Foundational Visual Effects

Foundation on Apple TV+ is a complex saga of humans scattered on planets throughout the galaxy all living under the rule of the Galactic Empire. The show started with psycho-historian, Dr. Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) and his loyal followers who attempt to preserve their culture as the galaxy collapses around them. The TV series based on the landmark books by Isaac Asimov.  was brought to the screen by David S. Goyer. Apparently, Goyer pitched the series in one sentence: “It’s a 1,000-year chess game between Hari Seldon and the Empire, and all the characters in between are the pawns, but some of the pawns over the course of this saga end up becoming kings and queens.” DNEG was the primary VFX vendor.

The episodes have great directors, including feature film director Alex Graves (West Wing, Game of Thrones), Roxann Dawson (The Morning Show, The Americans, The Good Wife  + she played “Lt. Torres” Star Trek: Voyager), along with Rupert Sanders the feature film director (Snow White and the Huntsman, Ghost in the Shell).

The overall visual effects supervisor was Chris MacLean. Chris Keller was the VFX Sup on Foundation at DNEG. He worked on the film for a total of two and half years. The film visually references a vast array of films and visuals from 2001 to Intersteller. The film is a TV series but the visual effects are very much cinematic epic Sci-Fi. The story required vast CGI builds, complex compositing and a complex set of visual languages to underscore the vast number of races and cultures under Empire’s control in the show.

Cast on set behind the scenes during a break in filming.

COVID hit the production right after episodes one and two had been filmed but the inevitable delays COVID caused actually helped the Production as it allowed time for an incredible amount of design exploration and visual imagery development. In total, the 10 episode series has about 3900 VFX shots, and there were 1050 final shots provided by DNEG including environments, ships, and the highly complex destruction sequences.  DNEG did PreViz, PostViz, virtual production and were responsible for most of the shots of the Vault, and most of Trantor including the Imperial Palace, space elevator and its destruction, along with faster than light travel ‘jump ships’, including the Invictus Battleship. The team also did the Prime Radiant and the programs holograms nicknamed Sandograms.

When Sci-fi meets Hari.


Psychohistory is the fictional maths in the Foundation universe that combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people, such as the Galactic Empire. the Prime Radiant is a device designed by Hari Seldon for storing the psychohistorical equations showing the future development of humanity. To visualize this maths data for the audience, the imagery appears as a complex hologram. In the shows, visual language any hologram is achieved by some device manipulating particles that float together to show a near-solid object or image. Asimov himself said in interviews that he “modeled my concept of psychohistory on the kinetic theory of gases”. A visual design element that DNEG clearly touches on with on-screen Prime Radiant. The technology does not emit light so it was a fresh take on the usual Hologram solution. It was initially designed by design company Tendril and is seen both as the visualization of the Prime Radiant and as several other towering statutes or communication interfaces.

The Sandograms were original, and “that’s how everyone approached the show : let’s not go to the obvious trope that’s been done a million times,” says Keller.”Let’s think about fresh ways of displaying these things, but that also makes sense within the story.  How would a civilization develop these things if they just started from scratch without our preconceived (cinema) notions?” The Sandograms were designed in Houdini but executed by DNEG’s motion graphics team who mainly ‘work in Cinema 4d and After Effects and some Nuke – which is slightly off our normal pipeline, but they’re extremely flexible, fast and creative,” he adds.

Odyssey Studios and Ian Hunter produced minitures used as reference (top) and elements for ship shot. DNEG’s final shot with complex sims and fire elements.

While the maths of the psychohistorical equations are fully fictional. Keller being “a big sci-fi geek. I just love having actual hard science in this show.” In the scene where Gaal works out with the info cube where her mystery ship is headed, all the calculations are “based on real maths and triple checked by mathematicians and scientists. We had a great time, doing this, it was actually one of my favorite sequences to work on. All you see is real and all the calculations she’s doing, they all make sense, the triangulation would work if you did it,” says Keller proudly.

Trantor Brutalism

The complexity of Trantor was its layered construction with synthetic skies and massive industrial structures. This combined with the Starbridge space elevator required a huge amount of design. DNEG did a large amount of their own concept art to explore how the multi-layered city might function. This included extensive cutaway sections and detailed concept exploration independent of any particular shot. “Everything is this show needed to feel like it had a history,” explains Keller. “Everything had to seem like it had been there for hundreds of years.” Foundation’s art department decided early on was to design a Sci-fi city around the architectural style of Brutalism. Brutalist architecture emerged in the 1950s and grew out of the early modernist movement. Brutalism is characterised by massive, monolithic, and blocky forms without many windows, very much in a rigidly geometric style. “They wanted that very imposing, imperial, and yet functional look. We looked particularly at architect Carlo Scarpa, whose work is based on brutalism but with a lot of flourishes, which are needed on an Imperial Planet, – we took that style and really ran with it. All of Trantor is based on this expression of power.”  Some of the reference plates and elements were shot in Germany which has a strong brutalist architecture, but Scapra is known for his work in Venetia in Italy. “It was just so much fun figuring all of Trantor,” Keller fondly recounts.

