Digital Domain gets Lost In Space

Lost in Space follows the adventures of a family of space colonists whose ship veers off course. The series is a reboot of the 1965 series of the same name, which in turn had been inspired by the 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson.  Digital Domain returned in season 3, having previously collaborated on three episodes of the show’s second season.

Set in 2046, Season 3 was the final season of this series and we sat down with Digital Domain to discuss primarily their work in Episode 3. The year is 2046 and the Robinsons are trying to fight off the alien robot army as they battle to make it to Alpha Centauri. The robot army chasing them is led by a robot dubbed “SAR” (Second Alien Robot). In Episode 3 half the family is trying to escape a planet’s dense asteroid field having discovered a dead civilization on the planet that was responsible for first creating the robots. Meanwhile, a friendly Scarecrow Robot tries to help three of the Jupiter’s crew’s attempt to retrieve an alien engine from what appears to be a crashed and broken robot ship. However, it is a trap, and SAR captures Scarecrow.

As with other episodes, Digital Domain (DD) had to do face replacement on the robot(s). While the main robots were practical onset, their face is a digital add-on to provide a particle-type animation that changes depending on the scene.

Amber Planet

In episode 303, DD did a total of about 200 shots of which 25 shots were the ill-fated attempt to lure the robots away from the Alien Drive ship, which led to Scarecrows capture. Much of this work was environment work as Don West (Ignacio Serricchio) and John Robinson (Toby Stephens) are chased across the amber planet’s dusty terrain.

The chase required a lot of terrains to be generated, while not wanting to look like it repeated. Digital Domain created a chase through columns of ‘hoodoos’ with humans driving a “chariot” (a futuristic, armoured all-terrain vehicle) and designed a camouflage effect for the Jupiter that blended the ship with the environment, inspired by a tin foil-like shimmering effect.

The Chariot Chase

The hoodoos were based on the real Hoodoos of Drumheller Valley, Alberta which are naturally eroded land formations, that stand 20 feet tall in the Canadian Badlands.

The Real Hoodoos of Canada

The actual Hoodoos of Canada are in a unique geological area of Canada that has rock structures that are like these pillars of stone and they come up with a mushroom cap type top. Digital Domain referenced these and built an extensive digital environment. In total the team made 30 or more structures with three or four variations of each for the chariot chase.

What made the chase complex was animating the robots to make them believable fast. The solution was to animate the robots with a dog-type quadruped run cycle which included leaping and running. The sequence was rendered in V-Ray. Unfortunately, due to the vast amount of geo and the highly reflective robots, coupled with dust and motion blur, some frames in this chase sequence ended up taking over 60 hours a frame to render. In the end, for a few short sequences, the team rendered 2K instead of the standard 4k and up-resed the shots. Given the fast-moving camera and action, the frames are impossible to pick from the full 4K renders. Most of the complex 4K chase frames in the sequence were rendered in closer to 4 – 6 hours. It turned out that the issue was less the robots which were fairly optimized by this stage in the production but rather the complexity of textures and detail in the vast environment.

Resolute Crash Site

Along with the environments, Digital Domain also introduced the crash site of the Resolute, which was destroyed in the second season finale. To create the wreckage of the colonial ship, the VFX team began with matte paintings, then built dozens of pieces of twisted metal and spaceship machinery. These assets were deliberately and artfully scattered throughout the scene to simulate a vast debris field. The team then added environmental elements like dust and rock and blended the Resolute into the background. The destruction of the human’s former home in space and the natural elements on the amber planet combine to create an epic scene of destruction for episode 303.

The Ambush: SARs Trap for Scarecrow

While the chase is happening there is an ambush back at the ship with complex sand and dust animation required as the hidden robots burst out of the ground to attack.

Dead and gone

In the second subplot, Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) finds a dark cavernous space and then launches a flare to open up to this huge digital environment around and below a spherical alien control area. The issue of scale is a recurring problem, the assets don’t just need to be built at a large scale, but they need to appear to be huge to the audience which is nearly always a combination of modelling, lighting, and frame composition.

To get scale in the control room the team tried to add as much small identifiable detail as possible, including large amounts of complex alien corpses. Then when the flare is fired, only a very small amount of the vast room geometry is illuminated at a time. This partial illumination from a very bright light really sold the control room’s cathedral-like scale. This coupled with how slowly the flare object fell through the frame signalled the huge distance it was falling. In reality, there were over a dozen 3D lights that were positioned to bounce and catch details as if the light was coming from the flare as it fell.

The control room environment was one of the first the team worked on. The pipeline was Maya, Zbrush, Mari, and compositing in Nuke.

Playing Asteroids

The third sequence involves the escape from the planet before the density of the outlying asteroid field makes escape impossible. One might assume the asteroid field was just a Houdini scatter field, but DD realized early on that the asteroid field had to be art directed and it couldn’t just be a random scattering of asteroids. The team had to devise a system by which they could easily art direct the field, but then not have to art direct thousands of asteroids.

The complexity for the rendering of the asteroids is the lack of the ability to scale the displacement value with the scale of the actual item in Maya + V Ray. This means if an asteroid is reused at a different scale, its displacement would not scale correctly.  In Autodesk 3Ds Max there is exactly a button for ‘scale displacement with object’. Unable to change pipelines the DD team built their own workaround tool in Maya. Once the team addressed this issue, they could art direct the asteroid field and move or scale to fit the narrative of the story.

As with the chase sequence, the team was keen to make the VFX and animation as flexible as possible to tell the story, so by having a deep compositing pipeline robots, ships or asteroids could be individually adjusted in context with the VFX supervisor. The team was driven by the tight animation work done by DD’s own previz team for this complex staging problem of flying and avoiding collisions.