The unique visual enhancements of Westworld season 4, led by VFX supervisor Jay Worth, greatly aid the HBO series' storytelling efforts. With much of Westworld season 4's of its sprawling narrative taking place in a futuristic host-inhabited version of New York City, Worth and his team navigated a fresh set of challenges in constructing the show's world.
Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, Westworld season 4 stars Evan Rachel Wood as Christina, Thandiwe Newton as Maeve Millay, Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe, Tessa Thompson as Charlotte Hale, Aaron Paul as Caleb Nichols, and Ed Harris as William. Worth's involvement in Westworld season 1 earned him an Emmy in 2017 for Outstanding Special Visual Effects. Outside of Westworld, Worth has previously worked on TV series such as Person of Interest and Fringe, as well as films like Cloverfield and Reminiscence.SCREENRANT VIDEO OF THE DAY
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Speaking exclusively with Screen Rant, Worth detailed the VFX team's process of bringing Westworld season 4 to life.
Screen Rant: Can you start by explaining how the show’s VFX team coordinates with the main production before and after shooting has wrapped?
Jay Worth: I've been privileged to work with Jonah and Lisa for a very long time. I met Jonah on Person of Interest. We started way back then together. So, I've been working on the show since the very beginning, for eight years now. It's just been a real privilege to be able to collaborate with them throughout the entire process. It's just great. They bring me in and the VFX team in very early. So, it's me, and the production designer, and locations, and the writers trying to figure out things once we start getting scripts. We're involved pretty much from the very beginning with all the design, with building out the world, with figuring out how we're going to execute something when they have a new crazy, amazing idea.
What's interesting about Westworld is there is usually some core storytelling and visual effects challenge that is an overarching thing for the season. Season 1, we had this amazing map that we had to do that was projectors and this carved piece of foam and a rotating 3D world that was 2D, there was projection, it was all crazy. Then, we had everything from what the Sublime looked like and what robot bodies were. We had everything in season 3 with building out what this world was when they left, and Rehoboam, all of those challenges. This season, we had to figure out what this game looked like. All it said was she's programming a game, and I'm like, "Oh dear. That's gonna be interesting." Same things with the tower and host city, there's always these interesting challenges.
Thankfully, we have a really good relationship with not only Jonah, Lisa, and the writers, but primarily also — in the past it was Nathan Crowley, and then Howard Cummings, and then John Carlos — with production designers. They design everything, we just build it afterward a lot of the time, which has been a real pleasure and treat to be able to work with such talented designers to really bring their world to life.
There are so many directions you can go with futuristic design. What were your inspirations for elements like vehicles, buildings, or any other details of the city?
Jay Worth: Jonah's good friends with an architect named Bjarke [Ingels]. Bjarke's been on the forefront cutting edge of architectural design for a very long time, and last season, we met with him. Howard and his team, we were able to get some prototypical designs that are actually real buildings that are either things that weren't used, things that will be used, ideas he has, and really collaborate with an actual architect. I think that's one of the reason's why the world feels so grounded.
Being able to develop buildings not just out of some artist's mind who doesn't have an architectural background, but from an architect's mindset, as well as a production designer's mindset really gave our team the grounding they needed to figure it out. We also traveled to Singapore, where we shot some of season 3, being able to see what they do with architecture, how they have a lot of these greeneries that are covering the buildings, and bringing that back to the Los Angeles and to the Manhattan world that we were able to create last year and this year.
With every new season of Westworld, the show introduces new locations. How did the team approach bringing them to life and integrating new places into the story using practical and visual effects?
Jay Worth: Yeah, that's always the biggest challenge, "Alright, we've got another new place." You can keep aesthetic, but you still have to build assets from scratch and things like that, which is fine. Really, it's just working with all the departments and making sure that the story always is the main thing we're looking at. That's really where we always land with it, just making sure that the VFX are always supporting the story, the narrative, and the overall creative vision, and not making a meal out of itself.
What new elements — big or small — did you incorporate in season 4 that weren’t in previous seasons?
Jay Worth: The big one was this game look that we had to create for Christina. That ended up being a very integral part of the season and the story. We ended up partnering with CoSA VFX. We were kind of pitching it out to different people, and we didn't necessarily have a concrete idea when we first wrote it. When they were first writing it, it was just she's describing something that's changing, and it has this character to it. CoSA's the one who brought this idea of using something called a depth camera. I don't know if you've ever used a Kinect or something for your video game console that maps your body, and sometimes people hack it, and it looks like this weird three-dimensional object. Those are called depth cameras. So, how we created all of this look for this game was, we ended up shooting with multiple depth cameras, so it creates what's called a point cloud for an individual. You then could take that point cloud, and it can be a three-dimensional object, but it has that odd distortion pattern that we liked.
Then, we were able to add things in like brush strokes, so it almost feels like a moving water color. A moving painting was kind of the inspiration for how to visualize this world. We were tying it back a little bit to how she had been a painter — all those things that feel like they're the same DNA as you build on it. Host city was another huge one. That was more of a conundrum from the beginning. When John Carlos found the viceroy location and started building all these images of the tower, then it was just on us to figure out how to incorporate it and how to deal with the height. We ended up shooting plates from helicopters for the looks out the window, and so many different aspects of things. Once we were able to figure out where it was, what it was, how it was incorporated, we were able to just collect all the pieces we needed to be able to build it out correctly in visual effect.
