The Visual Effects of “Sense8”

by Graham Edwards

Sense8 - a Netflix originalEver since the release of The Matrix in 1999, filmmaking siblings the Wachowskis have constantly pushed the boundaries of the motion picture medium. Always ready to embrace innovative – and frequently mind-bending – narrative techniques, they have now turned their attention from big screen to small, with the release of the new Netflix series, Sense8.

Created by the Wachowskis and World War Z screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, Sense8 explores the interwoven lives of eight people whose minds are irrevocably linked by a single, extraordinary event. Throughout the course of the show’s twelve episodes, these interconnected individuals – known as “sensates” – must not only come to terms with seeing the world through each others’ eyes, but also evade the hunters who are trying to track them down.

Visual effects for Sense8 were overseen by production VFX supervisors Dan Glass (who also directed the story set in Seoul) and Jim Mitchell. The production planned to cover most of the work with an in-house team, with a few larger sequences being commissioned to Deluxe’s Encore TV. However, as the show’s visual requirements grew, additional vendors were brought on board.

Watch the Sense8 trailer:

VFX Q&A – Dan Glass

When did you get involved with the project?

The first discussions of involvement began in 2012, while we were in pre-production on Jupiter Ascending.

Creatively speaking, what was your overall approach to the show’s VFX?

The show had an incredibly tight budget and timeline, so we made every effort to capture what we could in-camera. Whilst the Wachowskis are known for their epic visual style, they are actually very pragmatic, and this show ran incredibly smoothly as a result. We decided early on to play the transitions between the sensates as largely sleight of hand, having them physically in each others’ spaces when communicating. Whilst this made for simpler VFX, the shooting style often required covering the dialogue up to four times – once in each location with the two sensates interacting, and again with each individual sensate acting alone in their respective environment.

How did you go about assembling the VFX team?

We set up an in-house team in Chicago, where editorial was based. This was led by digital effects supervisor Ryan Urban, who has worked with us for a number of years. The in-house team ended up completing over 700 shots for the series. For a small number of sequences, we knew early on that we would need the help of an external vendor: the Nairobi bus chase, and weather augmentation in Iceland for the finale. For the more complex work, and to help with bandwidth for the quick turnarounds, we enlisted the support of Encore VFX, Locktix and Technicolor VFX, with additional help from Studio 8 FX, Trace VFX and Almost Gold.

What were the key VFX scenes?

Most of the VFX is pretty invisible: split-screens (some very complex!), crew and rig removal, weather augmentation and screen inserts. The more visible work includes age manipulation of actors, more dramatic weather, a few greenscreens, CG blades, blood and wounds. For the most part, we aimed to shoot everything for real, and enhance later where appropriate.

How did you find the transition from VFX supervisor to director?

Directing was a great and satisfying challenge – if nerve-racking at times! There are a lot of skills you learn as a VFX supervisor towards the craft of telling stories, but nothing compares with showing up in a country where limited English is spoken, and having to deal with the feature film ambitions of a project on a TV shooting schedule.

Would you do it again?

Of course!

Daryl Hannah in "Sense8". Photograph by Murray Close.

VFX Case Study – Locktix

One of the vendors hired to accommodate the growing needs of Sense8 was L.A.-based Locktix. “They got in touch with us and said they needed extra firepower,” explained Locktix VFX producer Gresham Lochner. “Originally it was only for one episode – maybe five or ten shots – but then they realised how much the shot count was growing. It didn’t make sense for them to scale up internally, so when they started to divvy out work, we were kind of a shoe-in to continue on with the rest of the episodes. We’d love to thank specifically Dan Glass and Ryan Urban – they were some of the best clients we’ve ever worked with.”

Locktix was set up in 2011 by Lochner, following a stint as senior compositor at Digital Domain. Lochner had previously worked at a number of other effects facilities including Rhythm and Hues, Method Studios, Rising Sun Pictures and MPC. Matthew Bramante became his business partner in 2013, following a similar tour of duties around the world. “We’ve been growing steadily for the past couple of years,” Lochner stated. “We’ve just moved into a new space in downtown L.A., about five times the size of the original office space we had in Santa Monica.”

Fire enhancement was among the many invisible effects used by Locktix to enhance scenes in “Sense8”.

