Chernobyl has been nominated in the category of Outstanding Special Visual Effect in a Supporting Role Category.
The Chernobyl mini-series visual effects were supervised by VFX Supervisor Max Dennison, based at DNEG London. Dennison, with over 20 years experience, achieved critical acclaim through his work on Academy award-winning films such as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 at the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history and is one of only two nuclear energy disasters rated at seven, the maximum severity, on the International Nuclear Event Scale, (the other being the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan).
Chernobyl is located in the modern nation-state of the Ukraine. But at the time of the accident, it was in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Soviet Ukraine was one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union from the Union’s inception in 1922 to its breakup in 1991. The republic was governed by the Communist Party of Ukraine as a one-party socialist soviet republic.
Chernobyl required a wide variety of VFX techniques including CG, Matte Painting to extend practical plates, creature animation, full CGI shots of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, both before and after the accident.
Authenticity was key to portraying the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and its surrounding environment in the TV series. The most intense work being done was creating the post-explosion environment around the damaged Reactor #4. “Chernobyl, as it is today, looks very different to what it did in 1986,” explained Dennison. The actual Reactor #4 is inside a sarcophagus, so even if the production could have filmed at Chernobyl, it would not have been a good basis for VFX.
An exact low-resolution CGI model was supplied by Production to the effects team who then added additional high-resolution CG work in line with the story. “There was an existing CGI model, of the entire Chernobyl site, which covers about 12 square kilometers. It was fairly low res, but it was accurate in terms of the geography of the buildings, the administration blocks and the other reactors,” outlines Dennison. This model had been made based on photographic reference. “Our biggest challenge was to build a full-scale CG model of the damaged reactor and model all of the environment around it. Thankfully there was a huge amount of reference photographs that the Russians had taken of the exploded reactor at the time – many of them black and whites but it did give us granular detail and so we could completely rebuild Rector #4, both the exterior and the interior.” This work was paired with the set-piece that the production built and the photography from the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant.
The Chernobyl power plant was one of several all built around the same time, and similar in design. The production was allowed to exclusively film at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant – which was very similar to Chernobyl. Ignalina is on the eastern Lithuanian border and it is also an RBMK type Reactor. Of course, the decommissioned Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant sits in modern Lithuania, so not only did the team have to modify it to match Chernobyl but also the skyline and environment needed to be dated back to 1986 USSR in terms of signage, cars and the surrounding environment generally. But the advantage for the filmmakers was immense, as it allowed them the rare opportunity to film inside the reactor hall and other parts of the plant to make Chernobyl as scientifically and historically accurate as possible.
“We had access to the reactor core,” says Dennison. “We did a LIDAR survey of the whole reactor including the actual reactor core. So we had a full, accurate virtual environment in which to start thinking about camera angles, thinking about what is the best way to photograph the explosion, moments directly preceding the explosion and the moments directly afterwards”.
Not everything had reference, however. For example, on the night of the explosion, there was a blue glow shooting up out of the reactor, for which there is no good reference. “We had a number of occasions when we were dealing with conceptual ideas that are based on very sparse eyewitness testimony,” he recalls. “The blue glow was a perfect example. Another is, what does it look like to look down inside an open burning reactor?” In reality, the blue glow only lasted about 15 minutes, and was a result of what happens when you get superheated air coming up from the exposed core. However, there is little to go on in terms of what it looked like, as many who saw it died, and additionally the team did not want it to read as a searchlight shooting up into the night sky. Dennison commented that, “We had to really try and make sure that it didn’t look contrived.”
As the nuclear core and graphite were burning, the temperature would have been between 6000 and 7000 degrees. The updraft from such heat was equivalent to a volcano. DNEG looked at a lot of reference of “pyroclastic flows and the dynamics of those – what the dynamics are of big dense oil fires,” says Dennison. They then asked what a graphite fire might look like. Of course, the audience knows Chernobyl is a nuclear incident but it wasn’t a mushroom cloud, as this wasn’t a military nuclear explosion, but an explosion caused by uncontrolled heat of a nuclear reactor. “The first explosion was a steam explosion and the second one was this nuclear explosion. So again, what does this sort of nuclear explosion look like?” asked Dennison. DNEG ended up blending four or five different effects simulations together “in such a way that it gave the correct sort of pyrotechnic sort of feel,” he explains. “We blended in lots of different types of simulations to get that sense of a column of fire going up.”
DNEG ran the project through the London office with some help from some of the other DNEG offices. DNEG, is one of the world’s leading visual effects and animation companies with studios in London, Vancouver, Mumbai, Los Angeles, Chennai, Montréal, Chandigarh, Hyderabad and Goa. For Chernobyl, the main UK team was about 30 artists. Across the company, about 100 artists worked on the mini-series. Of the episodes, the first and fifth were considerably heavier in shot count and shot complexity. DNEG did 550 shots, of the 846 shots in total for the show. The extra shots were mainly done by a client/production based in-house team who did clean up work and other invisible effects such as removing satellite dishes from houses, or other modern signage to convert the locations back to 1986.
DNEG once again used Clarisse as its primary renderer for the CG. Dennison commented that, “Clarisse seems very well suited to environment work… the lighting in this sort of CG is not an easy thing. Especially when you have the director constantly saying it can’t look like CG, it shouldn’t look CG. So you’re always pulling back and asking: ‘if you are a DOP (Director of Photography), how would you light this?’ Our lighters very much became their own DOPs.”
5 episodes built in the ratings when it first aired in the UK, but unlike many shows that trail off, the audience nearly doubled by the last episode. Dennison strongly credits Director Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) and the writers for delivering an authentic script and film. “I was out in Lithuania for the most of five months last year when we were shooting… and what that brought home to me was that this is a real thing. This isn’t something that happened in another part of the world and you are disassociated from it. I think the filmmakers wanted to give the audience that sense of how real it was,” he explains. Chernobyl is not a documentary, it’s a drama. But for Dennison to give the audience the sense of immersive authenticity, “there was a constraint shown in part on the visual effects. For example, the vast majority of VFX are completely invisible, but they all feed the projects immersive quality. And I think that’s why the show became so popular because you really felt like you were experiencing this with the characters in the show.”
Since it opened in 1998, DNEG has been known as both innovative and highly focused on Creative. DNEG has won the Oscar for Best VFX for four out of the last five years. The team has earned 5 Academy Award wins, 5 BAFTA Awards and 10 Visual Effects Society Awards for their visual effects work on shows like First Man, Altered Carbon, Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, Ex Machina, Interstellar, Inception and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2. Projects currently in production at DNEG include animated feature film Ron’s Gone Wrong, movies such as Dune, Fast & Furious 9, Chaos Walking and Wonder Woman 1984, and TV shows such as Westworld (Season 3), Doctor Who (Season 12) and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
Final Round voting begins August 15, fxguide will post a series of stories on a number of the nominees but if you are a Member of the TV Academy, voting closes August 29th. The actual 71st Primetime Emmy Awards will be at 10:00 am – 1:00 pm on Monday, 23 September 2019.