'Dark' Visual Effects
Christine Bunish
September 20, 2018

'Dark' Visual Effects

Dark, a German sci-fi thriller series, debuted on Netflix’s streaming service last December. It spans six decades with story lines set in 1953, 1986, and 2019 in the fictional German town of Winden. Missing children, family secrets, and the discovery of a wormhole in the cave system beneath the local nuclear power plant reveal some very dark mysteries, indeed, in this first German-language Netflix original series.

Berlin-based Rise Visual Effects Studios provided all the VFX shots for Season 1 of the series. VFX supervisor Sven Pannicke was responsible for planning the visual effects, including design and VFX set supervision during principal photography.

The “apparatus” time-travel machine was one of the challenges Pannicke faced on the show. “On set, we wanted to use a practical model, built and provided by the art department,” he explains. “We had to figure out how far we could go with the practical model in terms of functionality. We added all the moving parts to the model as CG elements — all the turning wheels, gears, and cylinders. To make life a bit easier for us, I decided to make a digital copy of the complete practical model using our 3D Lidar scanning workflow. So, if the apparatus needed to come to life in a shot, we could replace the whole apparatus with our CG model. This was easier than enhancing just parts of it.”

Since there were two practical models of the apparatus, to illustrate different time periods and different stages of development, Rise created two different versions of the CG model, as well.

In addition to the apparatus, Rise crafted environments and handled effects animation for the wormhole, or portal. In-camera techniques and DI color correction signal shifts in the timeline.

Pannicke considers the nuclear power plant to be his personal highlight in Season 1. “Everybody looks for typical VFX shots like time-shift effects, but they don’t expect to see a full-CG power plant in the background,” he explains. “The main entry of the nuclear power plant in the series was shot at the back entry to Berlin’s Olympiastadion — not even all of our Berlin friends noticed that!” The location was chosen as the most appropriate venue for the shot in the Berlin area and because “shooting close to a real nuclear power plant is always a nightmare due to the hard security rules.”

The Olympic stadium location looked perfect to Pannicke, with its trees forming “a natural matte line to split the foreground from the CG background. But due to the complex shooting schedule, the principal shoot on that location shifted to winter, and there weren’t any leaves anymore and, unfortunately, I lost my natural matte line. So, we had to replace them with CG trees, as well.”

Since Rise was founded 11 years ago, it has been constantly building and growing its own in-house workflow, based on third-party tools. “We were one of the very first companies in Europe to use [Foundry’s] Nuke for compositing. Some years later, we started using [Side Effects’] Houdini as our main tool for animation, shading/lighting, and rendering,” the latter done with Side Effects’ Mantra, and again leading the way with this toolset in Europe,” Pannicke points out. 

The studio has its own in-house database, called RiseBase, for tracking all its productions and connecting all its proprietary tools. “This is an ongoing process, so there was no need to establish any new workflow for Dark. Even the 4K workflow had been implemented already,” Pannicke adds.