The sophomore season of Snowpiercer is currently in full swing, and it has been showcasing some surprising new sides of its post-apocalyptic story along the way. The series, which is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, takes the world established in Bong Joon-ho's 2013 film adaptation and dives into an entirely new path. That has especially been the case in Season 2, which saw the status quo shaken up by the arrival of a second train known as Big Alice, which is piloted by Mr. Wilford (Sean Bean), the presumed-dead funder and creator of the Snowpiercer train.
Even with the majority of the season taking place within Snowpiercer and Big Alice, Season 2 has provided some significant glimpses into what Snowpiercer's frozen world looks like. Helping bring that world to life is FuseFX's Damien Thaller, who serves as Visual Effects Supervisor on the new batch of episodes. Thaller has contributed to some notable video games and movies over the past two decades, with his recent credits including Free Guy, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Black Widow. But with Snowpiercer, Thaller and his FuseFX team have a subtle but instrumental role in telling its story.
ComicBook.com got a chance to chat with Thaller about his work on Snowpiercer Season 2, how that work has taken on a new significance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.
ComicBook.com: How did you get started in this industry?
Damien Thaller: I've been in the industry for a long time. I come from the creative side, I studied as an illustrator back in the day. I was lucky enough, after I graduated, to jump into the games industry, into more of a 2D, 3D type of environment. And then from games, I leaped into film. It was a natural transition for me, pushing the creative envelope from the games at the time, [where] we were restricted to a console, into CGI and into film, where we could explore a lot more. The technology at the time, it was more ahead, which is ironic at the moment, with the tools that are coming out of the games industry that are tapping into film, it's almost switched. Games [are] almost ahead in its tech in a lot of ways than the tools we used in films. So it's funny how we're seeing that now sort of do a 360 and come back around.prevnext
With Snowpiercer, in particular, what was the process like of getting onboard the project? Were you familiar with the film or the graphic novel beforehand?
Yeah, I was very familiar with the project. I really enjoyed the original feature film from over 10 years ago. I enjoyed the creative look of the world, exploring a world that had hit an ice age and what that does to society, what it does to us, and what does that look like. When the TV show came up, the first season had come out, which replicated similar to the look and style of season one, but the stories were different. I wasn't part of season one, I joined the team in season two. The company I work with, FuseFX, did a chunk of work on season one and they did such a stellar job, the client was very happy with them, and wanted to bring them on board for season two. As they were talking with the client, I was wrapping on working on a project called Game of Thrones. It was the last season finale. And the head of the studio at Fuse, Jon Cowley, I've known him for quite a few years, and I was talking to him about Snowpiercer. And I said to him, "I would love the opportunity to work on the show." And he said, "Well, as a matter of fact, we're about to embark on the second season and we're talking to the clients right now, and the network." And I just literally just jumped straight in and we started talking about all things Snowpiercer.
I still remember -- actually, one year ago today -- sitting there on the phone, talking to the network and the clients and saying, "Okay, let's do this. This is going to be great." And then COVID broke out two weeks later, and my entire team left the studio and went and worked at home. I stayed in the studio since, with pretty much only me in the studio, so I can self-quarantine. It was right on the end of February when the whole COVID-19 sort of came about.
Everything just fit right. It was the type of show I was interested in. I come from a very big environments and CGI background with my experience, and Snowpiercer is very much an environment show. I was super excited about it, and it just all fit well for everybody.prevnext
Going off of that, it's been interesting to see Snowpiercer premiere in its entirety during the pandemic, and hitting in a different way for people who are self-isolating and quarantining. How have you felt contributing to that relevance of it, and also working in a COVID environment at the same time?
It was definitely challenging, I can tell you that. Especially earlier on, when we first started with the scope and everything changing with COVID, and how we would deal with that to take on a show of this caliber. We had a very tight deadline to meet on this show of all the episodes, and it was something early on where we had to work out like, "Okay, how is this going to work when we collaborate together so tightly, creatively, and technically as a team in a studio? We can look at each other's monitors and we can walk into each room where we all work, and talk, and make gestures, and look at references." There's a particular way we're used to working. That all changed.
