Union Launches Sea Dragon in 'For All Mankind'
August 25, 2020

Union Launches Sea Dragon in 'For All Mankind'

Union was approached to create the epic season finale for Apple TV+’s dystopian drama For All Mankind.  
Created by Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Galactica), For All Mankind dramatizes an alternate version of 1960s USA in which the Russians beat the Americans to landing the first man on the moon.  The season concludes with the televised launch of a Sea Dragon rocket.

Although never built, the Sea Dragon was an immense, sea-launched, two-stage vehicle designed by Robert Truax for Aerojet in 1962. At 150m (490 ft) long with a diameter of 23m (75 ft), Sea Dragon would have been the largest rocket ever built. Even today, it’s still the largest rocket that has ever been fully conceived.

Season VFX Supervisor Jay Redd provided some initial previs of the launch, which acted as a pretty good brief in terms of model placement, timing and camera angles. After a few more rounds of previs, Union locked down its transition from viewers watching the launch broadcast live on TV through their set to a crystal clear, full-width shot of the launch. 

Alongside the rocket, the studio added additional elements including buoys, seagulls, a boat and two helicopters to provide scale and realism to the scene.

Union had a pretty good reference for the rocket build given that the blueprints for the original design are accessible. However, in consultation with its clients, some artistic license was employed to help the rocket to realize its full epic on-screen potential.  The rocket was modeled and textured in Houdini. 

Final delivery was a 4K, 2,544 frame single shot of a rocket launch from under the ocean – pretty ambitious considering the required interaction of water, white water, foam, pyro and smoke.

Given the magnitude of the sims and renders we looked to the AWS cloud to provide the capacity required to deliver the work within the time frame.   Union’s largest sim (the rocket plume) took eight days to sim on systems with 96x CPUs and upwards of 768GB RAM generating close to 4 billion voxels – capacity ordinarily well out of reach of a studio of our size, according to the company.

As soon as Union had its first renders, ite got to work building the shot in Nuke. The CG elements consisted of the rocket, helicopters, buoys, water, waves, pyro thrusters, engine plume, atmos and smoke. Given the length of the shot and the interactions between the various elements over time, there were multiple sims and renders for each.  

Digital matte painting techniques were used to create the sky and the USS Enterprise battleship in the deep background. In comp, the artists added a layer of additional crashing wave elements to supplement the FX water as the rocket emerges from the sea and the engines ignite.  There was also a fair bit of work involved getting the transition from the living room plate to the sea correct.  

Union built the living room in 2.5D taking parallax from the walls and created a camera to push-in and transition smoothly for the full CG takeover.  The studio also added the TV screen, look which we had to create from period reference as it needed to stand up to us travelling through the pixels. Episode 10 closes with the rocket soaring upwards into the heavens.