Led by VFX Supervisor Tommy Tran, the studio produced massively complex visuals on 1,827 shots in Season 3 of Seth MacFarlane and Hulu’s sci-fi comedy, including bigger and more complex planets, space battles, and an impressive, completely overhauled USS Orville.
In the Season 3 of Seth MacFarlane and Hulu’s sci-fi comedy, The Orville: New Horizons, everything feels more expansive than Seasons 1 and 2: more richly detailed alien planets, bigger battles both in space and on the ground, and a much grander and visually impressive signature spaceship, the USS Orville, that’s always smack dab in the middle of all the action.
The show initially was produced and aired on Fox, but with Disney’s acquisition, Season 3 came to us on Hulu, where it’s now streaming. The new season move brought with it a bigger and bolder visual style, with over 7,000 VFX shots stuffed into just 10 episodes – Season 2 had less than 7,000 spread over 14 episodes. But the number of shots belies the more meaningful storytelling change driving this greater emphasis on visual effects: “doing” rather than “talking about doing” has meant more action, on more planets, involving more spaceships – all either new or improved. And throwing their backs into production of the huge volume of Season 3 visual effects was leading VFX studio FuseFX.
The FuseFX team, three times larger than what the studio normally deploys on a TV VFX project, was led by VFX Supervisor Tommy Tran. In total, they worked on 1,827 shots for Season 3, creating everything from alien planet environments and weather systems to multiple space battles and a sleek new Union fighter, in addition to bringing the massive USS Orville spaceship to life in detail never seen in the series.
Heading into Season 3 knowing it would eclipse past seasons in size and scope, Tran shares, “Seth wanted to up the game in every aspect of the show. With that said, we retrofitted most, if not all, the ships. Most notably, the USS Orville. It got a massive model update, adding thousands of panels with fine detail to its exterior. It also received updates to its textures and shaders, making its lighting much more cinematic than in past seasons.”
“The Union Shuttle and Space Station were among other assets that got significant overhauls,” he adds. “We also introduced a new Union fighter, the Pterodon, a fast and sleek single-seat ship featured in 301.”
Breaking down four of the studio’s main sequences, Tran shares that in Episode 301, they created the Jovian planet and its hurricane-like atmosphere; in episode 304, it was Krill City, based on concepts provided by the production art department. For Episode 309, they created the sky and ground battle sequences on Draconis 427, their biggest buildouts of the season. And, as he notes, “Saving the best for last,” was their work on the show’s main titles, for which the studio was “over the moon when it was awarded to us.”
Probably the biggest change from past seasons was the increase both in number, size, and sophistication, of the show’s environments. “We had the Jovian storm planet in 301, Krill City and mushroom forest in 304, the Canyon Chase environment in 308, the sky environment and hidden base in 309… 309 was so big, we had to split up into multiple teams working in tandem to get everything done on time. It was quite the undertaking to keep up with the scope of the scripts and Seth's creative vision. We relied heavily on Clarisse, Unreal Engine, Houdini, and Maya to develop these massive new assets.”
Tran’s team worked from varied source materials throughout the season. Most environment sequences started from concept art, often a PSD file with a single conceptual base layer. According to Tran, for planets, “We would take creative direction from Brandon Fayette, the Production VFX Supervisor, and create a new planet utilizing DMPs and 3D projections to add textural depth, clouds, and atmosphere.”
For ships, he continues, “We would often get directly from Brandon the initial 3D models that we would take through the usual developmental processes, modeling, rigging, and look dev to make ready for production.”
Little additional development was needed on most assets, like weapons, as well as how explosions and debris were handled, as these had all been established going back to Episode 1. “However,” Tran explains, “in Episode 309, we did have to devise ship explosions and falling debris to conform to gravitational forces - something new to the show since all previous battles were in the zero gravity of space. Trivial, but nonetheless, we needed explosions to conform to what had already been established in previous space battles.”
