Nightflyers

Territory on the future-tech behind Syfy and Netflix’s outer space horror series.

By Meleah Maynard

American writer George R.R. Martin may be best known for having written the fantasy novels on which the popular series Game of Thrones is based. Now fans are also aware of his talent for crafting science fiction with the release of Nightflyers, a 10-episode, outer space horror series that premiered on Syfy and is now on Netflix.


Based on Martin’s 1980s novella of the same name, Nightflyers tells the story of a team of scientists aboard The Nightflyer, a high-tech haunted spaceship. Working on-set in Limerick, Ireland, with episode directors, set decorators and members of the art department, Territory Studio primarily used Maxon’s Cinema 4D and After Effects to create over 1,200 motion graphics for on-set future tech, including screen content and user interfaces.

In addition to working with the broader team throughout the project, Territory also  collaborated with Kill2Birds on the series promo. Territory’s Sam Keenhan led the creative team working on the series’ UI and screen content and Sam Munnings, one of the studio’s senior motion designers, served as creative lead on the promo. Here, they offer details about both projects.


You were brought in during pre-production. How did you collaborate with everyone?
Sam Keehan: Information and assets for the graphics came from many corners of the production. We worked closely with David Ingram in the art department, Naomi Moore and Andrew McCarthy in the set decoration and Tara Doolan the assistant to the directors to achieve as much efficiency as possible. Communication was very open, so we were able to work quite quickly. We often had only days to get graphics done, so pooling information in this way allowed for directors to give us feedback practically instantly.

What kind of direction did you get?
S.K.: There was a broad range of sets on the spaceship: medical labs, a mess hall, cargo bays and even a hydroponics lab. We needed to make sure the graphics supported the story and action and helped explain plot points. We designed the ship’s technology interfaces to perform many different tasks as efficiently as possible. Our system allowed director’s maximum flexibility to use screens as textural background, and at the press of a hotkey display specific story beats, before settling back into its background state.

How did you use C4D and After Effects?
S.K.:
In creating our various animations, we are constantly juggling and maneuvering between Cinema 4D and After effects. They have a symbiotic relationship for us, and it was rare when we didn’t have an asset that incorporated elements created in both. We would often render out several passes of various hero 3D objects and composite them together to make hero elements of story beats or textural elements to break up structure where needed. The bridge screens exemplify that relationship perfectly.

Was there any creative connection between your work on the series and the promo?
Sam Munnings: The promo aimed to entice the viewer to try make sense of what they’d just watched by giving small dream-like glimpses into recurring elements from the series. Our client, Kill2Birds, was keen to use visual distortions that represented and reflected each character’s role in the series. These needed to be unique for each character, so they wanted the distortions of Karl D’Branin to be a metaphor for his humanistic mental state, all twisted and distorted. While Lommie, a Cyborg, needed a much harsher, digital distortion style.

What kind of R & D did you do to come up with the visual distortions?
S.M.: We were given some time to develop various techniques for distorting 3D geometry and images. But before that, we had to build the heads. Some were built from raw scan data that was supplied to us, and others were built by projecting still photos of the actors onto custom meshes. We also had a library of stills of the actors to work with.

We explored multiple techniques for building the heads, like using Arnold volumes and images to displace and using cloth simulations and making extensive use of vertex maps. In the end, a lot of the faces were simply driven by varying amounts of image-based displacement maps. Thale (played by Sam Strike) required much more of a purposeful approach as his head needed to split into multiple variations of itself. We used the surface and collision deformers inside of Cinema 4D to bridge the multiple head geometries.

Going back to the series, what scenes were the most interesting or challenging?
S.K.:
The quarantine scene was definitely an achievement of logistics as it was outputting a large body of interlocking work. We created graphics that linked up across several screens within the set for the scene. Playback teams worked in tandem with the shooting crew to realize that scene, which was augmented with VFX. Every bit of that was housed within a very purposefully created set. It was really great to see it all come together so well. That kind of cooperation obviously happened on every episode, but that scene in particular had so many moving parts and the production did a great job pulling it off.

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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