Throughout Westworld Season 3, fans of the HBO show began to notice that random civilians in background shots of the future's not-so-distant were wearing face masks. Normally, that wouldn't stand out, but in the middle of the coronavirus, it felt like an eerie coincidence — or some clever last-minute CGI editing.
After all, how could a shot many months ago so accurately reflect the world we're living in now. Westworld's visual effects supervisor Jay Worth tells Inverse that there's no conspiracy or late VFX additions. It was just part of a very convincing – and eerily accurate — version of the world we live in.
"That’s just Jonah [Nolan], Lisa [Joy], and Denise [Thé] being ahead of the times," Worth says. "We didn’t do any [digital] face masks. If you look at what's going on in Asia, some of that is normal anyway. For rioters, that can be for tear gas. To be honest, having worked on a number of futuristic shows, that’s not that uncommon of a visual. It’s just obviously a lot more applicable now.”
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Despite accidentally predicting Covid-19, Westworld's production was impacted by the global lockdown like everyone else. So even if Worth had wanted to do something like putting a bunch of digital CGI masks on extras, he probably wouldn't have had time. Worth and his team were still working on quite a bit of post-production CGI magic when they were sent into quarantine.
"When we went into shutdown we still had between 1500 and 2000 shots out of the 3500 left to deliver," Worth says. "Luckily we were ready to go when everything went down. And then, everything was remote for the rest of the season. The only reason why we were able to do that is that HBO let us. Usually, they like to have more time to look everything over, but we were delivering the finale six days before it aired."
One sequence that was largely completed before the quarantine was the unforgettable moment in Episode 8 where Dolores's robot brain is inserted into a metal robot exoskeleton, save for her "human" head. The moment where Dolores pulls her own skin on over her robotic hands will probably remind science fiction buffs of Terminator 2, but Worth is quick to point out that this is basically the same robot Dolores we saw in Season 1.
"We went back to our own model from Season 1," he says. "This is our own trope in terms of what Dolores always looked like when she was born for that first time."
However, he admits that that made some enhancements on that original Dolores skeleton design to make the special effect look even more believable. After all, in Season 1 this version of Dolores didn't have to move. This time, she had to walk and talk at once, all while installing her own synthetic skin.
"We altered it," Worth says. "Not a ton, just slightly. We shot it fairly normal from a motion capture standpoint. She did have the skin flap around her neck, just like she did in Season 1, but what make-up effects did was to put an actual skin flap on her arm. When she’s tugging, she’s tugging on her own skin, so you get that real feeling of the skin getting tugged on over that robot exoskeleton."
When visual effects work best on Westworld, it's because they match the show's naturalistic tone. When done right, it can be just as difficult to tell what's real and what's CGI as it is to guess which characters are human and which are Hosts in disguise (or, in Season 3, being humans being controlled by a giant A.I. brain).
Obviously, Evan Rachel Wood isn't really a robot, but there are various effects on the series that you probably take for granted. A huge amount of work was put into making realistic LED displays for Charlotte Hale's office at Delos headquarters in a way that looks futuristic, realistic, and functional all at once.
Do you remember being impressed by that special effect? Probably not, because it looks totally believable. Ditto for the various chase sequences featuring a self-driving rideshare vehicle. It's not something that stands out as a flashy special effect, but the amount of care and detail that goes into these moments is shocking.
"I’m sure there are people who thought we drove a rideshare vehicle around," Worth says, " or who thought we clearly didn’t build, and it must have been all CG. But we did have a real rideshare vehicle that people really rode in that really drove around."
The Westworld production didn't have a stunt version of its futuristic driverless car, though, so Worth and his time had to think creatively.
"We built a vehicle that had the exact same wheelbase of our rideshare, we put witness cams all over it, and we had a stunt driver who was able to do all the stunt driving," he says. "All the driving was all practical, but we filmed it with our witness cameras, so all the reflections are accurate. We were able to do that little bit of reality switch so you can’t tell what was real and what wasn’t."
The special effects of Westworld are very much like the story itself: Simuclarums of "real" people intermingle with organics until the distinctions become nearly irrelevant. Is Bernard more like Arnold or more like Bernard? Is the new Host version of the Man in Black really that different from the human one? These themes are present in how the special effects are created, too.
It's what makes Westworld one of the most realistic-looking hardcore sci-f shows, even if competitors like Devs and the upcoming Snowpiercer are catching up. But for now, Westworld is still way out ahead of its rivals, thanks in part to some of the best, most subtle VFX work on television today.
Or, as Jay Worth puts it, "We always want you not to know what we do for real and what we do fake."
Westworld Season 3 is streaming now on HBO.