Last month — right smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic — Amazon Prime was one of the first streamers to introduce an original show to the masses stuck indoors. With record numbers on tap in the world of streaming, Amazon debuted Upload to critical acclaim. Featuring series leads Robbie Amell and Andy Allo, Upload is a harrowing — albeit very comedic — take on a not-so-distant future where people can be uploaded into a virtual reality "heaven" after their death. It was such a hit with fans (and critics), Amazon renewed the series for a second season not even after a week it hit the service.
Though a streaming series, Upload is still packed to the brim with shots full of visual effects. Throughout the first season, over 1,400 involved the visual effects team at Fuse FX, led by industry vet Marshall Krasser. We recently had to chance to speak with Krasser on all things Upload, what it's like to continue working for Hollywood during a global pandemic, and more.
See what he had to say below.
Working Remotely in a Pandemic
ComicBook.com: So you are keeping busy still, huh? Has your day to day workflow grown increasingly challenging? I would assume so.
Marshall Krasser: It's different. Most people I've talked to, actually, we feel like we're actually busier. From home, and I think that tends to be because, like myself, I have an extra room that's converted to my office and I come in here, I shut the door, and I get dressed and go about my normal activities I would be in the morning, I just don't have that commute. Then I just sit down and start working and I just find that time flies a little bit.
I don't have those moments where I get up and go and socialize more with the artists and other people in the office. I think that's the thing that's probably suffering the most is just that communication.
Do you think now more vendors and more studios will adopt a work from home lifestyle at all? Do you feel like this could permanently change some things about visual effects?
I know in the past, other facilities that I've worked at, there were a few cases where people were able to work from home. Generally. I think the thing that's probably more impeding that is just some of the strong security measures that certain production companies and studios have where I think it makes things a little bit more difficult.
There's just always that concern, but for the most part, artists get it. They've signed NDAs, they totally understand the ramifications of anything leaking out. All of the work I have is still sitting on my home machine. So I'm just working from home, but remotely, but that's something that I do on set as well, is I usually have my laptop and I can come in and redo shots and stuff. So, that aspect of it hasn't really changed, it's just more that here I am setting at home versus in an office, and I still do my daily reviews with the artists. I like the teams to be able to video chat and then login in through various methods to review the work.
Unfortunately we can't really see a full 4K because there is some compression. So I think the general plan is that we proceed with the idea and understanding that when things get into 4K review, there might be additional notes to come out because certain things we could not see, but at least trimmer if they need to move forward. I don't know. I could see a world where it's a possibility of it. It does allow more opportunities, I think. Someplace like British Columbia where we're hop writing under the BC tax incentive and stuff like that. You still have to be a local as far as being in BC. But yeah, I would love it if I could go to my remote off-grid property and cabin and login via satellite feed and review work.
But I think it just depends upon the job that's required. With me, and especially with Upload, I was onset practically every day, and sometimes having to hop between two different units, when we were sometimes filming two episodes concurrently. So that type of stuff, I think, is not going to change. I mean it still needs to be onset presence. I do find that for the most part, reviewing the work remotely is not super different than being in the office.
Except what I don't like is when I'm giving notes, I can usually read body language and facial expressions to make sure they're understanding, and I lose that skill being remote. So sometimes, confusion can happen.
I think it will potentially change, but I think it also just has to be a situation where the studios loosen up some of the security that goes along with that. It's a matter of trust. It's all a matter of trust.
You can get pretty far on trust.
Remaining Grounded in the Future
So let's talk Upload. I have to admit, I pulled up the first screener episode and 10 hours later I watched every single damn one without knowing it. It's so damn binge-worthy. It really is a good thing, and a good part of that is, admittedly, the visual effects. Never once did the visual effects really feel out of place. They always felt very, very real for what the property was. So first off, kudos.
With the series remaining very much grounded, detail your approach with this project.
Yeah, essentially what happened is somewhere around, I think it was November of 2018, there were some initial calls and bidding was started. So John Kelly — who's our Vancouver head of studio and the senior effects supervisor — he and I jumped on a call, basically what turned out to be an interview with Greg Daniels to make sure that we understood what his vision was of visual effects, and how that related to telling a story, and also assisting in comedy when required. So that started, and in the course of discussion with Greg, he's like, "Well, I love visual effects artists and people don't understand sometimes it has to take a back seat to the story."
