With six Emmy nominations dating back to Lost in 2006, visual effects supervisor Jay Worth is a master of world building who brought those skills to bear on HBO’s Westworld, a series which tied with Saturday Night Live for the most nods this year with 22 a piece.
Working exclusively in television, with the exception of 2008’s Cloverfield, Worth enjoys the process of working with the same group of collaborators for extended periods of times, building a shorthand and a strong visual language.
Speaking with Deadline, Worth lays out the unique challenges that came with this updated version of the Michael Crichton classic, explaining his team’s approach to conjuring up robotics in a time of endless visual possibilities.
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How did you come to work on Westworld?
It was a natural segue to stay working with both Bad Robot, who I’ve had the privilege of working with for going on 12 years now, and Jonah [Nolan], who I worked with on Person of Interest.
I was a fan of the old Yul Brynner [film] back in the day, and I trust the people I work with. I trust Jonah and Lisa [Joy] implicitly, in terms of their storytelling, the way they use effects, and the style they do. For me, it in some ways comes down to the people and their ideas, rather than the specifics.
I came on pretty early—my first meeting was in February of 2014. Then, it just kept growing. You start realizing the world you’re going to get to build, and you get more and more excited.
Beyond the relationships you’ve mentioned, is there a reason you’ve chosen to work primarily in television for most of your career?
For me, it came down to a personal thing. My family and I don’t function well when I travel. To do features, either as a supervisor or as a producer, you’ve got to travel, because most things don’t shoot in LA, whereas working in television has afforded me the opportunity of being able to stay grounded in Los Angeles. I still travel now and then to go out to different shows, but that was the main reason in the beginning.
I’ve only worked on one feature—as a coordinator on Cloverfield—but I like the TV process. I like longer projects with the same group of people, and being able to develop that visual language, as well as the creative back-and-forth. I do find, even on high-profile projects, there’s usually a little less politics on TV shows—not even in a bad way, because I don’t think the politics on features are necessarily bad. I think that there’s just more layers to features than to TV, which gives me a little more freedom, creatively.
Having worked across the spectrum in television, is there a tangible difference, working with a premium cabler like HBO?
Usually, our budget’s our budget. As we all know, regardless of the budget, it’s almost never enough, because everyone’s pushing the boundaries so much. I’ve loved working on shows that have small budgets. On Person of Interest—and Fringe, even, back in the day—we didn’t have incredible budgets. I think that’s part of the fun of my job, being able to figure out what you can do for what you have, and trying to give the storytellers as much freedom as I can to tell the stories they want without overcommitting in a way that’s going to be detrimental to the show.
Regardless of the budget, I think that’s usually what the challenge is, but that’s also what the fun is, figuring out new and creative ways to do something so you can have all the money end up on the screen. Everybody always thinks it’s a bigger budget than it is.
For Emmys, you submitted the Season 1 finale, “The Bicameral Mind.” Why was that the one?
It’s always a challenge when you’re figuring out what episode to put in. Each episode throughout the season has such unique things. The finale just ended up having the most variety, to be honest.
I think we probably would have done it regardless, because of the sequence with Dolores and her beta body, as it is. That sequence turned into this hero kind of thing. We had shot it while we were still developing some stuff, but at least we knew it was coming.
Even in Episode 3, with the young Ford sequence and the gentleman who had robot legs, we had been working on some design for that, and for the robot boy—we had a template as we were moving into it. The guys at [VFX company] ILP did an amazing job at realizing what that would look like—the tone of it, the beauty of it, and the elegance of it, having it be something that was unique and specific to the show.
We were able to have young Ford in there, which for me was by far the most challenging of the effects I have ever done, in terms of trying to nail a look and a tone and believability. Throughout Season 1, young Ford was only on screen three times, but it was still very impactful, in terms of what we were able to accomplish with that for a full-CG character—well, a full-CG face, at least.
Then, we had the Arrival Terminal, which was big and expansive, and a challenge, in terms of what we had initially planned. To be honest, when we planned that, we thought it was going to be a little more similar to what was in Episode 2, when William and Logan arrived.
