How the visual effects team on Apple TV+’s ‘Foundation’ kept things grounded

“We can’t just have all of our actors working in front of a bluescreen. They need to be on a hill, interacting with the environment, the wind’s got to be blowing…”

Foundation—the Apple TV+ show based on the Foundation series of stories by Isaac Asimov—is set on multiple alien worlds, features futuristic-like technologies and involves space travel. But its makers, led by creator David S. Goyer, were determined to base the show in reality as much as possible.

That philosophy applied, also, to the show’s visual effects. Production filmed where it could at real locations, many of them on the Canary Islands, or on large built sets. Bluescreens and greenscreens were kept to a minimum. Miniatures were also used. That does not mean there was not significant digital visual effects work—there was—but as overall visual effects supervisor Chris MacLean related to befores & afters, each VFX requirement on Foundation was tackled with the grounding in mind.

Here, MacLean outlines the key visual effects challenges handled on the first three episodes.

b&a: From an overall point of view, was there a particular direction from David Goyer you were given, in terms of the visual effects?

Chris MacLean: David spent most of his time on the script and visualizing everything in the script. So we had a lot of great explanations in what was written. David’s biggest concern was that the VFX look believable. When it came to the visuals, he had opinions, but it was really up to production designer Rory Cheyne and I to come up with everything and go, ‘Okay, how do we do this show without making it look like another Star Trek, or another Star Wars?’

What we ended up doing is taking reality and mixing it with 70s sci-fi cover art, basically—all the old novel covers and just amp’ing up the saturation a little bit and trying to take NASA footage and mix it with that. That was the mantra we came up with.

b&a: My reaction to the VFX of the show is that everything just feels very grounded. Whether it was shooting on real locations, or some other thing like on built sets. There’s clearly a lot of digital work in the show, but tell me about that grounding of the VFX?

Chris MacLean: Rory and I—we have a very good relationship—and early on we decided, ‘Okay, the only way this show is going to work is if we work together to figure out how to merge the two worlds.’ Often, these two areas (production design and VFX) don’t talk very well or they don’t get along because they think they’re doing each other’s jobs and it becomes a bit of a juggling act that way. But we were in lockstep the whole way. We have our moments, but we also spent a lot of time just drawing stuff, sending it back and forth, seeing what the other person thought— ‘Is it going to work for you? Is it going to work for me?’

What ended up happening was–well, everybody is saying Foundation looks super expensive–and that’s not the case. There are shows that have way more budget than we did, just way more resources than we did. We had to work within our box, and what ended up happening was, we realized that we wanted to spend the money on visual effects that were going to make a statement or make an impact as opposed to, ‘Oh, we have to extend that set 500 times. That’s going to blow our budget for the episode.’ So, Rory built the sets and we figured out a way to do it so that we could save our budget for space shots and ships and ‘sandagrams’ [more on these, below].

The other thing that happened was in relation to the lenses that we picked. I got a little bit involved with the camera department as well, and we went back and forth on those. We did some anamorphic work with the T-Series Panavision lenses in episode one. And then in episode two, we went to some super clean Zeiss lenses on the ARRI ALEXA LF, and we ended up landing on the LF body with Atlas Orion anamorphic lenses. What happened was the anamorphic lenses actually helped us out a lot—they had such a shallow focal width that everything falls off. With those lenses, we could have that de-focused look. So, especially when we were shooting outdoors, a lot of the time there would be some bogies like some towers or a house or something in the shot, but with those lenses it would just fall off to nothing which meant we didn’t have to do a paint-out shot. Everything we did was to mitigate extraneous visual effects shots so that we could build a whole water planet, say, and then spend our money there. It all came out of necessity because we didn’t have the budget to do 6,000 visual effects shots on the show.

b&a: Even on Terminus—an alien other-worldly planet—it feels like you could use real exotic-looking locations.

Chris MacLean: It’s a mix of Iceland and Canary Islands. We had to move from Iceland because where we had originally put Terminus, there was something that wasn’t safe there, so we had to leave. The U.S in the 90s used to go shoot tanks in Iceland and we found some unexploded ordnance. So we had to find a new place. We landed on the Canaries because it had a little more temperate weather. We were shooting in November in Iceland as well which was probably not the best time to be shooting in Iceland. It was very windy. We had sets blowing off the tops of mountains. It was really fun, but we needed to find a place where we would know that our sets and crew would be safe.

Roy built a portion of the town for Terminus in Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands. And then we also moved the Vault, there was another space that we found on the Canaries that looked identical to where we had done the Vault in Iceland. We spent a lot of time with our iPads out saying, ‘Okay, that kind of looks like the same hill.’ Still, it was a big fight to shoot somewhere for the Vault. Everybody would say, ‘Just do it in visual effects.’ But we would say, ‘No, we don’t want to do this all as visual effects. We can’t just have all of our actors working in front of a bluescreen for the Vault. They need to be on a hill, interacting with the environment. The wind’s got to be blowing…’, all that stuff.

b&a: Just to continue that sort of grounded feel, I was really excited when I saw in the credits Ian Hunter’s name, for miniatures. What were the miniatures in the first three eps?

