Receiving his second Emmy nomination last month for his work on The Man in the High Castle, VFX supervisor Lawson Deming has often encountered misunderstandings, when it comes to his craft. “I think there’s this idea that in visual effects, you have this magical idea of what it’s going to be…People say, ‘Oh, you just press a button. You just make this stuff happen,’” Deming explains. “But it really is as messy as every other part of the filmmaking process, and it touches every other part of the filmmaking process.”
This week on Deadline’s Production Value Video series, the artist offers insights into the world of visual effects, and the challenging work that’s gone into Amazon’s dystopian series.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, The Man in the High Castle is set in a parallel universe where the Axis powers have won World War II. With the Greater Nazi Reich taking over the eastern coast of the United States, the Japanese Pacific States in the west and a neutral zone in between, forces of the Resistance unlock mysteries that may hold the key to toppling both regimes.
This year at the Emmys, Deming and his team at Barnstorm VFX will compete with the likes of Game of Thrones, as the smallest VFX team to be recognized, working with the smallest budget. Undoubtedly, the VFX achievements of The Man in the High Castle—the David to HBO’s Goliath—are all the more impressive, with these realities in mind.
While ambitious examples of worldbuilding and crowd duplication have been present throughout the series’ three seasons, one of its most impressive sequences to date unfolded in Season 3 finale, “Jahr Null.”
In the episode, which served as Deming’s Emmy submission this year, the VFX supervisor tackled a stunning moment in which the Nazis demolish the Statue of Liberty. To bring this sequence to life, Deming and his team first had to understand the creative purpose it served. “The idea of the Nazis destroying the Statue of Liberty is, they’re destroying a symbol of American ideals, and of American history, so in typical Nazi fashion, they do it in a very showy way,” the VFX supervisor explains. “They do it with a fireworks show, they do it with jets flying over, with colored smoke out the back. There’s music, there’s film crews there to capture the event, [and] they want it to read as this big, public spectacle.”
Beyond understanding the meaning of this moment for the show, Deming also had to look into how the events depicted would have unfolded, had history gone down this perturbing path. “The technical of it…is that airplanes on their own, firing missiles at the Statue of Liberty, would not bring it down. They have to ensure that this goes off without a hitch, [so] the statue is actually rigged for demolition,” he says. “After the missiles hit, you see a shot from overhead where there’s a ring of explosives going off around the base.”
A “combination of pragmatism and showmanship,” the Nazi’s destruction of the Statue of Liberty was modeled, from a visual effects perspective, off of videos that depicted stadium demolitions. Looking to bring as much authenticity to the moment as possible—with the statue falling over and its torch breaking off, before sinking into the water—Deming took the whole sequence through previz, to finesse the details of this movement.
In the end, though, he would need to give the sequence extra time and thought before bringing all the elements together. “Liberty Island has a wide enough radius that if the statue just tipped over, it wouldn’t get to the edge of the island, so we had to create a situation whereby, as the base was collapsing, it slid down the rubble, to the point where when it fell, the arm was sticking out just far enough to break off,” Deming shares. “It was this combination of hand animation and dynamic simulation to get that to all work, and combined with the smoke, and the missile trails, and the airplanes, and fireworks illuminating everything, and then the water simulation, there were all these moving parts.”
Created by Frank Spotnitz, The Man in the High Castle will return for its fourth and final season on November 15, 2019. To check out our conversation with Deming, click above.
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