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November 20
2018

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

The Long, Fearful Flight of George R.R. Martin’s NIGHTFLYERS

By TREVOR HOGG

Before writing about dragons, White Walkers and the seven kingdoms of Westeros in the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire – A Game of Thrones, author George R.R. Martin published a novella in 1980 about a haunted spaceship called Nightflyers. The 1987 film adaptation was criticized by Martin for changing his female lead from being black to white. Three decades later that casting decision gets rectified with a television series adapted by executive producer and showrunner Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train) in partnership with Universal Cable Productions and Syfy.

“George created a distinct and interesting world with some compelling characters,” notes Buhler. “The story is about 100 pages, so in the plot itself there’s a lot of room to create things, which was fun and exciting for me. We didn’t want to limit ourselves creatively by the size of the world and ideas.”

“Mike Cahill [who directed the pilot episode] is an incredible director,” adds Buhler. “He took on a lot of the pre-production and design elements to help build the world from the ground up. I would extend that to our Production Designer, David Sandefur, and to Guy Hendrix Dyas, who did the initial ship designs [inspired by the idea of colony building].”

Territory Studio provided UI for the bridge bay, medlabs and the commander center table. (All images courtesy of Syfy and Netflix.)

“We wanted to lean into the design of the ship [the Nightflyer] and make sure that was at a high level in terms of the cinematic quality, that it didn’t feel like anything that we’d seen before and spoke to the unique concepts of the show. The ship is one of our lead characters, so we wanted to give it as much personality as possible. It’s intrinsic to the mythology and mystery.”

—Jeff Buhler, Executive Producer/Showrunner

A massive interior set was built in Limerick, Ireland, for the Nightflyer

As much as possible, blood and gore was done practically. (Photo: Steffan Hill)

Key cinematic influences were The Shining and Alien. “A lot of people think that you need to have a dark space for horror to occur, but much that happens in the Overlook Hotel [in The Shining] is brightly lit and vibrant in terms of visual backdrop and context,” Buhler relates. “The tone of Alien influenced me because there’s a level of tension from the first frame that never goes away. Ridley Scott allows things to boil slowly, leaves the horror in a psychological realm, enables characters who are identifiable to butt up against each other, and builds conflict that way, rather than relying on jump scares and cheap gags.” Exposition was incorporated into the storytelling by a device known as a memory sphere, as well as having a telepath as a character. “Those are both ways for us to see visually what is making people tick and what’s inside their heads.”

Cast members Eoin Macken, David Ajala, Gretchen Mol and Jodie Turner-Smith are supported by a visual effects team led by Spin VFX President and executive producer Neishaw Ali, supervising producer Josa Porter and co-supervisors Kris Wood and Kirk Brillon. Serving as the main vendor was Spin VFX, with Territory Studio supplying user interfaces, and Switch Visual Effects providing additional support.

The entire set was lit with LED lighting.

“We had a lot of conversations about the sounds the ship makes when it’s active, inactive, and when you’re not sure if it’s active or not.”

— Jeff Buhler, Executive Producer/Show Runner

Four 20 to 30-foot-long LED screens were positioned around the practical set to project the view of outer space.

“I like to see things in front of the camera,” explains Buhler. “For the actors to be able to play to real things, and then digitally augment the things that could never be created practically to get that sense of wonder and awe.” Approached by Nightflyers line producer Sean Ryerson, Ali was asked to meet with executives at Syfy and NBCUniversal to bid on the project.

“We went through everything from conceptualization of the ship and production methodology to on-set supervision,” recalls Ali. “Our first attempt at bidding involves reading the script in early stages, then creating a detailed breakdown based on discussions with the creatives.  During every day of shooting we would let [producer] Patrick Ward and Sean know how the shoot was stacking up against the budget and alert them to any potential overages. This especially serves to inform the production of how to editorially manage the visual effects budget without compromising the creative storytelling.”

The Nightflyer was a huge asset to build, and it had to withstand distant and close-up shots. 

By having the trust of the production team, Spin VFX was able to set up the show in the most efficient way to complete the work at its Toronto-based facility. “We knew approximately the number of shots and level of complexity that there were going to be,” explains Ali. “As a result, we were able to match up the artist with the difficulty level of the sequences. If a shot required complex CG, matte painting or effects, we would get those types of artists. As a result, we were able to set up an efficient pipeline within our studio, and Kris Wood, who was our on-set visual effects supervisor, was awesome to work with as he provided transparency.”

Concept art needed to be developed for some characters that appear toward the end of season. “That was a great experience, getting all of my artists excited about this project and getting them to go crazy on the designs,” states Brillon, who was the visual effects supervisor managing the creative production at Spin VFX. “From there we had to narrow it down with the guidance of Jeff to create some amazing stuff.”