Chris MacLean: I really wanted to do some miniatures on the show, even if it was just for reference. In fact, a lot of times we shot something and ended up going fully CG anyway, but we would give the plates to the vendors as reference. We brought Ian on and we built the miniatures to ground us again in reality. You know, one thing I hate more than anything is when a camera doesn’t feel real. Where you get a CG camera and it’s doing 360s, moving a million miles a minute. There’s no weight to it and all that sort of thing.

So, our idea behind that was, we would have the ship, we would have the motion control rig, we would have the camera, and we take that option to move the camera in a crazy way away. It means you are locked into this world where you have to figure out the moves in a realistic way. What we found was that we could move a lot slower and it would feel more real.

The miniature builds came from Odyssey Studios in Limerick, Ireland. Mark Maher there used to be a miniatures guy at Weta Workshop. Ian Hunter supervised the whole build process for that, he’d go in and make sure that the paint aspects were working, and everything else.

b&a: To continue that grounded discussion, I even felt that also existed with the holograms, the volumetric ones. They’re things that might normally be really ‘sci-fi’ but there was something more physical about them.

Chris MacLean: Well, with the holograms on the show, I was, for a while, very perplexed on how to do them in a different way. How do we do holograms so that it’s not just, ‘Oh, look, a hologram’. So, I talked to the guys at Tendril and said, ‘I want a particle-based hologram, where the emission source or the emission type is particles, and they actually cast shadows and receive light.’ The tech is, it’s pulling dust particles out of the air, or small atoms, and organizing them in a way that they’re creating an image.

They started with the prime radiant math, and then we did some busts. You kind of see that technology again when we get into the Hall of Cleons and Dusk is walking past looking at the busts as they form. We called them Sandograms.

We did a few versions where we did some volumetric captures, while some of them were two-and-a-half-D. It is a lot of work to process video-based volumetric scans of people and then put them into a simulation and light them and render them, so DNEG came up with a solution for that which we used quite a few times.

b&a: I also thought the moving pigments in the mural scenes were beautiful—maybe even for my Apple TV screensaver?

Chris MacLean: That was Mackevision. We had this giant painting for the Mural of Souls that we actually had built. David had written, ‘active chroma’, in episode one. And we were like, ‘What is that? What is that?’ We tried playing with acrylic inks and ferrofluid and we started shooting that practically. With my 24 mm probe lens we were scraping it through the ink, running a magnet underneath it with the ferrofluid moving all the ink. It was really cool but it looked too wet.

I sent Rory some reference from Samsara of the monks doing the mandala and then brushing it away. We said, ‘Okay, let’s lean into this a little bit.’ Then to Mackevision we said, ‘Now we need to do this based off of grains, and it kind of lives in the same world as the sandograms.’ We wanted the painting to ‘move’, where if you stared at it long enough you could see the pigments shifting.

And we actually redid the mural practically, after we got the VFX shots back from Mackevision. Rory hadn’t originally crafted it with a sand texture in mind, so it wasn’t as rough as it needed to be. We went back and re-vinyled it with this sand texture, and we had time to do it because COVID hit. It gave us a little bit more time to fix a few things.

b&a: When Gaal travels to Trantor from Synnax, there’s an amazing shot where the ship goes into warp speed and looks like a black hole. How did that come about?

Chris MacLean: That came from a mix of what Asimov wrote about travel, and then us wanting to riff on an ode to sci-fi. Overall it came from David Goyer’s description of the FTL ships as knife blades cutting through space. We then thought, let’s have the ships generate their own singularity and cut through space.

So, the black hole, obviously that’s inspired by Christopher Nolan and what Paul Franklin, at DNEG, had done on Interstellar. There they came up with the black hole simulator. And luckily those shots were sitting at DNEG, so we were like, ‘Hey guys, what can we do here…?’

The other inspiration was Doug Trumbull’s slit-scan sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then all of the cover art by Chris Foss, Michael Whelan and John Berkey. We were like, ‘Okay, now we’ve got all the ingredients for the recipe, how do we make the cake?’ I started painting what this slit-scan horizon should look like. We sent it back to DNEG and came back a few times and we just kept riffing on it. Paul Franklin actually got involved for those shots because we were having a little bit of trouble with blocking. It was just really great to be able to build that up and make it and see what we had originally set out to do come to life.

b&a: What about the Starbridge, and its destruction?

Chris MacLean: We started off early on with Rupert Sanders and David Goyer previs’ing that sequence with Chris Keller and the previs team at DNEG London. We previs’d it all, we set it to music, we did the whole thing and it was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ And then what happened was, we were framing everything to some of the concept art that was done. We’d shortened the stalk on the Starbridge and it wasn’t working with the scale of what we wanted to do.

So we just decided to go for it and make it as long as what it is explained as in the script. It meant we got this giant perspective and sense of vertigo from the Starbridge to the planet, where the planet looks so tiny. It just really, really started to work as soon as we moved the Starbridge away from the planet.