I almost logged 19 years at Industrial Light & Magic, so in the course of that time there, you learned a lot basically of how the visual effects is not necessarily the story, it's supposed to be supporting and that was the thing with Greg. I said I did work on Galaxy Quest years ago. It was as a compositing supervisor. I said, from that I did get an understanding of the role that visual effects need to play. Basically it's there to support and tell the story when needed, and then add any comedic moments, or when called upon. And that's the idea behind it, the approach we took, and Greg did want all of the visual effects to be grounded in reality, but at the same time he wanted to introduce elements into the, quote, digital afterlife world that hinted at just being that. It was still reality-based and yet just a little off.
So there were moments where you're watching, and we would add glitches or things in there. Now that was all culled out by Greg. He had a sense of timing on that. As you probably know, it's our understanding that Upload started 30 plus years ago as a series concept by Greg Daniels. He came up when he was a staff writer at Saturday Night Live and basically it was a labor of love for him to get the whole thing brought to life. And he took it very, I don't want to say personally, but it was a personal project, and a very personal project to him, and so he was involved with all aspects of the production meetings, and then we were going through the scripts and doing breakdowns and determining what is going to be done, like special effects, or if this was a stunt, or if it was a visual effect.
All the heads of departments, and producers, and first AD, and directors, had to walk through all this type of stuff. So it was a very collaborative process to go through that. And the one thing, I'm not sure if you notice, but Simon, who is our director of photography, he and Greg worked out this whole thing to where when we were in the real world, the camera was broke loose in the sense to where it was kind of moving, and not handheld, but it just was alive. When you got into the Upload world, it was more locked off, and not stationary, but it was more controlled movement.
I haven't seen all the episodes strung together. By doing so much work, we had about 1,400 shots through the whole series. Pretty much every episode we had our hands in. But unless you see the final cut with sound and audio, you don't necessarily know how it's going to feel, and what I've heard from talking to other reporters is that yeah, it flows, it works.
Especially, at times like these, I think it's good to get a little comic relief, you know?
So I think it will engage a lot of people on various levels. So, that's kind of the show a nutshell, as far as how I got involved with it, and the process. It was definitely a situation where I would be collaborating a lot with Greg and the directors. Some of the directors did not have a lot of experience working with visual effects, and that's where we had a good partnership, and talked through things, basically, a collaborator, with them, and just saying, "Okay, well, we can do it this way or this way or this way," or "What are you trying to get out in the story?" So it was definitely a case where what we had Fuse do is, we come into a project, and we want to be part of the team, part of the creative process as collaborators, and we can be there to supply any creative needs that they need, instead of being just a vendor.
So he just does the work, and that was the great thing, like you said, unique about Upload, at least sometimes in this day and age, being able, for myself, to be in from the beginning through the shooting and then carrying it all the way through post here in house. It gives you a lot more streamlining and efficiency because there's no one to blame if you didn't shoot the right stuff. It's on you. So I've always been a fan of if I'm doing it, I prefer to having been on set because then there's nobody to blame but myself if I miss something. So when I'm on set, I'm constantly putting the shots together in my head. So, basically compositing them and figuring out all the pieces that I do need. And that's kind of my approach to it.
And I think that that makes for a little bit of a smoother process, because sometimes there'll be a studio side visual effects supervisor, and you basically give them what they need with the hope that they're then in communication and they can tell it to the showrunner. Here, like I said, we didn't have that middle man person, or that middle role. It was just directly to Greg and Greg would pretty much put all the cards out on the table. If he didn't like something he would tell you, which is what I prefer. I liked the straight communication.
So by the time you got on board with this, did you also have a hand in helping guide visual development or had Greg had all sorts of those concepts already made?
It was a mix. When we came on board, the pilot had already been shot, and had visual effects in there. Unfortunately, I think due to budgetary needs and time needs, the effects were never totally finished in the pilot. So about halfway through the production, I think when Amazon realized that they were very happy with what they were seeing and felt comfortable enough about that, and started looking at our work, comparing it to the pilot, it was just determined that we would start from scratch and redo the whole pilot.
