The connection between machines and people is far more effective behind the scenes of this new HBO series West world than it’s in front of the camera. Using real-world performances and electronic effects, the show’s creators have raised the bar on the long tradition of people playing robots, building hybrid performances suitable for a series about the rise of artificial intelligence.
West-world occurs in a twisted theme park populated by exceptionally lifelike androids and presided over by their morally compromised human creators. It can be tough to tell which characters fall into which categories until something breaks, which is where the computers arrive in. There are subtle tricks — twitches, stalls, inconsistent expressions — used to show what happens when robots perfectly designed to mimic people malfunction and artifice can’t obscure their nature. The success of the approach can be credited in part to the talented cast, however, the show’s VFX supervisor Jay Worth clarifies that there was also a wonderful deal of post-production work demand to produce the unnerving, unreal final product.
Worth, who has worked with executive producer J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot Productions for the past ten years, clarified to Inverse that the scene in the very first episode in which Old Bill, a first-generation robot in the park, beverages with Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) would not have been possible without significant editing.
“We gave him these small quitting and jerking things, his eyelids and arms and hands and how he moves. It was so helpful in making it feel like this old version that wasn’t quite as easy.”
Cosa VFX, the company that managed the effects on Stranger Things and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., was supporting the manipulation. Utilizing the ramifications app Nuke, the group layered a lot of relatively easy effects to flip Bills bigger gestures into chains of smaller moves.
“It is all compositing,” Worth said. “You take certain parts of it, speed ramp and suspend it and do it all two dimensionally.”
Old Bill’s performance received the most computer help, but there several different figures in the first episode obtained the electronic treatment. When Sheriff Pickett (Brian Howe) starts to short-circuit, half of his face goes stiff. “We had a good deal of fun with how his eyes functioned, after the fly and malfunctioning,” Worth explained, noting that the show’s ubiquitous flies were often real and substituted digitally only when needed. Likewise Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum), the android father of the pilot’s starring robot Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) has a breakdown that Worth says demand the post production team to perform “really subtle things with his students and eyelids” which “made it feel as though he was away, but maybe not so mechanical.”
The approach that the team took with Abernathy was different than the one they took with Old Bill because, on the series, the robots aren’t all functioning on exactly the identical code.
Still, Worth does not need to take too much credit. He is careful to constantly praise the actors, noting that a lot of the robotic action was pure functionality, and that his team just helped make parts more persuasive where required.
“Everything that Abernathy does in his conversation with Dr. Ford, that is all celebrity action,” Worth said. But the actors are excellent at not blinking.”