For me, at first, there was a little bit of uncertainty about how that would work. But to be honest, we pulled together really well, and we made it work. We had to make it work. Our industry would have fallen apart otherwise. We had work to produce, and we had to look at different ways of how we can communicate. How we could still keep our professionalism up, review work, talk to the artists, how we could all talk to each other, and go through our workflows and processes of what we would normally generally do when we're in a studio together. It's been a year, and I feel we tightened up how we would do things so well, that if we would jump into a similar show or do it again, I think we've got it right now. It works really well. We've ironed out all the creases, and I have complete confidence we would literally just do it even better.
For me, being the visual effects supervisor on the show, it was very important for me to have communication and clarity as my team. They're not in the office with me or the studio. It was very important that they were seeing the pictures, and the look and the style that I see in my mind's eye, and understand the type of feedback I would give them in the briefs. I really needed my team and each artist in each discipline to have that clarity. That was really important, because we're not in the studio. And sometimes we're in the studio and artists, if they're not sure about something, they just ask. They'll go, "Hey, Damien, I'm not sure about this. Are you thinking of this or this?" And they would show me something and I could give them feedback straight away. Now, when my artists were at home working remotely, they would have to pick up the phone or pick up a Zoom chat and talk. But we did figure that out really well. We would do our digital meetings, so to speak. we will have a group meeting with our team and we put visuals and we display the work we're working on, and we go through what we're working on, and I would give creative and technical feedback. I have other supervisors that would give technical feedback as well. We would still carry that on. We would do that -- and we still do it now -- we would do this two or three times a day.
And then, I do what I call mini desk-side sessions with each artist, with the supervisors, and the leads, and some of the key senior artists, where I would just talk one-on-one with them on a Zoom chat, and go over the work with them, just to make sure that the clarity is there. Because we're not all working in the studio, it's super important that everybody understands where they're heading, what they're working on, what their feedback is. That was probably, for me, one of my top challenges with the transition into the COVID period.prevnext
What were your biggest priorities with the aesthetic going into season two?
The world was established in the original movie and the first season. I don't want to give any spoilers away of what's to come, but we elaborate a lot more on the world of Snowpiercer. The stories are pretty much a lot of political type of stories that happen, and some mysteries that happened through the inside of the train. But we use a lot of visual effects for the exteriors of what's happening in the outside world through this ice age. I did get to put my stamp on a lot of things. We got to expand the world more, which was so much fun. In the first season, we see these little snippets, the few seconds outside where we may see some structures or a part of a city that might be destroyed or frozen. In the second season, we elaborate a lot more on that.
I think even in the opening scenes, on the first episode of the second season, we see Melanie outside the train and she's walking around the train, and she finds herself laying on the ground. She looks up, she sees a snowflake. There's a story point there, where she's almost about to give up on what's happening for her, and the world, and things are getting tough. And then she realizes there's a snowflake falling towards her, and she makes this connection that, "Oh, the world is changing, because it's generally too cold for a snowflake to fall." She has hope and it's this feeling of hope that the world's going to come back again. That whole scene that we worked on, Melanie was shot on green screen. The snow, the ground, the environment around her, the trains, the atmosphere, was all visual effects. So it was everything that we'd done. I was pretty happy with that scene. I'm pretty proud of what we pulled off. It feels very much like an "invisible effects" type of scene, where the story is you're following Melanie in what she's doing, and the dialogue, but the visual effects support what she's doing. I don't think we really experienced moments like that in season one. It was just little snippets from the outside world.
But again, we expand on more of the outside world on episodes to come. I think we also even see where we traveled through Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is a destroyed city. We'll see the establishing shot, which is all us, it's all CGI, a lot of heavy 3D work, and the animating train, which is in the first episode of the second season. So it was really important for us, and it was fun to establish iconic structures. In each episode, we were almost in a different part of the world. And there's a story that happens around that, which I won't go into. But the visual style of it meant we had a lot of scope to work out like, "Okay, what would Minneapolis look like if it's frozen? What are the main key buildings? How would it look like it was destroyed in the ice age?" Everything's full of snow and it's frozen with ice after the six, seven years of a blizzard. That was fun.prevnext
I also was curious about the two trains in the season, because it feels like that would be an interesting creative challenge in and of itself from a visual effects standpoint.
