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Aliens, upgrades, and Dolly Parton: behind The Orville’s VFX

The sci-fi series The Orville has become a surprise hit for Fox, then Hulu, since premiering on the former in 2017. Created and primarily written by Seth MacFarlane, the series chronicles the adventures of the titular spacecraft and its colorful crew as they deal with all manner of personal, philosophical, and extraterrestrial dilemmas while traversing the galaxy in the 25th century.

Along with delivering some poignant, thought-provoking stories along with plenty of humor, the series has also treated audiences to some spectacular sequences featuring exciting space battles and fantastic, alien worlds. After earning an Emmy nomination for the visual effects that brought a massive battle to life in season 2, the series returned for its third season in June.

Digital Trends spoke to Tommy Tran, visual effects supervisor for FuseFX, one of the studios that have been working on The Orville from the start, to find out more about his team’s work on the show’s third, amazing — and perhaps final — season.

The Orville spacecraft flies near a glowing yellow-orange star.

Digital Trends: FuseFX has worked on The Orville since the very first season. How did season 3 differ from prior seasons for your team?

Tommy Tran: Well, we started in season 1 as sort of an overflow, working on some shots that needed a home. They were some sequences of New York City — digital matte paintings and enhancements. The relationship just grew from there, and by the end of the season, we had established ourselves with the production crew. Season 2 came along and we were entrenched as one of three main vendors doing big sequences for the show. We got an Emmy nomination in season 2, and then season 3 just blew up.

I think in Seth’s mind [season 3] was his coup de grâce — that this was going to be it as he moved on with his career and his next projects. So he wrote it as a farewell and wanted to go out with a bang, I think. We expected something big, and when we received the script for episode 1, it was like, “Oh my God.” Just the first act alone had enough visual effects to fill three episodic one-hour slots. The scripts were bigger [and] the storylines were deep and meaningful, but the visual effects were five-fold bigger. They were longer, with more ships [and] more environments.

A visual effects image from The Orville shows crowds of aliens cheering on a set.
A visual effects image from The Orville shows crowds of aliens cheering on a set with a VFX city added.

It felt like the show spent more time on the alien worlds this time around. Was that reflected in your work?

It was! [In past seasons] we’d go to a new world, circle a digital planet, and then hover over the surface for a little while. They’d go down, do something, and then leave. But now we went down there, built environments, built the world, and stayed on it for five or six minutes of visual effects time. That was a big change.

Which worlds did you the most work on?

We built some pretty major sequences for planets’ environments. In episode 1, we built Jovian, the hurricane planet, and in episode 4, we created Krill City and built that out, among other environments. Anything you saw on another alien planet was probably us. In episode 8, we did the canyon chase. And in episode 9, we did the entirety of the environment on Draconis — the air battle and the city with the reactor core that blew up.

A visual effects image from The Orville shows an alien base built into the rock.
A visual effects image from The Orville shows an alien base built into the rock, now exploding.

We saw a lot more of the Orville itself this season. Did you do any work on the ship this season?

We weren’t involved in the internal environment [of the Orville] but the interior set did get a full rebuild. During the off-season, we were tasked with upgrading and redesigning the entire fleet of the Planetary Union, starting with the Orville. If you look at seasons 1 and 2, [the Orville] was a pretty sharp CG model, but in season 3, Brandon and Seth said, “We want a full makeover. We want to make this thing as cinematic as possible.” This is the end, after all, so we were going out with a bang.

We added thousands of panel lines to the exterior of that ship and changed its shade and texture networks to allow it to change colors as it flew under lights. It would catch different glancing angles as it passed by, and the ship now had an opalescent sheen to it. We added so much detail that we could go three or four feet away from the ship in a shot and it would still hold up.

Basically, the Orville went from an 8 to a 15 on a scale of 1 to 10. It was a lot of work. And because of COVID, there was a lot of downtime waiting for production to start up again, so we utilized a lot of that time to upgrade and re-detail the space station, the shuttle, all the fighters, and especially the Orville. If you were to go side-by-side with previous seasons, the change was stunning.

