What would our present life be like had the US and Allies fallen to the Axis powers during World War II? That is the premise of the online series The Man in the High Castle, set in 1962, 15 years after the re-imagined war ends on a very different note from actual life – with Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany ruling over what had been the US.
Amazon Studios debuted The Man in the High Castle early last year, and the show was then green-lit to become a series, with nine additional episodes released around Thanksgiving. Based on Philip K. Dick’s award-winning novel and executive-produced by Ridley Scott, the series explores an alternative life here in the US where the country is occupied by the foreign powers.
VFX Producer Terry Hutcheson was tasked with creating this imagined world, which extended beyond just signage to include architecture and even automobiles. He relied on a number of studios to lend their visual effects expertise, including Zoic (www.zoicstudios.com), which got on board as early as the series’ pilot.
Here, Hutcheson and Zoic VFX Supervisor Jeff Baksinski look back on the popular series and the use of visual effects to create an alternate nation, as well as solve unforeseen production challenges.
What was unique about this series?
I had read the book before, but what was really unique about this show is you have to make [it] 1962 New York. You had to totally ‘Nazi Germany’ it up. It was an interesting problem. You have all the problems of researching architecture that would be there in the ’60s and make sure there are no more modern buildings, but then also interpret what would Germany have done to it? How would this be altered in some way?
It’s the same thing we had to do with Japan occupying San Francisco. We kept the bones of San Francisco but changed the buildings and architecture to better represent 1962 Japan.
From a special effects standpoint, I don’t think people realize what a big deal that was on this show. Imagine everywhere we shoot is 2015. When we go back through all that footage, not only are you removing large buildings and replacing everything, you are doing it on shots that you’re not even thinking of. In the pilot, there’s the shoot-out in an alleyway when he leaves in the truck. It looks pretty standard, but all those backgrounds had to change to 1962. We had to change all the road signs, all the streetlights, things like the crosswalks and where the lines were made on the roads.
Even the cars were given a treatment.
Yeah, Americans still made cars in the ’50s, but they didn’t have the design aspects. Any cars that had fins — the classic 1950s cars with fins — those all had to be taken off. We had to re-do cars, paint them out, and all these little things that you just don’t think about. The audience doesn’t really notice, but it creates a feeling of ‘plain’ and ‘not ornamented.’
Then we built the Nazi headquarters in New York, and put it where the UN is. Everybody is going to see that. Everybody knows that area and that building. But it’s the more subtle details… especially for establishers. We were using stock shots. We’d look at a stock shot and say, ‘OK, what has to change?’ You’d have to take out a bunch of buildings and add more plain buildings.
The Amazon series the man in the high castle required visual effects to alter the look of america in the 1960s.
Did the VFX demands change from the pilot to the series?
In any series, the pilot is always going to be heavier, and certainly the shots Zoic did in the pilot were challenging. There were a lot of them, and I know they did them in a short amount of time. There were some episodes that were somewhat lighter, just because of the subject matter, and then there were others where we had to build full-3D environments and set extensions. It varied, but definitely, the pilot was heavier.
Baksinski: We did stuff on the pilot that I wouldn’t necessarily try on the regular series. It was much more. When he’s walking through New York — the movie theater — nothing in those shots is real except for the actors, a few cars, and the newsstand. Everything was replaced, and it wasn’t greenscreen. At the time we shot the pilot, we were shooting at night in Seattle, with 40 mph winds. That [span] the guy walked across is longer than a football field, so it would have been impossible to put up that much green at night. It would have bounced all over the place because things were wet and rainy.
On the pilot, we made the choice to never use greenscreen. The DP had particular lighting set up that he wanted to use and a very particular look, and the director was the same way. We were working for RSA, which is Ridley Scott, and these people are all coming from the same bloodline as something like Blade Runner. It’s dark and wet and gritty — that type of look. You have a hard time getting that type of look in a very controlled greenscreen environment. When you see the New York stuff, that is literally shot in a rainy, industrial parking lot, and we then roto’d everything and built the environments.
Was anything shot on a stage?
