The Expanse just debuted its fourth season on Amazon, and like previous seasons of the tense sci-fi drama, it takes viewers to far-off places that are both claustrophobically cramped and… well, enormously expansive. Despite its spacefaring setting, it’s not a series that allows spectacle to take priority over story, and The Expanse’s riveting exploration of political intrigue and moral ambiguity can make it all too easy to take the show’s impeccable visuals for granted.
Mavericks VFX has been one of several studios involved in making The Expanse, joining the show back in its second season. Inverse spoke with Emmy-nominated visual effects supervisor Brendan Taylor about Mavericks VFX’s work on Season 4. The team’s projects ranged from massive to tiny: from the cavernous shipyards on Mars to those itsy-bits, super-deadly slugs on Ilus.
Mild spoilers for The Expanse Season 4 ahead.
This season, Bobbie Draper’s back on Mars and hustling to make ends meet, dismantling military equipment in the MCRN shipyards. We see this virtual set several times throughout Season 4, and Taylor says constructing it was a massive project that took the Mavericks team about three months to complete.
“We’re talking about something that is about 1.5 kilometers across and taller than the tallest building on Earth,” he says of the scale of the shipyards.
Unlike a physical set, The Expanse’s this virtual space needed to be fully realized on all sides. That demands a whole lot of meticulous attention to detail, in order to accommodate a variety of tracking shots and camera angles.
“All those pieces need to be built to a level of scrutiny where you get pretty close up. At one point, you’re doing a live shot, and the next one year you’re doing two-shot walk-and-talk with two people. Every single piece needs to be modeled and textured,” says Taylor.
The Mavericks team wasn’t confined to Mars for Season 4, but got to join the Roci crew for some of their terrifying adventures through the Ring Gate on Ilus. Remember those phosphorescent, paralysis-inducing slugs Holden and crew stumbled upon inside the ruins? They emerge in the ruins after the massive storm that results from Holden and Miller tinkering around with the ancient reactor.
A combination of practical and computer-generated effects, those slimy little buggers required an awful lot of work behind the scenes. A handful of silicone slugs were used when actors needed to interact with them, like when Amos uses his blowtorch to keep them away from the makeshift shelter. But those props weren’t quite convincing enough to pass for the real deal, so the Mavericks team dressed the slimers up a bit. While this project wasn’t quite on the scale of the Mars shipyards, it was quite an undertaking in its own right.
The first stage took place on set, as the cast was filming. “You have what’s called a spotting session, where you talk to [the showrunners and production designers] and they tell you exactly what they want,” Taylor says. “Then we track the scene, which means you find out in 3D space where the camera is. Then you build rough surfaces to put the slugs onto. Then you animate them.”
That’s just the stuff that’s going on in the background. Once actors and props get involved, things get even more complicated. The second phase of bringing the slugs to life kicked off after the showrunners gave the Mavericks team raw footage of the episodes.
“They were sometimes acting with little silicone slugs, so we’d have to paint those out and then put a new one in. So if an actor’s waving it around in his hand, you have to make sure you know where the hand is. You have to track the hand, then you have to realistically animate it,” Taylor explains.
The process doesn’t end there. “The next part is, you light it, so you use all the information about the lighting of the actual scene that Jeremy [Bennings, the show’s cinematographer] did. Then you digitally light it. Then you pass it off to the compositors, whose job it is to massage into place and make it look real,” he explains
“That was fun,” Taylor adds with a warm chuckle. “That was actually really fun.”
I laugh too: partly because it seems more “excruciatingly difficult” than “fun”, but mostly at the depth of my ignorance at how much work is involved in making a show as ambitious as The Expanse. The Star Wars prequels and the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie are oft-cited examples of CGI gone wrong, but as a viewer it’s easy to miss when visual effects are done right. You don’t even notice, because you’re too immersed in the story, too eager to see what happens next.
The Expanse Season 4 is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.