TNT’s new series Snowpiercer premiered on May 17th. Adapted from director Bong Joon-Ho’s 2013 film of the same name, Snowpiercer is set on a train — 1,001 cars long — that continually circles the globe after the world becomes a frozen wasteland. The sci-fi drama stars Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs, and looks at class warfare and social injustice, as well as the politics of survival.
Season 1 will span 10 weekly episodes, and a second season is already in the works. Method Studios (methodstudios.com) in Los Angeles and FuseFX (fusefx.com) in Vancouver served as the primary visual effects studios for Season 1, both helping to create the train, which serves as a central character, and the frozen world through which it travels.
Jon Cowley is FuseFX’s head of studio and says his relationships with VFX producer Darren Bell and VFX supervisor Geoff Scott led to the studio’s involvement on the series.
“It’s relationship based,” says Cowley of the visual effects business. “Lots of people, in theory, can do the work, and the end results are the same, but I believe a successful project is where the pixel ends up on the screen and the way to create those pixels. We are working with friends, and it’s so much easier to work creatively when that relationship exists.”
Cowley (pictured, left) breaks the show’s VFX down to three primary categories: the train itself, the sub-train, and all of the environments the train passes through.
“We started doing mostly train sequences and then the scope and scale of the show increased over time,” he recalls. “We came onboard and started doing the Snowpiercer train and environments. We took on a larger role as the season progressed.”
The show relies heavily on visual effects. While there are practical train interiors, the massive 1,001-car scale could only be achieved through VFX.
“I sometimes talk about it being a phone booth kind of show,” Cowley says of the small practical sets. The sub-train set, for example, goes off well into the distance in both directions, so FuseFX created digital set extensions to create the massive scale.
“Anytime you are looking outside a window, that is digital,” he adds. “Depending on where you are when traveling throughout the globe, that had to be created…When you are outside of the train, all of that has to be created. There is some principal background plate photography that was used as elements, but I would say there’s a massive amount of effects required to create this world…It’s a world-building show.”
FuseFX’s contributions to each episode ranged considerably, from as low as five shots for one episode, to as many as 40 for another. The Vancouver team scaled up and down from between 20 to 40 artists depending on each episode’s needs.
“Most of our work is done in (Autodesk) Maya,” Cowley notes. “We are a Maya facility. We use (SideFX) Houdini for our effects work on this. In Season 1 we did do some of the train work with Houdini as well. And that was part of a shared workflow with Method. That was a little bit different for us because we usually use Houdini for effects work and not necessarily for lighting and rendering. Being adaptive is part of the game in visual effects.”
FuseFX performs compositing using Foundry’s Nuke. The studio employs its proprietary Nucleus solution for asset management and shot management.
“It is a very powerful tool for all of our production management, show management, resource management,” he says of Nucleus, “and it is deeply tied into all of our business structure.”
Cowley points to Episode 107 and the dramatic conclusion in Episode 110 as some of the studio’s finest work.
“We got the opportunity to establish some environments that had not been established before,” he says of the episodes. “We are establishing something that, while it exists in the graphic novel, and exists in the feature film, there is another vision for this, and they allowed us to build that world. And that’s very, very cool…We are pretty excited about it. It is a property that has a huge fan base, so it will be very interesting to see how the public responds to it.”