Very little is actually a stage. Most of our stage [work] was interiors. For example, when the Japanese ambassador and the Germans are talking inside the embassy – that stuff is a stage. The apartment interiors were stages, but exteriors of the apartment – when you see him dragged out – that was all alleyways.
When they got to series, they rebuilt some of those locations to the best of their abilities, like the alleyway. They rebuilt it on a stage, and we would set-extend the end of it. The apartment was on a stage. They had to re-create what they had shot in the pilot on a stage here in Vancouver.
What was the production and post schedule?
It was an extremely tight schedule. We started shooting in March (2015) and had to have all 10 episodes completed by the middle of October. It was a really tight turnaround. We had about three weeks per episode for VFX after the director cut.
I understand the pilot and series were shot with Red cameras?
For the series, they shot 6k. The visual effects were finished at 2k, and they were up-res’d, just because there wasn’t enough time to send files around at that size and within our time schedule. But the rest of the series was finished in 4k
Which Zoic locations contributed to the VFX?
LA did the pilot. Zoic Vancouver did a good chunk of the work here, along with a couple other vendors. [Editor’s note: Those included Artifex Studios, Atmosphere VFX, Psyop, CG Factory, and CVD VFX].
What VFX tools did Zoic use for this series?
It was pretty standard. We use Maya for most of our modeling, lighting, texturing, and animation. We use a package called Phoenix for dynamics. For example, when you’re looking at the airport sequence and the jet engines are having their liquid nitrogen pouring out — that’s [from] Phoenix. That’s an interesting reference too, because we were on set that day and [Director David Semel] was like, ‘Do you remember The Right Stuff’? There is a sequence in
The Right Stuff where they are filling the rockets with liquid nitrogen. That was a key look he wanted for the airplanes.
We also use Nuke as our compositing package and V-Ray for rendering. We are all V-Ray. For a lot of crowd simulation, that’s actually a package called MiArmy. There are literally thousands of people on those streets: There are people online for the movie theatre and walking in the background. We usually had 200 to 300 extras for a lot of the street shots, and then after that we had to go to CG because it became impossible.
Vestiges of nazi germany and imperial japan are integrated throughout the environments.
How big of a team did Zoic have working on it?
Baksinski: For the pilot, we did that in six weeks, so you were probably looking at 20 to 25 people, with some rotating on and off. I’m not sure what it was for the series. It was probably a bigger crew because they had a lot less time.
Hutcheson: If I remember correctly, Zoic [Vancouver] had about 15 or so on and off, and then probably four other vendors working on the show as well, of about the same size. That was mostly due to the schedule. [It] was so tight. I needed, on Episode 2, to have more Zoic [personnel], and then I’d have Episode 3 working with a couple other vendors, just to try to alternate as much as I could… just to meet the deadlines.
You ran into unexpected VFX challenges?
Because of the subject matter, it actually introduced more visual effects than you might think. The locations would find out what we were doing and what they were shooting…. One was a government building here in Vancouver, and when they found out they would eventually put a big swastika on the top of it, they were like, ‘No, you are not using our building.’ We had to go and shoot in an empty section of a university, and the building then became 100 percent computer-generated.”
Same thing on the pilot!
: In the last episode, they actually went to Berlin and shot some stuff. They were going to put big swastika banners on the flagpoles going down this major street in Berlin, and Amazon was like, ‘No, you are not going to do that.’ Suddenly it’s a visual effects shot.... They were not expected visual effects shots, but you have to roll with it.
Baksinski: We also ran into cultural issues. The San Francisco shots you see were actually filmed in a heavily Chinese-populated neighborhood. And we’re now telling people we are going to start putting up Japanese logos all over the place. ‘Your little city is now Japanese-occupied San Francisco.’ There were store owners who backed out.
There’s a shot where the main hero walks across the street in front of this policeman, and this banner is there. Originally, a lot of those and the other blocks in there were going to be set-dressed. And at the end of the day, we had to track all of that and replace the entire thing. Our main block that we were on was set-dressed, but that was all we could do.
Marc Loftus (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor/director of Web content for Post, CGW’s sister publication.