Crafting VFX in 'Manifest'
Karen Moltenbrey
February 8, 2019

Crafting VFX in 'Manifest'

It was a typical airport scene, as Montego Flight 828 takes off from Jamaica headed for New York’s JFK. En route, the plane experiences a short but severe bout of unexpected turbulence, but arrives at its destination safely… years later. For all aboard, it was a routine flight that lasted just a few hours, but for everyone else, five and a half years have passed. 

This is the plot line of the first episode of the new fall TV series Manifest on NBC, a Lost-like supernatural drama from executive producers Robert Zemeckis and Jack Rapke.

Of course, there is more to the story. As those on the flight try to get on with their lives, some begin to experience strange occurrences. They hear voices. They see images. They are directed to take certain actions to save others – a calling of sorts. Have they been given a second chance to serve the greater good? Or, is something else at play here?

At the end of the pilot, the passengers are inexplicably drawn to the hangar where the plane is being analyzed, when suddenly it bursts into flames, erasing any trace that could explain the mystery and happenings that will further unfold in subsequent episodes.

In April, before Atomic Fiction became part of Method, a team of about 25 artists in the studio’s Montreal facility spent two weeks creating the pilot’s effects. “When you’re on a two-week schedule, it’s such a quick, immediate turnaround, and you approach [the project] with a think-on-your-feet’ mentality,” says Seth Hill, visual effects supervisor at Atomic Fiction. 

The crew created 69 VFX shots for the episode, which involved “a little bit of everything,” says Hill. Some of the work was “invisible,” including weather enhancements – in particular, adding additional snow to maintain visual consistency in a sequence. They also created set extensions and bluescreen effects. 

The more complicated work entailed building the CG aircraft for various shots. The interior of the airplane in the flight sequences is a bluescreen set, though the scenery outside the aircraft was created by Atomic Fiction. When the plane explodes at the end of the episode, that was CG as well.

“Blowing up the plane was tricky because there are so many moving parts,” says Hill. “We weren’t creating a supernatural type of explosion or anything like that; we were matching the reference we had for a fireball-like explosion where a lot of gas and fuel are involved.” The scene comprised the initial explosion, with a quick cut to the characters’ reactions, followed by the rest of the explosion.

The artists also created shots of the plane as it landed at JFK – something that was a bit challenging, too, more because the action is so familiar to the viewers. “Everyone has seen a 737 land over and over in movies or in real life. Ours had to feel natural and consistent so no one would second-guess it,” adds Hill.

At Atomic Fiction, the artists use Autodesk’s Maya for modeling and animation, and Foundry’s Mari and, at times, Allegorithmic’s Substance Designer for texturing. For lighting, they use a Foundry Katana/Pixar RenderMan pipeline, and for compositing, Foundry’s Nuke. Effects are created in SideFX’s Houdini. 

In the show, the explosion is a turning point for the passengers, as they were drawn back to it for some inexplicable reason. It also marks the handoff of the show’s visual effects from Atomic Fiction, which only handled the first episode, to Zoic, which is now tasked with the show’s VFX work. 

According to Zoic’s Rocco Passionino, VFX supervisor on the project, the studio helped retrofit the pilot into the series, as is typical when moving from pilot to series. “At the end of the pilot, the passengers show up on the tarmac and the plane explodes. In Episode 2, we pick up right after that, with the cleanup crew spraying the fire-suppression foam on the carcass of the plane,” he says. “A practical buck was built for part of the plane [in that scene], and then we set-extended the rest of the plane digitally post-explosion.”

In addition, Zoic did some minor cleanup work in the episode, composited news footage onto monitors and inserted the stalker shadow into the latter part of the show. But, the majority of the work entailed matte paintings of the aftermath following the plane’s destruction. The artists also reskinned stock imagery of an aircraft to create the mysterious plane before the explosion.

Passionino points out that Manifest is not an effects-heavy series, especially compared to some of the other TV shows Zoic has handled recently, such as the psychedelic Legion and the post-apocalyptic The 100. Rather, the VFX, for the most part, are subtle and invisible. However, at times they come to life briefly in the visions that haunt the characters. “A lot of the work involves enhancing these callings and helping to create the obscure imagery so the characters can act on them,” he explains. 

For instance, in a later episode, one of the passengers has a vision of a gray lady, created using makeup effects and enhanced digitally to make her look like the Bethesda statue from Central Park come to life. This was done using color-correction techniques. “We also added some small texture to her to make her look like an actual physical statue instead of a woman with makeup on,” says Passionino.

The visual effects supervisor estimates that each episode contains between 20 and 50 VFX shots that include general work such as greenscreen “driving” composites with characters in vehicles, as well as set extensions. For these and the series’ other effects, Zoic uses a Maya-based pipeline for the 3D work (modeling and lighting) and Houdini for the particle effects. The crew also uses Chaos Group’s V-Ray for rendering and Nuke for compositing.

At the time of this interview, Passionino had just attended a pre-production meeting pertaining to Episode 9. Typically, about a dozen people at Zoic work on two to three episodes at a time – they often are finishing one while in the middle of another, and starting a new one. The turnaround time for each episode is approximately two weeks. “So far, we have not had to do any highly demanding effects work,” he notes, adding that the work is plot-dependent, so they never know what may be just around the corner.