So we ended up with 25 minutes worth of visual effects in just the pilot alone, that we basically redid from the beginning, and unfortunately couldn't get the assets that had been developed, and the few assets that we were able to receive didn't quite work with our pipeline, so we had to do a lot of rebuilding on that. So essentially, the initial pilot, we utilized that as a high level animatic and said to Greg, "Okay, what do you like about this? What do you don't like about this?" And he just went down the list and told us, so that was really helpful for us.
As far as the look dev on everything else, we had an internal look dev artists that we would occasionally call upon to help us visualize, or help Greg visualize some of this stuff, some of the update sequence that happens towards the end of the episodes, to get an idea of how an update might look in the digital world for the torrent, the data torrent. That was another one that we looked at what was in the pilot and it just was not conveying the sense of data streams moving up and down. So that took a lot of work from several people, we've got the concept together, but then it was to take a still concept and put it in to motion is always a challenge in and of itself, in order to get that sense of data moving up and down.
Also, you wanted something that was a little fanciful but yet still grounded in reality without getting into the Tron world, or The Matrix world, or something like that. It was something that was cool to look at, but also, by looking at it, you could tell there was potential of danger. You didn't really want to go into it.
Right. That is one of the parts that makes the series so attractive, and why I enjoyed it a lot, was everything is grounded in reality. It feels very well like, I'm not going to call it a documentary, but it feels like a very possible thing. It's futuristic, but it's real and grounded. Do you think that posed more of a challenge?
I mean, looking at your credits and you have some stuff with Lucifer, you have some stuff with The X-Files, Iron Man 2, 300 — where these properties are dealing with stuff that's never going to happen.
That's a good question. I think looking back on things that I've worked at in the past, I'm used to dealing with seamless effects. I mean, if you look, I've worked on Rent.
Rent?! What did you do on Rent?
People don't know how much breath we had to add to them because they were supposed to be in New York in wintertime. So we had to add breath to their singing, and are people going to catch that? No, they're not going to catch that. So I think as far as crossing over that line from real future to fantasy future is a number of things, I think. Believe it or not, sometimes even just the color palette that you pick for certain things, keep it out of that realm.
That's the way with the Upload torrent. We got into some of the color realms, it starts to get into fantasy, which I always think is purple and pinks and stuff like that. But I think overall, I mean Greg was pretty good about keeping us grounded. I'm a big fan. I was trained to look for reference, and when I say reference, I'm not talking about referencing other movies. I mean one of my mentors basically said, never reference another movie, he said, you're kind of making a Xerox of a Xerox, is what you're doing, because you're taking someone else's interpretation of an effect as a guideline to make your interpretation off of. It's better off to go with reality as much as you can and the person who told me that was Dennis Muren, nine times Academy Awards member.
One of my good mentors, and when Dennis talks you really listen to what he's saying, and that's kind of what came true to heart. So it was a lot of looking for reference, or going out and even shooting stuff sometimes, with the wrist phone, communicating back and forth. All those shots had to be hand tracked in order to get the image in there. And we kept it simple. We didn't put a bunch of user interface stuff on it. It's just like, well there it is. You're talking on a video phone, but yet different than what you do on your phone. Part of me always thought, "Man, my hand would get really tired holding it up there all day."
But, there again that was still kind of grounded into the plate. That's the thing you get into. Like I said, it's a tough one to answer. Basically, if it worked it worked. Even what we call the KUKA robot, the scene in the convenience store where the actress is interacting with the robot, that was all computer generated and animated by us.
So we went through and did its first pass and we were laughing really hard at it, in a good way. It was just really funny. And we showed it to Greg and the LA production team and they all laughed, watched it a couple of times, laughed, said "Ah, this is really good," and Greg's like, "You know guys, I hate to do this to you. You've just gone too far. Don't get me wrong. What you've done is really funny." But he said that the mood and what I'm trying to tell in this scene is getting upstaged by the visual effects or the animation.
