The Oscar-Winning VFX Studio Created an Alien Planet, a Battle Between Robots and a Lost Civilization for episodes of Lost In Space Season 3.
In the third and final season of Netflix’s hit sci-fi series Lost in Space, the Robinson family will finally begin to understand the origins of the enigmatic race of robotic creatures that have hunted them since leaving Earth. But before they can begin to fully unravel that mystery, they will first need to survive a collapsing planet, a war among the robotic beings and a barren alien landscape. These environments and CG characters were brought to the small screen courtesy of Digital Domain’s award-winning episodic group, with a team of artists led by VFX Supervisor Marion Spates and VFX Producer Rachel Wheeler.
“From the very start, the Lost in Space showrunners had an incredible vision, and with each new layer added to the story it became more and more ambitious,” said Digital Domain’s Supervisor Marion Spates. “Going into season three, the bar was set incredibly high, but that also meant it gave us the chance to push ourselves further than ever and build on our work from last season. We think audiences are going to be blown away by the results.”
Escaping the Broken Planet
In episode 303, “The New Guy,” the crew of the Jupiter find themselves desperately trying to navigate their way through the remains of a broken planet, as asteroids and land masses big enough to contain their own atmosphere fly past them. And as the rocky masses collide, they create more debris, increasing the danger — and the complexity of the work.
To develop this sequence, Digital Domain began by creating the previs (based on concept art and assets created for previous episodes), starting with a potential path of the Jupiter through the collapsing planet. The team then added in the trajectory of the asteroids and shattered land masses, then used Houdini and Nuke to create multiple layers of debris, adding additional details by hand.
Digital Domain’s animation team then infused motion into the sequence, which introduced new levels of destruction. Objects collide and break apart, sending debris scattering across space, forcing the Jupiter into evasive manoeuvres. To simulate the destruction of the massive, weightless objects hitting each other, Digital Domain used displacement mapping, a technique that displaces the geometric position of set points on a textured surface with another. That led to some truly spectacular explosions and reaffirmed that the crew was in constant danger.
Return to Amber
While half of the crew of the Jupiter were busy dodging pieces of a broken planet, others found themselves stranded on the “amber planet,” the home of a dead alien civilization and the final resting place of the human colony ship, the Resolute.
Although first introduced in season two, Digital Domain created every aspect of the amber planet for episode 303, from the alien vegetation to the skies. It then added natural elements, such as dust blowing in the wind. The VFX team also created a series of distinctive “hoodoo” rock formations — tall, thin spires of freestanding rock, based on real geological formations. In total, the VFX team created more than 20 unique hoodoos, then tweaked those originals to create dozens more.
Along with the environments, Digital Domain also introduced the crash site of the Resolute, which was destroyed in the second season finale. To create the wreckage of the colonial ship, the VFX team began with matte paintings, then built dozens of pieces of twisted metal and spaceship machinery. These assets were deliberately and artfully scattered throughout the scene to simulate a vast debris field. The team then added environmental elements like dust and rock and blended the Resolute into the background. The destruction of the human’s former home in space and the natural elements on the amber planet combine to create an epic scene of destruction for episode 303.
A New War
The episode culminates with a battle between two factions of robots, including the return of a hostile alien known as the “Lieutenant” (introduced in season two), and the introduction of a new, original “henchman” character created by Digital Domain. To design this new character, the VFX team took elements from the “SAR/Scarecrow” robot and pieces of the enemy leader “Thar,” then combined them into a new 3D model. After completing work on the episodes, Digital Domain sent the completed asset on for repeated use throughout the season.
With the robots set, Digital Domain then designed and animated a memorable combat sequence, consisting of a complicated series of movements conducted by entities that move with superhuman speed and grace. Once the fight is resolved, the losing robot receives a spike through its head — but with robotic entities, death is a little more complicated.
Working closely with the production team, Digital Domain ran a particle simulation moving at various speeds. It then created two versions: The first showing the particle stream moving upwards out of the impaled robot, while the aggressor’s face shows particles moving downward to suggest a flow between the two. Artists then added additional attributes to the particles, including depth, before being point-deformed back into the correct position on the heads, giving audiences the impression of a truly alien face.
The End of a World
Along with robot battles and dodging asteroids, “The New Guy” also contains one of the show’s biggest reveals to date, when Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) discovers a control room built by the creators of the alien tech teased throughout the series. Digital Domain was tasked with creating the look and design for the control room, giving its artists the chance to flex their creative muscles and build something never before seen.
The VFX team began by building an alien sphere surrounding a single, real-world stage that acted as the focal point for the room. While adhering to the general aesthetic of the alien tech, Digital Domain’s artists created a structure that was distinctly original and non-human in design. Once the general outline was complete, the VFX team added details ranging in size from small blemishes in the structure to more significant reveals — including thousands of alien corpses. For the character in the scene and audiences at home, the room initially appears in near total darkness until a flare is lit, revealing the structure and its secrets. To create this effect, artists built the structure and removed the light, then added just enough to match the flare.
Soon after the big reveal, the structure begins to collapse, leading to a daring escape that combines live-action footage with digital effects. As the actor ran and jumped over a real set populated by props, Digital Domain added the background, along with the falling debris that narrowly missed the character.
To cap off its work in the episode, Digital Domain also built an alien robot ship with landing gear, created a chase through columns of hoodoos with humans driving a “chariot” (a futuristic, armored all-terrain vehicle) and designed a camouflage effect for the Jupiter that blended the ship with the environment, inspired by a tin foil-like shimmering effect. Said VFX Producer Rachel Wheeler, Digital Domain was responsible for roughly 200 shots for episodes 302 and 303, the first episode features around 50 shots primarily focused on 2D shots of the robots, with the bulk of the CG work taking place in episode 303.
Digital Domain’s work on season three of Lost in Space marks the second collaboration between the VFX team and the Netflix show, with the first leading to an award for visual effects. Digital Domain worked on three episodes of the show’s second season, earning the 2020 HPA Award for “Outstanding Visual Effects — Episodic (Under 13 Episodes) or Non-theatrical Feature” for episode 201, “Shipwrecked.”
The third and final season of Lost in Space is available to stream now, exclusively on Netflix.