Complicating matters was the time difference between Limerick, Ireland, where principal photography was taking place, and Los Angeles, the location of the production company and the writers’ room.  “Once a week we were doing conference calls to develop some of our creatures and environments,” remarks Wood. “There were a lot of late night and early morning discussions resulting from people being situated in different time zones.”

Another difficulty were the tight timelines. “We were shooting on average seven days for each episode, but we would start them overlapping another episode. While all of that was going on we’d prep another episode. I had a great coordinator and trainee and good support from the other departments. That was a challenge,” says Wood, “but we got it done!

“The other thing is that I loved the science of it. Sometimes you have to suspend that and go, ‘The science of it would do that, but it doesn’t look cool, so we have to do something else.’”

Most of the action takes place on the Nightflyer, which resulted in the construction of a huge practical interior set. “We wanted to lean into the design of the ship and make sure that was at a high level in terms of the cinematic quality, that it didn’t feel like anything that we’d seen before and spoke to the unique concepts of the show,” states Buhler. “The ship is one of our lead characters so we wanted to give it as much personality as possible. It’s intrinsic to the mythology and mystery.”

Different environments that are part of the Nightflyer are contained in domes. 

“We have multiple environments within the ship that exist in the domes. Set extensions were a fun part of my job. We were only able to build an eighth of the cargo bay. Every time we would go into that environment, especially with a new director, we had to give him a real idea of the massiveness of the space.”

—Kris Wood, Visual Effects Supervisor

Every door and hatch needed to be functional and have a purpose. 

The Nightflyer is a haunted spaceship that inflicts various psychological and physical torments on its inhabitants. 

A mandate from the production was to make sure that the spacecraft was grounded in reality. “In order for us to do that we had to do our due diligence,” states Brillon. “How does the ship react to light in space? What happens in space? What is the natural flow of the camera? We set about looking at natural phenomenon and did a lot of space research by visiting the NASA website and talking to various people.”

Early on it was decided that the Nightflyer took a full generation to build and was done in phases. “The lower parts near the rockets up to the sphere were the first portions built in the 2040s, and looks the closest to what we recognize as NASA-era space station technology,” explains Buhler. “The most modern part is the addition of the ring and dome.”

The hero asset was built to scale in virtual space and had details such as hoses, vents, and covers. “It was a challenge on my part to understand how spaceships are made, how they’re held together and age over time,” remarks Brillon. “Then just the sheer fact of having something that big make sense so you can fly a camera through any window.” The Nightflyer is treated as a character through the sound design. “We had a lot of conversations about the sounds the ship makes when it’s active, inactive, and when you’re not sure if it’s active or not,” says Buhler.

Spin VFX looked at different natural phenomenon, visited the NASA website, and talked to various people to figure out how things react to light. 

“The lower parts near the rockets up to the sphere were the first portions [of the Nightflyer] built in the 2040s, and looks the closest to what we recognize as NASA-era space station technology. The most modern part is the addition of the ring and dome.”

—Jeff Buhler, Executive Producer/Showrunner

A mandate from the production was to make sure that the Nightflyer was grounded in reality.

There was world building beyond the huge practical set built for the Nightflyer. “We have multiple environments within the ship that exist in these domes,” adds Wood. “Set extensions were a fun part of my job. We were only able to build an eighth of the cargo bay.  Every time we would go into that environment, especially with a new director, we had to give him a real idea of the massiveness of the space.” Brillon chuckles. “I now know a lot more about the International Space Station than I thought I would ever in my life! It’s one of those things where in trying to get the believability, how do we build stuff now and take that forward 90 years? What would that technology look like? We didn’t have too much to do with the interior of the ship, for the most part, outside of the domes and cargo bay, which were based on concepts by the art department.”

Screen situated on the bridge bay monitoring oxygen levels.

The command center set was covered with LED panels, with the computer screen graphics created by Territory Studio being practically played on set. “We worked closely with David Ingram in the art department, Naomi Moore and Andrew McCarthy in set decoration, and Tara Doolan, the assistant to the directors, to achieve as much efficiency as possible,” states Territory Studio Creative Lead Sam Keehan, who set up a team of motion-graphic artists in Limerick, Ireland, where the production was situated. “From background screens to specific story beats and interactions, we supplied somewhere in the region of 1,500 assets across 29 sets in 10 episodes.” Computer graphics needed to be produced for various medical labs, cabins, the mess hall, cargo bay and a hydroponics lab.

“The various types of rooms required the user interface [UI] to perform many different tasks while still feeling part of the same system,” explains Keehan. “From social tasks, like video calls, to research and medical examinations, we practically created a fully-fledged OS. The command center is definitely a good example of how challenging it can be to create UI that will work across a whole ship and also support the narratives in each set. In tackling this challenge, we created UI that could easily move or replace whole sections of screens. This was to allow the screen to serve as both background textural movement and, at the press of a hotkey, allow it to transform and display specific story beats, before settling back into its background state. The choice to approach the design this way allowed us to give directors the flexibility to move actions from one side of a set to another without too much pain.”

