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December 13
2018

ISSUE

Winter 2019

VFX Rules the Cyberpunk Universe of ALTERED CARBON

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

Before and after. Revived mercenary turned sleuth Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) surveys Bay City in the Netflix presentation of Altered Carbon. Showrunner Leta Kalogridis and Visual Effects Supervisor Everett Burrell selected DNEG TV as principal VFX provider for the series, which has been renewed for a second season. (All images courtesy of Netflix)

“We wanted to see what they did to make [Blade Runner] work so well. And in turn, that made us think about what we could do to achieve a similar level of credible spectacle, but without falling into straight emulation, which wouldn’t have done credit to the great source material Altered Carbon is based on.”

—Everett Burrell, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor

Before and after. A key visual component in Altered Carbon relates to how the rich quite literally occupy the high ground, known as the Aerium, above the clouds, while the have-not ‘Grounders’ scrounge out a living near the ground. Middle-class life exists on the levels in between.

The science fiction subgenre of Cyberpunk really came into its own during the 1980s, but its origins can be found in the science fiction ‘new wave’ movement of the ‘60s, when edgy authors such as Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison experimented with their narrative voices to explore social mores as well as how technology would impact likely future dystopias.

More than 30 years on from author William Gibson’s trailblazing novel Neuromancer and the Ridley Scott-directed feature film Blade Runner (itself an adaptation of Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Netflix series Altered Carbon delves deep into the Cyberscape, focusing on differences between haves and have-nots in a realm wealthy with both stylistic excesses and urban grit.

Based upon a novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon takes place centuries hence in a radically-transformed San Francisco known as Bay City. A human’s consciousness in its entirety can be stored in a disk and implanted into different bodies known as ‘sleeves.’ Long-dead soldier-turned-mercenary Takeshi Kovacs (played in the present by Joel Kinnaman, and by Will Yun Lee in flashbacks to a past sleeve-life), is restored to life at the behest of wealthy Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who challenges Kovacs to solve the rich man’s own murder.

For Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Everett Burrell, who would oversee principal VFX vendor DNEG TV as well as Milk VFX, Atomic Arts and Pixel Light Effects, working on Altered Carbon harkened back to early in his career, when he focused on prosthetic effects while fabricating alien creatures for the Babylon 5 series. “It’s really kind of funny how much Altered Carbon reminded me in some ways of B5,” he acknowledges. “Both shows offered up a lot of new ideas, each proving to be very exciting in terms of how they explored a unique landscape. My background in practical effects afforded me a deep affection for making in-camera solutions work when that is an option, which is something I still believe in, though a marriage between techniques is often the best solution.”

Burrell joined the pre-production effort in May 2016. “Production Designer Carey Meyer (Firefly) had come on in April, so they already had a good handle on aspects of the city, like Bancroft’s tower,” Burrell states. “He and I hit it off right away, and I very much enjoyed how we could riff back and forth about visual concepts. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis was a very active participant as well while we spent a month exploring various ideas. One focus of our design effort was visualizing the differences between various classes of citizens. The Grounders existed in the lower levels, and the Aerium, high above the clouds, is where the wealthiest lived. Between them was Twilight, who represented the upper-middle section of society.”

Although black and white films like Touch of Evil and The Third Man were touch-points for the Altered Carbon design effort, the (replicant) elephant in the room remained Scott’s Blade Runner. “One of the first things we did as a group was go to a really nice theater at DeLuxe to watch it again,” says Burrell. “We wanted to see what they did to make that film work so well. In turn, that made us think about what we could do to achieve a similar level of credible spectacle, but without falling into straight emulation, which wouldn’t have done credit to the great source material Altered Carbon is based on. While people remember Blade Runner for those iconic cityscapes, the film actually has tons of close-ups of Deckard and Rachel talking with everything out of focus behind them, owing to long lenses. And that worked well for us, because when you put a long lens on the Alexa 65, it mimics that lack of depth of field, and the out of focus background registers in an impressionistic way that, while still looking cool, isn’t totally about the detail and texture way back there in frame.”

More recent efforts in the subgenre were less influential. “We watched the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” Burrell reveals, “but Laeta didn’t like that palette, so we steered well clear of the pinkish hues and made a point of muting our greens, especially during the DI. And when I saw Blade Runner 2049, we realized they had put a dam in, just like our dam around San Francisco Bay. I was like, ‘Oh shit, they got here first!’ But as these films all feature extrapolation from present-day concerns, it kind of makes sense we both drew similar conclusions about rising sea levels. The thing we had that 2049 didn’t was a beautiful, sunny, pristine world that wasn’t mired in fog and haze, revealed once we broke through those clouds.”

