By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
Until this year, the cult-classic ‘60s TV series Lost in Space was marooned in a shrinking universe, still beloved by fans but sorely needing the narrative and effects upgrades accorded to other venerable properties such as Star Trek, Superman and Batman.
There was a poorly received 1998 movie with William Hurt, Mimi Rogers and Gary Oldman, but nothing that restored the luster of the franchise. Now, in 2018, Netflix has rebooted Lost in Space with fresh storytelling and high-budget VFX from top-flight effects/animation studios on four continents.
Lost in Space (1965-1968) related the adventures of a family of space colonists who veered off course and had to survive in hostile and peculiar alien environments. It was wholesome family entertainment that didn’t take itself too seriously and sometimes indulged in silliness. The Robinsons encountered cosmic storms, aliens, telepaths, Vikings, space cowboys, pirates, wizards and even giant talking vegetables. Many episodes focused on young Will Robinson (Bill Mumy), bumbling saboteur Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) and the sardonic Robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld). Lost in Space could be sleek or low-budget: it had a John Williams theme, an expensive Jupiter 2 spaceship interior, an iconic robot, and impressive accessories – laser guns, jet packs, chariots and space pods—yet producer Irwin Allen also cut costs with recycled props and monsters, some coming from his show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Although sci-fi purists looked down on the show, the unique narrative mix was an initial hit, with better first-year ratings than Star Trek and significant merchandise sales. Lost in Space retained a loyal fan base in syndication in the following decades.
Netflix’s Lost in Space is still a family show, but the gravitas has been significantly enhanced, and the visual effects are formidable. Legendary Television filmed season one between January and July 2017 in Vancouver. As in the original, the Robinsons are lost colonists who must survive on an unknown Earth-like planet and discover that they are not alone in their new home.
Terron Pratt, Visual Effects Producer for Lost in Space, has won two VES Awards for his work on Black Sails, while Visual Effects Supervisor Jabbar Raisani is a Game of Thrones Visual Effects Emmy winner and director of the sci-fi film Alien Outpost (2015). Their presence in the production signifies that Lost in Space is taking its VFX quite seriously.
“I’d say we are radically different in the look and tone of the show,” comments Pratt. “It has extremely high production values, epic scope and scale, with massive landscapes and very elaborate action CG sequences, so I’d say in that regard it’s very different from the original.”
While the first Lost in Space resided squarely in practical effects, the new edition is heavily digital. “It’s all across the board. We’re doing a wide gamut of effects,” says Pratt. “There are completely CG shots, where every single aspect is created in the computer, all the way to some very simple composites. In terms of the most complex work, there are full CG ships, creatures, people and environments. It’s extensive.”
“We are radically different in the look and tone of the show. It has extremely high production values, epic scope and scale, with massive landscapes and very elaborate action CG sequences, so I’d say in that regard it’s very different from the original.”
—Terron Pratt, Visual Effects Producer
“A big part of the challenge for a show like this is the scope of production and knowing when to go to digital and when to go practical,” says Raisani. In terms of the Jupiter 2 spaceship, “the ship interior was fully constructed, while the most that was made on the exterior was a ramp.” He continues, “Our ship is 115 feet wide, and it is hard to understand that scope and that scale until you go out on location and figure out what that would take. Even to build a part of that ship is a massive undertaking. Those are long conversations we had over and over about what made the most sense and where that part of the budget should go, and ultimately we decided that that money was best spent in visual effects. Since we were going to have CG flying ships anyway, we decided we should take over all the ships in the show.”
The new Lost in Space robot is menacing and radically different from the original, with a more humanoid-shaped body and a mysterious back story; it was created with full practical shots, combination practical-and-digital shots, and full CG shots. (The iconic 1965 model was designed by the late Robert Kinoshita, who had previously created Tabor for Tabor the Great and Robby the Robot for Forbidden Planet). One holdover from the original model is the use of lights in the robot’s face to suggest emotion.
Of the 10 episodes, eight in 10 have extremely intensive visual effects sequences, according to Pratt and Raisani, and the other two aren’t what one normally thinks of as “bottle episodes.” One involved “a massive sequence with a ship escaping calamity. It’s small in terms of shot count, but in terms of complexity it’s still rather high for that one episode. Overall, shot-count wise, the show is huge. We are heading toward 2,700 shots in the 10 episodes,” notes Pratt.
The massive VFX effort required a huge team working together, and Lost in Space is a thoroughly global effort, with post production based in Santa Monica.
