In the current, challenging times, the final season of Dark is the perfect watch. If you haven’t yet seen the first two seasons, now is the time to catch up, but SPOILER ALERT – don’t read any further until you’ve finished!
Our team in Montreal created about 120 shots for the show, under the skilful eye of Cinesite VFX Supervisor Sean Stranks.
We caught up with Sean to ask some questions and get some insight into Cinesite’s VFX on the series, which ranged from environments to destruction and FX across all eight episodes.
How early did you become involved on this show?
I had just come back from South Africa, where I was working on another production. I am a huge fan of the Dark series so as soon as it was mentioned I jumped at the chance of working on it; it was an instant decision, a no-brainer. I started in January, overseeing all of Cinesite’s 117 shots, but I didn’t go on set.
The VFX supervisor was Bastian Hopfgarten, who I had worked with previously on the Spielberg film Bridge of Spies in 2015. We worked closely together, having day to day contact as well as holding weekly meetings with director Baran bo Odar to review finals.
The show aired during the pandemic – was the creation of the visual effects affected?
Soon after we started work the pandemic hit. Cinesite’s executive producer Thomas Tannenberger and I had been monitoring the emerging situation and had early discussions about how we could adapt our pipeline and approach for remote working, should it be required.
After some initial testing, the whole team moved to remote working. The first week was mainly spent dealing with connection and playback issues, but we soon found a groove; personally, I found it more productive because reviews weren’t limited to dailies suite availability or to department meetings requiring the assembly of several people in one place. It was easy to tap in and out of meetings remotely and it worked well.
When we got into the delivery phase, working late didn’t have as much impact on home life; dinner breaks could be taken with a quick return to work. It was less taxing than late night deliveries in the studio, especially without the need to travel back and forth.
Can you tell us a bit about the weather effects?
One of the great things about Dark is its moody plates. The location shots already had a great sense of brooding atmosphere. If you’ve seen the show before, you’ll know that there’s a lot of rain and ominous storm clouds, it’s certainly not often sunny.
Many of our shots requiring rain were filmed with actors against green screen. They would do some takes with rain machines running in front of the actors and some clean without rain. We had a great team of compositors and lots of rain elements in our library, so where we needed to augment the rain we had what we needed.
In one night-time shot in the second episode we see a cave entrance in a forest with snow falling. We used a shot from a previous season as the basis for the plate with the cave, adding dead people hanging from trees, which have nests wrapping round them. We also darkened the mood and added falling snow over the top.
With shots like this, as a supervisor who is working with a new director, I like to give options. In this instance, we initially created versions with both light and heavy snow, then worked up the preferred version. It’s important to be there to help the director make informed decisions and enable the approach they choose to take and we did this wherever possible for Baran.
How about the environments; what techniques were used to create them?
In contrast to the general moodiness of the plates and locations, one of our main sequences involved a big change of pace and tone, taking place in a bright, sunny, desert location, with post-apocalyptic shards of ancient tree stumps all around.
The plates were very well shot, which made our job of creating this other-worldly sand-dune environment easier than it might otherwise have been.
We rebuilt the desert as a 360-degree asset, which allowed us the flexibility of pointing the camera in any direction. We wanted to make it feel like an environment we’d already seen, somehow familiar. We even matched tree positions from previous shots in the series set in earlier times.
The Tannhaus was another environment we worked on. It’s based on an actual location in a real factory courtyard, although the gates were shot separately in a countryside location. We wanted to give the impression that the factory was set in the countryside, so we used photogrammetry and Lidar scans on the exterior of the factory and took lots of pictures for texture reference.
We completed shots of the Tannhaus by daylight, at night and in the rain. Each was a little different but because of how we had built our asset we could light and adjust it however we needed. In addition to the rain, we also added puddles, mist and fog to add to the general sense of atmosphere.
The Winden police station is an environment we’ve seen many times in the first two seasons, but we’ve never seen it in a destroyed state before.
During principal photography, they dressed the lower half of the set, making it grimy and dingy. We replaced the upper portion of the shot and building using various methods including a combination of digital matte painting and 3D modelling. We also added trees receding into the distance, mangled burnt trees which were created using reference photographs from WWI. This really completed the shot and gave a proper, post-apocalyptic sense of destruction.
What about the In-Between sequence – how was that created?
The in-between is an ethereal, other-worldly realm which had not been seen in the series before and we had to come up with a look for it. From a design standpoint, that was one of the most difficult aspects of our work.
The initial idea was that our characters would be standing in an infinite field of particles, but it quickly became apparent that that wouldn’t work because you lose all sense of depth and scale. We needed to bring back some kind of tangibility.
In other sequences throughout the series the characters climb through tunnels in the back of caves, so the look we settled on mirrored that. We made up the walls of the tunnel with particles reminiscent of those we’ve seen floating at various points throughout the series. These are magical particles which hang in the air that are associated with time.
Initially the particles were developed in Houdini, a base set of renders passed onto the compositors to project onto surfaces. Because so many similar shots were required for the sequence, this approach was more practical than re-rendering particle systems for every shot.
Tell me about the shot with the orb destroying the couple sitting beside the river.
The orb sphere is an event which causes the apocalypse – you have to have seen the series to understand its significance, but it has been seen in many shots prior to this in the other seasons, from a different perspective.
Rise FX supplied us with their dome asset and we added it into a shot with an entirely recreated environment, with only the actors shot in camera. Because there was a sequence around this shot where we see the trees across the water, we had to recreate our environment as faithfully as possible to those shots. Essentially, we rebuilt the plate so that we could destroy it. There is a lot going on in this one short shot: we built the trees, water and massive wave thrown up by the orb, as well as light effects, debris and general destruction. It’s built up from a general mix of compositing and major 3D assets.
How were the shots of people dissolving in time created?
We created several shots of people dissolving away. We came up with a system which allowed for the compositors to be able to do the FX; that worked very successfully, and it was an economical solution. With a bit of rotoscoping we could apply an in comp 3D particle system which achieved results very quickly. In effect, this took out the step of needing FX input on every shot.
How will you reflect on your time overseeing Cinesite’s visual effects for Dark?
Above all, I was honoured to work on a series I love; you don’t often get to do that, although I’m sad it’s the last season because we won’t get the chance to work on it again.
The clients were wonderful to work with. It has certainly been a positive experience for me, even in the midst of the Covid lockdown and the specific challenges that presented.