The art of VFX for a comedy show

VFX for a comedy show

FuseFX on their futuristic effects for Amazon’s ‘Upload’

While FuseFX visual effects supervisor Marshall Krasser was working on Upload, the Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks, and Recreation) comedy that just started streaming on Amazon Prime Video, he tackled an issue with a particular VFX scene and its place within the series, which is set in a future where people can be ‘uploaded’ to a digital afterlife.

The shot was for a scene in a mini-mart store in the ‘real world’ and featured a cashier robot – computer-generated by FuseFX – that interacted with one of the characters.

“I said to one of our animators, let’s have some fun with this,” relates Krasser. “We came up with something that was really funny. We were laughing our heads off and we showed it to Greg and his team and they all had a big laugh, too. Then Greg said, ‘Guys, I hate to do this to you. Even though this is great, we’re getting laughs where I don’t want them. This scene is more about the actress, and the robot is upstaging her a little bit.”

Krasser says they took that on board and scaled things back with the robot. “I think that was really good guidance from Greg. We had something they liked but then we could rein it in.”

Still, that robot shop assistant scene still generates several laughs, as do many other moments in which visual effects played a key hand in Upload’s storytelling.

For example, in the show’s pilot episode, there’s a dramatic decapitation scene as the central character, Nathan, gets uploaded after a self-driving car accident. FuseFX, which actually came on board after initial VFX had been done for the pilot, enhanced the startling effect. “There was a dramatic reaction of the characters in the scene watching it,” notes Krasser. “So we had to have something that was a little traumatic – but hilarious – there.”

Robbie Amell as Nathan (left) with ‘Upload’ creator Greg Daniels.

Another visual effects task – part of FuseFX’s 1400 shots for the series –  related to a talking dog. Dogs in the digital afterlife act as therapists. Yep, therapists.

“The real dog’s name was Rowdy, but he was far from Rowdy on set,” reveals Krasser. “Whenever he’s talking, it’s a computer-generated muzzle. With talking dogs, sometimes a little bit less is more because if you got too cartoony, it starts looking cartoony. It was a matter of finding that fine line between realism and cartoon that would tell the story.”

Later in the series, there’s a moment when Nathan tries to shop around for a different, and cheaper, digital afterlife. He is shown options via something called ‘IR’, which adjusts the room he is standing in, also generating plenty of laughs.

Andy Allo as Nora and Matt Ward as Bryon film a self-driving car scene.

To film those scenes, production built twin office sets; one with the full furnishings and the other completely blue. FuseFX could then change what was on the walls of the office to suit the ‘virtual heaven shopping.’

“Greg had a really cool way of showing us what he wanted for this scene,” says Krasser. “He actually built a little tiny green screen set and he got these little dolls and he put them in the room and shot some photos of it and then took that and put other photography in behind it. It wasn’t meant to be a holodeck, more like a lame virtual world.”

Then there’s a visual effect that’s possibly one of Upload’s simplest, but again it plays into the comedy/VFX cross-over. On being uploaded, Nathan’s ‘angel’ gives him a persistent cowlick in his hair that pops up no matter how much he tries to pat down.

A scene is filmed in Nathan’s digital afterlife bedroom.

“The hairstylist actually had it in his hair on set,” explains Krasser. “So when he’s pushing it down, we basically had to paint out, and then we had to just animate it popping back on. It’s the reverse of what some people might think. It’s a fun little thing.”

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