WESTWORLD Exclusive Interview With Emmy-Nominated VFX Supervisor Nhat Phong Tran
With Westworld receiving its third Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, I was recently granted an exclusive opportunity to chat with season three's VFX supervisor Nhat Phong Tran!
Westworld season three ended with an apocalyptic big bang that will undoubtedly send season four into uncharted territory as we unearth new mysteries about what's become of the world and hopefully learn a whole lot more about what Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) discovered in his extended time offline.
With the season finally dropping the veil on what the world outside of the park looks like, it was no surprise to see the acclaimed HBO series receive its third consecutive Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, and shortly thereafter, I was granted an exclusive opportunity to get on the phone with the series' lead VFX supervisor Nhat Phong Tran from PIXOMONDO and talk to him at length about creating the unique world and vehicles of future Los Angeles.
In addition to Westworld, Tran has also worked on a number of prominent projects, including The Amazing Spider-Man, Oblivion, Fast Five, The Fate of the Furious, The Orville, and much more.
Check out our full interview below!
ROHAN: For our readers, could you briefly describe your role as VFX supervisor on Westworld?
NHAT PHONG TRAN: "We worked in collaboration with the VFX team at HBO on Westworld season three. My team at PIXOMONDO worked mostly on environments and the world builds, which the majority was to build the future world that we see outside of Westworld."
ROHAN: How are your different projects assigned? Do you meet with individual filmmakers and pitch your vision or do they contract your company?
NHAT: "In this case, there was already a pre-established relationship with HBO. I’d worked with them already on previous seasons, so it was easy to keep that relationship going."
ROHAN: What is your process like when beginning work on a new season? Do you work with conceptual artists early on to give the filmmakers a general idea of what things will look like or is it the opposite and you begin work after filming has started?
NHAT: "That’s a great question, especially for something like Westworld. They are always pretty good about getting us involved early and introducing us to a digestible amount of information to start out with.
As you know, it’s a very complex show and we don’t want to get confused with too much detail that we should not be focusing on, so yes, we were involved while they were still shooting, especially when there was shooting happening for an LED stage, which is pretty much an interactive backdrop of aerial footage. We got involved early on because that backdrop footage, mainly of Los Angeles, had to be augmented to become our utopian future Los Angeles."
ROHAN:: Unlike the previous two seasons, this year, you actually had to create a futuristic city before ultimately destroying it. Where did look to for inspiration? I know the season was predominantly shot in Singapore, Shanghai, and Los Angeles, did you just look to preexisting architecture or decided to take things in your own direction?
NHAT: "A lot of inspiration was given to us from Singapore being one of the cities. The way the city is designed, it’s very well-balanced in terms of how it combines art with architecture as well as with nature. All of these elements combined makes the city much more enjoyable and more appealing for people to live in. You also don’t have anything petrifyingly pragmatic, so we used a lot of foreign architecture as reference and also the work of Bjarke Ingels, who’s a Danish architect and very well-known for his type of architecture, which kind of falls in line with the Singaporean as well.
We used those two sources as our inspiration for our designs, so what we did was we kind of analyzed the different buildings and molds. We looked a few more specific Singaporean buildings like the Marina One designed by Ingenhoven Architects and we just extrapolated from there to see what other buildings we could build that could fit in the same design language that were set by those inspirational references."
ROHAN: Unlike most dystopian sci-fi worlds, the world we see in season three feels a lot brighter and more optimistic, albeit with its own dark undertone, but compared to something like Blade Runner, this seems like an optimal outcome for humanity moving forward. Was that a conscious decision you made going in?
NHAT: "Absolutely, that was something we very consciously decided to do. It is a very optimistic version of the world, technology has gone in the right direction, we make the right decisions about the environment, clean energy. It seems like people, well most of them, are really living a good life. That is really the world we wanted to portray, and that is why we consciously steered away from the more daunting future that you would see in like Blade Runner where things are overpopulated and it’s pretty dark and bleak. Instead, the thought was because of the technology, the right decisions were made and we managed to control a lot of events to set humanity and the environment on the right course."
ROHAN: There's a real standout sequence where Tessa Thompson's character Charlotte Hale is in a vehicle when it explodes. Could you speak on working on that, if you did, and from the reel, it looks like the vehicles were fully digital? Was that the case?
NHAT: "That sequence with her getting blown up in the car, we unfortunately didn’t work on anything with the actors, but we did design the cars and all the flying vehicles. Those were all custom made. There was one car in particular that came from the art department very early on that we called the RideShare - it was the vehicle that they used a lot that was seen as sort of a futuristic Uber or Lyft."
To better answer your question, a lot of the vehicles were custom made for us to use on the series, we actually used a concept Audi for the electric, self-driving car, but other than that, it was all digital."
ROHAN:: In addition to Westworld, you've also worked on another new sci-fi project that explores unique worlds in The Orville. How does your approach different when working on a drama like Westworld versus a comedy like The Orville where Seth MacFarlane could dream up literally any scenario.
NHAT: "The Orville, it’s great! Westworld is very grounded in reality, and is essentially a futuristic take on how our world is now. The Orville takes us to places that don’t exist and like you said, Seth may come up with a planet or space anomaly that we’ll have to completely realize. The challenge is to visualize something that only exists in theory, which can be very exciting because you’re entering uncharted terrority."
Westworld Season Three: The New World arrives on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on November 17