Search form

Untold Studios Gets its Dream VFX Project with Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’

Led by VFX supervisor James HattSmith, the studio delivers 360 shots filled with a wide range of expansive visuals on the Netflix dark fantasy that follows the journey of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, captured and held prisoner for over a century, who struggles to fix the chaos his absence has caused.

In his first project with Untold Studios, VFX supervisor James HattSmith, and his team of artists, delivered 360 visual effects shots on Neil Gaiman and Netflix’s fantasy adventure series, The Sandman. The show, based on Gaiman’s famed DC comic series of the same name, features the journey of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, captured and held prisoner for over a century, and his struggles to fix his kingdom – known as The Dreaming – amidst the chaos his absence has caused.

“I have previous experience working on similarly beloved IP with a fantastical flavor such as The Dark Crystal and Wheel of Time,” HattSmith says. “Working on shows such as The Sandman brings its own unique set of checkboxes that need ticking. The source material is thankfully incredibly well-realized and tangible, so our main focus was always to do it justice and bringing it into the real world whilst keeping the feeling of fantasy and maintaining tangibility.” 

Collaboration with production VFX Supervisor Ian Markiewicz was key to realize the distinct and detailed directives from both Gaiman and showrunner Allan Heinberg. “Ian had an incredible handle on the project as a whole and had a good idea what kind of things would satisfy both Allan Heinberg’s and Neil Gaiman’s visions,” HattSmith explains. “Both had particular tastes and beats they wanted to hit. There were also effects and sequences that were particularly important to them with Desire’s Threshold exterior being a good example. That being said, and despite the incredible panels within the graphic novel, there were still sequences and effects that needed expanding upon.  Such sequences that were a single panel or page in the source might be extended to 80+ shots in the show. Ian had, of course, directions that he wanted to explore within parameters that had been discussed with Allan and Neil but also demonstrated a great deal of trust in us by bringing sequences to us that had not yet been fully realized in concept. This allowed us to pitch some really bizarre ideas along with our own concept art and image research. We had regular meetings with Ian and his team. These meetings were always great fun and always ended with us buzzing with excitement for how we could develop our ideas further.”

Untold Studios’ involvement began after most of the principal photography had been completed. “There were still a lot of set pieces [as there always are] that hadn’t been completely settled upon,” shares HattSmith. “That enabled us to use our in-house concept team, lead by the highly skilled Cameron Johnson, to offer our own vision of what might work. We answered a lot of questions by concepting Hell Portal, Desire’s Threshold, and The Vortex sequence.”  Key to developing the fantastical elements was grounding them in reality. According to HattSmith, “Keeping things grounded was important, but the most important thing was to tell the story concisely and coherently. In the Hell Portal sequence, it was important that the portal felt both intangible and tangible at the same time. We wanted to avoid the feeling that the Casanova club was simply on fire. We wanted it to feel like you could pass through it, as though it was an entrance to a corporeal place. With the flaming tendrils, the difficult balance was having them feel like flame with all its wispy and delicate nature, but also solid and strong and threatening. This was primarily set in the animation [led by Tim Van Hausen] which needed to serve as a really solid base for the effects.”

Mood boards were produced that had references of images and textures for pitching ideas to the client and briefing artists. “This included finding interesting shapes in lava flows for the wall of bodies in the Hell Portal as well as instances where fire behaves unusually so that we could have some kind of real-world logic behind the behavior of the flame tendrils that pull at Johanna Constantine and Astra in our recreation of ‘The Newcastle Incident,’” HattSmith reveals. “This being a deep cut reference to Constantine’s past in the ‘Hellblazer’ comics. For Desire’s threshold, we started by looking at Brutalist architecture but settled on a more 1920s Art Deco look, which felt more appropriate for the character of Desire. For the Vortex sequence in Episode 110, I found some footage of spinning paintings and blown ink that supported our idea of The Dreaming tearing apart but in a less particulate way and more as though a painting or watercolor is running or being distorted and smudged. For Fiddler’s Green, particularly Gilbert’s transformation, I referenced the Mother Nature section of Fantasia 2000. Many images of Mason Alexander Park were also collected to ensure that their likeness could be respectfully captured in Desire’s Threshold.”   

Onset photos and LiDAR scans of the entrance to Hell, provided by production, “enabled us to get the general dimensions and body density close to what was built onset,” observes HattSmith.  “By keeping the glowing lava to the deepest part of the walls we were able to silhouette the bodies nicely. Between all the bodies we had fire simulations that were starting at the mouth of the portal and snaking its way between the bodies. We wanted the feeling of the portal to have a constant pulling force sucking at the Casanova Club environment. From the mouth of the portal are a number of flaming tendrils, which we used to both anchor the portal to the environment but also grab at and throw around Constantine and Astra. We animated basic tentacle geometry and used this to run our fire simulations. For the tendrils, the tricky thing was to keep them feeling as though they were made of flame while at the same time having them feel solid and threatening.” 