Concept designer Paul Chadeisson did the concepts of the Starbridge with Rory, and we wanted it to feel like tech that had evolved from humanity, even though it’s 25,000 years in the future. We decided we wanted the bronze plating on the Starbridge, similar to satellite solar panels today. The way that we did the stalk was very interesting. We just said, ‘Let’s make it a vertebrae.’ So it’s jointed, it’s built up in sections. Which means that when it falls, we’ve got all of this bending and torquing, and it worked out really well. Doing the stalk in sections also gave it a great sense of scale.

For the elevator cars, we built a set for this and we ran an LED screen outside of that when we shot it for interactive lighting, which was done by DNEG. We ended up replacing the background, though, because LED screens are great for lighting and reflections, but that’s about it. Well, they’re good for out of focus backgrounds, because you can’t focus on the screens yet. Nobody’s come up with a diffuser to put in front of them that makes them work on camera.

We animated a loop that we would play for the actors, and there were stunts involved and had everybody freaking out. When Lou Llobell as Gaal walked up and saw it for the first time, she was pretty amazed that we had done this and she thought she would have to stare at a bluescreen the whole time. It was good for the actors, it was good for us, because we had something to ground us.

Interestingly, because people don’t pull keys anymore, they just send their shots out to get roto done, we didn’t use a lot of bluescreens and greenscreens on the show. We picked our moments for that. If there was an opportunity to avoid spill we went for white or blacks.

b&a: I was going to ask you whether you had time and budget and inclination to use any virtual production approaches for the show. As you say, they can be useful, but they’re also not always the definitive answer.

Chris MacLean: We picked our moments for using the LEDs as well. In the natatorium, the swimming pool on the Deliverance, we had the star field outside and an asteroid field on a screen. We had them fly by a nebula which we played outside for lighting. It was great because it gave us a reflection in the water, it gave us all these things that we maybe wouldn’t have thought about if we had just done it with a bluescreen.

We also had an LED translite outside of the palace window. You see that when they’re eating in the dining room. That’s Trantor outside on an LED screen. And then the elevator when Gaal’s riding down, we had the screen there that I mentioned earlier. We had screens outside the FTL windows for the travel sequence. However, none of it was real-time rendering, say with Unreal. It was all pre-rendered. It was all just playback, basically.

At one point, when Gaal leaves Synnax, they wanted some interactive light on her, so I had an LED TV in my office that I wheeled out and put beside one of the windows and played content on to get the reflections and lighting on Gaal’s face. It’s when she’s crying, when she’s leaving Synnax. I played some clouds going by and it worked. The cinematographers and the lighting department started bringing in rock n’ roll LED panels to do interactive lighting for some of the sequences. Again, it just helped with grounding everything.

b&a: One shot I wanted to ask you about was on Terminus where we see the timelapse after their arrival. How did you achieve that one?

Chris MacLean: Well, David wanted time to be a character on the show. In the first three episodes there’s a lot of time jumps. The time lapses came from that idea. Scanline worked on this. I actually had a slider and some extra cameras that we set up around Terminus, and we shot real time lapse footage. While everybody else was shooting, we would shoot all this reference, and we gave that to Scanline and it was all based off of those angles and that reference that we gave them.

We even set up a time lapse camera, a solar time lapse camera, when they started building Terminus. We had that go until Terminus was finished being built—it was probably two months of footage. That was good reference, but I don’t know if it ever made it to Scanline. Then it involved building assets and Scanline using a scan of the area we gave them. They blocked it out, then they sent us some lighting samples because we wanted to know how many times the sun was going to go around the planet, when the moon’s going to fly by, what was going to happen in the sky, all of that sort of thing. Once we got that locked in, we knew we had a sequence that worked.

b&a: The last thing I want to ask you about is the Vault on Terminus. There’s some interesting issues there with color, absorption of light, scale. These are things I feel like you had to solve as well as being concept and design issues.

Chris MacLean: With the Vault, we had almost a little bit of a contest between Rupert Sanders and his design team and Rory and us. It was a tough thing to nail down. Some people wanted to do an asymmetrical, brutalist thing floating in the air, and some people wanted it just to be a cube or a sphere. At one point I did a super simple drawing, a cut up shape with two diamonds.

We all sent in these designs to Matt Cherniss at Apple. I had sent that simple drawing to DNEG. They did some concepts, we sent them to Matt and he was like, ‘Yeah, this is great. This fits in with the story.’ We all knew, of course, what it was going to become later on, and I won’t give anything away. There’s a method to the madness in terms of how we designed it and why we designed it that way.

b&a: Well, I cannot wait to watch the rest of the show, thanks so much for talking to me about it.

Chris MacLean: I had a huge team helping me—Mike Enriquez, Addie Manis, Kathy Chasen-Hay from Skydance—they were all huge, huge helps to getting this thing done. There were a lot of people who came on and really, really helped us to get across the finish line.

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