Not many shows find their way into a visual effects race at the Emmys. With lower budgets on television and only 5 nominations, it’s a horserace to see who can get in. With the emergence of “Blockbuster” TV, there are more shows that take advantage of their effects. One of best on television is “Man in the High Castle,” a series that reimagines a world where the Axis won War War II. America is now under German occupation in the East and Japan in the West. This year the series picked up its 2nd nomination in the Outstanding Visual Effects category. I sat down with Visual Effects Supervisor Lawson Deming to discuss his work on the series.
You can also check out the visual effects real for “Man in the High Castle” Season 2 here.
AF: How did you first get into working visual effects?
LD: I’ve always been interested in filmmaking. My grandfather was an actor and my father worked in television as well, so the idea of pursuing a film career wasn’t controversial. I took all the make-believe stuff that kids do very seriously, and I think my parents saw that and encouraged it by enrolling me in drawing and filmmaking classes. I built models and even started teaching myself CGI when I was about 12. In high school I discovered photography and stop-motion animation and started shifting my focus. By the time I headed to film school in 2001, I had decided to pursue cinematography.
It wasn’t until about 2007, a couple years out of college and frustrated with a lack of progress in my DoP career that I kind of fell into doing VFX again. As soon as I made that change, things completely turned around and I found myself working constantly. I became an in-house VFX Lead for the show Ugly Betty in 2008 and met Cory Jamieson, with whom I would eventually found Barnstorm VFX in 2011. The company started out as just Cory and I on a couple of computers in a back room. It’s grown every year and now we have a couple dozen employees and an office in Burbank, CA. Barnstorm VFX did around 400 effects shots on season 2 of “The Man in the High Castle”.
AF: Who are some your inspirations?
Stan Winston was a big inspiration for me. Even though he was involved in a lot of visual effects and helped found Digital Domain, his makeup and practical work are always what I was most fascinated by. I’m also a big stop-motion animation fan and really love the work of Ray Harryhausen and Will Vinton.
AF: How do you approach designing a show featuring Nazis, especially in a post-Charlottesville United States?
When we started out, we thought we were making a science-fiction show, but the subject matter seems to have become more prescient as of late. I actually think that makes the show’s portrayal of Fascism more important than ever. So often in media, Nazis are represented as cartoonishly evil mustache-twirling villains. That’s a disservice because it makes it too easy to not take the danger seriously and to write them off. By existing in a believable world and humanizing even its most despicable characters, “The Man in the High Castle” allows the audience to appreciate the true terror of Fascism, to understand it as a real force that can and does exist in the modern world, and to be vigilant to fight it.
AF: What was your favorite effect you designed in the second season?
LD: The most challenging effects sequence, and arguably the most effective, is the massive Nazi party rally in the Volkshalle in episode 210 (“Fallout”). The CG creation of the enormous dome was a hugely challenging exercise on its own. In this chilling scene, where John Smith steps up to the podium to be honored by the assembled crowd, we had to fill the space with torches, spotlights, and nearly 150,000 digital soldiers and civilians.
We really did a lot of research for the scene and tried to make the space as accurate as possible, down to the smoky haze created by a combination of burning braziers and the collective breathe of thousands hanging in the air of a space that would not have had proper climate control at the time. All of the digital characters were clothed in period correct wardrobe and motion-capture animated to Sig Heil in unison. We watched archival footage of real Nazi parades and rallies and even tried to emulate the style of camerawork from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous documentary “Triumph of the Will”.
It’s an absolutely epic scene, and yet even with the scale and extensiveness of the visual effects, which are in every single shot, it doesn’t feel gratuitous or like an overuse of visual effects. In my opinion, it represents absolutely the best usage of VFX for storytelling that is possible, and I’m incredibly proud of how it turned out.
AF: How much freedom do you have to design special effects? Can you discuss the process of working with your showrunners?
LD: The show is very collaborative, so a lot of people weigh in on the VFX work. Honestly, it never feels like there are ‘too many cooks’. Part of the reason for that is that I think everyone’s priority is the show itself. Once a scene or sequence has become what it wants to be, it all kind-of clicks for everyone.
I’m part of the process from very early in pre-production all the way through post. That level of involvement gives me a lot of control over how things turn out. There’s also a lot of trust between the different departments and decision-makers and that’s very empowering. Sometimes there are a lot of notes, and there are definitely sequences that I and my team struggled with. Sometimes the note I get from the producers is simply “Do what you think is best. We trust you.” That’s really the strongest motivation there is to do great work.
AF: Which department do you collaborate with most often? How do you work with them?
Much of the VFX work on the show is architectural and design-centric. I have a very close working relationship with our Production Designer, Drew Boughton. Drew is incredibly creative and prolific. On location scouts, he takes photos and just starts sketching on top of them while riding in the bus. Usually, by the time we’re done he’ll already have some draw-over illustrations (affectionately known as Drewdles) to get everyone started.
Most of the time it’s pretty apparent what can be physically built and what will be VFX. This show has some absolutely jaw-dropping sets, but there are limitations of what can be physically built. That’s where we come in. Many times the design of a building that we might make or a large piece of signage comes directly from the Art Department. I also extensively photograph sets, props, and set dressing to give my team elements to work with that closely match the physical construction.
AF: How much research is used as you design the world?
LD: There’s really nothing that we don’t research extensively. We try to be as accurate as possible, and most anachronisms or inconsistencies are things we know about and end up choosing to do intentionally for expediency or for world-building purposes.
The beauty of a period show is that serious consideration is given to every single thing that goes onscreen. In our fictional universe we actually have to be doubly vigilant, because every time we diverge from actual history, we’re making a choice that potentially means something for the audience.
The interior of the Volkshalle is a great example of the right balance between historical accuracy and narrative believability. The Volkshalle was a structure that Hitler had actually planned to build. There are extensive drawings and models of the outside of the building. However, the only reference that really gave us an idea of what the inside might look like is a rather low detail photo-montage. Our original attempts to exactly match this photo resulted in something that had no real sense of scale. Considering that the Volkshalle was to be 1000’ tall, around 8x bigger than the dome of the Pantheon, this presented a lot of problems.
Part of the issue was the fact that the Brutalist architectural style favored larger-than-life proportions, which minimized the individual person. So everything inside the Volkshalle was super-sized. We ended up significantly diverging from the design by adding more human-scale items to make it more believable.
AF: How much do you rely on the original source material when crafting visual effects for this world?
LD: Whenever we can, we look at historical photos and other references. I even had the opportunity to visit Berlin last season and see some of the sights we were replicating. Whenever possible, I take photos of elements that I think would be useful. I’m a stickler for detail, so I obsess over things like the width of grout lines on tile or the position of welds on a mechanical object.
When a perfect reference is unavailable, we have to improvise with the next closest thing. For example, while my team was having trouble getting a huge marble facing in the Volkshalle to feel correct, I was scouting in New York City and happened to see that the entire side of the UN Building (where, in the world of our show, ironically sits the Nazi SS Headquarters) was a giant marble wall. The look of that wall ended up becoming a great reference for the marble wall inside the Volkshalle.
AF: What’s next for the 3rd season, and what are you most excited for audiences to see?
LD: The things I’m most excited for the audience to see are, incidentally, the things I can’t talk about. But rest assured that the show will continue to become more ambitious and expand in scope and scale. We’ll be revisiting and re-discovering some people and places and answering a lot of questions. We will also introduce a lot of new stuff to puzzle over.