VFX: Amazon Prime's <I>Utopia</I>
Issue: September/October 2020

VFX: Amazon Prime's Utopia

The Amazon Prime series Utopia follows a group of young adults, who come together online and discover that the conspiracy in an elusive comic, Utopia, is real. The comic details the demise of humanity and pushes the group of underdogs to embark on a high-stakes adventure to save the world.

Utopia premiered on September 25th and features visual effects created by the team at FuseFX. VFX supervisor Wayne England and the team at FuseFX worked diligently to create realistic visuals that showcase the chaos and disaster the group faces. Here, England provides insight into the studio’s work and the challenges that Utopia presented.

How did you get involved in this project?

“I was contacted by FuseFX CEO David Antenau while on set visual effects supervising HBO's Watchmen. Once back in LA, Dave, Jim Rygiel and Jason Piccioni tabled the idea of my joining the FuseFX team, starting as visual effects supervisor for Amazon’s and Giillian Flynn’s Utopia. With some follow up meetings and learning more of what I recognized as the vision and trajectory of the company, aligning made great sense. Already living just 10 minutes away from the studio was a welcome added bonus.”

What were Utopia’s visual effects needs?

“First and foremost, the need was to realize a next-level quality. At the outset, this was about delving very deeply into the story and gaining a sensibility toward all the unique creative choices made to cumulatively render the tone and feel of the show. With that, a level of discernment can arise that aligns VFX choices in good directions. For exceptional supporting VFX, seamless integration is half the target, while the other is a perception into how the VFX can express a nuanced quality that enhances the story's highest aspirations.

“The supporting VFX required many large set extensions in sequences such as the huge emergency pandemic makeshift tent hospital or hot zone, which included hundreds of CG tents and digi doubles, featuring both day and night time settings. Another was the large CG extension of the sprawling interior Simpro factory, which required layers of live action factory workers to be integrated. 

“A unique component of the show was the gore VFX, such as the character Wilson having an exposed eye socket in a series of close up shots, after seeing it get forcibly spooned out. Needless to say, this component of the show also rested heavily on the requirement of quality.” 

How many shots did FuseFX handle?

“The FuseFX shot count - which was the majority of the larger/significant VFX shots of the season - (was) 345.”

What tools are you using for animation, compositing, etc?

“The usual suspects include Maya, 3DS Max, Houdini, Zbrush and others, while Nuke is the primary tool for compositing. I'd say Fuse's in-house shot tracking and database management software tool Nucleus should also get a mention here. From bidding to shot tracking to component pipeline tools, it’s at the heart of how the studio shares data and interfaces, individuals, teams and departments with a show's evolving content.” 
Can you point to a shot in particular that was particularly challenging?

“Episode 8’s climactic collapse of the warehouse qualifies as the most challenging sequence. This was linked to the warehouse’s huge sprawling scale, the close up CG interactive shots with the show’s live action heroes, and the extreme degrees of precision required for simulation timings (and) physics with close up photo realism.   

“The storied cause of the warehouse collapse involved a forklift impaling one of the shelving units in a specific way so as to trigger a domino effect, sequentially causing the collapse of every shelving system in the warehouse. An important ingredient in the success of the collapse sequence’s realism was how we represented the specific causal sequence of physical events for each shelf system to be moved into action.  

“This was fundamentally a two step process: First, establishing essential motion and timings in animation, then passing those motions to FX for integrating the simulation of physics collisions and deformations. In animation, we needed to see the weight of one shelving system pulling upon the structural integrity of the next, unhinging specific horizontal support beams, triggering the weight of the entire shelf to drop down and lean inward, and from the redistribution of weight, pull upon the next-in-row shelf system for this sequence of events to repeat.

“Once we had realized this specific sequence in motion, in context with the timing of live action events, it was passed on to FX for simulation testing. With some back and forth refinements, we were able to arrive at a system in Houdini that enabled advanced degrees of creative control. With both closeup integrations with Rain Wilson’s character and seeing the further sequential collapse of the entire warehouse in the wide shots, the degree of realism our team was able to achieve was quite exceptional.”