Burrell acknowledges that there was very much a blue-sky aspect to this early development work, and that when reality set in, the possibilities were scaled back somewhat. “But I have to say, we aimed very high with this, always intending a Game of Thrones level of production with extremely high-quality visuals, making a particular effort to get our CG to a photoreal level. Ironically, some stuff built practically, like the limousine, had such a nice finish that when we created an exact duplicate in CG, our first turntable looked so pristine and perfect that it generated all these ‘It looks totally fake!’ responses. We wound up having to put extra layers of dirt and scratches on our digital model in order for people to believe this candy-apple/new-car/showroom finish.”

The Netflix mandate for 4K delivery was a higher specification than Burrell has dealt with for feature work, but advance planning facilitated the workflow. Encore Vancouver processed digital dailies as ProRes 4444 XQ files, capable of supporting 12-bit imagery, while a Technicolor innovation enabled efficient linkage with overseas facilities.

“We talked at length with DNEG TV about the huge amount of data generated by these Alexa 65 cameras,” Burrell reports, “and were able to take advantage of a new feature offered by DeLuxe called the [Synapse] Portal. That offered iCloud storage at native resolution, which could be 5K or 6K. We would send an EDL to the portal, which, via Espera, was a seamless way to push data across the ocean to our UK vendors.” Final delivery was managed by Encore Hollywood, including finishing in Dolby Vision HDR.

While DNEG took on the lion’s share of VFX shots, Atomic Arts handled a variety of muzzle flashes and bullet hits, and Lola – which had just opened a U.K. facility – took on cosmetic fix-it work, which helped distinguish the skins of various ‘sleeves.’ “Laeta really liked the work Milk VFX did on another U.K. show, and wanted us to find a place for them,” notes Burrell. “Since episode 7 was a kind of standalone episode [it takes place in an earlier time, showing Kovacs in his previous incarnation] and had its own unique look, we figured that Milk could take most of that on and give DNEG a break from the huge bulk of work needed for the rest of the series.”

Milk VFX Supervisor Nicolas Hernandez spearheaded Milk’s 70-shot contribution, and Pixel Light Effects completed the list of providers, handling scanning duties on set. Meyer built the enormous five-block street set inside of a Vancouver, B.C. warehouse. “That Bay City street featured massive Calatrava-like structures along with storefronts,” notes Burrell. “We could achieve daylight versions of the location as well as a night look, owing to these amazing [UV translight] backdrops at each end of the street. They could be used frontlit or backlit, and made a world of difference  for us. If we’d had to shoot bluescreen with all the smoke and rain being used, VFX would have been dead right out of the gate.”

Before and after. Wary of how some digital water solutions look less liquid and more like CG Jell-O, Burrell found DNEG’s Houdini-based sim, augmented by Ludiq’s Chronos, to be both robust and visually credible.

“Ironically, some stuff built practically, like the limousine, had such a nice finish that when we created an exact duplicate in CG, our first turntable looked so pristine and perfect that it generated all these ‘It looks totally fake!’ responses. We wound up having to put extra layers of dirt and scratches on our digital model in order for people to believe this candy-apple/new-car/showroom finish.”

—Everett Burrell, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor

Before and after. DNEG used lidar scan data from the full-size set, then employed City Engine to model all the numerous structures that brought Bay City to cinematic life. Burrell strove to incorporate the practical imperfections inherent in reality for the CG cityscape.

Before and after. Production designer Carey Meyer built a huge stretch of street within a warehouse, which in addition to VFX set extensions, also exploited UV translight backdrops that could be front- or back-lit to create day and night vistas.

“Visually, we’ll be able to distinguish each show from what has gone before, because of the varied input of so many different creatives, from showrunners and cinematographers to VFX artists.”

