On sci-fi thriller Devs, VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst reteamed with director Alex Garland for an exploration of the multiverse, digging into scientific literature to depict a world of the near future, and the technology that accompanied it.
Starring Sonoya Mizuno, the series centers on Lily, a software engineer for a quantum computing company in the Bay Area, who investigates a secretive development division within her company, following the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend.
An Oscar winner known for films including Ex Machina and Annihilation, Whitehurst began conversations on Devs while the latter film was being finished. “[Alex and I] were talking a lot during the period of him writing it, because we both have a shared interest in quantum physics, and the idea of multiverses. I was being sent episodes as they were being written, and discussing what he was about to go and write before he was writing it,” Whitehurst says. “So, it was probably the most involved I’ve ever been in that part of a production, which is lovely.”
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In early conversations with Garland, Whitehurst understood that visual effects would play out in “two branches” throughout the show. “What art departments can’t build, we would have to augment or extend, or in some cases, replace. So, there’s that sort of invisible worldbuilding aspect to it, which we knew we were going to have to do, because the scope of the vision was so big,” he explains. “We knew our art department would do something amazing, but we were going to be in the business of making the world complete.”
From Whitehurst’s perspective, the other of the two aforementioned branches was much more creatively driven, representing a singular kind of challenge. Essentially, in his work on Devs, Whitehurst would have to visualize life inside a multiverse. Secondly, he would have to craft outputs, or visualizations, emerging from a quantum computer at Devs—the development division that gives the series its name. Created by obsessive scientists Forest (Nick Offerman) and Katie (Alison Pill), this machine has the ability to predict the future, and visually project into the past, presenting grainy depictions of such figures as Jesus Christ and Joan of Arc.
Prior to production, Whitehurst turned to the writing of physicist David Deutsch—as he often has throughout his career—for insights that might inform the visual effects at hand. “He wrote an amazing book more than 20 years ago called The Fabric of Reality, which is something that I reread semi-regularly,” he says. “His notion of trying to come up with this theory of everything that can describe, using scientific ideas, this whole universe, was something that was very appealing, as a philosophical basis to build off.”
On a practical level, the VFX supervisor experimented early on with the way he would manifest a multiverse, and the quantum computer’s visualizations, recognizing that the choices he made would have a direct impact on the way the show was shot. “For the multiverse stuff, we needed to know what we were aiming for the finished effect to look like, so we knew what to shoot on set to be able to do that. Then, with the visualizations that you see on the screens inside the [Devs] cube, we were hoping to be able to, and ultimately were able to, project most of that footage live on set, when you were actually shooting those scenes, so that it could act as a light source,” Whitehurst explains. “It gave the actors something to react to; it gave [DP] Rob [Hardy] something to frame up on.”
When it came to multiverse footage—which featured multiple versions of an actor on screen—Whitehurst engaged in a series of tests, shooting various versions of people doing very similar actions, before blurring them, and layering them together. “That had this very Francis Bacon look to it, which was kind of cool. But it didn’t describe the idea of many different worlds clearly enough. So, that was an iterative process,” the artist reflects. “We ended up going, ‘Look. The way that we should do this, that we should represent the many worlds, is by being able to see each distinct person in their own world of the multiverse. And we’re just going to layer that together.’”
In the design process for the visualizations, Whitehurst asked himself, how would the quantum computer visually generate a world for people to look at? “Again, we went through a lot of different ideas of building it up in blocks, or building it up as clouds. And ultimately, the way that modern computer renderers work, which is the piece of software that generates our CG pictures, is that it works by doing continually refining passes,” he explains. “So, when you say, ‘Render me this scene,’ the first thing you’re presented with is this very sandy, rough version of the image, and then it gets slightly less rough, and slightly less rough, and the sandiness goes away, and it becomes clearer, and clearer, and clearer.”
For Garland and his VFX supervisor, this understanding of real-world rendering lent itself to an interesting visual idea—and so over the course of Devs, we see that the computer is getting better at creating its images over time. “We took that idea, and we actually ended up coming up with this sort of 3D volume of these points drifting around, as if they were little motes of dust suspended in water. The computer is generally coaxing these points to be specific objects in a certain space, and as they get better and better at it, the points become denser, and the object becomes clearer and clearer,” Whitehurst says. “That ended up being a narratively satisfying approach to designing that visual effect, but also it had a real aesthetic quality to it, as well. So, that was kind of a double win for us, really.”
