Netflix’s “Altered Carbon” (adapted from the novel by Richard Morgan) picks up where “Blade Runner” left off, offering a new twist on dystopian cyberpunk. Set in a future San Francisco, it explores digitized consciousness, disposable humanity, and the class divide. And the Emmy-nominated VFX is a standout for its eye candy and efficiency.
“We always tried to figure out a way to make something really cool, staying on budget and on schedule, with feature quality visual effects at 4K,” said production VFX supervisor Everett Burrell, who collaborated with lead studio Double Negative on more than 1,500 shots.
In the year 2384, San Francisco has become the multi-tiered Bay City, covered by a cloud blanket and powered by alien tech, including digitized consciousness, ubiquitous AI, and buildings that soar 8,000 feet. First, the rules had to be created for this futuristic society.
“I started with production designer Carey Meyer, who had already looked at architecture, world building, cinematic references [‘Blade Runner,’ ‘The Third Man,’ ‘Touch of Evil’], and commissioned concept art,” Burrell said. “Together we dug deeper into the three levels [of design]: The Grounders were the gritty lower level, Twilight was the upper middle-class, not as atmospheric, and the Aerium was the ultra rich that live high above the clouds.”
Added Meyer: “It was a high-tech web system that allowed for spaces in and among that structure from the ground all the way to the Aerium. And that allowed us the flexibility to write in locations that we could attain in Vancouver and place into the building.”
DNEG began by building generic city parts (using City Engine modeling software) that could be re-purposed throughout the series. There were nearly 25,000 buildings comprised of more than 100 custom-made structures. At the very top was the luxurious Suntouch. Linking everything was the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, built to scale with a network of several thousand slums via a scatter system made in Houdini software.
Since rendering thousands of buildings was not feasible, DNEG utilized a distance to camera shortcut. “As buildings got closer to camera, they had more detail and as they got pushed away, intelligently, through the software, it would take off pieces,” Burrell said.
The production converted an old newspaper factory into the main Bay City Street. All of that was primarily shot in camera. But on either side of the street they had a giant matte painting printed 40 feet wide and 60 feet tall. “It was lit with ultra-violet light so that all the street lights of the painting would light up. This allowed us to avoid using blue or green screen,” said Burrell.
There’s also the VR world of “Altered Carbon,” populated with AI characters, including Edgar Allen Poe (Chris Conner), who materializes in the real world and also constructs his virtual world in the Raven Hotel. Each VR environment had its own distinct look (courtesy of colorist Jill Bogdanowicz), from the high-end of the Raven, right on down to the sketchy opium den. The VR sequences would also pulsate and breathe like a heartbeat of color.
“The problem with VR cameras is that you need a 360-degree clean set with no crew around you,” said Burrell. So they scattered the crew when shooting the VR sequences with eight cameras, which were then stitched together by DNEG. The other hard part, though, was simulating the VR look. After doing some experiments, Burrell and the VFX team came up with a cool idea: “We unwrapped the 360 view and flattened it out, so you saw these weird, distorted edges. It always had a life to it.”