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Jeff Okun Shares the ‘Disastrous’ VFX of ‘The End is Nye’

The veteran VFX supervisor delivered between 500-800 shots per episode on the 6-episode Peacock series, depicting Bill Nye getting killed in the most epic global disasters imaginable, including large-scale asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods… that mixed visual effects with actual footage to show what would happen and how we can either mitigate it, stop it, or survive it.

On Peacock’s The End is Nye, veteran VFX supervisor Jeff Okun and a group of 12 visual effects vendors went to great extremes to throw host and show EP Bill Nye into harm’s way within the most epic global disasters imaginable – both natural and unnatural, killing him in the process - to demystify these catastrophes using science, while showing how we can survive, mitigate, and even prevent them.

Think 2012 meets Geostorm. Or a new take on Kill Bill.

The six-episode series, streaming now, pits Nye against a devastating assortment of disasters, including large-scale asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods. Okun deftly and seamlessly mixes real footage with visual effects, creating gripping, often scary situations where mankind is at the mercy of the elements, both natural and unnatural. Make sure to bring extra batteries.

Brannon Braga serves as showrunner, director, and EP. The show is produced by Universal Television Alternative Studio, a division of Universal Studio Group, and Fuzzy Door. Seth MacFarlane and Erica Huggins executive produce for Fuzzy Door. Nye also executive produces. Rachel Hargreaves-Heald is the executive in charge of production for Fuzzy Door.

We recently chatted with Okun, who shared his insights on the project’s immense volume of feature-quality VFX, produced on a tight budget and schedule, without previs, or a sturdy umbrella.

Dan Sarto: How early did you come onto the project? What was the creative mandate as to the tone of what to depict with VFX, how much actual disaster footage would be used, how it would integrate with VFX, and how scary / deadly the disasters would be depicted?

Jeff Okun: I was recruited by the show’s writer/director/producer Brannon Braga long before it was even written. He would run ideas by me, and we would riff a bit. But in the end, he just wrote them and sent them to me for budgeting. I like to think we have a great relationship, and he allows me to get involved very early so we can maximize what can be accomplished in the timeframe and budget frame. He is very collaborative before, during and in post. The mandate was to do large-scale feature film disaster effects. 2012 meets Geostorm kind of stuff. We wanted to set the stage with super cool, terrible disaster scenarios and then make it more real by showing actual footage. Integrate the two together to demonstrate how bad it can get in a visceral manner. The disasters were to feel real and very, very scary because of the integration of actual footage with the visual effects footage.

DS: What type of reference, scientific data, concept designs, and actual imagery, did you have to work from, and how much did you deviate / interpret materials to create the VFX, as opposed to recreating actual disaster visuals for circumstances shown in the series?

JO: Brannon is well connected to the science world and as such was able to provide me with great access to experts in the various fields where we were creating the disasters. That and Bill Nye knows a bit about it too. He is the real deal in that he strongly and personally believes in everything he says. So, the mandate with the scientists was to keep it real. And real in these cases are very big, very scary – every scarier when you realize how real it is. I got the opportunity to scientifically demonstrate many concepts of how these disasters are created – sometimes by mankind, sometimes by the nature of our planet. Most of the disasters have not yet occurred in our technologically enhanced civilization, but a few have. But what I realized by working on this show is how close we have come to some very large-scale, world-killing disasters. It was some kind of joy to be showing the world what would happen and how we can either mitigate it, stop it, or survive it using science and visual effects of course!

DS: How many VFX houses did you work with, and how did the production compare (timeframe, volume of shots, previs, pipeline) to previous work you’ve done as a VFX supervisor on features?

JO: We ended up with 12 vendors on the show spread around the globe. We made the show during the height of the “tail of the pandemic” VFX rush; finding vendors who had the capacity and quality we needed was not easy. My VFX Producer, Gene Kozicki, did a great job sourcing several small companies who could do really great work on the harder side of things, like particle systems, rigid body collisions, for the volcanos, the earthquakes, the tsunamis, the asteroid collisions, satellite-based comet re-direction, level 6 hurricanes, floods, dust storms, city destruction, and on and on.

On average, we had about 500-800 shots an episode. We had a very rushed timeline to edit, temp, get approvals and finish the show. We did not have the time or money for previs, but what I would do is shoot something representative or do temp comps with found footage. For example, we have a shot where a plane is being tossed about in a thundercloud and out of nowhere another jet appears and almost crashes into us. I took a highlighter pen, and using post-it notes, made wings and a tail, and stuck them on it. I got some stormy cloud footage on YouTube and using my iPhone shot the highlighter flying in front of the storm footage monitor. I added sound and showed it to Brannon who approved the shot, and off we went to get it made. It’s that kind of fun creative approaches that got us so much so fast for so little.

DS: What were the biggest, most complicated sequences, or types of VFX, you produced?

JO: Every episode had a tentpole shot or five. The volcano episode with the eruption and pyroclastic cloud chasing and then killing Bill Nye – we had to do eruptions, ash covered towns, pyroclastic volcanic plumes with lightning inside them, and of course the flow chasing Bill. In the comet episode, we had to do Tektite rain that ends up killing Bill. For the five simultaneous Category 6 hurricanes, we had to create the storm around Bill, and then have it kill him by blowing him down the street into a parked car and then having an uprooted tree punch Bill through the car and into a storm surge where he drowns. And on and on it went.

