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September 03
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Inside the ‘Hyper Fantastical’ VFX of STRANGE ANGEL

By CHRIS McGOWAN

The CBS All Access series Strange Angel dramatizes the flamboyant and multifaceted life of Jack Parsons, a pioneering Pasadena rocket scientist who experimented in both science and the occult. Parsons was an expert chemist who sought to “manifest his will” through cult leader Aleister Crowley’s “sex magick” rituals. He was also a science fiction devotee who hung out with the likes of authors Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, and tried to conjure spirits with L. Ron Hubbard, who ran off with Parsons’ girlfriend and money and went on to found the Church of Scientology.

Parsons (portrayed by Jack Reynor) lived for a time in a mansion on Pasadena’s stylish Orange Grove Boulevard, where he hosted the L.A. branch of Crowley (Angus Macfadyen)’s cult. The controversial rocketeer died young, at 37, in a home-laboratory explosion in 1952, but not before helping to establish rocketry as a serious science and co-founding JPL, which evolved into NASA’s renowned center for space research and the building of spacecraft.

To properly give justice to Parson’s outsized imagination and lifestyle – and his mixing of science and the supernatural – Barnstorm VFX had to provide visual effects that evoked 1930s and ’40s Caltech and Los Angeles, as well as the multiple realities in Parsons’ life.

“We identified three main components of what the visual effects would entail for the show, which were essentially the historical L.A. aspect of it, the rocket stuff and the fantastical, magical realism aspect,” says Cory Jamieson, Visual Effects Supervisor at Burbank-based Barnstorm. The firm was the lead visual-effects vendor for the show, which debuted its second season in June and is based on George Pendle’s Strange Angel book. Mark Heyman (Black Swan) created the series, which was produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Scott Free Productions. Ridley Scott was an executive producer, along with Heyman, showrunner David DiGilio, David W. Zucker and Clayton Krueger.

Cory Jamieson, Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-founder, Barnstorm VFX. (Photo courtesy of Barnstorm VFX)

Jack Parson’s wife Susan (Bella Heathcote) gazes upon a period orange grove (Images courtesy of CBS All Access, except where noted).

“The fantasies are probably the most challenging [effects to create]. Whereas with the historical you have a very clear idea of what something should look like and what it should be, with the fantasy stuff some of it is so abstract that it simply requires a lot of back and forth on determining how to achieve it. And everyone has a different idea of what something should be. … so working together on those fantasy sequences is probably the most challenging because they have the most different directions they could go.”

—Lawson Deming, Visual Effects Supervisor/Co-founder, Barnstorm VFX

Barnstorm has also worked on VFX for series such as HBO’s Silicon Valley and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. CBS Digital, Zoic Studios, DNEG, Picture Shop and MR. X also contributed visual effects to Strange Angel.

The wildly imaginative VFX covered a wide range: Jack’s pulp-magazine-inspired daydreams, peyote-induced hallucinations in Joshua Tree National Monument, and cult-ceremony visions. The series opens with Jack’s reverie as he reads Amazing and True magazine on his lunch break at a chemical factory (here renamed the Pueblo Powder Company). He visualizes an ancient Chinese warrior pursuing an enormous tiger at night under a blood-red moon.  “There’s a large opening sequence that sets the tone for what Jack’s fantastical imaginings can be,” comments Jamieson. “I have to give credit to Mark Heyman and David DiGilio and director David Lowery, who really expanded the vision and scope, and made it hyper fantastical. The beast ends up being much larger than any real tiger could be, almost like a saber-toothed cat.”

Parsons and a few rocket enthusiasts (nicknamed the “Suicide Squad”) formed a Caltech-affiliated rocket research group at Caltech and later received U.S. military funding to develop rockets for the World War II fight against Nazi Germany. In a scene in Strange Angel, Jack seeks to manifest his will and achieve his goals via a ceremony with the cult’s high priestess, which leads to a dynamic VFX sequence. Parsons envisions a spiral galaxy, then an alignment of the Earth and Sun that recalls the opening sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“There are a couple of moments in the show that reference 2001,” recalls Lawson Deming, Visual Effects Supervisor (and co-founder of Barnstorm with Jamieson), including “a dimensional space travel aspect through a sort of wormhole.” Those images lead into one of the show’s most stunning visuals, of an astronaut panting a Nazi flag on a lunar surface covered with countless calcified bodies. “The end of that fantasy leads him to a sort of pre-vision of Nazis on the moon. This is part of the empowerment of his sex magick, believing that it’s giving him a vision of the future,” says Deming. “The U.S. was directly competing with Germany and German engineers at the time, designing not just military vehicles but rockets, and this is the inspiration he needs to keep working, this fear.

Lawson Deming, Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-founder, Barnstorm VFX. (Photo courtesy of Barnstorm VFX)

Inside the cockpit of a Japanese dive bomber at Pearl Harbor.

“We created a sequence where the surface of the moon literally looked like dead bodies, sort of calcified like at Pompei, the idea being the Nazis’ ability to reach the moon would be paved with the death of millions. So we brought in some actors who were able to lay still for a long period of time and we made a big pile of naked people and did 3D scans of them lying in various positions, overlapping one another, and collaged a whole bunch of them together. Now, normally with a 3D scan you have a problem with the density and geometry and the fact that 3D scans cast shadows. It can create a sort of lumpy appearance that you have to clean up. Normally you don’t want that, but because we wanted it to look like people buried in moon dust, or turned into fossils, we embraced the inherent technical challenges of a 3D scan to create what looks like a surface paved with bodies.”