While FuseFX didn’t employ any virtual production tools on Season 3, they did make extensive use of previs, which they fed quite smoothly directly into their production pipeline. “About half of the season’s previs was supplied to us by production, and for the other half, we had an in-house team that Brandon directly supervised,” Tran shares. “This was very advantageous to us because with some scripting work, the previs directly translated into our pipeline seamlessly. Most of the previs centered around space battles where all the cameras and ship animations came into our workflow at, I'd say, 95% completion and only needed minor adjustments before going into shot lighting.”
Describing the team’s Episode 301 work on the Jovian planet and its hurricane-like atmosphere, Tran says, “We used Houdini FX sims to create an environment that was one massive storm with 300 kph hurricane force winds, populated with towering tornado-like vortices that enshrouded the entire planet. In order to sell the imminent danger posed to The Orville, we developed FX particle systems that not only interacted with the ship's surface but also illuminated any bright lights such as the engines. Special light rigs were also designed for interactive lighting when it came to lightning and lightning strikes to The Orville. This sequence was one of my favorites because we managed to extract such beauty from the chaos.”
For Episode 304’s Krill City, building the city layout, city centers, and aqueducts was a tremendous undertaking. “We relied on Clarisse to create and manage the daunting poly count of the city because of its size, where hundreds of individual supporting buildings and over 50 highly detailed ones were made for close-ups,” Tran explains. “We developed numerous 3-dimensional holographic billboards and banners, based on designs provided to us by Brandon, that were strewn throughout the environment to add visual depth to the dimly lit city. We also built out the city's marketplace with seamless set extensions, turning a single-story set into a towering multi-level city hub.”
For the Draconis 427 sequence in Episode 309, the sprawling planetary base was monumental in scope and detail. According to Tran, “Hundreds of individual buildings, a central reactor core, and a long and highly detailed subterranean trench were the centerpieces. We spent months just on this asset alone. Each shot was so heavy coming out of Clarisse, containing dozens of ships, FX explosions, clouds, and let's not forget to mention, the base asset itself that we spent a lot of time figuring out solutions to get those shots rendered.” While the battle raged on the planet, fierce fighting also filled the sky. “Seth envisioned a dire battle set in the golden light of late afternoon,” Tran continues. “It took some time to set the look of the sky battle but once approved by Seth and Brandon, we delivered what I believe to be one of the most beautiful and dramatic aerial battles seen on episodic television to date.”
Describing the main title work, Tran says, “It first came to us as previs, with some concept imagery, then it was up to us to build and bring to life the different environments. It was a creative collaboration between FuseFX and our clients, especially Eric Hayden, the Production Co-VFX supervisor, that came up with what ended up being a visually diverse and stunning opening title sequence. Something we are very proud of.”
Looking back at the entirety of FuseFX’s third season work, what was most challenging? Scale. “What proved to be most challenging was managing the scale of each environment and then rendering them,” Tran admits. “We have been on The Orville since Season 1; we know how to do space battles, make alien worlds, and blow stuff up. But, the most challenging element, as it turned out, was managing the data. The file sizes for some of these environments coming out of Clarisse were astonishing. Disc space and render times were a constant conversion. Renders would initially start out at days per frame; then, we would have to rethink and optimize files to get render times down to minutes per frame without image degradation if we were to make our delivery date. This process alone took us weeks, if not months, to get the render times down. Ultimately, we managed to render nearly 2,100 VFX shots for the season. And because there were so many and they were so heavy, we had to utilize AWS Cloud services and our substantial in-house farm to accomplish this season.”
Reflecting on his Season 3 efforts, Tran concludes, “The most rewarding aspect of this season to me would have to be taking a step back and seeing all that our team accomplished. It was a herculean undertaking, covering every possible aspect of visual effects, from the technical to the creative, but most importantly, an aspect seldom talked about: the unity that a show like this builds among individuals. Over roughly three years, individuals became family. We laughed, we cried, we supported each other during the long days and nights, and in the end, we danced until we cried in each other's arms as we said our goodbyes. Working with the team that FuseFX built for The Orville: New Horizons was the highlight of my career and why this season was so rewarding to me.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.