When we started playing with all the ideas—the timelines and what not—we realized, You know what? We should really blow this out a little more. We just kept building on it, the entrance to Shogun World and all the stuff with special effects, because that’s the other part of the Emmy category, is the special video effect—the special effect and visual effect.
We have the stuff that I was able to work with, with [special effects supervisor] Michael Lantieri and the art department, with the map and the dip tanks, all those different things, which really highlighted all the cool parts of the show. We still have some matte paintings and some other things, but it really highlighted all the different categories.
Can you take me into the process of realizing the look of your Westworld robots through visual effects?
Jonah and I had so many conversations about what these things would look like, what they’d call back to and how they worked. We always wanted something that felt like it was grounded in, what would they really do? We tried to start from a place of realism.
They’d build a superstructure; they’d then have a skin layer of epidermis. At least in the beginning, they were probably printed, rather than organically grown. You wouldn’t build a skeleton underneath it. We thought through all of those different things, and at the same time, there was a conscious effort to have it not be something that we had seen before.
If we ever got a rendering from an artist that looked a little bit too much like a Terminator or something, we tweaked it back to something that felt more like our show.
It was a refinement process. At one point, we were going to build the robot boy’s face, but it became apparent that we were going to need the flexibility, after the fact, to be able to change it, to come in line with all these other aspects of Dolores, and other body parts, other moments. We ended up building it all in CG.
What was the extent of your collaboration with the art department in conjuring up the futuristic technology we see in Season 1?
The map was a huge challenge—that went all the way back to the pilot, figuring out how we were going to do this thing. We didn’t want you to necessarily understand how the technology worked. We didn’t want it to feel like a hologram. Jonah and I really experimented a lot with projection—that came from part of his experience on Interstellar.
He recalled the projections they used on that, so we decided to go with the projection technology for the map—this massive map that would raise and lower and rotate, and have the projection be correct for shadows and light, so it looked like a real map, at the correct time of day.
If you look throughout the season, every time you see the map, I actually changed the time of day based on the time of day within the story. If it was closer to night, there are shadows on the map, based on where the light would be.
We have all those little details that help. You don’t even really notice them, but when you cut back and forth from scene to scene, if you had gone from this dusky evening scene, to all of a sudden having this bright white map—or this bright, direct noon day map—something would have told your brain that something’s not right about the story and the timeline that you’re on, or the continuity of it.
Working with special effects, and with Nathan [Crowley, production designer] on the pilot, we figured out how to get a rotating turntable of this five-ton map that would able to be in sync with a fixed projector, with two projectors and mirrors being able to project a 3D image onto this curved surface.
There’s quite a bit of engineering feats to make that work. It was a fun challenge, but man—even things like in the first episode, when they’re looking at the surveillance of Hector when he’s robbing the saloon, that’s actually a projected image onto the map. It’s not a comp. We actually projected that image at the correct perspective and put the camera at the right perspective so it looked dimensionalized into the bucket, as we called it. If you look at it from the sides, it’s this weird stretched image, like sidewalk chalk art.
We played with a lot of things like that and tried to push the boundaries of what this world was, and what the capabilities are. Same thing with a lot of the surveillance on the tablets—it’s actually dimensionalized. We’re shooting four witness cams, rotoscoping things out, putting them on different planes, and having the camera translate to the tablet, so it felt like the technology’s taking it one step further than we can possibly quite understand.
Inside Westworld, how much atmospheric work was done, particularly in violent action scenes?
We did quite a bit. The challenge for Westworld is that when you think about it, every inch of every frame is designed. The whole world is designed. There were a lot of frames that had modern day imperfections in them, whether it be a plane, a telephone pole, a car in the distance, or a blemish. Our hosts are supposed to be the same every day. Very rarely, if anybody has anything that is remotely different, we had to do little bits of touch-up.
When it came to the performances, we had fun with the glitching and the different levels, figuring out the vocabulary of, When someone’s in Diagnostic Mode, they do this; If someone’s shut down, they do this. When the Sheriff is fully malfunctioning, he does this.
In terms of blood and squibs, we figured this out back on Person of Interest—because resetting wardrobe and squibs can be time-consuming, 99 percent of the time, we load everybody up with their squibs and then we shoot all the rehearsals as takes, until it’s done exactly right. When it’s people in the background, we always just do VFX squibs.
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