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Key TV and Game Contenders for the 2021 VES Awards

This year’s set of animated and VFX-driven TV series and video games represents top visual design and production work that rivals feature film visual effects in both quality and quantity.

The 19th Annual VES Awards are virtual this year, streaming worldwide starting tonight at 5:00 p.m. PST. Like with animated and VFX-driven feature film projects, this year’s TV series and game productions were forced to quickly adapt their pipelines and project management to ensure safe working conditions in the face of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and restrictions; studios continued to deliver fantastic visual effects and animation while ensuring their artists could work and collaborate safely from home. The quality, and often-times quantity, of visual effects in these nominated projects rivals in every way the work we’ve seen in feature films this year.

Lucasfilm and Disney+’s The Mandalorian went from the six nominations last year for Season 1 to 13 this year for Season 2; no film, series or game even comes close in total nominations, though Pixar’s five with Soul and HBO’s four with Lovecraft Country are certainly worthy of mention. With The Mandalorian the clear favorite by sheer numbers, the remaining TV/Game nominee pack is pretty evenly matched, mostly newcomers rather than returnees with the exception of Westworld. High profile video games Ghost of Tsushima and Cyberpunk 2077 each got a pair of nominations, with the former currently in development as a feature film by Chad Stahelski (John Wick).  Profiled below are some of the top TV series / episodic / game nominees across various categories.  

The Mandalorian

Nominations: Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode; Outstanding Animated Character in an Episode or Real-Time Project; Outstanding Created Environment in an Episode, Commercial, or Real-Time Project; Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a CG Project; Outstanding Model in a Photoreal or Animated Project; Outstanding Effects Simulations in an Episode, Commercial, or Real-Time Project; and Outstanding Compositing in an Episode

Season 2 of The Mandalorian, by any measure, was a VFX behemoth. According to VFX supervisor Richard Bluff, “Post-production was approximately 26 weeks to deliver around 5,000 visual effects shots. However, this doesn’t include all the real-time environments and effects displayed in the StageCraft volume for all eight episodes that were started in pre-production and completed while we were shooting during principal photography.”  Season 2 pushed virtual production technology even further than in Season 1. “We utilized a bigger space, more resolution, dynamic atmospherics that were controlled in conjunction with what we were doing practically on set, large pools of water, and extended the shooting area by building sets that spilled out beyond the boundary of the volume into the stage itself. The Morrak Jungle was an immense challenge to create. We were originally scheduled to shoot background plates and array plates in Hawaii for most of the sequence. However, one week after we wrapped principal photography in L.A., the trip was canceled due to the global pandemic. Therefore, we had to rely on a fully digital environment for the entirety of the Juggernaut vehicle chase and Boba Fett’s ship escape sequences.”   

The Krayt Dragon was designed by Oscar-winning production designer Doug Chaing.  “The dragon essentially liquifies the sand surrounding it in order to move through it,” notes Bluff. “This required an incredible level of artistry and technical effort to achieve. Simply beautiful work that really tells the story in a visually stunning way.  We’re all familiar with Boba Fett’s ship and its unique design from the outside. But we’ve never seen how it actually works from inside the cockpit. Doug Chiang, Jon, Dave, myself, Andrew Jones, and Landis Fields had to work out a plausible way for the cockpit to rotate inside the ship from its vertical flying configuration to its horizontal landing configuration. We leveraged a real-time StageCraft environment built by Jay Machado at ILM to literally rotate the world around a partial set piece that production designer Andrew Jones and his team built; the purpose was not only to provide the huge rotating back wall but to also provide an accurate lighting and reflection change.”   

Lovecraft Country

Nominations: Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode; Outstanding Created Environment in an Episode, Commercial, or Real-Time Project; Outstanding Effects Simulations in an Episode, Commercial, or Real-Time Project; and Outstanding Compositing in an Episode

Under the supervision of Kevin Blank, over 3,500 visual effects shots were produced for the 10-episode hit HBO horror fantasy, Lovecraft Country. Rodeo FX was responsible for 1,217 shots, which ranged from period environmental work to an epic opening battle sequence and portals.  Other key contributions were the chrysalis effect by Important Looking Pirates, Shoggath by Framestore, and the special effects provided by J.D. Schwalm. “The idea for the chrysalis effect was that the skin would shed while internal organs and eyes would morph,” states Pietro Ponti, VFX supervisor, Important Looking Pirates.  “As much as possible we would keep the performance of the main actress in camera, especially with the eyes, because they’re hard to get right.  I have to commend Kevin for how the shoot was planned way before principal photography began in Atlanta.  The sequences were tailored around what would give the most visual impact and did not cause us to be cornered into something extremely complicated.” 


Nomination:  Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode

Each of Westworld’s three seasons has received a nomination for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode. All have been overseen by Jay Worth. With the hit HBO series moving the action from theme park to real world, the number of visual effects was just as high. The eight Season 3 episodes featured 3,500 visual effects shots created by DNEG, Pixomondo, Crafty Apes, COSA VFX, Important Looking Pirates, RISE FX, Profile Studios, Deepwater FX and El Ranchito.  Complicating the post-production process was the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused 1,500 shots to be completed remotely.  LED walls and Unreal Engine were utilized to produce background environments for office settings and interior automated drone shots of Los Angeles in 2058. “The challenge we had is when you’re doing R&D and shooting at the same time you don’t get to test things as much as you want,” Worth reflects. “Transferring all of these different pipelines into a film pipeline was a huge task, but Jonathan Nolan stuck to his guns on that one.  There is a real beauty that happens when you shoot film onto these digital mediums; the image is softened in a beautiful way.”     