—Everett Burrell, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor

Scenes from Altered Carbon

This in-camera solution worked for a large majority of street views, until the camera tilted up, at which point DNEG’s involvement came to the fore. The vendor utilized Esri’s City Engine software to model dozens of structures that made up thousands of Bay City buildings. “DNEG took a lidar scan of the set and used it as part of their foundation for digital buildings extending upward past what Carey had constructed,” Burrell continues. “The imperfections in the full-size build that were acquired via this process helped enormously when achieving convincing detail in the CG, which might otherwise have featured too-perfect lines to the buildings on this street. If you look at Peter Ellenshaw’s matte paintings for Disney up close and in person, you see actual paint strokes amid these blotchy patches of color, and yet on film, that all translates to beautifully-realized environments. Detail is needed, but if the form and function aren’t right, the detail won’t help.”

Burrell believes that training in the arts is still beneficial in the digital era, perhaps even essential. “Without an education in the traditional arts, you don’t know how to apply the rules or when to break them,” he emphasizes. “I think a lot of digital artists who don’t have that background and/or training – and this isn’t intended as disparagement of ability, just observation – don’t know some of the practical applications for extending things in the digital world. You must know how to mimic the chaos and weirdness that comes from mixing colors in reality, or shooting with a lens that distorts the image lines. I try to bring my education from high school and college to what I need to achieve on set.”

A full view of Bay City – San Francisco centuries in the future.

As an example, Burrell cites a most basic tool. “In my bag, I keep a color wheel with me at all times. I use this to show people what kind of result to expect when mixing certain colors. You can get these at any art store, and they are the basis for any painter, but you don’t always see them being utilized.”

Pilot director Miguel Sapochnik, responsible for setting much of the tone for the series, also had a lot of input on the visuals. “Miguel indicated he didn’t want to see just that same old Princess Leia hologram,” Burrell relates, “so at first we experimented with subtle, ghost-like images then went extreme, introducing a lot of static and weird distortions. The subtler we went, the worse it seemed to look, though for one episode, there was a special kind of high-end hologram, when they walk through a very glossy-looking area. There are three holograms featured in that environment that are very large with a real presence, and it was an interesting experiment, to make these stand out as a kind of Rolex of holograms. In the end, it turned out the Princess Leia version often looked best, because it is both cool and funky, which, when you’re down on street level, worked much better artistically while serving the story.”

With the series set in a futuristic version of the city by the bay, it only figures that water simulations – including one featuring a large craft crashing into the bay – were a significant part of the VFX equation. “With lots of CG water, I see the scale doesn’t look right,” reports Burrell. “Most software seems to max out at about 50 feet, and when you go beyond that, CG waters tends to look more like Jell-O. ILM has written a better water sim that seems to go beyond everybody else’s, that deals with fine detail and dirty water, a big step up from how CG water used to look like snot. DNEG’s sim, owing to a Houdini engine, was pretty robust, using [Ludig’s] Chronos, which lets you sculpt atop the simulation once the mesh is baked out. Even so, it was three or four takes before they got things right. On one take, the water went so high, it went right though the Golden Gate Bridge and would have killed everybody!”

Another deadly situation for Bay City dwellers takes place in a vertical arena in which weightless combat is waged. Production found a theater in the round at a local university to stand in for the venue. “All of that zero-g battle needed to look as real as possible,” maintains Burrell, “so that ruled out early discussions about greenscreen and digital doubles. While there were a lot of cheats – Joel is sometimes just sitting on a bouncy-ball – along with some set extensions and wire removals, getting 99% of that in-camera helped us maintain a visceral quality to the sequence.”

Even prior to being nominated for a VFX Emmy, Altered Carbon already won a renewal for a second season from Netflix, which intends to continue the adventures of Kovacs, with Anthony Mackie taking over as the character’s newest ‘skin’ in a second season slated to air later in 2019. “I think that Cyberpunk will remain a very popular subgenre,” Burrell concludes. “Visually, we’ll be able to distinguish each show from what has gone before, because of the varied input of so many different creatives, from showrunners and cinematographers to VFX artists.”

A map of the San Francisco Bay Area centuries from now, known as Bay City in Altered Carbon.

“Most software seems to max out at about 50 feet, and when you go beyond that, CG waters tends to look more like Jell-O. ILM has written a better water sim that seems to go beyond everybody else’s, that deals with fine detail and dirty water, a big step up from how CG water used to look…”

—Everett Burrell, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor

A “sleeve sack” in Altered Carbon. A human’s consciousness can be stored in a disk and implanted into different bodies known as “sleeves.”

Concept art of Bay City, the Golden Gate Bridge and Bancroft’s Tower in Altered Carbon.

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