FuseFX’s visual effects supervisor Damien Thaller explains.
In the early stages of season 2 of TNT’s Snowpiercer, main character Melanie (Jennifer Connelly) is on a mission outside the titular train in sub-freezing temperatures. It’s a key scene, not only for Melanie to succeed, but also because it reveals the fall of snowflakes—it has hitherto been deemed too cold for new snowfalls to occur.
In that sequence, we see the train, snow, and a background Chicago city environment. Almost all of it is synthetic, carefully crafted by the team at FuseFX, led by visual effects supervisor Damien Thaller.
“Jennifer was shot in a studio on bluescreen with set snow underneath her,” details Thaller. “The idea was to integrate the six feet wide of practical snow under her feet and then everything else would be us in visual effects. The end result was achieved by almost completely rotoscoping her out of the plates and dropping her into a digital environment asset.”
Despite the heavy CG work required, the intention remained for it to be an invisible effects sequence, heavily focused on the story points that needed telling.
“This part of the story beat wasn’t about pulling focus to high impact exploding effects or anything over visually complex,” says Thaller. “ It needed to feel grounding” “You were always engaged with her and her performance and what was happening in the story. Then everything around her, what we created in the environment was supporting that and setting up the location.”
Some partial set-pieces were necessary for the sequence, including key sections of the train mechanics that Melanie crawls under and also attacks with a metal bar, and for a moment in which she runs and jumps onto Big Alice’s engine doorway as the train begins moving. “She was shot on set with a rig then everything else around her was our digital work,” notes Thaller, who worked in collaboration with production VFX supervisor Geoff D.E. Scott during this second season.
Another challenge was crafting a convincing ‘cold’ world around Melanie, and that involved plenty of atmosphere, as well as integrating practical lights from her helmet or creating digital ones into the final shots.
“To give us more flexibility we would rotoscope Melanie and rebuild the light interaction from her helmet torches. She had one on each side of the helmet design, so we’d have to mimic this in CG over the trains, environment and any FX simulations. There’s a particular shot where Melanie walks closer to the train, rests her hand before crawling under the two trains connecting. Besides her head and shoulders, we see all CG.”
The snowflakes Melanie sees—viewed in macro close-ups—were FuseFX’s creations, too, achieved as procedurally generated elements, explains Thaller.
“We must have looked at so many different photo references and macro footage of super close-up snowflakes to get a feel of what they technically look like, then visually what they could look like in our Snowpiercer world, before we dropped them into the scene and fall around her.”