VFX For All Mankind

For All Mankind is an Apple TV+ series created and written by Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. The series explores an alternate universe exploring “what if the space race had never ended” after the Soviet Union succeeds in the first manned Moon landing. The series finale episode (A City Upon A Hill: ep10) airs December 20th.

Jay Redd was the production senior visual effects supervisor on series one and he is currently on set shooting series two. He took time out of his busy schedule to discuss this detailed and beautifully constructed series. Redd has a long career in high-end feature films with projects such as Alice Through the Looking Glass and Men in Black 3. For All Mankind is his first move into high-end episodic television and “one of the things I really like about this production is the overall collaborative effort. From my first sit down with Ron Moore, it has been great. I did have some apprehension about television, as friends have said it can be a grind,” he explains. But a good friend said Redd and Moore would see eye to eye immediately and told Redd ‘you gotta – gotta – do this show’.

“At my first conversation with Ron, as I sat down I said, ‘I just need to know, is this going to be a photo-real and a kind of historically accurate show?’ He said ‘absolutely’. And I said, ‘okay, let’s keep talking’. That was my first meeting with Ron and I’m a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica and his other work,” Redd recalls.

The reviews of the show have been extremely positive for the visual effects and in particular the sequences on the Moon, which have dominated season one. For the visual effects, the Moon race presents an interesting challenge as the real Apollo program was covered on what today would be considered both on poor quality video, but also remarkably good film and large format stills. Similarly, in the show, the VFX team needed to reproduce bad NTSC and remarkable, crisp wide vista. “When I first came onto the show, I was kind of joking when I said, ‘Oh, this is a show about TV monitors, right?’ Because we had so many different television screens – black and whites, early color – some with some bad feeds,” Redd explains. “We even looked into the Westinghouse cameras that were used on the surface of the Moon, for their display characteristics”.  Redd and his team analyzed all the various footage to understand how they should degrade the various images seen on the show’s many monitors and displays.

The production did not shoot in a quarry or some other exterior location doubling for the lunar surface, preferring the control of a studio combined with extensive set extensions.

In contrast, the lunar surface is often shot and presented in a very clean high-resolution fashion. The Moon having no atmosphere produces a unique blooming of highlights without much of the depth cueing that the atmosphere provides in telegraphing scale and distance. The imagery thus has tremendous clarity and a very wide dynamic range. Getting the final look took some experimentation. “The Lunar surface is very challenging… dealing with no atmosphere and what the optics might do if you were actually filming,” Redd says. The team experimented with different cameras and lens packages in combination with large lighting rigs. On the Sony backlot, the team shot tests with the cameras panning around directly onto an 8K light “because we knew that what we were going to end up doing,” he adds.

Redd points out that the other issue was scale. “We have limited lunar surface on our sets here at Sony. Sometimes a 60 foot by 90 foot surface that we would groom. And of course everything beyond that we would be extending in post”. Ignoring bounce light from the grey lunar soil, or Moon surface needs to be lit with a large single-source light (simulating the sun), but as if there is no air. Redd and the team had challenges removing any signs of atmosphere from their footage and set extensions. “On the stages, we would sometimes have to deal with actual dust and atmosphere, that was just in the air, especially when we are looking back and shooting against a big 8 or 15K. We had a lot of extensive roto, to make the footage seem free of atmosphere,” he adds. “We always had on our minds ‘what would happen optically?'”.

The production was also keen to create their own style, one with fewer lens flares than some recent space projects. They did, however, introduce camera artifacts such as barrel distortions, barrel reflections and lens distortions. Redd was influenced by not only Moore’s prior work but heavily by 2001, a Space Odyssey.  “We make many tiny adjustments to things like the red channels, to try to get that feeling of optical film capture and chromatic aberration because we’re not shooting on film for this project,” Redd explains. The main production is filmed on the Sony Venice 4K, and so the CG and comped footage was designed to match the fully live-action as closely as possible.

