Visual effects supervisor Ari Rubenstein led BREAK+ENTER’s team whose principal task was to create “nothing” out of “something.” The group of artists were asked to develop a convincing look for the black hole and execute it in a variety of contexts across dozens of shots. “By definition, a black hole doesn’t look like anything,” observes Rubenstein. “You can’t show it by what it is, only by what it is not.”
The studio experimented with numerous approaches, some based on swirling sand, crystals, and mist. They also tried filling the hole with waves of energy and highlighting its perimeter with unusual lighting effects. Ultimately, they settled on a look where the hole is defined by a wall of rock that fades downwards to infinity. “The rock wall is in a constant state of deterioration,” Rubenstein explains. “Bits and pieces flake off, float away, and disappear, while seeming to defy gravity. It has the feel of an endless cavity with an air of mystery.”
Keeping the look of the black hole consistent was complicated by the fact that it appears in long shots and close ups and at different times of day. Rubenstein says the key was to use a light touch. “In refining the effect, we kept pulling away, stripping it down, making it almost imperceptible,” he relates. “When you refine it to the point that it becomes realistic, it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, it serves it.”
The studio faced a similar challenge in coming up with a look for fragments of dark matter that escape from the black hole, become enmeshed in rock, pieces of amber, and jewelry and appear to have supernatural properties. Artists used a custom tracking tool, developed in-house by BREAK+ENTER, to attach the CG dark matter to objects and characters and cause it to behave in strange ways. At one point, dark matter is absorbed through a character’s skin.
Additionally, BREAK+ENTER performed “invisible” effects work to alter background environments. Artists added digital matte paintings of the Tetons to some scenes and altered foliage in others. “We replaced skies, added or removed clouds, applied mist to mountains,” notes Rubenstein. “In some instances, we added grass to prairies that seems to stretch for miles.”
BREAK+ENTER has developed a novel workflow that enables it to generate high quality results quickly from a tight-knit team. It employs industry standard tools including Autodesk's Maya for layout, modeling, and animation, SideFX's Houdini for FX, Mantra for lighting and rendering, Adobe Substance Designer & Painter for texturing, and Foundry's Nuke for Compositing. “We also employ a few proprietary tools developed in-house for advanced tracking of animated characters and objects,” Rubenstein explains. “On the hardware side, we use custom-configured workstations, via Amazon Web Services (AWS), that can be re-configured on the fly per artist as the specs of our job or individual shots change during production.”
Rubenstein says that the BREAK+ENTER team was excited to be part of the series’ debut season and contribute to its novel mix of western realism and otherworldly mystery. “We were inspired to come up with visuals that matched the uniqueness of the story and define its look,” he says. “We put a lot of effort into developing and refining the effects, especially the black hole, and ended up with something that is tasteful, complements the beautiful cinematography, and serves the story. They really got what they were after.”