And as you know, Greg has done a lot of animation, and I'm like, absolutely Greg, what do you want? And so he would go through and he told us, "Scale down this animation 60%. Take a little bit of that, you gave it too much. You basically gave it too much character and it was pulling too much attention to itself and was taking it away from the scene." That was excellent feedback.
Total sidebar here. I see you worked on Small Soldiers. What the heck did you do on Small Soldiers? That is on my Mount Rushmore of movies.
I was the compositing supervisor on that, Small Soldiers. I think Stefen Fangmeier, another one of my mentors and good friends was a supervisor on that, the primary, but yeah, it was just getting those little animated characters to fit into all those scenes. I actually haven't seen that movie since I probably saw it in the theater. I have the DVD around here somewhere, but yeah, there again, that was a lot of fun doing that type of stuff. And there again, the first show I worked on was Casper, which Casper was all about the visual effects, and stuff like that, but other shows that I worked on like War of the Worlds, visual effects took a back seat there.
It wasn't quite the spectacle, and it didn't get into the realm like the last Indiana Jones did. That gets into the visual effects being used in a different manner than something like Upload. So Upload, like I said, it's just supposed to feel like, I think you hit the nail on the head. It just kind of felt like it was what we would be using in a few years. So it was nothing necessarily fantasy based. It was kind of grounded in reality.
Honest Notes & Favorite Shots
Right. This is probably asking you to pull out your hair a little bit, is there one shot that you're particularly proud of? You mentioned Greg is quite honest with his notes, was there one shot that you were kind of nervous taking to him that it ended up he was floored by?
The only thing that I was really nervous about is the sequence where Nathan gets sucked up out of the horizon world, and that was just more because when we were planning the shooting of that, we didn't have a good way to line things up to make sure everything was working. So that was probably the one, that sequence there where he gets pulled up and we pull away from the ground up, was the one that I had the most concerns about, how we were going to execute it to make sure that it worked. And from what I saw, they've used it in some of the trailers and everything, so it worked at the end of the day.
There was some sequence that did take a while to get where we needed it to be. And that was essentially when Nathan, his consciousness is getting put together, so to speak-
And I don't know if you saw, there's little pieces of pixels and things flying in and coalescing...
And stuff like that. My inspiration for that is, sometimes when you at night, after a long day, you rub your eyes and you kind of squeeze them shut, and you see all of these things flying around inside your eyes, you're actually seeing things moving. I don't know if you've ever done that.
There's a visual phenomenon caused by mechanical stimuli resulting, when you put pressure and stuff in there, and I think they're called like phospho liens, or something. And basically, it's just coming from the retina, because it's just taking all the visual information that's entering in your eyes, or to the eyes and the pupil, and it converts that information to electrical signals, and then those signals are what are sent to the brain to provide us with a visual image of what we see in the world. So the idea behind that sequence is I was trying to find a way to represent that. It's kind of the forming of consciousness in that world. And Greg definitely directed that one a lot to get what we finally got, but I think it kind of gives the idea is that out of nothingness, things start to form, and consciousness grows. So, I don't know, maybe I'm getting a little existential here.
But that's the type of stuff that I pull from sometimes. I've had that in my head for a long time and this came along and I'm like, well maybe this is a time to try to visualize that effect that happens, or that thing that happens. There again, it was a batter. Greg kept reining us in because it was getting a little too fanciful. So, it was a matter of, like I said, pulling it back in to where we could still tell the story, or get the idea across. And as those shots progress, you get to the point where he finally materializes and comes in. Even just the appearance and disappearance, that was a lot of setup we had to do on those to make sure that we had the plates and stuff. Because we just didn't have a big budget to do a lot of cleanup on stuff. So I was constantly bothering the first ADs, "Hey, you got background action. Tell them not to walk in that area."
But it was great working with them and like I say, we were able to get everything that we needed. Like I said, there was nothing that caught me off guard. The talking dog was a lot of fun.
Dealing with that, and the freeway driving sequence, that was all a digital recreation out there. We initially thought about trying to shoot exterior plates, but we kept saying, "Well, we'll never find a time and we can shoot the LA freeways with nobody on it."
Except for now, which is not what we wished for, so don't blame this on us.
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