Altered Carbon
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Credit: Netflix

Emmy Contender: The Altered Carbon VFX team watched Blade Runner together before production began

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Aug 16, 2018, 4:24 PM EDT (Updated)

Netflix's Altered Carbon is filled with amazing visual effects – hologram ads, artificial-intelligence constructs, virtual-reality worlds, and a completely re-imagined version of San Francisco. Take a look at how the orbital brothel called Head in the Clouds crashes into a very deep San Francisco Bay, and you'll see why Emmy-nominated senior VFX supervisor Everett Burrell describes the show's effects — the destruction of the ship, the water simulations, the look of the sky — as "feature-film level."

Burrell helped design this world with showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, executive producer Steve Blackman, and production designer Carey Meyer, who kicked off the project by sitting down at a coffee table and riffing on all the ways this new world had to be built from the ground up. Burrell chatted with SYFY WIRE about their initial references, hidden Easter eggs, and who he wanted the hotel's AI construct to be.

What were your initial film and architectural references? Blade Runner's an obvious one.

For any cyberpunk world, yes. We started with references of real things, like real-world architecture. I brought in reference books about Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright. And then when Miguel [Sapochnik] got hired as a director for episode one, he brought in a whole set of things that he wanted us to look at — film noir movies such as The Third Man, Touch of Evil, and The Lady from Shanghai. He brought this look-book that he made for his Netflix presentation, which was pretty extensive, and literally all of us, all the department heads, we went to a really great screening room in Vancouver, and we sat down and we watched Blade Runner all together, as a family.

It was like, we love the film, we want to pay respect to it, but at the same time, we don't want to copy it. So let's get the vibe and the feeling of it, and understand what they did, and think of what we could do better.

Blade Runner was Los Angeles. This is Bay City. How did you construct it?

We tried to come up with what would San Francisco be like that far in the future. Did the tides rise? Did global warming affect things? We built this dam around the San Francisco Bay, to keep the water out, and a desalinization plant, that would turn the salt water into fresh water. And we tried to come up with how would technology have evolved, using the Elder tech, which is sort of the alien technology which has been gifted to the humans and is used by the Methuselahs.

Then we really got into the breakdown of the city, and all the different levels. At the very bottom, under the street, or on the street, we have the Grounders. The businesses there are seedy, more of a red light district. And then when you get slightly above that, the apartments are more expensive, it's more middle and corporate class, and we called that the Twilight area. And then above that was the Aerium, where the Meths lived in their towers above the clouds, these amazing structures which defy gravity, basically.

Suntouch, the Bancroft's tower, was incredibly complicated. That design, that model, trying to make sense of the structure of how it works. The core that runs through the center of all those buildings incorporates the Elder tech into all of these buildings that stands impossibly high. So we really started investigating the Elder tech of it all, and we started to weave that throughout the city.

We don't really get into the Elders until the second season, but we hint upon it quite a bit in the first season. For example, the stacks are built with Elder tech. The flying cars are built with Elder tech. The way buildings can stand 8,000-feet tall is Elder tech. And they all have a similar pattern. It's that weird kind of webbing structure look, and that was really interesting to weave throughout the show and subtly give it a consistent look. Season two will explain a lot more of what the Elder tech is.

Altered Carbon

Credit: Netflix

The Grounders area also features tons of holographic ads and visuals. How did you design this content, and are there any Easter eggs in there?

Absolutely. There is a ton of great stuff. The interesting thing about the holograms, there are holograms as street signs, but there aren't that many of them. It's only when you put in your "ONI" — the Ocular Neural Interface, a smartphone which beams images to your contact lens – that it becomes a version of what the Google Glasses were going to be. Basically, you're bombarded with all this spam, junk mail, and junk ads, and that's what Kovacs sees when he's looking at the street. None of that stuff is really there; it's only in his head. It's directly beamed into your brain. We call that hyper-reality.

Double Negative was our partner in this, and they used a team called Rushes to design the graphical interface. So we came up with a really big list of things that were fun things from the books where we peppered them in advertisements as clues to some of the plot points for this season and beyond. There some hidden things in there which give you a sneak peek at Season 2.

For example?

There's an ad in there which talks about another world which will definitely be featured in Season 2. And we have an ad for Empathin, the drug that Miriam Bancroft's body is riddled with to make her more attractive both physically and mentally — it's like a form of ecstasy that her body excretes. It's on the outside of Kovacs' balcony, so when she's standing on the balcony, behind her is the ad for the drug. We thought that was kind of funny. She's ready to go, let's put it that way. And there are a few Game of Thrones Easter eggs hidden in there. Some symbols which relate to Game of Thrones, as an in-joke to my friends over at HBO. If you look at the stained glass in the police station, you'll find a couple gags there.

We had to be careful, though. We had no real product placement in the show, so there's no Coca-Cola or McDonald's. We didn't have that ability, because we're a hard R show, and I don't think a lot of advertisers wanted to be a part of that, so we had to make up a lot of the companies. And to make them up, we went back to the books, and we pulled names and things like that.

Altered Carbon

Credit: Netflix

There are multiple levels of AI and VR. Poe, for example, is an artificial intelligence construct of the Raven Hotel, but he manifests one way to the hotel guests, and another when he's with other digital entities.

Every VR world — whether you were in Poe's VR, or the AI Union Club VR, or Elliot's VR — had a certain look. Jill [Bogdanowicz] and the team at Deluxe and Encore was fantastic about helping us get those looks, so we could ease in and out of the color.

We used a special camera, which is basically like eight camera lenses stuck together, and it gives you a spherical map that you can use in VR, but since we're not a VR show, what we did was unwrap that spherical image and flatten it out to its natural state. You get a 360-view of a world, but flat, with distorted edges. And that was tricky because those cameras are meant for snowboarders, surfers, and the world they see is all legit.

When you put a 360-degree camera on a movie or television set, you've got crew, ceilings, cameras behind you, so we had to clear everybody out. Joel [Kinnaman] would walk down the street followed by a little remote-controlled robot that had a camera mounted on it, because we had to hide behind the set.

Poe was a nice surprise for fans of the books, because there, the hotel was inspired by Jimi Hendrix, and the hotel AI just was more of a presence, not as much of a character.

I remember peeking in the writers' room, and getting the rights to Jimi Hendrix's likeness was not probable for our show. So it was funny, the list of characters they were considering. I think Mark Twain was one? H.P. Lovecraft came up. And eventually they ended up with Edgar Allan Poe, and I'm glad they settled on Poe, because that one felt very appropriate, even though I voted for H.P. Lovecraft.