Seeing is Believing: The Visual Effects in 'See'
Marc Loftus
June 24, 2020

Seeing is Believing: The Visual Effects in 'See'

Apple TV+ recently introduced audiences to See, a new series set in the distant future following a viral outbreak that has decimated humankind. Subsequent generations of those who survived are born blind, and even the mention of “sight” is considered heresy by the current population, which measures just two million worldwide.
Jason Momoa stars as Baba Voss, the leader of a group who’ve found safety from wild animals and other invaders at the top of a mountain. He is married to a woman about to give birth to twins, though he is not the father. The children are born with the once-thought mythic ability, and their sight causes tension among the community. Alfre Woodard stars as Paris, Baba Voss’s spiritual leader.

James Rustad is a VFX supervisor at Outpost VFX in Montreal, which provided visual effects services for the series, along with other studios such as Method and Pixomondo. Outpost VFX is based in Bournemouth, UK, and set up the Montreal studio back in early 2019. See marked the new location’s first project.

“It was a really nice way to open up the studio with a high-end TV show like that,” recalls Rustad. “It was a real privilege to work on.”

Outpost VFX came on-board during production of Episode 3.

“Originally, I think we were just going to work on a few shots for Episode 3, but it all went really well and clients are very happy with the work we did,” says Rustad. “And we kept getting more and more work. In the end, we ended up working on every episode from 3 to 8. And I think we did around 130 shots in total in the end.”

The show is set in a future, post-apocalyptic world, where the planet has descended into chaos.
“Jason Momoa is the lead character, and his group of friends and survivors are basically traveling through this world,” he explains. “A lot of our work was to enhance that environment — add age onto a lot of things, and just try to show the world as it would be after a real collapse of society.”

Outpost’s visual effects work primarily focused on environments and aging.

“We had a sequence where there was a sort of aging freeway overpass,” Rustad explains. “So we took that on and put that into a few shots, adding loads of overgrowth and vegetation, and twisted metal and broken concrete — everything we can just to make it feel old and abandoned.”

Another sequence he calls attention to appears in Episode 3. It’s a fight sequence between Jason Momoa’s Baba Voss character and a group of slavers who’ve had captured a member of his group. “That was about 30 shots,” he recalls. “Loads of blood. Loads of work you can’t really do on-set. So every time somebody gets hit with a sword, we add blood. We stained cloth with more blood, and add blood to the floor. There were some sword extensions as well. They used rubber swords in some shots but it doesn’t quite always work in every shot, so we end up replacing that with a more rigid steel sword.”

Episode 3 also features work done by the studio that revolves around an abandoned theme park.

“There were some rides — a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel — and everything was overgrown. That was just another location where a plot point to the story happens. Everything was added digitally. The plates on this show were really nice, actually. They did a lot of location shooting. I think everything we had was on-location. So there’s a lot of nice natural light and everything that gave us a really good basis for lighting the shots and just enhancing a lot of the environment. It was all shot out in British Columbia, so it’s a beautiful place and we don’t have to work too hard to make it [work].”

See was shot using Sony’s Venice camera in 4K UHD, notes Rustad. “That is pretty standard nowadays,” he says of the show’s 4K workflow.

Another effects sequence for the series takes place on a river, where the tide has risen and overcome houses.

“We had some houses that were sunken under the water,” he recalls. “That was about 15 shots. We did a lot of environment 3D work for that.”

And in Episode 7, the studio helped create the “Lavender Road” sequence, in which characters follow a path using their heightened sense of smell.

“Smell and sound play a big part in their life, so there’s this lavender road they’re told to follow using their noses. We had to add thousands of plants into the plates. They had a few on-set, but they really wanted to bump that up, so we had quite a number of shots augmenting that.”
Outpost VFX’s pipeline revolves around Autodesk Maya for CG and 3D work, Nuke for 2D compositing, and SideFX Houdini for effects and simulations.

“And then we use pretty standard tools, like Photoshop and various other 2D programs to do matte painting work. So that’s the sort of off-the-shelf tools we use. We also have some in-house tools, which we use to bridge that software.”

The studio uses a combination of Windows and Linux systems, though Rustad says they are currently in a bit of a transition.

“We’re trying to get more people over to Linux,” he notes. “The matte painters will primarily stay on Windows because of Photoshop, but it’s a bit of a mix at the moment. Our render farm is mostly Linux. And we use Shotgun (Software) for our back end.”

Rustad estimates that the studio has 10 weeks to deliver an episode, give or take, depending on the complexity of its VFX needs. The studio has adopted a “film” mentality, knowing that an entire season on a streaming platform is often released all at once.

“It’s really not so different to the film work, really,” he notes. “There are episodes deadlines, but if they drop all the episodes on the same day, then you basically just treat them like a film. There will be individual deadlines per episode, but as long as the whole thing’s done by the final date, that’s generally OK.”

Rustad says there is a perception that TV programming should have shorter turnaround times because it’s a lower-quality product.

“I really don’t think that’s true anymore, with TV being in 4K. I’m very proud to have some of the best artists in the world. Everybody is giving 100 percent on everything all the time. I really don’t think there’s a difference between TV and film these days. And so to that end, we have to make sure that everything we’re delivering is photoreal and as good as it can be, so you kind of end up taking about the same time as you would in film.”