Award-winning VFX and design studio Phosphene
served as principal visual effects house for FX’s critically acclaimed mystery series
A Murder at the End of the World
. All episodes are streaming now exclusively on Hulu. Working under the direction of series VFX supervisor Aaron Raff and show side VFX producer Tavis Larkham, the studio delivered scores of dazzling visuals for the seven-episode mystery thriller, including exteriors and interiors of its central location: a tech billionaire’s mysterious resort. The work is currently nominated for a Visual Effects Society (VES) Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode.
Created, written, and directed by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, A Murder at the End of the World centers on a Gen Z amateur sleuth, Darby Hart (Emma Corrin), who is working to solve a murder at a secluded luxury hotel in Iceland during a furious snowstorm. The series also stars Clive Owen, Harris Dickinson, Alice Braga, and Marling, herself.
The hotel complex is a layered mix of practical locations, set builds, and visual effects. Raff, who also served as Phosphene’s studio VFX supervisor, joined the series’ production team in scouting locations in Iceland. They chose an existing hotel located at the base of a snow-covered mountain range for the hotel’s first floor. A separate location, a hot springs in eastern Iceland, was selected for its curvy entryway. Phosphene’s visual effects team combined the two sites and added a distinctive circular CG second floor as well as snow drifts, falling snow and other environmental effects.
“Aaron Raff is a true wizard of visual effects and A Murder At The End Of The World owes much to his taste, talent, ingenuity and the work of everyone at Phosphene behind the scenes to realize really challenging sequences across seven hours of storytelling,” says Marling. “Aaron was deeply involved in the creation of the hotel from the very first scout in Iceland, working closely with Zal, our production designer, Alex DiGerlando, and me to find the best way to blend portions of existing locations in Iceland with sets we created on the soundstage in New Jersey, with portions of the hotel that would only ever exist as visual effects.”
The hotel’s ring section was designed by DiGerlando (who also designed the interior) and modeled by Phosphene. “The CG team refined the model and added photorealistic architectural details along with layers of snow,” says Raff. “The building’s exterior is made of concrete to give it the feel of a bunker.”
Scenes in the resort’s interior were shot on a massive practical set in New Jersey. Raff and the Phosphene team built matte paintings from location plates to create exterior views from the windows of the circular hotel structure. “I spent a lot of time in Iceland with a VFX photographer shooting video panoramas in every direction and at every time of day,” Raff recalls. “We captured the line of sun, shadows moving across the mountain and gust of wind. Those environmental details bring the panorama to life.”
The Phosphene team led by producer Steven Weigle also created visuals to support a high-tech LiDAR security system used by the resort’s billionaire owner to monitor activity in 3D space. They accomplished that by setting up frozen moments with actors in various parts of the hotel. Those scenes were captured using handheld scanners, eight-camera rigs, and LiDAR. “We simulated how such a system would work by, essentially, doing it for real,” explains Raff. “Using photogrammetry techniques, we assembled what looks like a scan of the entire hotel and the people in it. Then we added glitching and distortion inherent to scans to make it appear plausible.”
Prior to producing the final elements, artists used Unreal to create animated fly-throughs of the frozen scenes. During production, those animations were played back live on the set, giving the actors something to react to.
As the premise of the series has the characters trapped in the resort due to a monumental snowstorm, weather effects are part of nearly every exterior. Those ranged from establishing shots of the hotel complex to a sequence where a group of characters, out on a scouting mission, are caught in a “super storm.” “A lot of what you see on screen is real and the product of physically demanding shoots,” recalls Raff. “That said, the weather in Iceland was unpredictable and hard to film around. Plus, it would be difficult to film in an actual storm due to low visibility.”
Phosphene artists added blowing snow to the production footage and orchestrated the storm to support the narrative. “The storm grows stronger and stronger, something impossible to film practically,” Raff relates. “We layered it with snow to show the power of the storm and its mounting threat to the story’s characters.”
The look and character of the storm was inspired in large part by imagery Raff captured during the production in Iceland. “Anytime the weather picked up I set up my camera and shot reference,” he recalls. “Often, we’d spot ephemeral things: the sun going down or the wind blowing in a certain way. We brought that same feel into the visual effects to give them an epic quality.”
Marling says that the attention to detail and artistic sensibility that Raff and Phosphene brought to the project helped to draw viewers into the story. “We always got exactly what we needed,” she says. “Every sequence matched the tone, design, overall aesthetic we were striving for, and, most importantly, ensured that we never dropped the ball of the story. This includes everything from the smallest details like continuity of evidence or blood patterns from chapter to chapter, to enormous plot points told solely through VFX. Aaron is an artist as much as he is a producer, which means his solutions are always outside of the box, original, and the best thing for the story, while also keeping the budget’s bottom line in sight.”
A Murder at the End of the World is the latest in a series of high-profile projects for Phosphene. The studio was also the primary VFX vendor on the Netflix features