Molecule VFX creates Texas greenery from the New Mexico desert in ‘Dr. Death’
Molecule VFX shared with AWN some of their VFX work on the crime drama miniseries Peacock, Dr Mort. Based on the podcast of the same name, Dr Mort draws inspiration from the true story of Dr Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson), a rising star in the Dallas medical community whose thriving neurosurgery practice began to crumble as patients entered his operating room for complex but routine spinal surgeries left them either permanently mutilated or dead. Two fellow doctors, neurosurgeon Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby (Christian Slater), as well as Dallas prosecutor Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb), helped bring Duntsch to justice.
VFX Supervisor Nico Del Giudice and his team worked closely with the show’s production team to ensure that the visual effects seamlessly and invisibly blend with the live action. Del Giudice’s role in the series was to help showrunner Patrick Macmanus’ creative vision through visual effects without distracting attention from the story. “I met Patrick on Happy, a show that really emphasized note the VFX through the many fantastic sequences and CG characters, ”he says. “After Happy finished, I heard that Patrick was writing Dr Mort, a series based on real facts and the reality of Christopher Duntsch. It was exciting to hear that Dr Mort would be fundamentally based on realism. I was very lucky to start with the series in pre-production just before the pandemic and to have followed the course until the end in post. Molecule VFX worked on a lot of location enhancement scenes due to the limitations of the seasons we shot, as well as prosthetic cleanings and blood enhancement.
To recreate the gore and emphasize the horror of the surgeries and other aspects of the show, Molecule was tasked with producing visual effects in a way that showed the audience the menacing threat posed by Dr. Duntsch, aka Dr. Death. The main gore-related work came in episode 103 with the character of Elaine Johnson. According to Del Giudice, “There is a scene where Dr. Kirby explains to a bedridden Elaine what happened to her during her horrific surgery with Christopher Duntsch. There was a bloody prosthesis on her neck that needed a fair amount of improvement to be convincing. Our compositing team, led by Robert Cribbett, improved the lacerations and injuries around the wound to help sell the horribly failed surgery.
“The majority of our work consisted of a large amount of set extensions and greening that had to be done due to the time of year we were revolving around the pandemic,” he adds. “A key sequence was when production shot the location of the Texas Neurosurgical Institute in the New Mexico desert, but needed it to look like Texas Green in July.”
Many shots required a complete background replacement, with CG greening and matte paints. Due to the extent of the area the team had to cover, using a full green screen setup would have limited production time during the day, so rotation was used instead.
“Creatively, we had to transform a desolate area into an interurban sprawl of the Dallas suburbs,” says Del Giudice. “One of the challenges was making sure that we were using the same CG setup for continuity purposes, as this work had to be spread over multiple episodes. The turnaround time for this work was also extremely fast, with a few shots needed within a few weeks, so we had to limit the amount of build from scratch.
The work involved a massive amount of CG, led by CG supervisor CJ Chun, with procedural or repeatable assets and techniques. An early bird’s-eye view drawing traced the directions and placement of each matte painting map as well as a spatial reference for where CG’s shrubs and trees were to be placed.
A basic CG layout was then put in place for grass, shrubs and trees. The cameras were placed in the same main layout, and then the shots were individually changed to the final. “On the composing side, we had to make sure we used the same color grading process on all CGs between many composers,” notes Del Giudice. “It’s a challenge to coordinate a massive team of artists to achieve the same look and quality and we couldn’t have done it without the help of VFX producer Michael Fernandes. “
For Molecule, the most difficult aspect of the project was to produce a huge volume of work in a relatively short time. “We delivered eight episodes between April and June,” reveals Del Giudice. “When you are working on an exciting project you are so focused on creating the most beautiful product possible and it depends on time and resources. In preparation, Molecule really focused on our cloud services, remote desktops, and render farms to efficiently speed up 4k renderings and take lots of CG photos.
For Del Giudice, the project was particularly rewarding as it allowed Molecule to rework with Macmanus on “deeply written content” based on real events and reality. “It’s a big challenge to work on visual effects that help tell the story without distracting it,” he shares. “If the audience can watch the many set extensions and greening stages without ever noticing that we worked on them, then I think that would be a great achievement.”
Dan Sarto is publisher and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.