Tales from the Loop

Nomination: Outstanding Effects Simulations in an Episode, Commercial, or Real-Time Project

Five months were spent in post-production to produce 1,500 visual effects for Tales of the Loop, the quirky time-shifting sci-fi drama series from Amazon Studios. One of the show’s signature dramatic images is of a disintegrating house that defies gravity, created by Rodeo FX. “We were using the typical effects simulations for these kinds of shots and had to be surgical about the details,” remarks VFX producer Andrea Knoll.  “Even though these are surreal moments and events that you are witnessing, we still wanted them to look and feel real.”  Practical effects were a key component of the plate photography.  “For close-ups and tighter shots, we would keep the performance of the practical robot. At the end of Episode 102 there was a spot-on performance that the puppeteers achieved with the practical robot so we didn’t need to do a CG replacement there. We just did rig clean-ups. But when the robot runs off that is a full CG shot.”  


Nomination: Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode

“Everything from the storyline and drama, to fight choreography and visual effects, was dialled up considerably [for Season 2],” remarks VFX supervisor Jonathan Alenskas about the Cinemax martial arts drama series, Warrior. “I knew that there was going to be a lot of running from one location or set to the next while tracking complex visual effects sequences across three units shooting in unison.  I made sure to collect the widest and best curated set of data for the team back at Zoic Studios, to help make life easier for them and so they could maintain focus on creating the wonderful work they do.”  The 10 Season 2 episodes had a total of 681 visual effects shots.  “My personal favorite is the Barbary Coast scene we created alongside the practical environment built on our backlot in Cape Town,” VFX producer Leah Orsini says. “Lots of thought and effort was put into conceptualizing this world while staying true to how it looked in the 1800s, from the ships to the buildings, and even the level of wetness of the streets that were woven throughout the neighborhood.” The Barbary Coast was the biggest and most intricate shot for main vendor Zoic Studios. “Using Houdini for procedural layout gave us a lot of control for placing props and assets, so adjusting for notes was made easier,” Zoic Studios VFX supervisor Nathan Overstrom explains. “Our hero ship was modeled procedurally so if we needed to change the dimensions on anything, the individual planking could be rebuilt on the fly.  The texturing and shading were done in Substance Painter another procedurally based program.  The net result was that we were able to build these detailed 3D worlds with really only a couple of talented artists.” 

I Know This Much is True

Nomination: Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode

Mark Ruffalo portrays twin brothers, one of whom suffers from mental illness, in the HBO series. 1,000 visual effects shots were produced for the six-episode drama, most focusing on putting Mark Ruffalo on-screen as both brothers simultaneously. “The main effect, ‘twinning’ of the principal actor, was achieved using a number of techniques, some traditional and straightforward, and some quite complex,” remarks VFX producer Eric Pascarelli. “Where motion control ‘split screens’ were used, they often involved extensive rotoscoping, relighting, and other massaging. The A and B sides of those shots were shot weeks apart [to allow Mark Ruffalo, playing Dominick to gain weight to play his twin, Thomas] and so great discipline was needed in positioning the camera correctly, matching lighting, blocking, eyelines and so forth, all while maintaining the relaxed ‘documentary’ feel of the show.  We also prepared for the option of a fully CG head replacement if necessary, to give the actors the option of physically interacting in any way they wanted on screen, even if that made a ‘split screen’ impractical. We used this twice in Episode 101, where we shot the shot in one pass and replaced the head on the actor’s stand in with the CG model.  The principal actor’s head was scanned, modeled and rigged such that it could perform full dialog scenes if necessary [though lip-sync was only required in later episodes]. In addition to the face and head, CG hair was grown and groomed to match surrounding shots.” 

Ghost of Tsushima

Nominations: Outstanding Visual Effects in a Real-Time Project, Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a CG Project

One of the most successful video games of 2020 was Ghost of Tsushima by Sucker Punch. According to Nate Fox, Sucker Punch creative director, “In order to try and capture the feeling of classic samurai films, we chose our camera angles carefully. A third person camera is a MUST for showing a lone samurai riding in a sea of tall grass or staring down an enemy in a duel.  Without that cinematic feel to the game, we wouldn’t have been doing right by the samurai fantasy.”  Wind is treated as both a visual and gameplay element. “Often times our FX budget was used on environmental support,” states Jason Connell, creative director & art director at Sucker Punch.  “In some cases, that meant upwards of 60,000 individual leaf particles, blowing in the wind, or waiting to be kicked up by a warrior in a duel. For Sucker Punch, it was important to take full advantage of the open world concept for an optimal player experience. “The goal for Ghost of Tsushima is always, ‘If you can see it, you can reach it,’” observes Joanna Wang, environments lead, Sucker Punch. “We want players to be curious about this world, navigating up steep mountains, ride through dense forests, cross shallow rivers and climb treacherous cliffs. Tsushima is designed based on those experiences, to let players become a wandering samurai, free to explore a rich and diverse world set in feudal Japan.”

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.