But we also had to create a complete museum of disaster with an escalator through a porthole into the various disasters (kind of like a holodeck) and then destroy it all in the final episode. We had to do all this because that is what the show is about – The End of the World is Nye! I loved killing Bill in every episode, and they were always the most fun and creative things to do. The most complex sequences had to do with adding Seth MacFarlane into shots seamlessly. He played the “Act of Cow” part – meaning the person who inadvertently caused or exaggerated the disaster. He was unavailable to us during shooting, so we added him in post. The hardest shot was we moved down the aisle of a jet airliner, and he is in a seat. This was a Steadicam shot with little data to help set it up. So, we shot him with the camera doing the perspective move on him and then had a company in India track him in. They did a great job; it was a very difficult shot. So, as you can see, every episode, almost every disaster sequence was difficult, challenging and fun to solve.

Sometimes we used old-school techniques. For the flooding of the coffee shop in Episode 1, we used a custom-built water tank and shot the glass out with a pellet gun, then comped that into the coffee shop set (which was supposed to be downstairs on the street). We shot the stunt girl diving out of the way and a separate splash element – comped them all together by our in-house team and there you go!

DS: What were the most challenging aspects of the show?

JO: As it turned out, the most challenging aspect of the show was finding vendors. We were put in a situation where tax incentives were paramount. So, our challenge was to find any vendor who was in an approved tax zone who had the capacity and ability. In the end, we mostly went with smaller vendors, like Cos FX in L.A., Blue Fire in Utah, Incessant Rain in Nepal, and Mathematic in Paris. We did have BUF in Paris as well, but as our schedule pushed, they had a hard out date, so we got all the big stuff done early with them. We were also in Spain, Australia, and of course Montreal and Vancouver.

When it comes to shots or VFX sequences, our challenges were about the Oort Cloud surrounding our solar system and Bill floating around, jostling a rock out of the cloud that turns into a world-ending series of comet fragment strikes. In Montreal, Antarctic… and Tahiti, where our senator (Seth) is hiding out because the projections of where the strikes would occur were gotten incorrectly by his office. So, we kill him there! There was also a sequence where Seth is fracking near Yellowstone Park to relieve the pressure building up in the volcano. Again, we added Seth after the fact, and as he exits the frame, he has to bump Bill. Challenging and fun! I could go on and on because every shot is a challenge, but it all works out in the end.

DS: How did your expertise and VFX production experience – skills, tricks – help you on this production, where it might have tripped up in some aspects a lesser experienced supervisor?

JO: Wow! You really want me to get into trouble here, don’t you? Ha! OK. I have been a student of VFX and VFX photography my entire life. I used to study in-camera tricks, the forced perspective sets with varying sized miniature cars, glass matt paintings, and then photo-chemical compositing and finally CGI. Saul Bass gave me the opportunity to meet and work with John Whitney Sr. and Jr. So, I come pretty well armed with varying options and techniques. Knowing when to use which is the trick.

We opted for as much in-camera effects as we could. Then our secondary goto was simple A over B comps – which meant having a good old-fashioned element shoot day. This allowed us to lower the costs and shorten the time in our budget and schedule. Finally, we had saved up enough money and time to take on the really big stuff – crazy 280 mph wind and rain, tidal waves, ground splitting open, buildings crashing down, pyroclastic flows, tektite rain, eruptions, lava pits opening – you know, the fun stuff – all done with plates, elements, and some serious CG.

DS: Did you make use of any virtual production tools, any game engine tools, or any visualization tools on the show?

JO: No. We investigated them but, in the end, we had two issues: first, we did not have the time to prep for their use as the scripts were being written and re-written through the prep period, and second, the instances that they would be good for ended up costing more to do than traditional greenscreens based on where our location was. They would have been great for the driving shots in the tektite rain, the pyroclastic cloud chase, the Space station, and several angles in the Disaster Institute and outside Bill’s lab window – but again, we just didn’t have the time. The Disaster Institute was not fully designed until well into post, for example.

DS: What’s more fun to create – a tornado, a hurricane, a volcano, or some other specific disaster?

JO: You know what's more fun to create – a compelling disaster that’s part of a good story so that it resonates with the viewer and, hopefully, gets them to investigate change for themselves. Whether that is a hurricane, volcanic eruption, tidal wave, plane crash, humorous deaths (like Bill’s) or the end of the planet. Any VFX shot that stands alone is to me, someone saying, “Look what a cool thing I can think of!” Whereas any VFX in service to story – be it tentpole or invisible (the kind I prefer) – is great VFX!

DS: And on a serious note, did it ever get a bit depressing or upsetting to spend time on disaster reference footage when you know the human cost could very well be quite high?

JO: Not at all because we created these horrible scenes of death and destruction to enlighten, change, and cause us all to think a bit more about the world we live in. In a time when borders are becoming more prominent, we need to know that the weather, an earthquake, or volcano, or asteroid, does not care about them. So, we as people of the earth should really come together to do the right thing for ourselves and our planet. If you need a bit of perspective on all this, I urge you to find the Carl Sagan video/speech called “Pale Blue Dot.”

DS: Lastly, what did you enjoy most on this show and why?

JO: I loved doing this show because of 3 things – Brannon Braga, Bill Nye, and the amount of creative input I had. I designed entire sequences and then got to shoot them. Also, the topic of the show – Six ways the world will end – note the word “will,” not “might” – is very important. In a time when scientific facts are being ignored or denied, it makes this show triply important because it shows the way to stop, lessen, or, in the case of no way to avoid it, to survive the disaster. I think as we have seen by the weather this past winter, things are going to happen, probably get worse before they get better and the sooner we humans start to believe it is all real, the easier it will be to spot most of the bad stuff. They say some stuff cannot be stopped, like an asteroid strike, but that’s just not true – just this past year we changed the course of an asteroid – Yay NASA! I like what Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “In the end, the Earth is going to be just fine. It’s the humans who should be worried. The planet was here long before us and will be long after us.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.