HBO Max’ critically acclaimed science fiction series Raised By Wolves centers on two androids tasked with raising human children on a mysterious virgin planet. As the burgeoning colony of humans is threatened with being torn apart by religious differences, the androids learn that controlling the beliefs of humans is a treacherous and difficult task. The series is produced by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions.
Working with the overall VFX Supervisor Ray McIntyre Jr. and VFX Producer Ruth Hauer, MR. X delivered 476 VFX shots for the series from its Toronto and Bangalore studios. Post-production ran from June 2019 through to the summer of 2020.
Drawing from Scott’s sketches and storyboards, MR. X VFX Supervisor Eric Robinson and VFX Producer Sam Banack led the MR. X team. Partnering closely with production, the team did thorough visual research drawing from real world references that would influence the CG environments, creatures and effects that they delivered for this otherworldly series. Robinson notes that it was a very collaborative relationship between production and the MR. X team saying: “This was one of the most fun, and most creative shows I’ve worked on in over 11 years at MR. X. We had the trust of the client to offer up ideas. Not all of the ideas stuck, but we persisted, with the goal of giving them some WOW!”
Hallway blood explosions.
One of the most challenging sequences was the hallway scene when Mother attacks the Mithraic Arc using a deadly scream attack, gorily obliterating everyone in her path. Scott had done his own concept sketch for the aftermath of the devastating attack featuring a hallway full of tendrils of blood. Drawing from on set photography, the MR. X team went to work to interpret the scene. The scream was an all in comp effect, utilizing distortions and glows to give the impression of sound waves blasting from Mother’s face toward her targets. In response to the deadly scream attack, the simulation of the blood tendrils needed to have a zero-gravity physicality as well as an otherworldliness feel. “It was a multilayer shot because there was a certain amount of exploding blood that was practical,” explains Robinson. “What hits the wall is 70% practical most of the time”. Mr X had to augment to fix continuity between the location of the special effects blood bags that blew up, and where the actors are pre-explosion. The team also had to clear the actors from the shot, once they were exploded. “So we had an actor layer and an explosion layer to marry up. We didn’t always have the actor in the spot where the blood bag exploded, so improving all of those things were part of the work,” said Robinson.
The MR. X team had to show the Necromancer had powers that are far beyond what any human is capable of. In so doing the team needed to balance a fine line between gratuitous chunky bits, which makes for a different type of show, and the jaw-dropping immediacy and speed of her attack, which is obviously much more in keeping with the rest of the series.
A large portion of the MR. X work centered around the necromancer, the metallic killer version of the android Mother. In order to deliver a convincing metallic look and feel to the character, the team pulled photo references of the aged bronze Atlas statue at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. This meant drawing from images of the Atlas at all times of the day and different lighting conditions (natural light, flash photography) to make sure the bronze would react to its environment in a realistic way.
The musculature of the Necromancer posed a different challenge. The MR. X team had a scan of Mother (Amanda Collin) to base this from. The VFX team had to transform the Necromancer from Mother and back again, so key proportions needed to match. Since the Necromancer is an extremely powerful version of the android, and has more muscle than Mother, the team had to make sure that the transformations were subtle and properly contoured around her body.
The Necromancer mother design was 70% completed by the production department by the time it was given to the visual effects team, estimates Robinson. “The aging and the patina and the bronze cool wasn’t fully done,” he adds. “We even had shots in production for a while and they were still changing her figure, – changing her silhouette, and that was deep into production, so it was something that evolved even as we were working on it.”
The Necromancer’s transition back to her more normal state were also difficult because as the Necromancer, she has an idealized form. The Necromancer has broader shoulders, a narrower waist and looks far stronger. “We used the Houdini sim to create the mattes to help with the transition. So we’d have nice contouring to go with that,” explains Robinson. The transitions were intended to be generally 15 to 25 frames in duration. “So we had to do a lot of comp warping to massage that into place, to keep the silhouette lined up. So it wasn’t jarring as she was transitioning between the two characters”.
The exterior location work was in South Africa. Many of the separate locations in South Africa required blending and combining to produce the environments of Raised by Wolves. The huge mountain seen in many wide shots was nicknamed Olympus Mons in reference to the 21Km high very large shield volcano on the planet Mars. “The huge mountain that dominates many of the backgrounds is a feature that Ridley really likes,” comments Robinson. “And I think it ties into his work in The Martian. We referred to it as Olympus Mons all the time. We had to put into the background of a lot of shots, it was usually a DMP (Digital matte painting), but had to be adapted with more or less snow, different times of day, atmosphere levels, etc”. The team also needed to bridge between the dry desert-like landscape and the green forest that the atheist Lander flies down over in Episode One. , “We’re transitioning from a plate shot in Jordan to one shot in South Africa. We had to marry some of those up, change silhouettes, add layers of dimension, and give the shot just enough depth so that the Lander itself was really dominated by this huge empty landscape”.
The show’s signature wide shot of the rolling cloud coming over the mountain, seen in at least a couple of episodes, was done both as actual timelapse and also by MR. X as a Houdini simulation mimicking the timelapse in 3D.
The environments and most of the effects were modeled in Maya, composited in Nuke, with simulations in Houdini. Black Ginger, who is a local vendor in Cape Town provided the LIDAR scanning in South Africa. MR. X previously worked with them on Resident Evil 6 and also Monster Hunter for Paul W.S. Anderson.
While the flashback shots of destroyed Boston were only seen briefly they were complex and there only so much that MR. X could do via matte paintings as the camera was moving with the flying necromancer and there needed to be interaction with CG elements. “It was a huge build for us and got very little use.. We had effects Sims for explosions. We had ships flying through the scene. It was just one of those things where you just bite your nails when you create it as it is going to be almost a one-off, very different, build,” explains Robinson.
For the aerial shots versus the ground level shots in the Boston flashbacks there was only one real connecting point in those environments, which was the destroyed stadium. The team “did the exterior stadium shots, which you see in the aerials and from the ground and in a couple of shots in a later episode,” Robinson points out.
Ridley Scott was a producer and also director of the first couple of episodes. The stadium actually first appeared in what is famously called a ‘Ridley-gram’. The award-winning Director is known for doing very simple yet informative sketches of what he wants. MR. X got their first sketch, well before the actual show shots were being worked on. “There was a shot in the main trailer at ground level, filmed with soldiers running through the foreground. And part of the stadium is in the background, as a ship flies through all this destroyed environment,” recalls Robinson. ” We didn’t know if they were going to use this in the episode, but it was going to be in the trailer. And that was based on this super simplified sketch that Ridley did. He had a horizon, he had a curve drawn for the stadium, little people to show the scale and how far away the camera was going to be. They then shot a couple of guys in the foreground and that was it, – we just built everything around that one simple sketch!”
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