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April 01
2017

ISSUE

Spring 2017

BEHIND THE VITAL, VIOLENT, VISUAL EFFECTS IN WESTWORLD

By IAN FAILES

Oliver Bell plays the Little Boy, actually a host with an older-style exoskeleton similar to that of Delores’ that is revealed in these shots. (Photo credit: HBO)

Oliver Bell plays the Little Boy, actually a host with an older-style exoskeleton similar to that of Delores’ that is revealed in these shots. (Photo credit: HBO)

Oliver Bell plays the Little Boy, actually a host with an older-style exoskeleton similar to that of Delores’ that is revealed in these shots. (Photo credit: HBO)

Michael Crichton’s 1973 future dystopia Westworld, in which the androids of a Western-themed amusement park begin malfunctioning and turn on the park’s human visitors, was a keystone moment in visual effects. Its use of digital-image processing to represent an android POV was the first of its kind in a feature film.

That was a legacy Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Worth had somewhat on his mind when he approached the effects assignment on HBO’s television series, Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and based on Crichton’s film.

“We weren’t necessarily thinking about the 1973 movie all the time,” says Worth. “It was more about the feel of that film, and with the effects what we would do is say, ‘How might they have done this kind of effect 30 years ago?’ Most of the shots that we did I always felt like we could have done practically if we had to.”

Those shots ranged the full gamut of effects techniques, from crafting a young version of Sir Anthony Hopkins, to building, de-generating and destroying various hosts, and to delivering a world of visuals inside the amusement park featured in the show.

MEET YOUNG SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS

Westworld’s season one plot weaves in and out of the past and present, often initially without audiences realizing. However, at one point the show makes a very clear flashback to park founder and creative director Robert Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins) as a younger man.

Several ways in which to depict Hopkins 30 to 40 years ago were considered. One included cutting out existing footage of the actor from his previous films such as Dark Victory (1976) and 84 Charing Cross Road (1987).

“We actually shot the scenes with specific angles matching those films somewhat in mind,” says Worth, “but we had issues with clearances; we had issues about whether we could get the negative.

We even did a test of taking the head of one of those shots and putting it onto our stand-in.”

Ultimately, the scenes would be achieved with a CG Ford face. This began with shooting a stand-in who performed both with and without facial tracking dots. Hopkins was also cyberscanned by SCANable in order to provide a baseline facial structure. VFX studio Important Looking Pirates then took on the task of generating Ford in CG.

The process of modeling a convincing digital representation of the ‘youngified’ actor quickly hit an unexpected road block, as Worth explains. “We tried matching Sir Anthony exactly to what he looked like back then, but the thing is, Anthony from the early 80s actually looks quite different to what most American audiences remember him as from, say, The Silence of the Lambs. We realized that our role really was to make him instantly recognizable, so our de-aged model actually had to be what people would think he looks like, not what he actually did.”

“We tried matching Sir Anthony exactly to what he looked like back then, but the thing is, Anthony from the early 80s actually looks quite different to what most American audiences remember him as from, say, The Silence of the Lambs. We realized that our role really was to make him instantly recognizable, so our de-aged model actually had to be what people would think he looks like, not what he actually did.”
—VFX Supervisor Jay Worth

UNDER THE SKIN

Although the audience knows that central character Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) is one of several older models of hosts inhabiting Westworld. Her true inner workings are not revealed until the final episode of season one. Here, Dolores’s exoskeleton is uncovered, thanks again to VFX artists at Important Looking Pirates.

“To film the Dolores exoskeleton shots,” outlines Worth, “Evan was in a blue turtleneck jumpsuit all the way to her toes and all the way to her fingertips. We shot her, shot a clean plate, and then shot some lighting reference.”

Worth says there was much discussion about whether the exoskeleton should actually look like a skeleton or something else, and whether it should be white or black. “It was a little more unexpected not to look like a skeleton, so we went with that. We ended up going with a matte black finish partly because we thought it looked more elegant.”

