How ‘3 Body Problem’ Created a Spectacular Disaster, With Strings Attached

How ‘3 Body Problem’ Created a Spectacular Disaster, With Strings Attached

It begins slowly, almost soundlessly. As an oil tanker glides through the Panama Canal, the flow of a hose slows to a trickle. The hose has been sliced in two. Then the man holding the hose falls apart, his body severed at the knees and waist. Strands of nanofibers, each a hundredth the thickness of a human hair and strung across the canal at its narrowest point, knife through the ship, cutting smoothly through walls, through pipes, through flesh and bone. The sundered ship fans out like a deck of cards then collapses, smoldering. Every soul onboard — a thousand people, many of them children — has been killed.

This harrowing sequence occurs in the fifth episode of the first season of “3 Body Problem,” the new Netflix adaptation of a popular science-fiction trilogy by the Chinese author Liu Cixin. Occurring in the first book, it lasts just a few pages and as a plot driver, it is minor. (The ship is destroyed to obtain a hard drive containing messages from an alien race.) But onscreen, as a marvel of televisual imagination and an example of a seamless integration of practical and computer-generated effects, the scene is unforgettable.

“It’s basically an egg slicer going through this big tanker,” Stefen Fangmeier, a supervisor of visual effects, said. “You’ve never seen anything like that.”

In the episode, nanomaterials created by Auggie Salazar (played by Eiza González as perhaps the world’s most beautiful materials physicist) are employed to deadly effect. To understand how the science might work, the series creators — David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and Alexander Woo — consulted Matt Kenzie, a physics professor at the University of Cambridge whose father had worked with Benioff and Weiss on “Game of Thrones.”

Together they imagined how nanomaterials that don’t yet exist — or exist only in minute quantities in carefully controlled lab conditions — could be deployed. The goal wasn’t necessarily realism — “It’s a science-fiction show, so in some cases the fiction has to take precedence,” Kenzie said — but a sense of plausibility given current technology.

“You try not to veer into things that just look wrong or cannot be possible,” Kenzie said.

As filming approached, the creators explored whether they could rent out an actual oil tanker. But that proved too expensive. And the Panama Canal rejected a request to film there. (A sequence involving shipboard disaster is perhaps not ideal publicity.) They settled on an upper deck built on the backlot at Shepperton Studios, just outside of London. The below-deck areas were built indoors. The verdant backdrops were created using computer-generated graphics.

Before shooting, Fangmeier created a crude computer-animated version of how the sequence might go. At first, some team members snickered as it played. “Because it’s so grotesque,” Fangmeier explained.

Fangmeier and his team fine-tuned the visual effects, partnering with Scanline VFX, a Netflix-owned effects studio that specializes in creating credible disasters. Minkie Spiro, the episode’s director, began to rough out the live elements. To succeed, the sequence had to blur the boundaries of the real and the digital. For the shots in which terrified passengers try to outrun the strands, stunt actors, who had been digitally scanned, are eventually replaced by their sliced and diced digital doubles.

“We mixed special effects with visual effects, so that the eye was constantly tricked,” Spiro said.

The live elements of the sequence were filmed over the course of four days. Spiro had pushed for as many practical effects as possible. “Water and steam always looks better when it’s real,” she said. (More dangerous effects, like sparks and fire, were left to postproduction.) To create the illusion that the fibers were cutting through the ship’s canteen, crew members stood just offscreen waiting to pull strings — real, thick strings, not imagined nano ones — that would yank tables apart and scatter cereal across the floor. Magnets were also used. A row of children’s backpacks was triggered remotely, the lower halves falling away as though sliced through. After each take, there were elaborate resets — water tanks refilled, tables pushed back together, surfaces cleaned and dried.

Jonathan Pryce, one of the show’s stars, injured his knee while filming. The actor playing his assistant broke a toe. Spiro tore a ligament in her ankle. But still they persevered, racing down the set’s corridors, often with camera operators running with them.

“The camera shouldn’t always be objective,” Spiro said. “When you’re running down the corridor with these kids and these adults, you really need to feel the jeopardy and the stakes.”

During the 16-month postproduction process, these shots were digitized and then overlaid with the visual effects. A score and sound effects were then added. Like the visual effects, some of those sounds are digital creations, others were produced manually. The sound of a nanofiber slicing through a body, for example, was achieved with the noise of clothing being ripped, a watermelon being pulverized, a wet sponge being squeezed out. Meat and mashed fruits dropping to the ground mimicked the sound of those bodies falling. There were also screams, though not too many.

“It’s probably not even that painful,” Fangmeier reasoned of death by nanofiber. “Because if you’ve ever cut yourself with something very sharp, you don’t even feel it at first.”

If the sequence triumphed only on technical grounds, it wouldn’t feel entirely satisfying. It’s one thing to lacerate a ship, another to pierce a viewer. In five minutes, the show needed to suggest not only devastation, but also the moral compromises that the main characters undertake in order to achieve a dubious goal.

“Kids are murdered in this attack, and all to get this little red hard drive,” Weiss said.

In filming her portion of the sequence, in which Auggie watches what her invention has wrought, González was staring at a blank screen, forced to picture the ship’s destruction. She made herself imagine what the children onboard were enduring.

“That destroyed me and it broke me, and it actually became really hard to control,” she said.

Thankfully, the episode declines to show the deaths of any children. And the team was judicious in deciding just how gory the sequence should be. The creators felt the need to show some carnage, to better emphasize the ethical complication. “We didn’t spend that many frames on gooey, gory stuff, but there’s some,” Weiss said.

Spiro was comfortable with this restraint. “I think our imaginations are worse than reality,” she said. But for these few frames, maybe our imaginations — at least the imaginations of the hundreds of actors, crew members and designers who conceived this scene and then brought it to fruition — are better.

Fangmeier was pleased with his contribution, up to a point. When he saw the finished sequence he felt proud, but also humbled.

“I was thinking, well, we worked so hard on this and here it goes by in five seconds,” he said.

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