Another surreal sequence incorporated period work. Jack parks outside the Athenaeum building, a center of Caltech social life from which he has been excluded. It is October 30, 1938 and he is listening to Orson Welles’ tongue-in-cheek radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Jack happily imagines a Martian invasion and the destruction of the Athenaeum. “We had a very limited schedule in which to shoot,” recalls Deming. “We took a lot of photos of the existing location, which is fairly similar to what it would have been at the time, and removed things like security cameras. We created a digital version of it that could be destroyed, and the alien tripod – a mix of the historical and the fantastical.”

Another shot of the dive bomber at Pearl Harbor, attacking the U.S.S.  California.

Fortunately for the filmmakers, the rest of Caltech today also looks much like it did 80 years ago. “To a certain extent, some portions of the campus have been kept in a similar state to what they were,” says Deming. “We didn’t modify the design much to be historically accurate, other than removing non-period lights and things that wouldn’t have existed then. Caltech is great because a lot of it is still a historical version of itself.”

Susan Parsons knocks on the door of her neighbors, Ernest (Rupert Friend) and Maggie (Elena Satine).

Visual effects were extensively used for period shots in Pasadena and Los Angeles. “We had a lot of support from the production department. The production designer Warren Young did a ton of research and is very knowledgeable in that area as well. We start with a lot of historical photos. Then it goes into location scouting and looking at where you are, where you can film and how you need to modify that. A good example would be the Parsons home, where they live in the beginning of season one, which we found a fairly accurate location for,” recalls Jamieson. The modest single-story abode is next to a steep hillside that has several oil derricks, which were digitally added. Oil was pretty much everywhere at that time and there were orchards all over Southern California,” adds Jamieson.

In terms of period shots, Jamieson notes, “In many cases it was mostly removal of modern things. Shooting on real locations is helpful, but often there’s a modern building there and we have to remove that, or a modern sign, or a modern power transformer, stuff like that. There’s the removal aspect of it and the additions and changes aspects. There’s a great shot towards the end of season one where Susan goes from her parents’ house into the orange orchard outside – the entire orchard is a digital set extension, with rows of CGI trees, to create the look of a period San Fernando Valley.” Another major visual effects accomplishment comes in season two, with the creation of bomb-blasted WWII London as Parsons’s colleague Richard Onsted (Peter Mark Kendall) examines an unexploded German V-2 rocket in the rubble.

Susan (Bella Heathcote) in front of her and Jack’s house, with and without oil derricks on the hillside behind.

A towering Martian tripod blasts Caltech’s Atheneum building, in Jack’s imagination.

Jack imagines a towering rocket of the future that he plans to build.

Season 2 opens with some extraordinary VFX – placing the viewer in the cockpit of a Japanese pilot who is dive bombing the battleship U.S.S. California in the Pearl Harbor attack that started World War II. “That was a very big scene for us,” comments Deming. “I directed the second unit for that sequence. We shot an actor inside of a partial plane cockpit of an Aichi dive bomber and worked together [with production] to create the plane getting riddled with flak. We created fully digital versions of Aichi dive bombers, of the harbor and the U.S.S. California. For the battleship depicted there, we used aerial photography from Pearl Harbor, actual photographic references from the event. There’s a lot of strikingly good photography and there’s a timetable of the attack.” He adds, “We were getting enough accuracy to make you feel like it’s the real thing, but also working within the bounds of the show, which is setting not perfectly historical depictions of things within true history.”

A period Los Angeles scene in Strange Angel.

Jack Parsons (Jack Reynor) in an exuberant mood at a meeting of the Church of Thelema, Aleister Crowley’s occultist religion.

Jamieson notes, “Pearl Harbor was probably the most logistically significant sequence, in the marrying of production and post-production, of CG and research. It just had so many moving parts.” Yet, the whole scene was quite short, some 15 seconds in length. “Sometimes you spend a lot of work on something and then you say, ‘Oh, that was only on screen for a few seconds,’” says Deming, “but the other side of that is there is so much variety, there are so many different things we get to do that nothing is boring. You’re not sitting there, ‘Oh, we’re doing this again,’ where we’re doing this same set extension that we’ve seen a hundred times. The show has such a velocity – every time they’re testing a rocket we’re making a new rocket for them. Every time it goes to a different location we see different things.”

Jack Parsons, high on peyote in the Joshua Tree desert, crashes his car and finds himself high on the moon.

Rockets – practical and digital – are ever present in Strange Angel, ranging from small test rockets to Jack’s grandiose imaginary rockets. Jamieson comments, “The dud rocket in the first episode is a practical rocket, and the art department designed a large rocket that we built in CG effects.” In addition, “there’s a prototype rocket that Jack launches from the top of a hill in Pasadena and it explodes – that was a practical rocket that the visual effects and art departments put together, then we created a digital version of it. In a lot of cases there will be some practical element, and when an actual launch happens or an explosion happens we’ll build a visual effects version.”

Jack Parsons, Professor Filip Mesulam (Rade Serbedzija) and Richard Onsted (Peter Mark Kendall) observe a rocket test in the hills above Pasadena.

Assessing the various types of VFX in the show, Deming comments, “If I were to speak in general terms, I think the fantasies are probably the most challenging. Whereas with the historical you have a very clear idea of what something should look like and what it should be, with the fantasy stuff some of it is so abstract that it simply requires a lot of back and forth on determining how to achieve it. And everyone has a different idea of what something should be. You read the script and have one idea of what it should be, and the writer who wrote it has a different idea, then the director has a different idea, and then the editor has a different idea, so working together on those fantasy sequences is probably the most challenging because they have the most different directions they could go.”

Watch the trailer for Season 2 of Strange Angel.

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