3D printing in Westworld. Although many practical props were created to show the hosts under construction, visual effects artists also augmented and added digital nozzles and muscle weaves. (Photo Credit: HBO)

3D printing in Westworld. Although many practical props were created to show the hosts under construction, visual effects artists also augmented and added digital nozzles and muscle weaves. (Photo Credit: HBO)

3D printing in Westworld. Although many practical
props were created to show the hosts under construction,
visual effects artists also augmented and added digital
nozzles and muscle weaves. (Photo Credit: HBO)

Old Bill, played by Michael Wincott, is an older model host. The VFX teams implemented some subtle face contortions to hint at his more animatronic-like nature. (Photo credit: HBO)
Old Bill, played by Michael Wincott, is an older model host. The VFX teams implemented some subtle face contortions to hint at his more animatronic-like nature. (Photo credit: HBO)

BRINGING ANDROIDS TO LIFE (AND DEATH)

Delores isn’t the only host receiving the effects treatment. Both practical and digital effects were relied upon to accomplish scenes where they were malfunctioning, being frozen still, or shot to pieces.

Old Bill (Michael Wincott) is a host who exhibits signs of glitching when he seems to perform looped animatronic-like movements. Surprisingly, the effect was achieved with what Worth describes as relatively simple compositing.

“Basically, the actor was performing everything relatively smoothly and we were ramping in and out in terms of speed,” he says. “CoSA VFX handled that. They also did some augmentation for other hosts that were malfunctioning by taking plates shot at different frame rates, and we realized with Old Bill we could almost start and stop the actor as if we were doing speed changes.”

The park controllers have the ability to “freeze all motor functions” of the hosts. The effect initially required a simple solution – having the actors try and stay as still as possible. “Everyone got really good at it,” recalls Worth, “but we did do a lot of subtle compositing with old-fashioned grunt roto to get these people to freeze, occasionally with projection mapping if the camera was moving around them.

“One thing we did differently with the freezing,” adds Worth, “was when the hosts were down in the diagnostics area, we would take out their eye blinks but still have them breathing. It made it feel like the hosts were even more helpless under the management’s control.”

After considering the use of miniatures, a CG approach to the terraformer shots was ultimately chosen. This is the original background plate. (Photo credit: HBO)

After considering the use of miniatures, a CG approach to the terraformer shots was ultimately chosen. This is the original background plate. (Photo credit: HBO)


The final CG terraformer crafted by Important Looking Pirates. (Photo credit: HBO)

The final CG terraformer crafted by Important Looking Pirates. (Photo credit: HBO)

The map projection technique was adapted to also produce “bucket” views of surveillance footage from the park. (Photo credit: HBO)
The map projection technique was adapted to also produce “bucket” views of surveillance footage from the park. (Photo credit: HBO)

The treatment of the hosts by management, guests and other hosts is often brutal and bloody. Significant make-up effects gags orchestrated by make-up effects designer Christien Tinsley were relied upon for things like shotgun blasts and the resulting wounds. “Christien’s team built these face rigs with magnets and blew them apart, and we would then comp certain pieces in,” states Worth. “It just had to be very visceral and so it was relatively simple from a VFX standpoint compared to if we had had to do a full CG version.”

Evan Rachel Wood as host Dolores Abernathy during an interrogation scene while under the “freeze all motor functions” command. The actress held still as much as possible, but was aided in terms of small movements and eye blinks by the visual effects team. (Photo credit: HBO)

Evan Rachel Wood as host Dolores Abernathy during an interrogation scene while under the “freeze all motor functions” command. The actress held still as much as possible, but was aided in terms of small movements and eye blinks by the visual effects team. (Photo credit: HBO)

HOSTS IN PROGRESS

Down in the depths of the park’s central offices, scenes of hosts under construction relied on a mix of practical and digital work. Mostly the construction resembled an advanced kind of 3D printing in which the humanoid host bodies and their skeletal structures and organs are weaved together and then dipped into a white milky substance.

