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October 01
2019

ISSUE

Fall 2019

DNEG TV Recreates The Unimaginable for HBO’s CHERNOBYL

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

Location plates were modified by DNEG to closely replicate the Chernobyl accident site. All the helicopters seen in the film were created and rendered digitally. (All images copyright © 2019 HBO)

Occurring just three months after the Challenger disaster, the 1986 nuclear plant accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine generated both political and radiation fallout. This real-life near China Syndrome event contributed to the destabilization of the Soviet Union while raising renewed concerns over atomic safety.

HBO’s Chernobyl series puts very human faces on the disaster, and to aid in realistically recreating the horrific event, DNEG TV provided visual effects. VFX Supervisor Max Dennison’s experience on big-budget features dates back to Magic Camera prior to their acquisition by Mill Film. Later, while at Weta Digital, he was lead matte painter for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, then worked for ILM on Revenge of the Sith. In recent years, he has supervised visual effects for a dozen TV series, mostly while at DNEG TV.

“When we got started in February 2018, the scope of the work wasn’t yet fully fleshed out,” Dennison recalls. “We began investigating some bigger shots, like the evacuation of Pripyat, and how we’d do a lot of helicopter shots [ultimately all were handled via CG], even prior to the start of shooting. The actual site wasn’t available, having changed drastically over the years, but we knew from the get-go that everything had to feel utterly authentic.”

Dennison traveled to Lithuania, where he examined the set builds and met with director Johan Renck and production designer Luke Hull. “Johan wanted to be able to put our work up next to reference photographs and not tell the difference,” Dennison recalls. “Johan hates impossible camera moves, so all of our camera positions had to be what I called ‘legal’ – a place you could put a set of legs down or a handheld camera could have been operated. Luke did an amazing job building interiors, and his biggest set was an exterior rubble pile outside the exploded reactor four, which was shot in Martinez.”

Production also shot interiors and exteriors at the partly-decommissioned Lithuania’s Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, a RBMK reactor and sister station to Chernobyl. “It was our job to reconstruct the rest of the reactor four environment,” says Dennison, “topping it up to show the whole plant as it was directly after the first explosion. That meant a huge 3D build, plus matte painting and effects work. And we had to marry up Ignalina with the Martinez rubble pile.”

Both locations were lidared, and Ignalina was also surveyed via drone, helping DNEG create a very accurate blend. “We also got hold of a 3D model of Ignalina from a Russian postproduction facility, which had previously built a full-scale environmental model of Chernobyl,” states Dennison. “That gave us a fairly undetailed model of the other three reactors to build on while blending in our two locations. There were a lot of moving parts and a lot of heavy lifting to get all these elements working together. We had a huge amount of reference but that still meant generating an enormous number of textures for these buildings, plus there was a fair amount of interpretation required on the black-and-white [photographic] reference from the accident.”

Location plates were modified by DNEG to closely replicate the Chernobyl accident site. All the helicopters seen in the film were created and rendered digitally.

“[Cinematographer] Jakob Ihre used a huge skylight casting an orange glow over everything with the firefighters at Martinez, along with the practical smoke. We were lucky in getting some fantastic SFX guys from Germany [Rauch Special Effects UG] who provided a lot of the initial fire placements and smoke cannons, which gave us a real sense of what it must have been like.”

—Max Dennison, VFX Supervisor

The rubble pile built by production designer Luke Hull was filmed at Martinez. Production shot other exteriors at a Chernobyl sister-station, the partly-decommissioned Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. DNEG seamed these separate locales together while adding CG architecture to complete the structure, along with the requisite amount of fire and smoke.

Close collaboration with other departments was essential in maintaining visual continuity while respecting historical accuracy. “[Cinematographer] Jakob Ihre used a huge skylight casting an orange glow over everything with the firefighters at Martinez, along with the practical smoke. We were lucky in getting some fantastic SFX guys from Germany [Rauch Special Effects UG] who provided a lot of the initial fire placements and smoke cannons, which gave us a real sense of what it must have been like. We referenced all of that for our big wide shot as the firefighters arrive, with the camera [tilting] up about 60 degrees, taking things well beyond our live-action set component, so we had to create a huge amount of additional CG smoke.”

DNEG employed Maya, their standard go-to, with Isotropix’s Clarisse for rendering. “We built everything with that toolset,” Dennison reveals, “using a lot of Houdini effects work to scatter debris, allowing it to fall naturally, creating the sense of mayhem and disarray after the explosion, with all the graphite and fuel rods and superstructure and concrete everywhere.”

Dennison found Chernobyl’s script to be brilliant. “It conveyed a need that I get under the skin of what it was like to be there,” he acknowledges. “We felt challenged to live up to all that the other departments were investing in this with respect to visual credibility and good storytelling. Johan has an incredibly good eye and was always after us to pull back and restrain our natural tendency to ‘over-indulge’ things, and though he never lingers on an effects shot, there’s always enough time to convey the story point.”


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