Winning an Emmy as a makeup effects creator before transitioning to an accomplished career as a visual effects supervisor, Everett Burrell needed to bring all of his talents to the table with Netflix cyberpunk series Altered Carbon, in order to bring an intricate, expansive sci-fi world to life.
Set in the megalopolis of Bay City—what became of San Francisco—in 2384, Laeta Kalogridis’ series imagines a world where consciousness has been extracted onto miniature disks, buildings extend thousands of feet in the air, AIs roam freely, and holographic advertisements litter the public space.
To build out a futuristic world operating by its own rules—with new vocabulary, new technology, and its own strange social hierarchy—Burrell would have to do his share of real-world, scientific research while allowing the imagination to take him where it would.
If you’re looking for the most spectacular, technically sophisticated episode of Altered Carbon’s first season, look no further than Episode 1, “Out of the Past,” for which Burrell and company built a world to carry a series.
“We’re very proud of that, and I think it’s definitely a testament to the crew,” the VFX supervisor says. “Not just the visual effects, but the special effects and makeup and wardrobe. There was a lot of work that went into that.”
Can you recall what was discussed in early conversations about Altered Carbon, in terms of the way you would capture the series’ world?
I had a meeting with Laeta Kalogridis, [executive producer] Steve Blackman, and Carey Meyer, our production designer, and we really just sat down and talked a lot about the world, and the things they wanted to do to bring the world to life. It was really intriguing to me because there was so much great stuff in the scripts—I was like, “Wow, I’m really blown away.”
The next meeting we had, we sat down and looked at some great science-fiction reference. From looking at real helicopters and aircraft carriers, to amazing cities around the world, to books about nature and National Geographic stuff. We had a good jam session of ideas, and we all really jelled.
From your perspective, what was the process in visualizing Bay City, in its full form?
Obviously, Blade Runner was a big influence because we’re very much a cyberpunk world. One of the first movies we screened together as a group was Blade Runner, along with a bunch of other great film noir, black-and-white stuff like The Third Man. But I think the inspiration really was various cities from around the world—Tokyo, and Brazil—and we tried to take pieces from real-world cities. Abu Dhabi, buildings that are so incredibly high that they don’t look real in the first place.
We tried to get into, how tall can we make buildings? Is there a science behind it? We got into Elder tech, which is what the aliens have gifted to the human race that allows their cars to fly, that allows the stacks to exist, that allows buildings to be built 8,000 feet tall without collapsing.
We weaved that Meth culture and Elder tech through this city, so if you have an apartment building, they’ll do eminent domain and put a giant support structure right through your living room—that kind of thing. We used that philosophy about the all-mighty dollar ruling this world. People happen to exist around it and try to function: Despite the fact that there are these 8,000-foot tall buildings above them, life must go on.
So we broke it down into various levels. The Grounders were at the very bottom; we had this Twilight area where the middle class existed; and then Aerium, which was where Bancroft and the other Meths lived.
What went into bringing the series’ AI characters to life?
There are a couple parts to it. There’s AI that exists in the real world, and that would be Poe, who can manifest himself, and happens to choose the form of Edgar Allan Poe. In the book, I think it was Jimi Hendrix or the Hendrix Hotel. Obviously, we couldn’t get the rights to that, so I think Poe was a really good choice for that character. He can form in the real world based on what’s called Teslaphoresis—and it’s an actual thing in the real world. We used that as a guide to how he builds and how he decomposes at the end. It’s these carbon particles that are connected together by electricity, and you can build forms with them—but we took it to the next science-fiction level.
So Poe exists in the real world and can construct himself. He can also construct objects. The hotel is all AI, so if nobody was in the hotel and he turned off all the AI, you’d just see concrete walls. It’s all a façade, and he can control everything and be everywhere.
Then, there’s Poe in the VR world. In the VR world, we had very specific looks for where the VR machine was. Poe’s VR is very advanced and very high end, because he’s an AI source. So we used a 360-degree VR camera to shoot those sequences, and then we unwrapped that 360 view and flattened it out, so you saw these weird distorted edges. It was a really fun idea.
