Reality Meets Science Fiction in 'Tales from the Loop'
Karen Moltenbrey
August 12, 2020

Reality Meets Science Fiction in 'Tales from the Loop'

The small town of Mercer, Ohio, appears to be like any other found across the US. Farm houses sit on the edge of grassy fields. Wooded lands beckon for adventure. But here, among this pastoral American scenery, discarded alien-like objects and abandoned robots dot the landscape – artifacts from past physics experiments conducted at “the Loop.” 
These strange objects are not out of place for those living in Mercer, which is built atop the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics, or the Loop. Here, things previously relegated to science fiction become possible, as the townspeople of Mercer experience an altered version of reality. Their experiences with the Loop play out in the sci-fi anthology series Tales from the Loop, which dropped in April on Amazon Prime Video. Each episode is a character-driven story relating to a resident’s encounters with these strange objects, which have power of time, space, perception, emotion, and memory.

Tales from the Loop is also about life imitating art: The series was inspired by the artistic paintings of Simon Stålenhag, which seamlessly blend retro-futuristic imagery into countryside or historical settings.

“The intention of the effects is to be photorealistic and seamless, whether we did full-CG work, CG enhancements, or set extensions,” says Andrea Knoll, VFX producer. “Overall, for every department, including VFX, our main objective was to stay true to Simon Stålenhag’s work. Not just the style and look, but the feel as well. So, to be faithful to his artwork, we kept the structures and robots identical to what he had created. It was important to preserve the feeling that’s present in his book. So while there are these unique, magnificent sci-fi structures and elements all around these characters in this town, they don’t overtake the story.”

It is up to Knoll and the team of artists and animators at Rodeo FX, the series’ primary vendor, to create the digital artwork used throughout the Tales from the Loop episodes, creating and animating the robots and other CG assets. In addition, MPC did significant work for Episodes 1, 6, and 8, including set extensions, while Bot VFX worked on Episodes 6, 7, and 8.

“The visual effects are there to curate the story, as this show is about the personal stories of the people living in the town and interacting with the Loop,” says Knoll. “So, we wanted to keep all the images poignant, but maintain a sense of subtlety in the visual effects so they were supporting the stories. Ultimately, we wanted every image you see on screen to feel like a painting.”

Knoll estimates that there were approximately 1,300 VFX shots across the series’ eight episodes. Episode 1 contained the most, with 300 shots, while the last episode, followed with close to 200 VFX shots. The remaining number were scattered across the other episodes.

Some of the visual effects are immediately apparent, most of all the robots and other litter from past experiments. Among the most notable in terms of the CG sets are the Loop entrance aboveground and the Eclipse, the center of the Loop, underground, as well as the underground tunnels within the Loop. There’s also the cooling towers, vane turbines, and numerous hatches in Episode 4, as well as a CG transmission apparatus featured in Episode 2.

In the pilot episode, we see a young version of the brilliant physicist Loretta, whose house is fully CG house, as is the frozen lake in the episode. “We shot on a stage in Winnipeg, so any time you see the outside environment from Loretta’s house or the tavern, those are blue/greenscreen window comps. We also did a full sky replacement for the night sky when we tilt up in the final shot of the pilot,” says Knoll. “Any time you see snow outside in the pilot, we did either snow cleanup or snow extensions.”

In Episode 4, in addition to CG hatches, the artists added the tech addition to Mercer Center founder Russ’s house. Throughout the series, viewers see a field hat, which was built practically with visual effects adding the robotic arm on top; a set extension was created for the interior of the field hat. In Episode 8, there’s a CG airship; the modern city skyline that Loretta’s son Cole sees in the distance is also digital, and while the DP shot a practical stream that the art dept built in the woods, visual effects created a CG frozen stream for the opening shot.

The so-called Jacob robot is both CGI and practical, the latter built by Legacy Effects. The bionic arm worn by one of the characters is also CGI at times and practical other times. In fact, a number of the larger assets built in CG had a practical version or at least a partial practical version. This assisted in framing the camera and for lighting. “In terms of cinematography, it was always helpful to have that. It helped keep everything grounded in the naturalistic real world,” Knoll says.

The VFX also included destruction (a house exploding) and weather elements. Yet, these effects had a physics-defying twist, as here, natural elements move in the opposite direction as gravity. “The challenge was that you want the house destruction and snow to look photorealistic, yet we have this very surreal event happening in both instances,” Knoll points out. “We’re using typical simulation effects, what we use every day on most shows, but imparting specific and counterintuitive philosophies.”

As Knoll notes, the visual effects in this series are very important, but they are not meant to be the star.

“We used a combination of approaches and worked hand-in-hand with the production design team, the cinematographer, Legacy Effects, and the VFX artists to marry the best of both worlds – the CG and the practical. I think that’s one of the big headlines of this project,” says Knoll.