How Westworld’s visual effects looked into the future to earn an Emmy nomination

Season 3 of HBO’s Westworld took the hit series in plenty of new directions, both philosophically and geographically, leaving the titular theme park behind for a story arc set in the outside world that explored humanity’s dominion over its creations.

The third season also earned the show its third Primetime Emmy Award nomination for visual effects — one of 11 categories the season was nominated in this year. Visual effects studio Pixomondo shared in that nomination each of the last two years for its work on the series, which concluded its eight-episode third season in May and has already been renewed for a fourth season.

Digital Trends spoke to visual effects supervisor Nhat Phong Tran, who led Pixomondo’s team on Westworld, about the work that earned them — and the series — another Emmy nomination.

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Digital Trends: First, congratulations on earning another Emmy nomination for Westworld.

Nhat Phong Tran: Thank you very much. It’s very exciting.

With this season of Westworld, what was your team’s primary focus for visual effects?

Working closely with the show’s overall VFX Supervisor Jay Worth, Pixomondo was involved in building the world outside of Westworld, which involved building future versions of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and augmenting the Singaporean skyline.

This is the second time you’ve been nominated for Westworld, but a lot has changed in the show from season 2 to season 3. How did your approach change between the last two seasons?

It was actually a very big change. Compared to the previous seasons, where we did a lot more augmentation of natural landscapes and natural features of the environment, this season we were heavily involved with adding and creating man-made structures to the environment. So it was drastically different. In season 2, what we did is what would happen through nature and changes of the natural environment, but this season, everything we did came from conscious decisions by people, which was a different way of looking at things and a different process.

HBO

When you’re developing a future version of a city, it seems like you could easily go too far with all of the augmentation and create something that no longer feels genuine. How do you strike that balance between making an environment feel futuristic while still keeping it grounded in reality?

Yeah, with sci-fi versions of existing cities, you can easily project a little bit too far into the distance, and then it starts looking a bit too naive and unreal. It definitely helped that we are living here in Los Angeles, because the way we approached this was to pay respect to the particular pockets of Los Angeles and the neighborhoods that already exist — and also to the city and street grids that have been laid out already. We spent a good amount of time researching and thinking about what’s likely to change over time, and what would be difficult to change.

For example, looking at property laws, it’s unlikely that they’re going to tear down a bunch of single-family residence areas in Los Angeles. There are so many individual owners in those areas, and it would be such a headache to get all of those lots consolidated for a new skyscraper or something of that nature. So that affects the layout of where we place buildings in the future version of Los Angeles. A lot of them have been added to to downtown Los Angeles, which we thought would be a bit more likely because there are so many industrial areas around there that have larger lots. There are already some areas in Los Angeles that currently have the right setup to be built upwards like a skyscraper, so that was a big part of our planning.

When it was time to design the actual look of the buildings and the aesthetic of future Los Angeles, what did you draw inspiration from?

Singapore was always referred to by Jonah [Nolan, series co-creator] and the team as a role model for a future city. And Danish architect Bjarke Ingals has a pretty unique design philosophy that informed the architecture. Using both Singapore and Bjarke Ingals-inspired buildings, we laid everything out so that it would fit into that palette of architecture and city planning they envisioned.

Is there a particular scene or visual effect sequence from Season 3 that you’re particularly proud of?

That would definitely be the approach sequence to Los Angeles [in the season 3 premiere], when Dolores leaves the superyacht with Liam and flies to his penthouse. It was nice for me, personally, because we were involved with that sequence early on, during principal photography. We provided visual effects for the gigantic LED screen that was used as a backdrop during the actual photography, so we started building everything for that scene long before the edit of the first episode was even done.

For that scene, we spent a lot of time futurizing the city, and then to see it on an enormous, curved LED screen was just amazing. And we got to see all of that on set being photographed with the actors in front of it, and then got it back again six months later to finish working on those shots. And finally, we got to see the finished scene, and it just looked so beautiful the way it was set up and framed. That was really, really satisfying.

That scene first introduced the show’s audience to the larger world outside the theme park. Did you feel any extra pressure to make a good first impression?

Yeah, emotionally, there were so many different tiers to that sequence. For us, it was the first time we saw our work as part of this new dimension of Westworld. But like you said, for the audience that has watched all of the previous seasons, this was the first time they see this outside world in that context — the first time they’re seeing the big picture. It was also just really beautiful to see Dolores flying toward the penthouse and looking out of the window and seeing that whole world, too.

You mentioned those massive LED screens that Westworld and a lot of other big shows are starting to use for background environments. How has that trend affected your work?

Well, visual effects were traditionally more like a postproduction — something that happened after shooting. But now, with those LED screens becoming part of the actual shooting and production, visual effects are also becoming part of that stage, too. So we’re getting involved much more early now, and because of that, we have more creative input in that early stage of production.

The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony will be held September 20. HBO’s Westworld is nominated in 11 categories, including Outstanding Special Visual Effects.

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