Jabbar Raisani and Terron Pratt are no strangers to creating high-end visual effects for television. Raisani has completed work for such shows as The CW’s The Flash and HBO’s Game of Thrones, while Pratt has worked on Starz’s Black Sails and ABC’s Pushing Daisies. The two have come together to work as VFX supervisor and VFX producer, respectively, on Netflix’s new reboot of the 1960s campy classic series, Lost in Space.
In the new series, set 30 years in the future, the Robinson Family flies once again — John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen (Molly Parker) as the heads of household — leading their three children, Will, Penny and Judy, on an adventure to colonize a new planet. But when their ship — the Jupiter 2 — is knocked off course and crashes on an alien planet, they are tested in ways beyond their wildest imaginations.
As in the original series, the family is joined by technician/pilot Don West, the conniving and sinister Dr. Smith (Parker Posey) and an alien robot with a strong bond with the youngest Robinson, Will.
A mix of adventure, drama and sci-fi, with a touch of comedy, the new series, shot predominantly in Vancouver on Red Weapon 7K cameras (and delivered in 4K), is certainly a far cry from its light and farcical 1960s predecessor. With a bigger budget and slicker production, the VFX are standout stars here.
“As soon as I heard there was going to be a Lost in Space reboot, I was itching to get involved,” says Raisani. “I asked to be put in touch with Zack Estrin, the showrunner, and met with him and said if you guys are going to use the
Game of Thrones level of quality on this type of story then count me all in. They said they were, but I don’t think any of us really understood exactly how big Zack was actually going to go when we sat down to make the show. We all had the same idea in mind, which was, let’s make the biggest, coolest sci-fi show that we can.”
According to Raisani, “Pretty much every kind of visual effect you can imagine was used for the show — full CG shots, matte paintings, CG extensions, 2 ½ feet extensions, full CG digi-doubles and the robot, which is sometimes practical, sometimes digital and sometimes somewhere in between.”
Pratt says that there’s quite a range of VFX shot counts across the 10 episodes, with the smallest at 65 and the biggest at almost 500, they averaged around 280 shots per episode.
While the interior of the Jupiter 2 is a standing set, where actors and crews can completely walk through, what appears on the monitors is all digitally-created.
The exterior shots of the ship are all CG as well. In the pilot episode, for instance, when the ship sinks into a freezing lake, the team considered using miniatures, but “the cost to risk relationship, as in the risk that you’re not getting exactly what you want or someone has the desire to change it later, was just too great,” explains Raisani. “Instead, we decided to go full CG for all of our exterior ship shots in the entire show.”
Pratt adds, “Even though we did have the interior of the Jupiter 2, the garage, the hub and the cockpit, we also created those digitally, especially for the sinking portion. In that whole scene, we were able to recreate it using the digital version of our ship. There are also a couple of other instances in the show where you encounter the digital version rather than the practical set.”
“For example, in one sequence when Judy swims into the ship, that whole part, which starts with a scene on the set where she jumps into the air with digital water underneath her, and the very first shot where she enters the water, that’s an actual stunt person in the full suit jumping into a black pool essentially,” continues Raisani. “From there on out, it’s either a full CG shot or we did this elaborate set build of only the pieces of the set that Judy interacts with, built on greenscreen, and her on wires. She ‘swims’ using the wires, and then everything in there is CG, other than the things she touches, and sometimes, even the things that she touches.”
DANGER, DANGER WILL ROBINSON
One of the most important elements of the new series was recreating the iconic robot, and deciding on what it would look like onscreen.
“There was extensive designing and conversations about how the robot would look,” says Raisani. “The planning started with 2D drawings — we had things that were very abstract, that looked nothing like a human and things that were very near human. We sort of landed in the two places that you see — his form when he’s more alien, and there’s his form when he’s more human, after he’s bonded with Will. And it was really as we went down the design process, trying to find that balance of, we didn’t want him to feel overly friendly, with the wrong tone for the season, because he is this thing that’s both good and bad, and I think that’s a big part of his journey, where is the robot going to land himself as a character as opposed to just being tied to the story through the boy. He really does have his own adventure and his own path that he’s on.”
Raisani says that if you look at the shots in the pilot episode, there were literally “hundreds of artists” that went into creating the robot.
“There’s a whole team of people — a performer and his whole crew — that operate the practical robot that’s on-set. Then there’s character and digital augmentation. Then there’s full CG versions of him, when he’s in his original form which I’ll call, ‘dissected.’” This is when Will is stuck in a burning tree in a forest at night, and the robot’s upper half is on the tree limb while his legs are below.
According to both Pratt and Raisani, the robot’s face was also of high importance. “We did a ton of design, it’s almost like a motion graphic design, of exactly what should be on his face and then technically, how we’re going to get that onto his face on-set practically as well as digitally,” explains Raisani. “On-set, it’s an actual laser projector that is sort of above and to the side of the performer’s head and the front of the face is a screen, as in a movie theater screen that an image is projected onto. We did a lot of testing and found that he needed to be a combination of emotives, so you can sort of understand what feeling he is portraying without being distracting. We found that the more detail and the more information and the busier it was, almost the more distracting it got. The more it was almost like a lava lamp, the more it drew you in and was enigmatic in a way that you weren’t exactly sure what emotion he is portraying. That, in combination with the performance, really brought together this character that really sets the tone for the whole season, which is, is he really friend or foe? As the season progresses, his face and emotions progress and get more complex.”
THE GREAT BEYOND
After crash landing on an alien planet, the Robinsons, as well as West and Dr. Smith, make their way across the terrain, which ranges from glacier landscapes and icy lakes to forests and mountainous landscapes.
“They crash in what we call the ‘glacier landscape,’ and they actually went to the top of a mountain outside Vancouver and shot up there,” says Raisani, “so the exteriors are shot — that’s real snow around them — but looking out over the valley and the valley itself is extended and replaced with our alien planet and from there they descend into the forest, that forest and anything where they’re looking out at the burning ship down below in the forest — anything beyond 20 feet — is all extended.
“We tried to shoot as much as we could practically, only so much you can get of alien landscape in Vancouver, so we tried to find that balance of making sure that we augmented where necessary to help remind you that you’re on an alien planet.”
According to Pratt, some of the biggest challenges were in the fact that there were multiple scenes with heavy VFX throughout a single episode. “Particularly, Episodes 1 and 2 had a very high shot count,” he says. “The majority of those were incredibly difficult.”
To help with the heavy lifting, Raisani and Pratt called in some support from outside vendors, including Image Engine, ILP, Cinesite and Mackevision to take on different scenes while others shared assets to complete the same scenes.
The internal team relied on Sohonet, a private global fibre network for studios, production, post and VFX, in order to move the data around the world. However, from vendor to vendor, each has their own pipeline setup, and software tools that include Maya, V-Ray, Houdini, Nuke, Arnold and Shotgun.
“We had really high expectations for everyone, and I think we were able to achieve not only the level of quality we had hoped for but at a volume that was unanticipated by all of us,” sums up Raisani. “I’m really happy with how everything turned out.”
Pratt agrees, “I think it did definitely develop into a larger show than anticipated, but I feel that even with that expansion, the show runners and studio still got onscreen, exactly what they wanted.”