upfront,” states Shows.  “This is the world we have to build.  While we’re there, the team relies on us to say, ‘This is the location where we might want to have that thing.’ We’re there for the production decision-making and try to do as much as we can as possible.”  Real locations are indispensable when it comes to world building.  “It’s always best to have a practical environment because there are a lot of shots where we don’t have to do anything,” Shows adds. “Obviously, there is a portion that we do need to be involved.”    

Postvis was utilized to varying degrees.  “We are always exploring ways to use postvis,” remarks Frew.  “We work with the visual effects team and will get temps as things start to come in and we’ll pop them into our timeline and we’ll assess and evaluate that and tweak briefs.  Postvis is an incredibly useful tool visually to help the creatives understand the direction that you’re going and also the studio network. It makes some of those conversations a lot more efficient.  We’re adding postvis for certain sequences and it helps us to get the bigger picture of the episode financially, scheduling-wise, and creatively.  One of our editors [Chris Barwell] is a co-producer on the show now and he’s involved all the way through post-production, whether it be sound or grading stages or visual effects meetings.   As things start to come through from vendors, then we can look at it from an editorial and visual effects perspective.” 

Among the signature visual effects on the show is a fire dragon wrapping itself around a massive tower in daylight.  “Daylight and fire are complicated,” observes Shows.  “That was one of the big challenges. But the teams that did those did well to make the shots work. We also did lots of things with special effects. They would give us some elements or light, or something on fire in a practical environment with similar lighting, so that we had something to match to, so it looked as real as possible.”

In addition, Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike) does fire channeling through the ocean, which resembles torpedoes heading towards the Seanchan fleet. “Initially, we wanted to shoot water plates,” Shows says. “But it turned out to be impossible to use the water. So, what you see is CG water. It was something that became important early on and even more important later.  The top of the water surface is rippling, and steam is coming off it.  It turned out well.” 

The channeling of Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) has an element of black corruption.  According to Shows, “We went through a lot of iterations of what that was supposed to be in the beginning.  It was quick.” 

The biggest challenge on Season 2 remained time and money. “We had a fixed budget that we had to adhere to, and they always wanted things sooner,” Shows concludes. “The type of work that we were doing was not just environments. The effects simulation portion of it was some of the most complex work that you can do in a photoreal environment.  That takes time.  And scale.  Every time you did something, they wanted more.  Everything needed to grow, get bigger, better, cheaper, and faster.  It’s a complicated inner wheel.”    

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.