Throughout season 4, we frequently see these swarms of flies. To what extent are they real versus added in later?
Jay Worth: Ninety-nine percent of them this year are added in later. In the past, when we've had flies on people, we've had a lot of actual flies on people. There was one famous one with Teddy, and we didn't do anything to it. What they do is, they get the flies, and they make them very cold so they slow down. You end up taking it out and putting it on their body, and they wake up and start crawling, and we don't do anything to it. It's amazing.
But this year, with all the stuff and all the cases, usually there were a couple flies that were in there. To be clear, we have a fly wrangler when we shoot with flies, so no flies were even harmed in the filming of our show. They bring the flies in and there's a couple there, or there's just fake plastic replicas so we have it for size, scale, lighting reference, and then we can build on that. But we always try to have something real in the frame, whether it be a real fly or a very well done replica.
I want to mention that scene in episode 3 when a host version of Frankie’s face opens and releases a bunch of flies. Can you describe how that effect was generated?
Jay Worth: That one was fun because it's kind of a combo platter of everything we did going all the way back to season 1 with, as we called him, young Ford in the scene with Anthony Hopkins and Bernard when he was at the little homestead that he created that was a replica of his growing up. He brings the young boy over and his face opens up, and it was this incredibly impactful moment.
So, we were able to take that inspiration along with what we did last year with Dolores and Caleb at the end of season 3, when she had her whole face opened up, so it was kind of a combo platter of those two. From a modeling perspective, it was using a lot of what we did last year with Dolores, but then mapping on young Frankie's face, creating it all in CG, and building it out with the flies. It was a very fun, impactful moment for poor Caleb [laughs].
Westworld has been known to feature some rather visually unsettling moments like those. What’s the goal when you’re tasked with creating effects like that?
Jay Worth: Honestly, I'm not a horror or a gore guy. Oddly, with the aesthetic that Jonah and Lisa have, I think that's why we work so well together. We're never really going for grossing people out. There's always an emotional response we're trying to garner from it, and it might be an emotional response that's not comfortable, but it's not strictly a gross moment. I mean, we've had our fair share, don't get me wrong. We had when Maeve had the guy's face blow up in season 1. We've had a couple moments here and there, but we don't really linger very long.
Usually when we do the effect, there will be a version that no one ever wants to see, and then we'll trim 10 frames out of it just to give you the sense of it, and the essence of it, without it being quite so disgusting. I think we all have the fear of flies. Everyone has the fear of flies going in their ears, nose, and mouth, and the horror of that for this season, to have that right there with poor Caleb ended up being a very memorable and impactful moment not only for the viewer, but also from a character perspective.
What was the biggest challenge for the VFX team in season 4?
Jay Worth: Season 4 was definitely host city and the game. Everything else, it's kind of amazing when you get to this point in a series, and you've been on it for so long, that you can read a line in a script that's like, "You see Frankie's face open, and it's the robot," and you're like, "OK, I know how to do that." It's like, "Oh, the Sublime opens up," and you're like, "OK, I know how to do that." [laughs] Those ones end up being easy. It's incredible when you have been able to build on something for so long that used to be a four-hour, one meeting, and then a year to build something out. Now, it's a one-minute meeting, and you just have to execute it.
But, this season had those two, which was trying to figure out how to put Manhattan off the coast of Los Cabos and how to build an entire tower, and how to put it in a tower, and how to build a digital map of city, and then to have this interesting game look that translates from Christina over to the map. It's always been an interesting challenge to put all those pieces together and really make them feel cohesive.
Are there any fun Easter eggs or details most viewers won’t notice the first time around?
Jay Worth: I guess it always depends on where you're at with that. This season and this show, we've kind of let the storytelling be the Easter egg, if that makes sense. Back in the day on Fringe, we used to do this thing where we would put an actual Easter egg for the next episode in every episode. So, there was always an Easter egg in all 100 episodes. Something in the episode referenced the upcoming episode. We don't really do that with this one. We let the acting and the writing be the Easter eggs. From a visual standpoint, we're not really sneaking things in there.
We used to be able to do that because it was before the days of screen grabs and those sorts of postings. Now, we already know that people are going to be reading and freeze-framing every graphic we ever put up there. So, it's always more what are we trying to tell at that moment and not trying to hide something in a corner to see if the folks out there catch it. We know most of the time they're going to catch it, so it doesn't really end up being an Easter egg anyway.
Do you have any aspirations or ideas for things you’d like to create in Westworld that you haven’t already?
Jay Worth: Oh man, I haven't thought about that. Not really. The show's been such an incredible ride of being able to carry things from season to season, trusting Jonah and Lisa's vision for it all. I remember in season 1 when we were talking about when we go into the world. We already knew that was coming way back then. But, not really. The show, it's such a rich canvas. I'm going to be interested to see, hopefully when that comes, where they're gonna want to take it both visually and story-wise.
Westworld Season 4 Synopsis
The season picks up over seven years later after the protracted war – humanity is finally free. Or so it seems. Maeve and Caleb begin to suspect that Hale and a host version of The Man in Black are trying to regain control of the human race. Meanwhile, Bernard returns from The Sublime. A young writer, Christina, begins to question the nature of her reality.
Westworld's season 4 finale airs Sunday, August 14 on HBO.