Fire enhancement was among the many invisible effects used by Locktix to enhance scenes in “Sense8”.

With just six full-time staff, ramping up to around twenty-four during busy periods, Locktix encourages its VFX artists to take on multiple roles. “If we have, say, a comp shot that requires some 3D tracking, I absolutely want to have an artist who can shepherd it all the way through,” Bramante remarked. “Also, it gives the artists ownership of their work, and their own creative input. That’s something that was really important to me when I was coming up as an artist, so I try to give it back to them.”

Ultimately, Locktix found themselves working on every episode of Sense8, with work ranging from digital fixes such as wire removal and split-screen effects to combine different actor performances from multiple takes of a scene, through to set extensions and atmospheric enhancements. “It definitely grew in scope as we went along,” commented Bramante, Locktix’s VFX supervisor on the show. “By the end we were up to 160-180 shots across all twelve episodes.”

To fill out this scene at a movie premiere, Locktix duplicated extras from the plate to expand the crowd, as well as adding extra dressing including spotlights and limos.

To fill out this “Sense8” scene at a movie premiere, Locktix duplicated extras from the plate to expand the crowd, as well as adding extra dressing including spotlights and limos.

In true Netflix fashion, all twelve episodes of Sense8 were released simultaneously in all Netflix territories around the world. Indeed, in a recent interview with TVLine, star Daryl Hannah stated, “You may want to refrain from calling Sense8 a TV series at all. It was shot like a twelve-part movie. It is an incredibly cinematic, massive, epic-scale film.”

Despite the massive scale, however, Sense8 was delivered according to a relatively conventional television production schedule. “We’ve now done a couple of shows with Netflix, and they keep to a weekly or bi-weekly schedule, depending on what the production decides, and when editorial starts locking,” Bramante revealed. “On Sense8, we had a general understanding of how much was going to happen across the series, so we could hedge our bets and start work early on effects-intensive stuff that might be coming down the pipe later on. But schedule-wise it was still handled and delivered episodically, week by week.”

One of the major sequences Locktix worked on features a hazardous car journey to a hospital in blizzard conditions. While the sequence forms an important part of the series finale, time-shifts within the show’s overall narrative mean that references to it appear throughout the entire series.

Locktix added falling snow and atmospheric effects to around 40 shots in the climactic "Sense8" blizzard sequence. Top: original production plate. Bottom: final composite shot.

Locktix added falling snow and atmospheric effects to around 40 shots in the climactic “Sense8” blizzard sequence. Top: original production plate. Bottom: final composite shot.

“They wanted to increase the danger of the scene, to add some more snow and really make it look like there’s a blizzard going on,” commented Bramante. “That was definitely our biggest sequence – somewhere in the vicinity of forty shots, from the beginning of the show all the way through to the end.”

One of the main tasks facing the Locktix team was filling the air with snowflakes. “There was snow on the sides of the roads, and there were one or two shots where they got some practical snow to fall, but for the most part the falling snow was added in,” Bramante stated. “We went through a bunch of iterations with our CG effects, exploring different types of snow and asking, ‘Does this look like just a flurry? Is this too blizzardy?’ We also added skies, clouds and various atmospheric effects.”

Demanding though the blizzard sequence was, shots for which Locktix were asked to combine actors from multiple takes were not without their challenges. “Funnily enough, most of the ‘straightforward fixes’ ended up being some of the more difficult shots to do!” observed Bramante. “As with most modern filmmaking, the cameras were moving all over the place, so with the split-screens there might be one take that really worked, and another take that really worked, but the cameras would be in wildly different places for each one. That was where we had to get creative.”

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However, the ultimate challenge for the Locktix team came in the form of a humble chicken.

“There was this chicken, and it was supposed to be the same bird in two different shots,” Bramante recalled. “But they couldn’t get the same chicken both times, so in one shot it was all white, and in the other it was white with black feathers.”

Bramante’s solution was to push the 2D distortion tools in compositing software Nuke to the limit. “We have one or two Nuke guys who love to come up with new tools,” explained Bramante. “They created a whole suite of distortion tools based on Nuke’s IDistort, which let us do different skews and transforms, all connected to multiple trackers. We used those tools to create some fantastic looking feathers. For something that nobody will ever think of as being visual effects, it was actually a pretty big shot!”

