Marshall Krasser is the VFX supervisor on Amazon’s new dramedy, Upload. What was it like creating a grounded digital world? He shares about that and more in this exclusive interview.
If there is only one show you’re going to watch this weekend, make sure that it’s Amazon’s newest dramedy, Upload. This inventive series is going to have you laughing, crying, and yelling at your TV screens. It will also have you extremely impressed as the little digital details that have gone into creating a grounded digital world.
VFX supervisor, Marshall Krasser, shared what it was like creating that digital world while making it feel real. He also talked glitches, ideas, and much more in this exclusive interview.
Amazon Adviser: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me about Upload. I love the details and the glitches included throughout. But while digital, it feels grounded. How challenging was it to come up with that?
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Marshall Krasser: In early discussions with Greg Daniels, he wanted all of the visual effects to be grounded in reality. But at the same time introduce elements in the digital afterlife world that are reality-based but just a little off. You’re watching and then all of a sudden you’ll have a glitch or you’ll have something that just kind of reminds you you’re not in the real world. A lot of effort that went into that.
I don’t know if even if you’d notice, necessarily but you know, Greg and Simon [Chapman], our Director of Photography, worked out different shooting techniques between the real world and the digital afterlife. The real world is more handheld operated shots. When we get into the digital afterlife, they utilized more controlled or locked-off camera setups. It’s a subtle thing that will be interesting to see if people catch.
It’s kind of the same way with color.
AA: You can definitely tell through color when we’re in the afterlife and when we’re in the world. There’s a grittiness to the world.
MK: That’s exactly what Greg and Simon were going for. They wanted the viewer to feel the difference, and wanted them to be more attracted to the digital afterlife—show them how it’s a nice and idyllic place. Color can go a long way in telling this story.
But to answer your question, as far as the challenges, I think there’s one of our challenges—diversity of the visual effects. We had roughly around 1,400 shots spread across an episode, and with almost 25 minutes of visual effects work in the pilot alone.
We worked with Greg and the writing team to put together a list of visual effects that are expensive and visual effects that are not as expensive. So, having that list helped them as they were writing—not to curtail any of their creative process but give them an idea that they might be going down something that could get beyond the budget. I think that helped [Greg] a lot.
AA: Was there ever a problem with going too far with the effects?
MK: There was one sequence where Greg asked us to dial something back. It was to do with the robot in the convenience store. We went all out on the animation and characterization, and everyone got a chuckle out of what we created, but Greg wanted us to reign it back. We’d changed the tone of the narrative he wanted to tell.
Greg understands animation and using it to tell stories. It was a great experience working with him on Upload. He did worry early on if we knew how visual effects should function in a comedy. I assured him that having been the compositing supervisor on Galaxy Quest. I know the visual effects are there to help tell the story. It’s not meant to be the story.
AA: The effects certainly feel real, like this could be where we are in a few decades if technology continues to grow. Like the hand phones and self-driving cars.
MK: Thank you, your compliment is really appreciated.
All the phone shots had to be hand-tracked in post. The actors helped us immensely by keeping consistent angles and positions.
But, yeah, all the future stuff is totally possible. When you sit down and look at the whole concept behind the digital afterlife, especially in Horizon, it does seem possible.
Of course, it comes at a cost, just like when you download an app on your phone and you can start playing with it, it’s fine until you want to save it or you want to remove a watermark; you have to pay extra money to do that.—the dreaded in-app purchase. Something about that hits frighteningly close to home.
We also had a lot of fun. In the pilot, we got to create the weather-changing scene. We had fall plates in New York state but not winter, so we had to recreate the snow on the trees for a wintertime view. Luckily, it was wintertime in Vancouver, so we could get reference shots to help us recreate it.
AA: Before I have to let you go, I do want to touch quickly on you mentioning the differences between VFX in comedy and in drama. What are those big differences?
MK: In my mind, there’s a fine line between the visual effects just being a participant in the story or being the story. In a comedy, it can’t be the lead actor. It needs to be a secondary role.
It definitely was in Upload. It was all about the storytelling. I don’t think there’s anything I would call gratuitous visual effects. They all serve a purpose.
There are a lot of visual effects in other shows where you sometimes wonder why. Why am I seeing that? How does that advance the story? What is the purpose of that?
AA: So, like the glitches reminded us of the digital world. I got a kick out of the glitch by banging the fridge door and a bread roll would show up.
MK: Yeah, it was just little things like that. And with Nathan [Robbie Amell’s character] being a programmer, later on, this becomes a story point. He’d find ways to use glitches or weaknesses in the operating code to break barriers.
There’s a lot of stuff that Greg has packed in here. I think on repeated viewings, some of the subtleties that Greg has put in there will stand out.
AA: Did you have a favorite part to create?
MK: There were a lot of fun and challenging parts, like with the dog, update, robot, and the LA driving sequence to name a few. But to pick a favorite is kind of like asking if you have a favorite kid—you do but it’s best not to say.
There were certainly sequences that were more challenging to work on. The travel sequence was one of those. Just trying to figure out all of the technical aspects of how to do it and capture the needed pieces was a challenge – the two matching sets became the key.
It was helpful being on-set almost every day—it allowed us to troubleshoot any challenges that might arise. Being able to work directly with Greg, producers, directors, and other department heads each day made things go very smoothly.
AA: It sounds like it was a very collaborative project.
MK: It was! I’m grateful we could help Greg realize his dream. It was a joy to work with the entire cast and crew.
Upload is available in full on May 1 on Amazon Prime Video.