The Amazon Prime comedy Upload is set in the year 2033, where Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) chooses his own ‘afterlife’ after his untimely death in a car accident. His consciousness is uploaded into a virtual world, Lakeview, and as he gets used to his new life, he befriends his angel or real-world handler, Nora (Andy Allo). Nora struggles with the pressures of her job and her growing feelings for Nathan, while slowly coming to believe that Nathan was murdered. Nora can meet and talk with Nathan via a form of VR.
The series is from creator Greg Daniel, who also directed several episodes, and comes from an idea, he explained to Variety, that he had in the late-1980s living in New York when he was walking around the city trying to think of sketches for Saturday Night Live, where he was on the writing staff. But before he returned to the idea, he went on to co-create the U.S. version of The Office. The series has already been greenlit for season 2. The show is inventive, funny and FuseFX provided a wealth of VFX to bring the Afterlife,… to life.
Marshall Krasser was the VFX supervisor for Amazon’s Upload. He is currently at FuseFX in Canada, having previously worked at places such as CoSA, Psyop, and ILM. He first got involved with the project via a skype call with Greg Daniel. “He wanted to make sure that we understood his concerns about the role that visual effects needs to play in a comedy,” recalls Krasser, who got the impression that perhaps some other VFX teams had not quite understood what was important to the showrunner. “So I said, yeah, you know, years ago, I said, I was a compositing supervisor on Galaxy Quest!” Krasser had learned a lot from that film’s supervisor, Bill George, and he explained to Daniel that understood that Upload‘s humor would need to be based and grounded in ‘reality’ while showing a digital afterlife. What Daniel said he wanted for Upload was for the VFX to assist the narrative, rather than be the narrative.
Krasser advised getting as much in-camera as the production could. “If you’re able to get it in-camera and it tells the story, there’s no reason to do visual effects. In my opinion, VFX should only really be used when you can’t create something that you need to or when something is too dangerous,” he explains. This was evident in the funeral sequence when Nathan attends his own funeral but with the ability for both sides of the afterlife to see each other. In addition to these two groups, Nora and other characters watched from a third location. While this elaborate set up could have been done with green screen, the production built the complex set and filmed it almost entirely in-camera, with just minor digital cleanup by the FuseFX team.
The show did end up with over 1400 shots over season one. One sequence that could not be captured in-camera was the low-resolution incident, when the afterlife server reduces most of the characters to 8-bit figures. While the show had a lot of heavy compositing the 8-bit shots involved very obvious 3D. The low polygon server sequence was nicknamed the ‘Money for Nothing sequence” – in reference to the original 1985 video clip by British rock band Dire Straits. That landmark clip was directed by British filmmaker Steve Barron and made using a Bosch FGS4000, using a Quantel Paintbox for backgrounds and textures. “That clip was one of the first music videos that really made me go, ‘Oh my gosh, computer graphics, that’s the way things are going to go in the future’,” explained Krasser. “And got me interested in VFX – even more so than Star Wars!”
Even with 3D sequences such as this and a recurring talking dog (done with 3D jaw replacement), the show as still primarily a 2D compositing problem, Krasser estimates that about 80% of the shots were primarily solved with 2D solutions. These included characters freezing, props popping off, people becoming black and white, and complex overlay gags and text messages. Krasser’s background is advanced compositing. “When I’m onset supervising, as I started in Roto and plate reconstruction on Casper and Forrest Gump … I essentially understand all the pieces that need to go into putting a shot together and so I’m effectively compositing the shot as we go (in my head),” he explains.
One of the many interesting aspects of Upload is the notion of a singularity that would allow someone’s mind to be uploaded in the first place, and then how that visually plays out during the season. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, stated in 2017 that by 2029 computers will have human-level intelligence. He added that by 2045 we will have a ‘singularity’ and that this superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. This is of course the theme explored in Westworld, and similarly to that series, Upload explores the notion of consciousness and the ability to place consciousness into something you can hold in your hand. In Upload, it is a type of hard drive, in Westworld an orb. In both cases, a computer can house consciousness. In the series Devs, this requires a quantum computer, but in the end, the same notion is played out, and just like Upload, the lead characters are uploaded to a simulation. Interestingly, the robots in Westworld also experienced their disembodied consciousnesses being uploaded into an Upload style simulation (notably the Warworld simulation).
This is not an uncommon view of what might be possible, although to even start to do this in reality or even match human intelligence in a robot, we would need to address consciousness. This is not a computational problem that will be solved as Moore’s Law continues playing out over time. There is no level of computer power where we have any indication that a computer would magically have consciousness. It is not a processing or memory limit bound problem. It is a different kind of problem, and finding a solution is not a natural consequence of just increased computational power. Human intelligence is inexplicitly linked to the notion of human consciousness. Even if you can make an artificial intelligence that somehow matched a brain for neurons or memory capacity, it is not enough just to discuss the notion of ‘intelligence’. The mind is not the same as consciousness. You can easily change your mind while conscious and you don’t ‘lose your mind’ when asleep or unconscious or under anesthesia. Consciousness is ‘me-ness’, it is part of ‘me’, not just intelligence stored in a meat container that is a body. Science has yet to solve the nature of human consciousness and in reality, we are nowhere close to understanding what consciousness actually is.
In Upload, these issues arise and they needed to be dealt with in a comedic way that the audience can understand. For example, old Uploads are seen in black and white, and when bandwidth reduces due to a server failure, the characters reduce in resolution to 8-bit version of themselves, (-but oddly not the hero’s perception of the digital world). These visual solutions make no mathematical or IT sense, but these clever visual effects effectively deliver the intent of the story and make the show genuinely funny. One common such visual device is that if a capacity limit is reached, such as in episode 10, then a character will freeze. For example, Nathan heads to the 2gig floor when he is no longer on a good data plan and thus freezes mid-sentence. This presented another ongoing challenge to Krasser and the team.
The device of characters freezing in the Lakeview digital resort was used several times in the series and Krasser approached it again in the same ‘get it in-camera approach’ as with many of the other effects. Upload was an extremely collaborative approach in terms of problem-solving and thus jointly the various departments opted to not use any motion control, but rather simply have the actors stand still. “For most shots, we would just call freeze to the actors on set. We had two first ADs and both of them had done something similar on other shows over the years,” explained Krasser. “I was a little hesitant about it but when we worked through it there was only one particular scene where it did not work.” The trick Krasser adopted was to work closely with the second AD and keep the background action clear of the zones where the actor was frozen. This allowed them to adjust and fix small issues during the composite.
Above is the vfx reel from FuseFX