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Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs. Courtesy of Netflix.

FX WEB TV

Special Effects in The Futuristic World of 'Altered Carbon'

Story by Mun Kang | June 25, 2018

Visual Effects Supervisor, Everett Burrell.

'Altered Carbon' is a cyberpunk science fiction dystopian show based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan and created by Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator Genisys). The series is set 300 years in the future, where each person's consciousness is stored in a device called a 'cortical stack' (a miniature hard drive of memories), which is implanted in the back of the neck. People may physically die, but if their stack is intact, taken out, and transplanted into another 'sleeve' (physical body), this process allows them to be reborn and continue to live forever as if they had never died, just in a separate, different body not their own. Once the stack is destroyed, that specific person is completely eradicated from the face of the Earth. Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) wakes up 250 years in the future in a separate sleeve and is tasked with two options: to either assist and help solve the murder of one of the most powerful men, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) or to serve life in prison for his crimes. Glimpses of flashbacks and memories are sprinkled throughout the story, displaying the original Takeshi Kovacs played by Will Yun Lee ('Hawaii Five-0') in his former body, with sister Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman). This intricate and futuristic conception of stacks and sleeves is fashioned and implemented through a cyberistic design, as visual effects supervisor, Everett Burrell (Pan's Labyrinth) used layers of visual effects in the world, the application of holograms, and an innovative approach through the use of virtual reality cameras.

Kristin Lehman as Miriam Bancroft. Image courtesy of Netflix.

This futuristic world has a striking resemblance to the original feature film 'Blade Runner' due to the cyberpunk and film noir aesthetic. The buildings were referenced and designed from actual real architecture in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore. The city is built with structures that weave and connect through each building, as if it were a wide spread disease. Tubes were also supplanted as a form of public transportation and a hyper loop that interlaces around the city. A heavy dosage of holograms was prevalent to illustrate this cyberpunk atmosphere and heighten specific subjects by generating a dimensional layer of visual astonishment with mesmerizing enhancements. "We built a tremendous amount of CGI holograms and populated them throughout this world. We also designed 50 to 60 custom ads that were very much unique to the show, whether it was an ad for a gun, a lollipop, a hot dog, or a vacation package. When Dimitri is in the virtual world and his hologram is malfunctioning, he's cycling through all the different sleeves he's used over the years. We had two main actors who played that version of Dimitri (Dimitri 1 and 2) as well as five other actors who portray previous sleeves, so we slid a blue screen right behind the specific actor. We shot them all doing the same movement, then had them walk around in 360 spins to get a reference of their texture, lighting, and skin. We cyber-scanned everybody, so we had digital copies. Then Double Negative took all that footage and integrated it into a weird, glitchy short circuit in the Virtual Reality (VR) world. Basically, like a Picasso painting where you see all the faces patchworked together," clarified the supervisor.

Dichen Lachman as Reileen Kawahara (left) and Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs.

The series is one of the pioneers to use a virtual reality camera, as uncertainty lies in properly utilizing this cutting-edge technology for storytelling purposes. Burrell elucidated, "We used a 360-degree VR camera called OZO, made by Nokia that's meant for VR goggles. We took those cameras with the 360-degree view and smashed it down, basically being flat. As you enter virtual reality, we always started with this 360-degree view of the set, which was incredibly complicated because VR cameras are meant for action sports like surfing or mountain climbing. We had to do some trickery to get the 360 worlds to work. That's how we entered virtual reality and then we always gave each VR world a separate look. For example, Poe's (Chris Conner) VR has a more sophisticated look because he's higher tech and more advanced. Whereas, the VR in Vernon Elliot's (Ato Essandoh) bubble fab when Kovacs puts his headset on, is a little lower rent VR, cheaper in quality. We always made sure to make the VR world breathe organically, so it would always pulsate from extreme to a little less to back to extreme again."

'Altered Carbon' blows our minds by pushing the bounds of what the future may entail in this intricate cyberpunk visionary world, by transplanting our consciousness into another body through the imaginative visual effects in the spectacular holograms, with the integration of 360-degree virtual reality cameras. Other visual effects emulated in the series are comprise of the creation of clones, countless sleeves, visceral bloody deaths, action heavy weaponry firearm sequences, and bursts of stacks.

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