There’s a scene in the Season 2 finale of “For All Mankind,” a series that explores an alternative universe where Russia is first to land on the moon, that isn’t for the faint of heart.
Astronauts Gordo (Michael Dorman) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones) are attempting to prevent a nuclear meltdown on the moon. The problem isn’t that the lunar rock is on the verge of going Chernobyl, it’s the fact that the once married couple has to step out onto the surface without wearing traditional spacesuits. It’s a mission that suggests there’s no turning back.
For the visual effects team led by VFX supervisor Jay Redd, who has been on the series since its inception, capturing the authenticity of life on the moon is a collaboration among a number of departments including production designer Dan Bishop, special effects supervisor Mark Byers, and stunt coordinator Todd Schneider to pull off the realism.
In order to save the space station, the astronauts MacGyver new suits by duct taping their entire bodies and creating helmets from plastic. They then must dash out of the airlock and switch over the power and return to safety under 15 seconds to avoid asphyxiation. As Gordo and Tracy leave, things start to turn for the worse.
“We take an immersive, in-camera approach, and even though we are in an alternative history, it has to feel tangible and touchable,” Redd said over the phone with IndieWire while on a break from shooting Season 3. “We wanted to show the agony of what the characters are going through. They’re holding their breath, it’s over 200 degrees, their skin is melting…they’re dying out there. That scene is really brutal but beautiful and heroic. There’s also a little romance, so we didn’t want the gore to eclipse the touching moment they were going through.”
To capture the series, production uses Sony VENICE cameras shooting 4K and finishing in both HDR and SD versions from S-Log3 footage, a recording format that offers a higher dynamic range for visual effects and the color grade to work with.
When shooting scenes located on the moon, because it has far less gravity than the Earth, the cameras are set to 32 frames per second, a higher frame rate than normal TV standards and is combined with wire work to replicate the moon’s bouncy surface.
“The moon’s gravity is a little tricky to deal with and looks very different from zero G in space, so we try to have people and objects on wires with just enough life to help the action look right,” added SFX supervisor Mark Byers. For the scene with Gordo and Tracy, they mixed in even higher frame rates of 48fps and 96fps for some of the close-up work to add to the dramatic intensity.
Racing back to the airlock their duct tape suits start to peel off and blood spurts from their body. “Some of the puffy blood is practical but where you see blood soaking into gauze and busting out of the skin, those are visual effects enhancements,” Redd said. “It’s really a combination between makeup, costumes and prosthetics to blend it all together without it being overly gory. We also have to hand it to our actors as they hold their breath and build up a lot of pressure in their faces.”
Another heavy lift for visual effects is the archival news footage shown in 4:3 aspect ratio, instead of 16:9, to add to the realism. With Season 2, deepfakes have become an increasing part of the pipeline. Visual effects will manipulate the mouth of the person appearing in the footage to match what has been written in the script. “We cast a lot of our own voice actors so their performance is often driving what the deepfakes may be,” Redd said. “It can be very challenging because of the detail in the footage. We have artists that do paint touch-ups per frame–sometimes almost like you’re animating so the mouths hit the right sounds.”
When the team has to incorporate actors from the show into old footage, they’ll often use a green screen approach to composite them into the video. They’ll also degrade the 4K footage to match the NTSC broadcast so it doesn’t jump out. A few scenes that needed some extra attention included when President Ronald Reagan shakes hands with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, Johnny Carson reaching out to look at Tracy’s ring during a “Tonight Show” visit, and a crushing funeral scene that shows the characters in archival footage.
But a lot of what propels the visual effects is what you don’t notice on screen. When the astronauts are doing spacewalks on the moon they need to wear protected visors because of the intensity of the sun. Redd said the majority of visors you see on the show have been added after the fact. “Nearly all the visors are replaced with digital environments or other animated astronauts. The reason being is because we get our cameras as close to them as we can and the visors see 270 degrees around. They show everything. Oftentimes we shoot without a visor and track it in later and enhance the environments completely. They’re one of the many invisible effects that are in dozens of shots we don’t want people to be thinking about.”