The visuals that appear on the massive Devs screen were all first photographed as plates, which would serve as a base for Whitehurst’s creations. “We had a performer to be Joan of Arc, and we had a series of actors to be Lincoln, and the other people at the Gettysburg Address. Those were filmed in a car park at Pinewood [Studios], and then we would track those, and isolate them, so that we could put them into three-dimensional space,” the VFX supervisor says. “Then, we would create digital matte painting environments, and we were able to build up this scene, which had depth, which we could then, using the simulation software that we’d developed, push these points around, so that they could attempt to try and stick themselves to the forms of these people. And the amount that they stuck to that form determined how clear they were.”
In terms of the invisible worldbuilding Whitehurst tackled for the series, one of the biggest challenges, and most distinct examples, was the Devs cube—the beautifully futuristic center of the development division’s operations. Encased in reflective golden walls, the cube was an office, which workers entered into, by way of a floating capsule on a horizontal path.
“Art departments were constrained by the size of the biggest soundstage that we could find, which happened to be in Manchester. What they were able to build was the office level of the floating cube, the gold walls that surround it, the gap in between, and a glass capsule, which was mounted on a massive steel trolley that could be pushed backwards and forwards by grips,” Whitehurst shares. “But everything that’s above and below that had to be a visual effect. Then, any angles where you were particularly low, looking up, or particularly high, looking down, also had to be full visual effect shots, because you couldn’t get the camera that high or that low, because of the constraints of the space.”
Most dialogue scenes within the Devs cube were realized in-camera, given that the camera department was following people on the office floor, with a level lens. “But basically, anything that’s above or below the office floor in that environment is digital,” the VFX supervisor notes. “And obviously, you had to paint out the trolley that the capsule was on, and replace that section of the environment with a digital version.”
Another impressive example of the series’ VFX worldbuilding was the massive statue of Amaya, which towered over the redwood trees on the Devs campus. Present very little on screen, this little girl is more of a specter—an absence that permeates and haunts the world of Devs. “That [statue] was fully CG,” Whitehurst says. “The location that it’s sat in is the amphitheater at the University of California, Santa Cruz. So, they had a stage area, and it’s like, ‘Well, the statue will be standing on that.’”
Taking into consideration the environment in which the statue would stand, Whitehurst then had to consider in depth how it would look. “We did a photogrammetry session, which is where you are able to take multiple photographs instantaneously of a subject—in this case, the little girl. From that, you can build a 3D model. So, it’s a sort of snapshot in time that you can then create into something 3D,” the VFX supervisor says. “We used that as the basis of our digital sculpt then to make the statue, and then we went through a long process of, Well, should this be a piece of pop art? Should it have a sort of Jeff Koons quality to it? Or should we go for something that feels like it’s made out of concrete?
“We tried a whole bunch of different surfacing approaches, and how would it catch the light if it was made of concrete, or if it was enamel paint, and eventually, the pop art approach felt narratively the most appropriate,” he adds. “So, that’s what we ended up going with.”
For Whitehurst, there were a great number of creative challenges in designing visual effects for Devs. “Certainly, I think the complexity of some of the environments—so, the cube with the permanently shifting lighting on it, where we’re having to match all of those lighting changes—was very tricky. Getting this sort of aesthetic balance in things like the visualizations, making it feel something that felt scientifically plausible, but also had a sense of beauty. And how much should we allow the audience to see, and how mysterious should it be?” he says. “That sort of thing was complex.”
The series was also notable for Whitehurst, given that it was the first he had ever taken on. “Most of us working on the series come from a film background. But I think the key thing that is most exciting about it, and particularly for someone like Alex, who is so big-ideas-driven, and writes characters so well, is having something where you get to spend more time with those characters,” he says. “You really get to flesh out and develop those big ideas, which is something that all of the rest of us working on it can help with.
“The other highlight is, I got to work with some of my favorite people, again, for the third time,” Whitehurst adds. “So, it was an exciting mixture of very familiar, in terms of most of the people I was working with, and something excitingly new at the same time.”
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