Four 20 to 30-foot-long LED screens were positioned around the main bridge to represent the view of outer space. “We created visual content to go on those screens so it wasn’t just a lighting source,” notes Wood.  “An individual server would struggle with one single 6.5K image, so we built across multiple servers so each server ran a smaller chunk, and were all jammed-locked together to run simultaneously.” Buhler was impressed with the end results. “It was extremely helpful not just for our actors but in reducing the number of visual effects shots.

“You see the arms of the ring that carries the dome when you pass,” Wood continues. “We had an element of motion and were able to have viewers keep track of the perspective, the scope and size of the ship while we were in those settings. Because there are portions of the ship going by outside of the window, we were able to project light sources onto those materials. In the first episode we leave the Earth. As we go towards the edge of the solar system, our light source, the sun, gets further away and the ship gets darker. The elements on the LED screens enable us to express this change in atmosphere and tone of the crew as they move towards the conclusion of the first season.”

A hand is being examined in a Med Lab.

“We created visual content to go on those [large LED] screens so it wasn’t just a lighting source. An individual server would struggle with one single 6.5K image, so we built across multiple servers so each server ran a smaller chunk and were all jammed-locked together to run simultaneously.”

—Kris Wood, Visual Effects Supervisor

UI created by Territory Studio for the Hydroponics Lab situated inside the Terraform Dome.

Screen found in the Life Pod monitoring the thrusters.

A complicated camera move needed to be figured out for a particular episode. “We shot photogrammetry of the practical set, got all of the specs from the grips and online for what our dolly and crane were capable of doing, set it all up in previs, and created the shot,” recalls Wood. “We were not only able to show what the camera angles we would be able to achieve, but also to give a witness cam view to the camera crew and grips so we could help them visualize what it was the director wanted to see and what we would have to set up. It worked beautifully.”

An effort was made to have a consistent camera style. “We didn’t always have access to all of the directors and what they were thinking, so we tried to keep inline with their basic camera moves and styles,” states Brillon. “I kept trying to push the boundaries when it came to some of the CG shots of the ship, to keep them interesting.”

Violence is required by the plot. “There are times when seeing something on screen as opposed to cutting away is important for storytelling because it helps to set up the psychological state of the characters,” states Buhler, “as long as those shifts in characters are carried through the show. Sometimes you need to establish what has happened so you understand the gravitas of the situation. Seeing it emotionally land on the characters who are on screen at that time is what creates the horror, fear and tension.”

A massive practical interior set of the Nightflyer was built at Troy Studios in Limerick, Ireland.

“During every day of shooting we would let [producer] Patrick Ward and Sean [line producer Sean Ryerson] know how the shoot was stacking up against the budget and alert them to any potential overages. This especially serves to inform the production of how to editorially manage the visual effects budget without compromising the creative storytelling.”

—Neishaw Ali, President, Spin VFX

Left to right: Cast members Eoin Macken, Gretchen Mol and Angus Sampson discuss a scene with director Mike Cahill.

An effort was made to shoot the blood and gore in camera. “We created as much practical material as we had time, with the intention that if more was needed in post, it would be added digitally,” explains Wood. “With our fire sequences, we got some great practical stuff from our stunts and special effects people. Adding layers of CG smoke and fire gave us an opportunity to hide things we didn’t want people to see, or to augment things to make them seem more violent than we were able to shoot on the day.” The color of the blood was not an issue. “This is one of the few times that I’ve ever worked on a show where, ‘That’s the color of blood. Match it. We’re good to go,’” remarks Brillon. “There are a bunch of new effects later in the season that I had to research and look at various examples in nature to try to figure out what would exactly happen in our version to create the horror and grossness that was needed.”

Intricate and complex fractal simulations went through extensive research and development while new effects tools and pipeline shortcuts were implemented so that changes could be perpetuated into multiple scenes. “We did a lot of the texturing procedurally so the Nightflyer holds up to any angle, but we didn’t have to make huge texture maps,” explains Brillon. “The biggest challenge was making sure that everything worked going from a wide shot of the whole ship to the micro level.”

Overall the biggest challenge as a creative group was cramming so many big conceptualized ideas into 10 episodes. “We bit off a huge piece of science fiction and never wanted to compromise on our ambition,” observes Buhler. “It was getting all of that in there and having it make sense, be realistic, grounded and thrilling. One of my goals was to not create any episode that didn’t surprise the audience in some way. There should be a WTF moment each week, and we’ve accomplished that.”

All 10 episodes of Nightflyers will debut across all Syfy platforms timed to the beginning of the linear telecast starting December 2. Episodes 1-5 will debut Sunday, December 2 through Thursday, December 6 at 10/9c, and episodes 6-10 on Sunday, December 9 through Thursday, December 13 at 10/9c with limited commercial interruption across all platforms.


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