Snowpiercer – VFX Q&A

by Graham Edwards

Snowpiercer - Cinefex VFX Q&A

When climate change and global war caused the Earth to overheat, scientists used technology to cool the planet. But they went too far. Temperatures plummeted to minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit, the world’s entire ecosystem crashed, and the few surviving humans took refuge in a giant train built by mega-rich inventor Mr. Wilford. Known as Snowpiercer, the train was designed as a haven for billionaires. But as the train left the station to begin its endless circuits around the frozen Earth, its tail section was invaded by a horde of ordinary citizens. A highly stratified society has since evolved inside the train’s 1,001 cars, in which the impoverished ‘tailies’ are an underclass ruled by the wealthy elite who ride in pampered style in Snowpiercer’s luxurious forward compartments.

The ten-part series Snowpiercer premiered on TNT on May 17, 2020, starring Daveed Diggs as tailie detective Andre Layton and Jennifer Connelly as Melanie Cavill, the train’s ice-cool Head of Hospitality. Showrunner Graeme Manson worked with a creative team at Tomorrow Studios to adapt the show from the 2013 film of the same name, directed by Bong Joon-ho, and from that film’s original source material, the 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige, created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.

Cinefex spoke with Geoff Scott — visual effects supervisor on season one of Snowpiercer and currently working on season two — about the challenges of driving a 1,001-car train through an hostile ice-locked world.

CINEFEX: How did you get involved with Snowpiercer?

SCOTT: I’d worked with Graeme Manson for five seasons on Orphan Black, where I was visual effects supervisor for the show, so I was known to him and also to Mackenzie Donaldson, our producer. Initially there was another supervisor involved, then after a few weeks they asked me if I would consider coming on board. I was a huge fan of the earlier film, and I had the original graphic novels that I bought when I was younger, traveling in Paris. So I said, “Absolutely!”

CINEFEX: Who else did you have on the visual effects team?

SCOTT: Our visual effects producer was Darren Bell — who I’m working with again on season two — and I had another on-set supervisor to help me out. We had a team of five or six internal compositors, and we used Method Studios and Encore VFX as our main vendor; the supervisor there was Eric Gambini and their CG supervisor was Christopher Ryan, who was responsible for building the train. FuseFX was our secondary vendor; their supervisor was Jon Cowley. For smaller incidental things we used a small shop out of Toronto called Torpedo Pictures.

CINEFEX: Tell us about the creative development of the Snowpiercer train. In many ways she’s the star of the show.

SCOTT: I started out discussing creative ideas with James Hawes, who was our directing producer. Then I hired a team of concept artists to start the ball rolling — this was before I even had the job. We threw around some steampunk ideas but I’m actually a huge fan of the dieselpunk look, pulling in more of the heavy machinery from the ‘30s and ‘40s. And I love the Art Deco style of the ‘20s. There are some amazing-looking trains from that period when train design was almost an art form. I really liked a train called the Mercury, and that was our starting point for the aesthetic of our Snowpiercer. It closely matched the train from the graphic novel, with that giant bullnose and those two little slit windows, so it felt cohesive and respectful to both the film and the graphic novel, while still having our own unique look. We even went so far as to design how the train actually works. It’s not just a single engine pulling all those cars. It’s a heuristic system where all the wheels along the whole train are attached to bogie motors that recycle energy.

Snowpiercer pulls out of a frozen Vancouver. The train design was inspired by the streamlined locomotives of the early 20th century including the Mercury, operated by the New York Central Railroad during the 1930s.
Snowpiercer pulls out of a frozen Vancouver. The train design was inspired by the streamlined locomotives of the early 20th century including the Mercury, operated by the New York Central Railroad during the 1930s.

CINEFEX: Did you develop the concept into a single master digital train, or did you have different Snowpiercer assets to perform different functions?

SCOTT: There was a primary train asset that did everything. As scripts developed, it did need to evolve, and we would upgrade it as per the requirements of the shot. We had 15 variations of cars, like the agriculture car, the cattle car, the container car. Ultimately there are a lot more variants and we’ll be building those in future seasons.

CINEFEX: According to the story, Snowpiercer is 1,001 cars long. Surely you didn’t actually build the whole train?

SCOTT: Well, the thing is the train is over ten miles long. You’d have to be hundreds of feet in the air to be able to see it from tip to tail — I calculated that when we first started. It literally drops beyond the horizon. Writers would describe shots going from the engine all the way to the tail and I’d be like, “You cannot travel ten miles in a five-second shot. It’ll look ridiculous.”