“Everyone knew the property and everybody knew it was being made by Netflix, and everyone wanted to get on it. Vendors were fighting to get on the show,” says Pratt. “We’re above 20 vendors. We’re mostly at that size of production because of our timeline. Ideally, we would limit to a small number of vendors, but in order to get the shot count pushed through in under a year, we branched out to everywhere. We have vendors in Sweden, Ireland, Germany, South Africa, Canada, India, the U.S. East and West Coasts, and Texas.
“We’re kind of everywhere,” Pratt adds. “Our core team is Important Looking Pirates [ILP] in Stockholm, Image Engine in Vancouver, Cinesite in Montreal, Rhythm and Hues in L.A., and El Ranchito in Spain [Madrid], and then we work out of L.A. [Santa Monica]. The post-production office is here and we’re the hub and epicenter of all the effects, everything that’s happening.”
Each vendor faced its own exotic obstacles. “The most challenging sequence Cinesite worked on has to be the storm sequence which sees the Robinson’s battling the diamond rain in the woods before trying to outrun its path of destruction in the open,” says Cinesite VFX Supervisor Aymeric Perceval. “It was a dramatic scene with hundreds and hundreds of sharp diamonds raining down on the Robinsons from above.” Cinesite dealt with storms as well as an alien ship among its more than 170 different shots. Meanwhile, ILP’s challenges included the Jupiter 2, a spacewalk, a crash site and an alien glacier environment. “It was a super exciting show for us to work on,” comments ILP Executive Producer Måns Björklund.
“We cast the vendors based upon on their skill set, and also the amount of time necessary to free them up for the next large body of work later down the road,” says Raisani. “For example, ILP’s main episodes are one, three and 10, but they’ve got a little bit of work scattered throughout. As we’re breaking down the scripts and as we start to shoot and award the material, we look at where we want to preserve some of the larger vendors, to make sure we can allocate work appropriately.”
For European or Asian vendors, time-zone differences can add an extra challenge. Pratt says, “We’re just kind of rolling constantly. When we’re getting up in the morning, the Swedish team is wrapping their day, so there’s a little bit of overlap. We’ve done calls at 8 a.m. with Sweden and then 9 p.m. with India on the same day.”
“Working with different time zones actually works quite well,” says ILP Visual Effects Supervisor Niklas Jacobson, based in Stockholm. “We submit all our work and do our cineSync sessions and Skype calls at the end of our day, [which is] the beginning of the day in LA. Our client has all the material they need in their morning and they can review it and pass written notes back to us at the end of their day. Then we’ve got all the latest feedback when we jump start our days in the office.”
Just as many vendors sought to work on Lost in Space, it was easy to recruit Raisani for the new series. “I’m a huge sci-fi fan and also fantasy fan. Before Thrones I’d read all the books before I ever knew the show was going to be a thing. [I was intrigued] as soon as I heard they were going to do a version of Lost in Space. I was familiar with the show. I told most people that this show was a kind of television version of all the t-shirts I owned. So it was a good fit for me.
“When we had our initial meetings, they told me the type of show they wanted to make, and I said, ‘If you guys are really serious about doing that level of quality and production on a science fiction show, then I’m in.’ To get an opportunity to do something of this scope and scale where there are robots and spaceships, I’m in.”
Pratt adds, “I heard about Lost in Space when I was mid-season in season four [of Black Sails]. Right around the end of the year , I got a call that there was a possibility I could come on and do this project. As I was wrapping up Black Sails, I started conversations with Jabbar and Legendary [Television]. And the timing worked out for me. By the time we finish season one, we’ll have been on the show 17 months. It’s been a long journey for the two of us because we came on early.”
“Our [Jupiter 2] spaceship ship is 115 feet wide, and it is hard to understand that scope and that scale until you go out on location and figure out what that would take. Even to build a part of that ship is a massive undertaking.… Ultimately we decided that that money was best spent in visual effects. Since we were going to have CG flying ships anyway, we decided we should take over all the ships in the show.”
—Jabbar Raisani, Visual Effects Supervisor
More than 50 years after the debut of the original Lost in Space, the new version has taken full advantage of state-of-the-art VFX. “Our executive producers and writers have leaned into that as well,” says Pratt. “We’ve been able to select the best teams we can find because of the attention the show has gotten. People are excited to be involved in the project. That’s also helped us out, allowed us to elevate it yet even further.”
While Lost in Space has undergone a radical transformation, Pratt notes, “There are definitely nods of the cap to the original here and there. You don’t want to alienate those who loved and enjoyed the old one, but you definitely progress for a modern audience to make sure you’re telling a story that is using all the latest, greatest technology and putting something out there that is above and beyond what’s currently on the market. That’s what we’re going for: high-end production values, and to make sure to not leave behind those people who really enjoyed the original.”