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‘Westworld’ Doubles Down on VFX for Season 2 and Bulks Up Crew

In the visual effects arena, TV shows have come a long way since the original “Star Trek” series of the late ’60s. A very long way. Think HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” and Netflix’s “Altered Carbon,” to name just a few.

Add to that list the second season of “Westworld,” which HBO debuted April 22. Visual effects supervisor Jay Worth and his team, which won an Emmy for the Season 1 finale, ratcheted up the chaos from the violent ending triggered by Westworld park co-creator Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Still, the new season continues to weave multiple storylines within a nonlinear structure, one that questions character motivations and feelings.

Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy “like to build things up and blow them apart,” says Worth. “We had to dig in and get behind the psychology of [the series] to support the story visually.”

The biggest differences between the two seasons concern interior and exterior design. “Last year we were exploring a lot of new things we hadn’t done before, like what should the inside of [host] Delores’ body look like,” says Worth of the nonhuman character played by Evan Rachel Wood. “This year, we have a fair amount
of world building throughout the season.”

One challenge is that the team has a shorter schedule to perform its work, which meant adding crew. “From a creative pipeline, it’s been a little easier,” says Worth, “but in terms of an operational pipeline, our team has grown a lot, which has helped tremendously with the volume of visual effects we are doing. Our shot count has increased incredibly compared to last year.”

With the addition of set supervisors, coordinators and data wranglers, senior members have been able to be present at each step along the way during production. “Now that we’re in post, it’s all hands on deck all the time,” Worth adds.

While many “Westworld” effects are accomplished in-camera, that’s not always possible. This season’s debut episode, “Journey Into Night,” had more than 300 VFX shots. The majority of them are invisible, such as cleaning up unwanted items in the sky or removing telephone poles, roads and tire tracks or anything else that could interfere with the story. “The show takes place in an entirely different world and everything that doesn’t belong has to be removed,” explains Worth. Other elements in the series are real — including many of the roaming buffalo, bears and other animals.

More detailed and visible effects are handled by Justin Raleigh, special makeup effects designer. For example, in one scene, park security forces are hunting the hosts and come across a scattered group of dead ones. To download the last moments that these human-looking robots saw, an officer scalps one — an act we see in close detail — in order to remove its “brain.” “Justin and his team built all of that,” says Worth.  “If you look closely, you can see it go from the actor’s body to a prosthetic one, but we challenge people to be able to tell the difference on first viewing.”

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