CINEFEX: Was it hard designing shots to communicate that scale?

SCOTT: The biggest struggle was trying to find shots that put you in this impressive frozen world, but didn’t detract from the train itself, because it’s the titular character. The wider you go to try and showcase more of an environment, the more you make the train look small. It looks like a model. You take its power away.

CINEFEX: You do have wide shots, but there are also several close-up shots down at track level showing the train thundering along, where you get a good look at the wheels spinning and the coupling rods rattling back and forth.

SCOTT: We deliberately gave the engine wheels that traditional arm coupling mechanism, which adds a level of dynamism to those shots. It’s actually something you’d associate more with steam engines and early diesel engines, but there is one electric train that has a similar thing. So it is real. Graeme was very particular about that kind of thing. I said to him, “We’re safe. If anyone mentions it at Comic Con, you can point this engine out to them!”

CINEFEX: Do the animators get hands-on with all those moving parts, or are they controlled by the rig?

SCOTT: It’s a physics-based rig. The animators move the train along and everything else is propagated back up the chain, and all the various settings can be dialed up or down.

CINEFEX: How fast is Snowpiercer traveling, on average?

SCOTT: We set our speed at around 65 miles per hour. It was all about finding the right proportionate scale: we wanted it to feel powerful but not too fast. I drove around at various speeds shooting reference on GoPro at different frame rates. There are a few places — particularly in episode ten — where we cheated the speed because it looked cool, but mostly we kept it real.

Visual effects created frozen environments procedurally using Side Effects Houdini. Most of the landscapes were based on real locations.
Visual effects created frozen environments procedurally using Side Effects Houdini. Most of the landscapes were based on real locations.

CINEFEX: Tell us more about this frozen environment. The characters mention specific places at times, like Yukon territory or the Sierra Madre. Did you try to replicate actual locations from the real world?

SCOTT: Absolutely. Graeme wanted places to be real. We would decide exactly where our train was at any moment in terms of longitude and latitude, and then use all the facilities we could — satellite data, lidar, Google Earth — to work out what we needed to see. We generated most of the environments procedurally in Houdini, either extracting geometry from the reference or building it to eye. Then we destroyed it and covered it in snow. It was all real — oh, except for one canyon in episode six. We cheated that. Don’t tell anyone!

CINEFEX: The landscape is littered with towns and ruins of various kinds.

SCOTT: Yes, one of our big things was that we wanted to show evidence of humanity. We were always looking for way to have small towns or cities along the line, or anything recognizable. We even have an opening shot going through a dead Vancouver. The one problem is at minus 184 degrees everything would be insanely brittle. Trees would shatter; bricks would crumble, timber-framed houses would not exist. But that’s not interesting to look at.

CINEFEX: What are the challenges of lighting shots in a world that’s essentially in perpetual white-out?

SCOTT: Obviously we followed the lighting direction inside the train, which was determined by our two cinematographers, John Grillo and Thomas Burstyn. We realized that if it’s minus 184 degrees there’s not going to be a cloud in a sky, and if there’s no clouds, there’s no drama. So we decided there would be clouds in our world. We had to have something in the air to help us create dramatic skies — whether that’s moisture or carbon nanoparticles from whatever it was they used to freeze the world. I went down the rabbit hole of figuring all this out; at one point I realized the sky could have looked very red because of the theoretical particles they used to pollute it. But we didn’t want it to look like Mars.

A Class 4 avalanche hits Snowpiercer as the train speeds along perilous mountain slopes.
A Class 4 avalanche hits Snowpiercer as the train speeds along perilous mountain slopes.

CINEFEX: In episode two, the train gets hit by an avalanche.

SCOTT: That was entirely handled at Method and Encore. In the script it’s a class four avalanche, so we researched how much mass would be coming down. Technically, that class of avalanche could possibly derail a train, so we went with a powder snow type of avalanche rather than a slab type. If you look at the last shot in episode one, where they’re going into bad weather and they talk about how they hate this stretch of track, there’s actually a tiny avalanche on the mountain in the distance. Just a little piece of foreshadowing.

The visual effects team at Method Studios and Encore VFX simulated the catastrophic event based on the physics of real-world powder snow avalanches.
The visual effects team at Method Studios and Encore VFX simulated the catastrophic event based on the physics of real-world powder snow avalanches.

CINEFEX: The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. How much work was involved with the interior shots for that sequence?