[Cinematographer] Neville Kidd and myself and the director, Nick Hurran, were playing around, looking for fun things to do, and we knew we couldn’t use the VR part of it, because we weren’t a VR show. But if we flattened it out into its natural state before it gets wrapped into a VR sphere, what would that look like? It gave us a really unique effect for some of those shots. It was tricky to shoot because when you shoot something that’s 360 degrees, the crew can’t be anywhere. You have to clear the set completely, and the camera was mounted on a little remote control vehicle that was rolling on the floor, and would follow Joel Kinnaman around. 150 crewmembers had to hide behind the walls in order to get those plates.
It’s eight cameras we had to stitch together to make up this VR world. Jill [Bogdanowicz], our colorist over at Deluxe, gave each VR environment its own look. Whether you were in Poe’s VR, or Elliot’s bubble fab VR, or the AI Union Club VR, every one had its individual look. And we did what’s called “breeding,” so we could ease in and out of the color and the static and stuff, so it always had a life to it.
Altered Carbon often bombards the viewer with incredible holographic visuals. How were those created?
Our main vendor in the United Kingdom was Double Negative, and they partnered up with a company called Rushes. Rushes had an amazing graphics department and would just crank out some original, great, fun 3D designs of perfume, or guns, or weird products—and interfaced with Carey Meyer. We came up with hundreds of fun little gags; there’s a lot of Easter eggs in the show. You’d have to really pay attention, but we definitely tip our hat to some of our competition in the holograms; you might see a Game of Thrones joke or two bouncing around.
We had a lot of fun researching and getting into that, and then we shot a lot of actors to fulfill the advertisements as well. So we had a great stable of generic holograms—like a lawyer or a housewife doing a commercial for cereal, or some kids playing with a hula-hoop. We definitely had an amazing library and an amazing supporting cast of characters that were holograms. We filmed those very early on, so Double Negative had a library to choose from, but then a lot of them were completely CG that were created.
What was your process when it came to battle sequences, including the fight transpiring in zero gravity?
For the Null-G fight, which was inside the core of Bancroft’s tower, the idea would be that they used this Elder tech core that holds up the Suntouch House tower, and inside it, you can control the gravity. Whether it’s Zero-G or maximum, increased gravity, that core helps the building stand up. He’s modified the core of his building to be this fight arena so they could do Null-G battles.
We found a really good location at the University of [British Columbia], that had this theater in the round, where they would do more intimate theater performances—and it was this amazing, round shape. It was these pie wedges of seats that were three levels tall that you could move around, so we really lucked out.
The stunt rigging crew were able to put wires on the ceiling and hang our stunt people and our actors from the wires, and give them a little bit of a Zero-G feel. It was a challenge because we had to do it all there; there was no green screen used for the actors flying around. We had a green screen at the very bottom of the set, so we could extend down to the bottom of the core, but it was pretty much all live on set. Joel was in the wires, I want to say 90% of the time, and there were actors that were also stunt players, so we could have them in the harness—and God love them, I think it was three or four days straight they were in those harnesses, working their asses off.
But it was a lot of wire removal, and then we would add additional camera float, and a little distortion here and there if they crossed through the Null-G field. That was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work. We wanted to not do any CG characters; we wanted to keep it all real, and that was the theme throughout the show. We knew we were going to have CG stuff, we were going to have CG vehicles, but we tried to tie things to the real sets as much as possible.
In one terrifying moment, Takeshi Kovacs comes into contact with a terrifying, tapeworm-like organism. What was your inspiration there?
It’s based on a real, weird deep sea creature that Laeta really liked, that we modified to be almost this creepy eel. In fact, we had a real eel on set that our actor held as reference, that would flop around—so the animation of that creature is based on a real eel flopping around on those chopsticks. Joel [Kinnaman] was definitely creeped out by it. We nicknamed him “Little Joel,” because Joel didn’t like him. But the reference for the movement was amazing.