Musco Castelvecchio. Image Flickr user Andreaosti licensed under CC BY 2.0

Light Jump & Virtual Production

LED screen outside the ships

When Gaal travels to Trantor from Synnax she is played in sleep state for the faster than light jump, in what was nicknamed the ‘crash mesh’. This was a 3D organic mesh that grows around Gaal. During the jump, she wakes briefly and the audience sees not only the jump happening outside the window, but this reflected in her eye. This was all done in-camera with virtual production.

The jump ship drive forms something clearly inspired by the black hole, in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. That film was VFX supervised by Paul Franklin, at DNEG, and he joined the Foundation team briefly to advise and help with the visuals of the jump ship black hole effect. In Interstellar the black hole was rendered with special software, and while the Foundation team briefly considered bringing that code out of mothballs for the series, the number of shots did not warrant it and the black hole effect was achieved in Clarisse (Isotropic). “It was so great to work with him. few people in the world are better at visual effects, – but no one is better at space than Paul,” commented Keller.

The production had large LED screens for scenes such as the Imperial Palace interior. “So before doing any kind of actual shot work, we did concept designs and created a couple of shots of the Trentor’s skyline to be put on those and used on the screens outside the Palace windows.” explains Keller. And even given their very early evolution before much of the major design work had been done,  “a lot of those shots actually survived without being replaced.”

Episode 7 is a big reveal of the Invictus Battleship which might like the smaller faster than light ships seen previously referenced the teleportation machine structure from Contact. The homage is particularly effective as the Contact machine’s concentric rings with orthogonal couplings produced a wormhole allowing Dr. Ellie Arroway to travel across the galaxy. The Invictus is a planet destroyer-level Imperial ship that’s been lost for centuries. In episode seven it is counting down to do a passive space jump in Episode 8. The entire Invictus is essentially the engine seen in the much smaller Faster than Light (FTL) ships, – and its rings are able to spin and then fold space. For series creator David Goyer,  “his whole mantra was always that the technology should appear to be intuitive,” explains Keller. “We never wanted to overexplain anything. It just needed to look like it belonged in the world. Like it was doing something.” For the visuals and compositing required for the FTL folding of space and especially the return to normal space-time, the VFX team used a bunch of organic elements. Fire elements, burning steel wool, and cloud elements, all provide the viewer with something visual to latch onto. “There’s always some natural phenomena that we all know that is complex right out of the gate, but familiar,” he adds.

Starbridge and falling like a giant garrote wire

In Foundation there is a massive space elevator that remains in geosynchronous orbit. But to balance the gravitational pull of the planet of Trantor, which is similar in size to earth, it needed to be vast. “The space elevator was just an incredible structure to be working on 40,000 kilometers up in space. And then the destruction sequence, which is probably one that one of the highlights in the entire series for me,” comments Keller. To put that into scale, the International space station is in orbit above the earth at only 408Km from the surface, so the Starbridge would be 100 times further away. This means the planet needs to appear quite small from the StarBridge. This is something that Paul Franklin helped work out. ” If Trantor is earth-like in size then the 40,000 km space elevator cable could actually entirely circle the planet as Earth’s circumference, measured around the equator is 40,075 km. A point made in the show when in Episode 1, Empire states that the “tether is wrapped around the plane like a garrote.”

Keller explains that “as with everything in on this show, it’s just the scale of it that was the biggest challenge, but both creatively, and technically. Destroying an entire city is obviously quite a task, so we relied pretty heavily on procedural tools.” The city had a large layer of kitbashed instancing and it was all built to be destroyed if needed. “A big challenge was the sky ceilings and making sure that the audience understands that the tether falls and cuts through multiple levels 50 layers down. That took some time figuring out!” he jokes. It was also an issue that anything that big would take a very long time to come down, which is mentioned in the episode, visually the collapse is time-compressed such that every shot tells another part of the story.

Space elevators would need to be extremely large

“The cool thing about space elevators is that they are physically feasible if you could make them… but a space elevator, like this, has never been seen on screen before, and we really wanted to embrace the fact that it floats high, high, high above the planet.” Which is why in key shots, the team had the gigantic space station, with its tether leading down to what seems like a tiny planet in the background.” When the elevator is seen separating after the explosion it would be many hours, for example, until it crashed back to the surface.

What a month….

DNEG is certainly having quite the year, the outstanding work on Foundation joins their impressive work on 007’s No Time to Die and the stunning work on DUNE.