How visual effects brought sci-fi art to life in Amazon’s Tales From the Loop

It’s one thing to translate a novel or comic book to the screen, but Amazon Studios’ sci-fi series Tales From The Loop takes inspiration from a popular sci-fi art book from Simon Stålenhag — a Swedish artist known for his unique blend of retro-futuristic imagery and poignant, all-too-human stories.

Set in the fictional town of Mercer, Ohio, the series chronicles the interconnected lives of the town’s residents, whose experiences are deeply affected by an underground facility known as “The Loop.” The blend of Stålenhag’s fantastic imagery and character-driven stories is brought to life on the screen by a talented creative team led by writer and showrunner Nathaniel Halpern (Legion), with a different director helming each of the first season’s eight episodes.

Visual effects producer Andrea Knoll worked with Halpern and the Tales From The Loop team to establish the show’s delicate visual mix of sci-fi elements and scenic, natural environments. She spoke to Digital Trends about finding that balance, the beauty of the series’ source material, and the value of restraint when it comes to visual effects.

Digital Trends: When conceptualizing the visual effects for the series, how did Simon Stålenhag’s art factor into your designs and process?

Andrea Knoll: Simon’s paintings are truly inspirational and factored into every conversation and every decision that was made. It was important to preserve the feeling that was present in his book, and while there are these unique, magnificent sci-fi structures and elements all around the characters in the town, it was also important that those elements don’t overtake the story. That’s something we were very aware of throughout.

There’s always a bit of push and pull when it comes to staying faithful to source material, but in this case, the source material was entirely visual, without a script or linear narrative. How did you approach staying faithful to that material?

For every department, including visual effects, the main objective was to stay true to his work. That wasn’t just the look, but also the feel. We wanted to be faithful to his work, so we had structures and robots identical to what he created. But again, the visual effects are there to serve the story, because at the core, the show is about the personal stories of the people living in this town and interacting with The Loop. So we wanted to keep the images as poignant as Simon’s art, but maintain a sense of subtlety in the visual effects so that they weren’t hurting the story. With anything new that we were designing, we would ask ourselves, “How would this look in Simon’s world, with his aesthetic?”

Philip Messina was the production designer on the pilot, and he did an extraordinary job designing The Loop — particularly the underground areas of The Loop.

Was Simon Stålenhag involved with the show in any capacity?

I know Nathaniel [Halpern, series creator] spoke to Simon and he was involved, which was incredible. Nathaniel spoke to him about the bionic arm used by one character, for example, and Simon designed the arm. [Special effects studio] Legacy Effects then took that further and built a prosthetic arm.

So it was really a magnificent project, because we all worked so well as a team, and so seamlessly from one department to the other. We just approached everything with the plan to do as much practically as we could and stay in Simon’s world, and then visual effects would take things where we needed when necessary.

Is it difficult to sort of find that balance sometimes? In talking to visual effects artists, I often hear that the subtle effects are more difficult to create than the spectacle-type elements, and the visual effects in this series feel extremely subtle.

It really is a delicate balance. It was really a team effort for us. With Simon’s work, you have these characters that are living in an ordinary world setting but also have these ancient, yet futuristic sci-fi elements all around them. Robots are just casually walking by in scenes, and there are elements like the Echo Sphere we see in episode 4. But it’s never about the robots in his art, or in the show. It’s about feeling a sense of wonder. So it was important for us to make sure we had a gorgeous visual effects that were contributing but didn’t distract from the story.

A lot of that balance was achieved with cinematography — in the way we’re framing the shots — so we’re not necessarily featuring or focusing on the visual effects elements, but rather the characters and the action of the scene. Those elements are there, but they’re not overly flashy or showing off. There’s so much we can do now with CG [computer-generated effects], and we all have that urge to go all out.

Was there a particular scene that really tested your ability to stay subtle with the visual effects?

The robot fight in the final episode is a great example of this. It could have been a really big, crazy CG moment, and it was a fully CG scene. Up to that point, we had the one, practical robot that Legacy Effects built — we call it the “Jacob” robot — which was a two-legged robot, and then we also had a fully CG spider robot. We worked hard to emulate the practical robot’s movement in the CG scene, but with the spider robot, it’s a full CG creation, so you could go totally nuts and show off with that — but we had to be clever and strategic about how to make him menacing with minimal movement.

So that definitely was more challenging than having some insane robot fight like in a Transformers movie. In fact, Nathaniel was always very adamant about that, telling us, “Nothing like Transformers!” because that’s not Simon’s world. There’s so much you can do with CG these days to show off, but we strove to do something different and unique by showing restraint and kind of achieving the most we could with subtlety.

This is one of those shows that make it difficult to discern what’s CG and what’s practical. Is there an element people might be surprised to know was CG or was practical?

Well, the robot fight is one of my favorite moments in the series for various reasons. We created this whole scene that involved a lot of great work with Legacy Effects, but for most of the series, anytime you see that Jacob robot close up, that’s a practical robot. We mostly did some paint-outs on the shots to blend it with the environment, and if we needed to enhance the performance, we might do some CG work, but in that robot fight a lot of the shots leading up to it were practical — until they weren’t, and then it was all CG.

There’s something kind of beautiful about the blend of the two and all of us getting lost in what’s what, because everyone did such a great job on the robots. I love how we all complemented each other — production, design, cinematography, and Legacy Effects. We worked hand-in-hand with Legacy and their outstanding puppeteers to create a hybrid and marry the best of both worlds: Practical and CG. So I love how seamless the visual effects work is on this show.

Overall, how much of the series involved visual effects? It sounds like your team touched a lot of what we saw in subtle ways a casual viewer probably won’t realize.

The robot fight is a more obvious CG moment, but in the pilot, a viewer might watch and think it has minimal visual effects aside from the more magical shots of snow floating up in the cabin or the house-deconstruction scene. But we actually touched almost every single shot of the pilot. Watching it, it’s not screaming out at you, but it’s in so much of what’s there.

Every shot [in the series] is so beautiful. And so much of what you see is a product of how we all worked together to create these beautiful, painting-like images.

All eight episodes of the first season of Tales From The Loop are available now on Amazon Prime Video.

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