Mysterious disappearances and weird phenomena set the scene for the latest season of True Detective: Night Country. The 6-episode HBO series is set in the chilly permanent “night country” of Alaska, where detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Keli Reis) are tasked with unravelling the dark history of a remote town on the edge of the US’s northern-most state. Night Country is directed by Issa López, and studio VFX supervisor is Barney Curnow.

As the main visual effects vendor, much of Cinesite’s work serves to enhance the haunting atmosphere at the heart of the series. Indeed, the mysterious series opening sequence was one of our most challenging.

The Caribou

In a remote icy landscape we see a hunter crouched in the snow with his rifle trained upon a distant herd of caribou, the sun setting behind. The hunter observes the animals closely. One particular creature appears to be startled by an unseen danger; we see its close-up face, in contemplation before it bellows a warning to the rest of the herd. Alarm quickly spreads before they begin to gallop away. As the sun sinks and darkness descends, we see the caribou running towards the edge of an ice cliff, from which they launch themselves. The scene provides an unsettling opening, setting the tone for the rest of the season, where nothing is quite as it seems.

Cinesite VFX supervisor Simon Stanley-Clamp lays out the challenge in creating a sequence which was almost entirely computer generated. “The plates were filmed in Iceland, on a glacier in a mountain range where the white snowscape lead up to a white sky. We needed to add the sunset and create definition as that sunset moves into night. Ultimately, we replaced everything, extracting the hunter from the plate photography and dropping him into our bespoke environment, which was based loosely upon the layout which had been shot.”

Reindeer and caribou are the same species, sharing many physical characteristics, although caribou are slightly larger and stockier, with longer fur. Cinesite’s starting point was a photographic reindeer shoot. Reference obtained from that shoot informed every aspect of the caribou, from texture, groom and lighting through to movement.

Caribou have different coats in different seasons; the team settled on a cross between Spring and Autumn, which was neither too shaggy or short. There is a range of fur textures and lengths all over their bodies and one important characteristic is the creature’s waddle, almost like a beard across its chest, where the fur is far longer and thicker than anywhere else. Cinesite supervisor Simon says, “We created various fur textures on the back, legs, tummy and chest. When the legs began to look too fluffy, we wet the fur down to make it more matted, clinging closely to the skin. Another important consideration was that reference footage showed us that snow is always in the caribous’ fur, gathering around their hooves, up their shins and also on their noses and eyebrows. We needed to carefully integrate the snowflakes.”

The animals were meticulously facially rigged to allow for the necessary close-up detail, including flaring nostrils, the interior of bellowing mouths with extruding tongues, as well as the subtle twitching and movements of cheekbones and eyebrows.

The subtlety of the animation needed to be entirely convincing. The sense of unease which begins with a single caribou spreads slowly and gradually through the herd, like the evolution of an idea. The animators built a library of stances, exploring how the animals shift weight on their front legs, graze, sit down and stand up. Those movement cycles were built into the behaviour of the wider herd, adding touches like grazing, cocking heads, flicking ears etc. Animators built a series of walk and gallup cycles which they could blend between. Simon asserts, “The herd movement was created using a combination of crowd simulation and hand animation; the animation was mostly hands-on. There are shots where you are glimpsing 25 or 30 caribou where each one has been hand animated, even those which are deep out of focus in the background were still tweaked on a per character basis.”

Polar Bear

Animals appear like sinister omens in Night Country. A polar bear seen in the first episode walks out in front of Evangeline’s car in Ennis Town, startling her as it pauses before walking away. The same bear returns in a later episode, where Danvers swerves from the road to avoid hitting it, ending up in a snow drift as the animal peers menacingly at her through the driver’s window.
A realistic stuffy head was created by the production which was used on set to provide useful reference for lighting and scale, as well as to provide the performers with an eye line.

The bear has lost an eye and has a distinctive scar across its face. Simon says, “The Polar Bear went through several looks before we settled with the director on the right one. It is an emaciated, damaged bear, with a scar where it has lost an eye, having been in a fight at some point in its past. However, it needed to retain a convincing sense of power and danger. We also created various grooms before settling on the right one. Initial versions were more shaggy, long and greasy. The final version is cleaner than that, but carefully adjusted so as not to be too “cute” or fluffy.”

Digital breath was added throughout the season, to reflect the frigid, chilly atmosphere. Bears are warm blooded creatures and when we see it peering through Danvers’ driver’s side window, it breathes on the glass, pausing before walking away. It is an unnerving moment; breath was added to the side window, which evaporates to reveal the bear looking in.
Achieving a realistic sense of weight was essential to the bear’s convincing movement. It is heavy and slow, advancing with slow intent and a sense of power. The creature FX team created realistic fat wobble and jiggle, with its muscles moving convincingly beneath its skin.

Ennis town and beyond

Night Country is set in remote Alaskan Ennis Town but was filmed in Iceland. Extensive environment work was required throughout the season to convincingly re-create the Alaskan territory and terrain. Distant mountain ranges were added to the background, leading down to the town, the outskirts of which extend out to the frozen, open expanse of sea, a perpetual snowy wilderness. These town extensions were achieved through a combination of CG and digital matte painting techniques. Other work required the addition of streetlights, road sign language changes and crew removal.

Adding the chill

An icy blast hits Ennis Town in the form of a blizzard at the end of the fifth episode. Many weather effects were achieved using practical snow captured on set, but it needed to be closely matched and extended using visual effects techniques. “They used fake snow with smoke pumped into it, blown in with fans,” says Simon. “We augmented that, recreating its look with a volumetric mist combined with CG FX, adding in snow particulate to bulk it out, adjusting the speed, density and depth on a shot-by-shot basis.”

Other considerations included re-creating the look of the old lenses favoured by the Director of Photography, which resulted in interesting aberration, distortion and imperfections. These particularly impacted the path and motion of the snow and it was important to remain faithful to the main photography. In addition, the snow is often seen through car windows, so a double layer of distortion was sometimes required.

The challenge of photorealism

Cinesite has created monsters and other worldly creatures for countless episodic and feature film productions previously. “With fantastical creatures, there is no existing audience expectation about what they might see,” says Simon. “However, with realism you have the additional challenge that people think they know what something should look like, which is in many respects harder. I am incredibly proud of the whole team for its work on Night Country, which I believe raises the bar in terms of quality and realism.”

  • Release date: 14th Jan 2024
  • Studio: HBO
True Detective: Night Country