Yeah, it was great. It added more to the story point, and also added a lot more interest for the visual storytelling. At the tail end of season one, the second train that's called Big Alice is introduced and we find Wilford, the original train designer, and architect. He's been on this train for six, seven years, trying to catch up with Snowpiercer and following Melanie around the world. Then it's in season two, we started seeing more and more Big Alice. That second train has connected with Snowpiercer right on the back of the Snowpiercer train. There are 1,001 carriages between the two trains that connect to each other. Big Alice is three stories high in some parts, and Snowpiercer is two stories high. So the new train is a huge train. It's massive. It's a big train.prevnext
What would you say surprised you the most while working on this season?
In later episodes, we don't just get to explore more of the outside world. We got to help the storytelling to sell the moment of danger. In a later episode, we'll see something that happens outside of the train, and there's something that needs to be done that may cause a problem with the vehicle, with a train. And they shot a lot of this in a studio on a green screen, and built a very tiny, small set of one section of the train. For us in visual effects, we had to help tell that story. And we had to jump into how this was going to work with the cameras. It was a surprise, but a good surprise. It gave us the chance to help try to sell the story, but selling danger. I don't want to give away the spoilers, but if we hadn't had our visual effects and built the environment around what was actually happening in the practical set that they shot in the studio, I don't believe the audience would feel the sense of danger at all.
It's not something you see where we have Harry Potter magic, or we don't have Marvel characters that are flying around. It's much more grounding. If this ice age happened, and we had built a train that was three stories high and 1,000 carriages long, what would it be in the real world? It would need to be more grounding. That was something that our clients and the network would always reiterate, that this is not a magic look or magical storytelling. This needs to feel very real world, very grounding, in some ways intimidating when you're outside because it's so cold and harsh. It's the ice age, it's not a wonderland. But in some of the later episodes, it was just really fun getting into the storytelling side of things. And it wasn't just about establishing a beautiful-looking image. It was really about trying to sell danger and how we did that. I'll be able to elaborate on that a lot more when more episodes come out.prevnext
It feels like, especially over the past year, movies and TV have this more transportive quality than they usually do. How does that feel for you from a visual effects standpoint, where your work is being able to transport people during a time when they can't really go anywhere?
I got to say, it does feel good. I go home, and on the weekends and with my family, I'll watch movies and television programs that are telling stories, and I love to take myself out of the real world and put myself into the world of whatever that film or that story is. I love the idea and the feeling. It feels great that, in a time like this at the moment where some people are more fortunate than others, and then some people are less fortunate -- they may live at home, they may live at home by themself, and maybe not share accommodation with friends, or family, or have a partner, I feel that that would be tougher on somebody. I know it'd be tough on me, if I was spending most of all my day in an apartment by myself.
But if I can watch new movies and TV streaming shows, where I could forget about -- for a brief moment -- what's happening with us in the world at the moment with COVID restrictions. I think that's amazing. And I'm glad that the visual effects in the film industry were able to work out. There were a lot of projects we couldn't work on over these last 12 months because of COVID, because restrictions to being able to go out and shoot anywhere in the world. We couldn't fly anywhere over in the world and go to Australia tomorrow and shoot something. We couldn't go to parts of London and shoot something straight away for Fantastic Beasts, as an example. Some productions went on pause, but there were a lot of productions like us, where pretty much 95% of the show was already shot before COVID-19. And we were just embarking into visual effects. So these last 12 months, we've been working pretty hard on this show, and we're just seeing the results of the work coming out now.prevnext
What advice would you have for somebody who wants to get into the VFX industry and be in your position?
I've seen it grow so much since I first came into the industry. There are so many different areas in visual effects and CGI where you can work with. There's animation, there are areas in 3D, there's compositing, there's art direction, there's visual effects supervision. You need to work out what is going to be your field. One way is to go and study. You can go to film school. The first year of film school, you'll study a little snapshot of all the different areas that make up the visual effects, to find out what's going to suit you, where your strengths are going to be. I think that is important.
What's really interesting today is the internet. There's so much information that you can jump on the internet and you can literally type "I want to be an art director." "How to become an art director." There's so much information for an individual to find on the internet now, that was never around when I was breaking into the industry.
Coming into the industry, you need to have patience and learn it. It's very competitive and very flooded. I think you really need to spend a lot of time on forums, online, asking questions. It's so important to see if you can talk to maybe veterans or supervisors in compositing and ask them questions about the craft. And you need to find out as much information as possible.0comments
Snowpiercer airs Mondays at 9/8c on TNT.prev