In essence, Desire’s Threshold is a 1000-foot-tall facsimile of Desire with an exposed bleeding heart. “Our brief for the chest was to aim for something that isn’t repulsive or grotesque,” states HattSmith.  “We concepted a more literal representation and found that it was difficult to avoid it feeling gross and painful, so we investigated a more architectural approach. Early concepts explored a brutalist style of concrete backlit frosted glass.  Ultimately, we found ourselves looking at 1920s American Art Deco designs. Taking inspiration from the top of the Chrysler Building and adopting a palette of materials that were appropriate to the era enabled us to build something striking and representative of the character. The heart is suspended within a faceted gold hollow surrounded by lights. One of the hardest things to crack was the pose for the Threshold. In the comics, it is portrayed with arms raised up to the sky. We found that keeping that pose didn’t translate particularly well to 3D and ended up looking a touch comical. The pose we worked towards was far more ambiguous and gave little away. It also looked amazing in silhouette.”

Choreographing the buildup of The Vortex sequence was especially difficult. “We concepted different levels of torn environment and Rose’s vibration energy and then assigned the shots in the sequence a value,” reveals HattSmith. “The trees breaking, tearing, and dematerializing create a churning wall of matter and energy. We simulated the full event and therefore, had a master cache that we could block our sequence out with. We then went into each shot and tweaked according to how it played in the sequence. As the trees dematerialise around the characters, a swirling vortex is growing at the centre of them. The wall of dematerialized trees around them served as a barrier from safety, holding them in place until the Vortex hole grows to such a size that they are engulfed one by one. For the Vortex hole, we used similar fluid simulations to those on the trees. In both the cases of the trees and the Vortex hole, we used Motion Vectors to add an additional fluid-like layer of distortion in 2D. The ultimate aim was that at the crescendo the environment should feel like an amorphous mix of all the components that made it up [including Rose’s friends] but bled into one another.”

Gilbert is finally revealed as one of the three escaped dreams known as Fiddler’s Green, which is actually a place rather than a person. “His natural state is a luscious green oasis with a waterfall at its center,” HattSmith says. “Gilbert chooses to return to this state, which meant we got to perform a transformation that we joked was from ‘National Treasure to National Park.’ The brief was that it needed to feel deliberate and considered and that at no point it should feel painful, destructive, or like decomposition. It had to be a controlled and beautiful transition from one state to another. The tough part was that we primarily had two shots to do it in! We had a close up on Gilbert’s face then a jib shot where we needed to transition at the apex from a quarry plate to a greenspace plate. We started by stitching the cameras for the plates, then built dummy geo to aid projections of our DMP and supporting trees. These 2.5D trees were supplemented with speed trees. There were several stages of the transformation starting with the beat of a butterfly’s wings and culminating in a swirling column of leaves and flowers that fills the screen and motivates the transition. We animated guide columns to block out the beats and then had multiple sims follow that animation. When the camera drops back to eye level Dream/Morpheus and Rose are stood in amongst a meadow of CG wildflowers and butterflies.”

Untold Studios contributed to Episode 111, which was released as a bonus in addition to the show’s 10 main episodes. “We delivered shots for a sequence where Calliope has called for help from the three Fates,” HattSmith notes. “They visit her and in doing so her room opens up to reveal a vision of ancient Greece and Mount Helicon. The design for this vista was based on ‘Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helicon’ by Claude Lorrian, which features within the episode, and of course the artwork in the pages of issue 17 of ‘Sandman.’ We designed the DMP as an ultra wide view treating the environment as a clearing beside a river flanked by rocks and ruins. We then modeled the environment for projection. We had three projections for east, west and the immediate foreground. The clearing is partially under cover with low hanging branches of a fig tree. This was an effort to compliment the lighting of the fates in the background plates.” 

The bonus episode includes an animated story called ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats.’  “We worked closely with director Hisko Hulsing to get the right level of detail in the cats’ fur, eyes and facial features,” remarks Tim Van Hussen, Animation Supervisor. “As all our renders would be treated in a painterly way by the team at Submarine, the goal for us was to create the photoreal domestic cats from the comic, but then stylise the assets for optimised rotoscoping. We opted for a style of animation that didn’t break the rules of what real cats would or could do, for a more serious and gritty tone from the original comic. We collected and studied hours of domestic cat footage to achieve a performance quality that suited that tone, often going down YouTube rabbit holes! It’s been incredible to see the response to this sequence, cat owners have been saying that their cats have been glued to the screen whilst the performances play out, so we must have done something right!”

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.