A signature image from the show depicts the hosts in the pose of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, albeit attached to a robotic arm. “Our Special Effects Supervisor Michael Lantieri and then Christien Tinsley and their teams were responsible for what we had on set,” outlines Worth. “Michael had found a glue company that could produce massive amounts of glue without the bonding agent, and that provided the cool dripping look coming off the bodies.

“Christien built the clay bodies in his shop (Tinsley Studio),” continues Worth, “and the special effects crew made the rigs and robotic arms. Digital effects came in to add small details such as muscle fibers being built up or threading in the wet substance of a host’s eyes, for instance.”

“We had to figure out how the motor controlling the map would spin in conjunction with the projectors. And we even changed the time of day on the map throughout the series depending on what was necessary for the story. I don’t think anybody even picked up on that, per se, in that when it was nighttime outside, it was nighttime on the map, or it had a sunrise or a sunset when it was supposed to.”

—Jay Worth

An on-set photo of Thandie Newton as madam host Maeve Millay during a “freeze all motor functions” scene. (Photo credit: John P. Johnson/HBO)

An on-set photo of Thandie Newton as madam host Maeve Millay during a
“freeze all motor functions” scene.
(Photo credit: John P. Johnson/HBO)


Millay is interrogated by park operator Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward). (Photo credit: HBO)

Millay is interrogated by park operator Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward). (Photo credit: HBO)

NAVIGATING WESTWORLD

In the park’s control room, an ever-present 3D hologram-like map displays the position of the hosts at all times. Westworld’s creators wanted to move away from a typical hologram look, instead suggesting that the map was being projected.

“With a lot of projector technology these days there’s a way to actually make it appear dimensionalized,” says Worth. “You see it, say, at basketball games where they’re projecting these 2D images but from a certain angle it looks 3D, and then it also looks different from different angles.”

For the map itself, fabrication company SCPS sculpted a rocky terrain for use during filming. A matte painting of the Westworld environment was then created, including aspects allowing for changes of the time of day. That was projected directly onto the sculpt – live. One of the most challenging aspects of the map then became its movement, since some scenes had it spinning around.

“We had to figure out how the motor controlling the map would spin in conjunction with the projectors,” says Worth. “And we even changed the time of day on the map throughout the series depending on what was necessary for the story. I don’t think anybody even picked up on that, per se, in that when it was nighttime outside, it was nighttime on the map, or it had a sunrise or a sunset when it was supposed to.”

A sculpted surface representing Westworld. Live projections were the means by which the control room map was brought to life. (Photo credit: HBO)

A sculpted surface representing Westworld. Live projections were the means by which the control room map was brought to life. (Photo credit: HBO)

CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE

During season one, Ford begins efforts to build a new experience for outsiders. This involves a massive digging effort by an enormous terraforming mining machine which rips up an existing area of Westworld. Worth notes that, early on, miniatures were considered for the terraformer before a CG route by Important Looking Pirates was adopted.

“We looked at miniatures partly because this terraforming machine was based on real things that tear up the land like that,” says Worth. “But we realized we’d have to do a number of setups for that; the plate, then the miniature and then combine them, plus it was going to have a moving camera. ILP did such a great job – we had even shot some dirt and dust elements just in case but they were able to simulate all of that at the right scale.”

THE EFFECTS WORLD OF WESTWORLD

In completing the show’s visual effects, Worth had at his disposal several studios, including Important Looking Pirates, CoSA, Double Negative, Shade VFX, Chicken Bone VFX, Encore Hollywood, Branit FX and Skulley VFX, and a crew of independent compositors and in-house artists. Collaboration with the practical, make-up and special effects crews remained key in achieving the final shots.

“The show has such an organic nature to it,” suggests Worth. “We never wanted the VFX to be a centerpoint but instead always just in there supporting the story. That approach actually gives you a lot more freedom in some ways because you know what lane you need to stay in.”


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