One of the other challenges was reduced gravity. The Moon’s mass is about 1.2% of the Earth’s mass (1/80th), so the Moon’s gravity is much less than the Earth’s: 83.3% (or 5/6) less. To simulate the 1/6th gravity the production shot the actors at a slightly higher speed. “We’ve often shot our astronauts on cables and we’re shooting at 32 frames a second to give us that1/6th G. We found out from our tests that 32 frames a second gave the best 1/6G feel”, recalls Redd.  The actors were also directed to act in a deliberate fashion. The real astronauts would not be able to jerk around and move quickly because their suits are ideally pressurized and provide a limited range of motion.

The actors were often shot without visors as they would completely reflect about 190 degrees of the set, Redd estimated and, if in shot, would require extensive paint touched up or replacement, especially with the gold visors. By filming without even clear visors they avoided visual set contamination and made balancing the audience’s ability to see the actors more achievable.

In addition to the space VFX, there is a host of work done to shots on Earth, most noticeably the various rocket launches. This is Redd’s second time supervising Apollo style launches, having previously done not dissimilar work in Men in Black 3. For this project’s launches, “we created everything from scratch, but we wanted to match it to a look people were familiar with while also adding some new angles, and match it in with our a fresh, brand new Sony Venice 4K footage,” he says. The For All Mankind footage is also a little more saturated. “We wanted it to work with the vibrant colors from Jill, our costume designer. It had to fit into our world,” comments Redd going on to explain why even the 35mm archive footage was not used for the rocket launches: “it needed to feel a little bit more idealized”.

For All Mankind is being produced in 4K resolution for Apple TV+. Redd had previously worked on explicit HDR graded projects such as Alice Through the Looking Glass. This project was graded in HDR and in standard definition (SD). The team reviewed all the material on 1200 nits special viewing HDR monitors as well as in SD. “When you work with HDR monitors you just acclimate to the HDR, and as you continue to look at the HDR more and more you just never want to go back to the standard definition because it just looks like you’ve put on sunglasses,” he jokes. To that end, Redd is naturally very keen to see the aggregation of the new Apple Pro monitors. This is not just because the program is an Apple TV+ production, but the new monitors, while not cheap, are dramatically cheaper than professional HDR monitors and Redd hopes to have a bunch on set for a variety of people to use. The new Apple monitors are 32-inch Retina 6K displays with up to 1,600 nits of brightness. “I can’t wait to see them. We’re really excited by those Apple monitors,” Redd comments. He explains that the HDR is more than just a richer image in technical terms. “Something that occurred to me on set, looking at our pro monitors, is that the HDR is an emotion resolution. That sounds corny but you get this extra range, which you are familiar with from everyday life. In HDR there is this emotion ‘punch’ from what I have experienced”.

The Project has several companies contributing to the 1700 shots done for season one. Method Studios (Montreal and Vancouver) were responsible for the majority of the Moon work and the space accidents. “A number of houses helped us. Barnstorm did quite a bit of clean up on Archival footage, Pixomondo helped us with getting the original Nixon and Kennedy footage integrated,” he outlines. They also did launch sequences and blue screen cars. Rouge One in LA did “boutique compositing work such as monitor burn-ins comps, wire removals, and repair work. Goodbye Kansas did some car work and some 1/6th G work and Union Effects in London did work in several of the later episodes. This is the first time I’ve worked with the Union and they were fantastic, as were Goodbye Kansas (in London). Everybody’s been really great,” Redd outlines. Onset in LA, Redd supervised everything but at times he had up to three units running simultaneously and so he would sometimes invite the specific vendor’s supervisors to come on set and help. “We had consistent data wrangling on all shots. We would capture the sets with LIDAR scans, we did this for all of our lunar sets, and then we did lots of photogrammetry, all the things we could in terms of photography, all as standard procedure. It was a great experience being on set. There’s this collective energy on a TV show like this that happens to just move forward and commit. It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed coming out of features”.