SCOTT: Before I came on board, they shot scenes with real cows in the cattle car. That set was taken down and the cows were sent back to their fields, but then they changed the narrative a bit and we needed a whole bunch more work done. We reshot some scenes entirely on bluescreen, and we rebuilt the set in visual effects as a patchwork of existing footage and stills. The scale of the original set was enormous — something like 30-40 feet wide — so we brought the width down to a more realistic level of 12 feet. We also extended it to suggest the cattle car is two stories tall and several chambers long. We extracted the actors off the background and put them into these digitally altered sets; for some shots we created digital actors. The cows are fully CG. We had eight variants, all based on photographs of real cows.

The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. Visual effects rebuilt live-action plates, altering the size and shape of the cattle car interior and introducing digital cows and human characters.
The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. Visual effects rebuilt live-action plates, altering the size and shape of the cattle car interior and introducing digital cows and human characters.

CINEFEX: Some of the cars have windows through which we see the landscape flashing past — notably the engine room at the front of the train, which has a wraparound windshield giving a panoramic view of the track ahead. What methodology did you use for those shots?

SCOTT: We shot the engine room with bluescreen at the front. I prefer to use bluescreen over greenscreen. It doesn’t cast as far, so we were dealing with fewer spill issues. We had chase lights down the side window to give the impression of objects passing by outside.

CINEFEX: Did you have physical movement with the cars on the set — jostling and rocking and so on?

SCOTT: We did. Our special effects coordinator Gary Minielly and his co-supervisor Charles Desrosiers suspended some of the cars on airbags — that included the engine room, the tail cars, the third class corridor, and the classroom which doubled as the third class lunch room. They had these eight-foot-long poles on either side — they were almost like giant hockey sticks — and they would just pump them back and forth.

Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) meet in the glass tunnel of Snowpiercer's aquarium car. The actors performed in a bluescreen set. Method Studios and Encore VFX created the aquarium and its aquatic inhabitants.
Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) meet in the glass tunnel of Snowpiercer’s aquarium car. The actors performed in a bluescreen set. Method Studios and Encore VFX created the aquarium and its aquatic inhabitants.

CINEFEX: There’s a scene in episode one where Melanie meets Jinju at a bar in the aquarium car, where there’s a glass tunnel entirely surrounded by water. How much of that is real?

SCOTT: Everything at the bar is real and everything else is all digital — the glass corridor, the water, all the fish and plant life. The actress playing Jinju, Susan Park, swam with safety divers in a tank with bluescreen behind. There was a tiny piece of rock wall for the shots where she’s picking up a sea urchin, but that was super-small. Even those tight shots of her hands working we still had to extend out the sides and top. As the season goes on, we kept adding a few more bits of life into the tank, so every time you see it there are one or two more creatures. That was all done by Method and Encore; they had done the aquarium in the original film, although that was coincidence more than anything.

Jinju Seong (Susan Park) dives to retrieve an urchin from the aquarium floor. Visual effects artists extracted the actress from the plate and composited her into a digital aquarium filled with schools of fish and other creatures.
Jinju Seong (Susan Park) dives to retrieve an urchin from the aquarium floor. Visual effects artists extracted the actress from the plate and composited her into a digital aquarium filled with schools of fish and other creatures.

CINEFEX: Also in episode one, we get a glimpse of a hidden transit system that conveniently speeds characters along the length of the train. It looks a little bit like a suspended mine cart.

SCOTT: That’s the sub-train. It’s our deus ex machina to get people ten miles up and down the train between scenes. We had one car length and a single cart that went painfully slowly, for the safety of the actors. We sped that up and extended it. FuseFX did all the work on that.

CINEFEX: Was there a lot of set extension work, in addition to the sub-train?

SCOTT: Oh, we did a ton of internal set extensions. A lot of times we were shooting with one car, or maybe two cars attached to each other. In the tail section we had four cars attached, and then a fifth and sixth one in addition. Just after the battle when Layton and Melanie are talking in the utility car, either side of that are set extensions done by our internal team.

CINEFEX: What about action enhancement in the various fight scenes. There’s plenty of blood flying.

SCOTT: The action enhancement throughout the season was handled by several vendors, and it gets bigger as the season goes on. The tailie attack in the opening episode was handled entirely by one of our internal compositors, Jason Snea. He’s my blood guy; whenever I need realistic looking blood, I go to Jason.

Snowpiercer - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Snowpiercer airs weekly through May-July 2020 on TNT in the United States, and on Netflix across the rest of the world.

Special thanks to Jordan Acomba.