The Orville is joined by a fleet of spacecraft in a scene from season 3.

You mentioned the Emmy nomination the series earned for the visual effects in a big space battle in season 2. Did you work on any of the space-battle sequences this season?

The biggest space flight sequence we did this year was in the first episode with the Pterodon, the new fighter they introduced. We put Gordon into the Pterodon in that scene, which required a lot of thought into how we were going to make the lighting work. They built the front part of the Pterodon practically and sat an actor in there, but two-thirds of the ship was still missing. The plan was for us to digitally replace the missing parts, but then we discovered that the lighting didn’t work on it. So we ended up just rotoscoping the actor out and building a full CG build-out of the Pterodon fighter around him, which worked out beautifully — and hopefully, seamlessly, to the audience.

A pilot flies a fighter craft in a scene from The Orville.

You did some creature effects this season, too. What was that work like?

We did Randall, the T-Rex-meets-Rancor creature in the third episode. We did the Kraken from that episode, the squid-like thing underwater, too. We also did the full CG arachnid characters running around in the hallways in the second episode. I’m so proud of that episode, too, because it was half practical, with guys in suits, and half CG. And when you look at it, even I’m like, “Wait, did we do that shot or is it practical?” It was great, because we normally don’t get to do a lot of creature work on The Orville, but we did do three nice-looking sequences with creatures we’re very proud of as a team.

It’s always a good sign when you can’t tell which part you worked on, and the audience can’t tell if it’s a visual effect…

Exactly. And it’s always hard to sell that conceit when it’s shown with a full CG ship flying around in space, because you know there’s a lot of CG — but the opportunity to build environments and creatures that walk that fine line between reality and CG was a privilege.

The monstrous alien Randall holds Gordon in the air during a scene from The Orville.
Gordon is held in the air by a harness during an early pre-VFX shot from The Orville.

What’s the element people might be most surprised to learn you worked on?

How about episode eight with Dolly Parton? [The work we did] wasn’t night and day, just subtleties. Everybody knew Dolly was a hologram – and it was a holographic room she was in — but I think it blew people’s minds to see the 1980s-era Dolly. It wasn’t so drastic that you could tell she was enhanced digitally. It was subtle and seamless. We saw a lot of fanfare on the web discussing how good she looked in it. But yeah, she was subtly enhanced in the episode and we’re really proud of the response.

The cast of The Orville stands on the bridge of the ship on a set.
The cast of The Orville stands on the bridge of the ship in a finished VFX shot.
The Orville hovers within a massive storm.

That’s amazing. Looking back on this season, since it’s uncertain whether we’ll see more of The Orville, what are you most proud of from your work on the series?

Aside from the visuals and how pretty everything was, and all the accolades the company gets for doing such stunning visual work, the thing I’m most proud of is my team. The best part, for me, was the fact that we were on this season since April 2019. It started warming up at the start of the pandemic and we went remote, and for three years we had a team built just for The Orville, because of the sheer size and scope of the show.

I had a massive team with more producers and VFX supervisors and CG supervisors than any show that was ever done at Fuse. And we were on our own little island for three years. The camaraderie that came out of that will never be replicated again in my mind, because in order to do a show that long and keep people’s hearts and minds in the show was so uncommon.

We’re typically in and out, about six weeks on an episode, around six months for a season. But we were together on this for three years. We laughed, we cried… we had chats filled with memes. We learned to work together, [and] the dedication that the crew put in for three years to deliver what you see in season three, that was the biggest thing for me. We put it all on the screen.

The Orville approaches a space station in a scene from season 3.

All three seasons of The Orville are available on both Disney+ and Hulu streaming services.

The Orville (2017)
The Orville
36 %
tv-14 3 Seasons
Genre Drama, Comedy, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Cast Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson
Created by Seth MacFarlane

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