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Credit: HBO

Emmy Contender: The VFX behind Westworld's mind-boggling Season 2 finale

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Aug 10, 2018

The best visual effects are sometimes nearly invisible. Like, say, when a stunt double wearing leggings and kneepads to cushion a fall off a horse has to have her legs painted back in, the audience barely notices the momentary CGI. But there was no missing one of the most impressive effects in Westworld’s Season 2 finale, when the hosts converge on the Gate to enter the digital heaven of the Sublime. It presents itself as a rip in the fabric of the world that humans can’t see but hosts can, and it beckons them to enter and be saved from cruelty and subjugation. Here, perhaps, they could be truly free — although, annoyingly, they’d still be subject to their original programming.

Westworld’s Emmy-nominated visual effects supervisor Jay Worth, who won the 2017 Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, shared with SYFY WIRE how Episode 10, “The Passenger," was both “the coolest thing” he was able to work on all season and the most challenging episode thus far.

By the time we get to the finale, all the characters are converging on the Valley Beyond, the Door, the Gate — some people have called it the Sublime. 

[Laughs] There are a lot of names for it, right? So we had three different things. Above ground, we had the Valley Beyond, which is this Gate environment, which is where all of our hosts are trying to get through. Then we had the destination, which is what was through that gate, which we called the Sublime. And then we have the Forge, or Protagoras, which is the underground cavern, where all those climactic moments took place with the water, tying up that loose end of where all the water came from earlier in the season. So we had those three different large set pieces that we had to work with, and each of those had their own challenges.

The Gate environment, which was this whole climactic moment where Akecheta is running through, we shot that at two different locations, pointing in numerous different directions over numerous days and weeks. So getting all of those things to look like the same environment was a real challenge. We shot the final scene at a quarry up in Simi Valley, and we shot at a place called Pinnacles in the California desert. So we were able to put this quarry location into this Pinnacles location to try to make it look like we were in the same location for both pieces.

Then we had to figure out what was going in the Gate, and we shot that at a location in Simi Valley as well. This caused its own problems because it was supposed to be this beautiful, inviting location, and the production was stuck with brown shrubbery due to the season when they could get all the different actors there. So we were brought on after the fact -- which wasn’t any part of the plan in prep -- to try to make this gross hilltop in Simi Valley look inviting.

How? Because it not only has to look inviting, it has to feel symbolic, mythical.

We were really scrambling a little bit there throughout that sequence to figure out what this place would look like. Should we shoot it on green screen? Should we do a reshoot? Should we relocate to a garden? The more we got into conversations on it, we realized that if we relocated, we were going to have to then match everything to our camera angles at the Gate, which was going to be a challenge, because everything in the Gate already had to match so it looked like a similar area and environment.

We realized we were going to have to build things from a matte painting — we decided to not go and film new environments and new places, and just create it whole cloth, as something we could have a little more control over. Obviously, that posed some new challenges creatively and financially, but it ended up giving us the most freedom to be able to create this environment the way [showrunners] Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] were envisioning.  

So I went to CoSA, and we had a lot of creative conversations: “It has to look inviting, but it can’t look too ethereal. It has to look like a place where our hosts are going to be at home.” We were trying to figure out if we should have a callback to Teddy. Should there be a sea or an ocean down there? But then it felt weird with the angles we had. And I honestly left it up to Sina [San], who is the main matte painter over at CoSA. I asked her, “Can you make something that looks amazing and works with what we have? Can you make it look pretty?” And she did! It was like, “Thank you! Thank you for saving us!” It was a masterful job, and it ended up being the centerpiece.

Was this the biggest piece of the year, from a VFX standpoint?

I mean, the Forge was a little easier, because [production designer] Howard [Cummings] was able to do a creative concept that we were able to live with on a stage. And because of that, we knew a little bit more what that environment was going to look like. So yeah, the Gate and the Forge and tying all these things together for the Sublime, and what the Gate would look like, that was a huge challenge. Because we just had this idea that it would be this stone, metal, carved thing, but after we got it into post-production, we realized that we needed it to be more dynamic. So once again, we had these kind of odd conversations like, “Well, it has to be bending light, but it can’t feel like smoke, and it shouldn’t feel like distortion, and you need to have it feel like it’s a little inviting but also somewhat dangerous at the same time…”


Credit: John P. Johnson, HBO

We got through 20 different iterations of what that could possibly be until we found the right combination of elements from this version and that version and put them together. It's definitely trial and error, figuring it out in post-production -- and figuring out what was financially doable. Realizing that rotoscoping and cutting every single person out of every single frame wasn’t really an option. It definitely took a bit of creative gymnastics to get there.

What were some of the ideas you rejected along the way?

A lot of it ended up being too much distortion. It looked too much like a heat shimmer. And then sometimes it got confusing visually, where because we were shooting into that sand and rock texture, it looked like a gate had opened up within the wall behind it, rather than it being a precipice that people would fall off of. So we had to create some separation, and add this thing that looked like a gate. Sometimes it got a little too smoky. It looked like it was all on fire. Sometimes it looked like a visual effects particle system — like something that couldn’t happen organically in a real environment.

So it was all about trying to find that balance for something that isn’t real, but has to feel grounded in some form of organic texture. And we ended up going with this idea of bending light -- something that could be built by particles, but still felt like it could be in that environment.

Did you want it to look almost like it was actually ripped?

That was part of it. We wanted it to be like a tear, and show how that tear happens, and how all this information is downloaded into the computer, and these bodies’ consciousness was transferred into this system. It was all these different pieces. Plus the fact that this was only being perceived by the hosts -- the humans couldn’t even see it. So it was also the bending of light, so even the hosts couldn’t touch it. After it’s all done, it’s like, “Of course that’s what it looks like!”   

How do you imagine the hosts continue their existence in the Sublime? Are they in a purely digital space, where it’s more of a virtual reality that they can affect with their merged consciousness, or is it a practical space for them?

I feel like it’s more of a practical space, where they can affect it like a normal world environment. It just so happens that it’s a virtual world. Personally, I think they would still be building things and creating, and not just imagining it. I look at it more as a physical space, because when they were walking through it, they were affecting the grass, they were affecting the environment, and the light’s wrapping around them. They’re not ghosts there.  

westworld vfx

Credit: HBO

What are some of the shots in this episode that viewers might not realize are visual effects?

The water flooding at the end, when Bernard comes up to Elsie and makes his decision? That was all added in post after the fact. None of those shots were planned. Andy Seklir, the editor, had a brilliant idea to show how the Valley was starting to flood when Bernard comes down, but all that water, when it’s flowing from left to right and interacting with the bodies? We added all that water in VFX. All the water wrapping around people and making them move.

The artists, Double Negative in Los Angeles, really did a great job of bringing that water to life. There are lots of fun things like that! When the Man in Black blows his fingers off. We had planned on doing that, but that was a fun little piece. When you get to 580 [effects] shots in an episode, there’s a lot going on! They all add up.

Westworld, Man in Black

Credit: John P. Johnson, HBO

This episode has an intriguing post-credits scene, where we get a glimpse into the future, and see that the Man in Black is a host, or a host-hybrid.

The fun thing for me is that you don’t quite know! That whole sequence was about making sure it felt like it wasn’t then. It’s not necessarily what exactly it is. We talked about sand, we talked about these towers being broken, but it still had to be something he recognized. We don’t know where in the story where we pick up -- which point is which? That’s the fun thing about it.

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