VFX supervisor Wayne England talks the Dystopia behind Utopia

Wayne England talks about Wilson’s eye, flying to Chicago and more on Utopia

How many times have you watched Utopia so far? This is one of those shows that leaves you craving more, and it certainly leaves a lot open for debate.

Just how much evil do you need to do to do good in the world? Michael Stearnes says “none evil,” but the others weren’t able to answer Kevin Christie’s question.

Well, for FuseFX’s Wayne England, it wasn’t about doing evil. It was all about doing good to create visual effects that would draw you in and not take you out of the experience. His role as VFX supervisor on Utopia was also a little different to what most VFX supervisors do.

We talked about flying to Chicago, creating Wilson’s (lack of) eye, and much more in this exclusive interview.

Amazon Advisor: Thanks for taking the time to chat to me about your work on Utopia. How about we start with what your role was on the series.

Wayne England: My primary role was as the post-production VFX supervisor, working with the amazing team at FuseFX where the impressive Utopia visual effects were realized. I came on to the project with the majority of the episodes shot, so my onset involvement was minimal overall.

That said, there was a big date on the production calendar for an “elements shoot day” for specific shots across all episodes that had missing or needed components. After some very detailed production planning, I ended up flying out to Chicago where Utopia was filmed, to second unit direct the elements shoot.

AA: That initially sounds quite a bit different to most VFX supervisor roles.

WE: Well during the shoot planning with executive producer Robin Sweet and the Chicago production, it was established it made good sense with all the unique and specific VFX details associated with the elements shoot, coupled with my onset and directing background.

One of the more involved element sequences, for example, was with the factory workers within the “Simpro” meat factory. This series of shots for Episode 3 featured a sprawling multi-leveled (completely CG) detailed factory interior, into which about 30 to 40 factory workers performing specific tasks were to be integrated in post[-production]. The extra’s performing these tasks needed to be shot from very specific angles and heights, especially since the longer featured shot involved a somewhat wild, wandering, and panning hand-held camera.

Another big component of the shoot day was for the tent hospital village shots, where hazmat clad extras performed scenarios for further populating with people.

AA: It sounds like it was one of the most challenging aspects.

WE: Yes! There was a lot of detailed planning involved. But one of the things I knew was key in making it all possible in one day was “video playback”, as it’s referred to on set. This enabled us to do live compositing, so we could overlay and align what we had in-camera to the various shots.  There were also select alignment images I’d prepared for the Simpro factory, which provided additional reference to the functional planning required for the layout and specific activities of the factory ground floor.

Come end of day, we had such a great shoot!  The second unit crew along with Mark Anderson, our Chicago resident on-set supervisor, were such a joy to work with.  Seeing all the elements come together in post with the FuseFX team back in L.A., the elements shoot was one of my own highlights of the season.

AA: A lot of Utopia includes snippets of the graphic novel with the storytelling. Did you have any involvement in that?

WE: There were several shots featuring the comic book pages themselves. These shots involved such things as replacing specific pages and color balancing of the images. Other Utopia comic page shots included creating the zoomed appearance of a magnifying glass for close-up inspections.

There was also a montage of the Utopia comic, shots for which we both descended into the pages and out. The montage scene itself required a lot of 2D hand-drawn illustration and with that, another company who specializes in stylized illustration took care of the comic montage.

AA: There is a lot of graphic material, a lot of gore and violence. How involved did you get in creating that part?

WE: I was quite involved. I knew for the gore shots across the board, it was about establishing a balance between hyper-realism on the one hand, and the dramatic effect on the other.

What comes to mind first and foremost is Wilson’s eye and his eye socket. It was featured in over 70 shots, so there was a degree of realism that had to be nothing short of exceptional. To gain insight into achieving those standards, I had to do quite a bit of objective research. This was finding what specific characteristics of an eye socket would best represent Wilson’s unique wound.

His eye was spooned out, so in addition to the look of the eye socket details, we were also factoring such things as the subtle amounts of tearing and swelling that would also be in play.  From all the source material references, there were three select images that together provided the specific reference from which to detail our hero 3D build of the eye socket.

I have to say, the first 3D rendering we created was quite stunning. It seemed everyone who saw it made an involuntary reactive noise they’d no intention of making!

The first scene we integrated the effect into was the close-ups of Wilson in the bunker. Given the bunker’s darker lighting, some of the fine details were inevitably lost, but with nuanced shading and lighting, we were able to represent just the right amount of eye socket details for a really captivating effect throughout the scene. It ended up becoming a passion project of sorts, because of the requirement of quality to persist across so many shots.

The project as a whole for me was realizing a next level in quality. On a deeper level, this was about becoming sensitive to and creatively aligned with subtleties that collectively form the look and feel of Utopia’s world.  The aim is to have the audience be uninterruptedly drawn and inspired into the world of the story. Ultimately, it’s about being transported.

That said, here’s to Utopia’s amazing FX producer Gary Romey, Comp supervisor Heather McAuliff, CG supervisor Christian Gonzales and FX supervisor Wayne Hollingsworth.

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Utopia Season 1 is now available to stream in full on Amazon Prime Video. Wilson’s eye is most on show during the second and third episodes of the season to see those visual effects.