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How visual effects created Snowpiercer’s frozen world

Three seasons into Snowpiercer, the post-apocalyptic thriller set aboard a high-speed train carrying the last survivors of humanity, the tension still hasn’t let up. The TNT series has followed stars Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly as their characters navigate the precarious balance of society aboard the massive train, which hurtles from one end of the world to the other, surrounded by a deadly frozen Earth.

Season 1 of Snowpiercer premiered in 2020 to positive reviews, with high praise paid to the show’s use of the claustrophobic train environment and the harsh conditions just outside its cars to build a terrifying, but believable world for its desperate characters. The third season of the series concluded in March, leaving the balance of power in the train tipped once again, but also offering a glimmer of hope for both the passengers and Earth itself.

Digital Trends spoke to FuseFX visual effects studio’s Jamie Barty, who served as the studio’s VFX supervisor on the third season of Snowpiercer, to find out more about the VFX work that was created behind the scenes of the hit series.

Digital Trends: Season three of the series just wrapped up. How long has FuseFX been working on Snowpiercer?

Jamie Barty: FuseFX has been involved with Snowpiercer since the beginning. We started in season one with a smaller role, and that grew throughout season one to the point where we were doing most of the bigger stuff at the end of the season. In season two, we carried that forward to become, I think, the primary VFX vendor for the season. In season three, we took a bit of a backseat, but we still did around 305 shots.

That’s a lot of shots for a backseat role. 

Yeah, it’s a nice chunk of shots. But the studio is busy right now and the whole industry is really busy right now. So that season was spread around a little more

An early image of the train's front seat from Snowpiercer before visual effects have been added.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
An image of the train's front seat from Snowpiercer after visual effects have been added.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What’s your typical focus on the show? Is there an element you’ve consistently worked on from one season to the next?

Because of the shared nature of the work this season, a lot of it was shared with other vendors, but we do a lot of the environments as they’re traveling. It’s not so much CG cameras flying around a full CG train, although we do some of that, but a lot of our work is when they’re inside the train, making sure the environment going by is looking good behind characters.

So, basically… a lot of snow?

Yeah, exactly. Snow’s always a pretty tricky one to do because it’s not solid, it’s not liquid, and there are so many variations of it. You can have falling snow, blowing snow, thick snow, fluffy snow, and so on. And then there are times when it’s just a clear day, and you’ve got to get nice snow across the ground in the mountains, and also snow-covered locations that aren’t normally covered in snow. So you have to be a bit of an expert on snow and try to find ways to make it interesting and different for each location and setting, just to try and keep it a little fresh and vibrant, so it’s not too repetitive for an audience and for us, the artists working on it.

Snowpiercer Season 2 VFX Breakdown

Is it a lot like sand, with the massive amount of simulation that goes along with creating that type of environment?

It is. With snow comes a lot of effects. There’s heavy VFX work when the train is plowing through snow and hitting things and kicking up snow off the side. Snowpiercer is a pretty heavy visual effects show, even though it might not seem like it. The amount of work that goes into it, with simulation time and render time, is pretty heavy.

And yeah, snow is similar to sand. We treat it like sticky sand. Make the sand white, and you’ve got snow!

An image of snow-covered pyramids from the Snowpiercer series.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
An image of people looking out a train window at snow-covered pyramids from the Snowpiercer series.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Outside of all the snow work, were there any big VFX elements from the recent season that your team worked on?

In season three, there’s a short sequence in Egypt when they go past the pyramids. That was a fun one. And in episode eight, I think, they had to travel through some toxic fog. That was was one of ours as well.

So much of visual effects is creating elements that you hope no one will really notice, and if they do, they won’t realize it’s a visual effect. Are there any elements you think people will be surprised to learn are visual effects?

All of it, I hope? [Laughs] But seriously, about two-thirds of those 300 shots we worked on are the windows behind the characters as they’re working. Those are the sort of invisible effects that serve the story in terms of establishing location and speed and something interesting behind the characters, but not something you really stop and think, “Oh, that’s probably visual effects!” Like, they could have quite easily got on a train and done it.

An early, visual-effects concept image of the interior of the train from the Snowpiercer series.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
A finished visual-effects image of the interior of the train from the Snowpiercer series.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

You mentioned that you’re working on The Orville now. Did you go from Snowpiercer to that show?

I did!

That’s quite the transition in look and feel. Snowpiercer is so gritty, while The Orville is so … shiny. Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on for The Orville?

I can tell you little bits and bobs. Although it’s a large show for FuseFX — we’ve done three seasons of it, much like Snowpiercer — the work’s mostly done in L.A. I’m in Vancouver. There was a sequence that came up that they didn’t quite have the capacity for with everything being as busy as it is, so we said, “Hey, we’ll take that on and help you with it.” But we also decided to test Unreal Engine with it at the same time. Using Unreal is something we’ve wanted to look into, and this sequence made sense for it, so we used this as an opportunity for an R&D project to get Unreal off the ground, get it integrated into our pipeline, and make some pretty pictures at the same time.

So you’ll see some of that later on in the year.

Looking forward to it. 

All three seasons of Snowpiercer are available for on-demand viewing on TNT and on HBO Max streaming service. 

Snowpiercer (2020)

3 Seasons
Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs, Mickey Sumner
Created by
Josh Friedman, Graeme Manson
Watch on HBO Max

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