To create this composite shot, Locktix integrated the wintry exterior view with a greenscreen shot of the boy, adding the window glass and the falling snow beyond.

To create this composite shot for “Sense8”, Locktix integrated the wintry exterior view with a greenscreen shot of the boy, adding the window glass and the falling snow beyond.

VFX in Los Angeles

Working as they do in Los Angeles, the Locktix team are uncharacteristically optimistic about the future for the visual effects scene in a city whose once-thriving VFX industry has suffered a decline, with major effects facilities moving elsewhere or even closing down altogether. Lucrative subsidies continue to attract studios to whatever country offers the biggest financial advantage, forcing VFX houses – not to mention the “pixel gypsy” artists who are employed by them – to set up shop wherever the work is.

“Contrary to popular belief, there’s plenty of work here,” Bramante asserted. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s really quick turnaround, which definitely suits our particular company ethos. So, in the past couple of years, we’ve been specialising in doing what we call ‘911 effects work’.”

While providing an emergency service to filmmakers can be stressful, due in no small part to the short notice and tight deadlines, being local can be a distinct advantage. “A lot of the filmmakers are here in L.A.,” Bramante explained, “and what happens is that, at the last minute, editorial finds fifty shots that have to be done in a week and half. That’s happened for us on some pretty major movies. On the show we’re working on right now, we’re going back and forth with editorial, and they’re just a twenty minute drive across town. So it’s really easy to interface with them. With a phone call, or even on Skype, things can get lost in the shuffle.”

Lochner added, “When you get a larger company, there’s maybe twelve people who have to touch something before you can bring in work and get it back out. At Locktix we’re lean and mean. So just one person can bring a shot all the way into the pipeline and back out again.”

For “Sense8”, Locktix artists digitally augmented this facial makeup, adding texture to the wound and skin detail to the prosthetic patch, and matching the colour of the prosthetic to the actor’s skin as his face became flushed.

For “Sense8”, Locktix artists digitally augmented this facial makeup, adding texture to the wound and skin detail to the prosthetic patch, and matching the colour of the prosthetic to the actor’s skin as his face became flushed.

Personal contact also brings creative benefits. “I like to be in the room with the editor, or creative director, or producer,” Bramante commented. “I love coming up with creative options that give people other ways to achieve their goals, so at the end of the day they’re not saying, ‘Oh, these guys just want to make money off of us.’ I really want our visual effects to help the production.”

Having built a business in a city which many others have fled, Lochner has his own views on how best to tackle the thorny subject of subsidies. “My personal opinion is that it’s just a symptom of a poor business model – which is kind of rhetorical at this point,” he observed. “But we’ve structured things internally to get around that, so we can still compete even when people are being subsidised. So when those subsidies go away, and people are chasing them to a new area, we’re still going to be right here. It won’t disrupt our operation at all.”

Sense8 is now exclusively streaming on Netflix.

“Sense8” photographs copyright © 2015 by Netflix.

One thought on “The Visual Effects of “Sense8”

  1. Wonderful review!! I love this show!! And its great to finally learn who to properly thank for one of my favorite scenes of the whole season. One of the most powerful scenes for me, which I’ve re-watched over and over, is found in Episode 5: “Art Is Like Religion”. This is the episode when Sun and Capheus officially meet for the first time. In the scene, Sun and Capheus, both totally immersed in their own thoughts, are walking down streets in their respective cities. Sun, flanked by nothing but people that look like her in Seoul, Korea and Capheus, walking amongst a sea of fellow countrymen in Nairobi, Kenya. As the two continue to walk towards the other, gradually the scene shifts, along with their perceptions, and both begin to peer around themselves puzzled, as they realize that they are the lone nationality surrounded by a sea of “others”. Sun is a solitary Korean face, surrounded by a multitude of Kenyans and Capheus stands out amongst a throng of Korean faces. When the two finally come face-to-face and their initial shock and disbelief are overcome, I marveled at how similar their story lines mirrors the were and how they’re able to draw strength from and help the other. For me, it was very subtle, yet powerfully jarring…and just one of the hundreds of little things that make this show so special.

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