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Science Be Damned — ‘3 Body Problem’ Just Wanted Its VR Game to ‘Look Cool’

The essence of Netflix’s apocalyptic sci-fi series “3 Body Problem” is contained within the immersive VR game engineered by the San-Ti aliens. Using a headset, the VR game transports the player from China’s Shang Dynasty to Tudor England to Kubla Khan’s Xanadu, recreating the chaotic destruction of the alien planet as a result of living in an unstable three-star solar system.

In adapting Liu Cixin’s acclaimed novel, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss (“Game of Thrones”) and Alexander Woo made the VR game the VFX centerpiece early on, particularly for Episode 3 (“Destroyer of Worlds”), directed by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”). Here cosmologist Jin (Jess Hong) and entrepreneur Jack (John Bradley) stand on the observation deck of the Kubla Khan Pleasure Dome and witness 30 million people getting sucked up into the sun because of reverse gravity. It’s a trippy CG effect from Scanline.

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“I always think that virtual reality is for people who can’t afford reality,” VFX supervisor Stefen Fangmeier (“Game of Thrones”) told IndieWire. “We thought about VR and video games, but this was different in the sense that it was more realistic because you can smell things, you can touch things, you can taste things. It’s also more akin to dreaming in a way because you’re wearing different clothes and the environment changes.”

Fangmeier saw the VR game as a metaphor for global warming, with the aliens creating it as a communication tool to help humanity understand what was happening on their planet and to become compassionate with their plight when they arrive in 400 years. “I thought we could make this super surreal,” he said. “But then I think it would’ve distracted from the theme.” Fangmeier’s only interaction with Stanton (who most recently directed the existential sci-fi epic, “In the Blink of an Eye,” for Searchlight Pictures) was working out previs shots for the Kubla Khan sequence.

3 Body Problem. (L to R) Mark Gatiss as Isaac Newton, Jenson Cheng as Kublai Khan, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Reece Shearsmith as Alan Turing, John Bradley as Jack Rooney in episode 103 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024
‘3 Body Problem’Courtesy of Netflix

The VR environments are simple enough (shot on a blue screen stage at Shepperton Studios in England) until we get to Kubla Khan. Then there’s plenty of action, with 30 million people forming a binary human computer surrounded by soldiers on horseback, and then the comic relief of Jen and Jack being boiled in water, all topped off by the reverse gravity sequence.

“The only set piece we had was maybe half of that platform of the observation deck,” Fangmeier added. “And then, when they walk up through the rows of soldiers and Follower [Eve Ridley], that was 50 guys in costume on a stage with some sand on the ground with blue screens around it. And then we get up to the deck and you have the actors, special effects, stunts. And then everything else, except for some close-up soldiers floating by the platform, where we wanted to see faces that we shot some elements for in front of a blue screen, was all computer-generated.”

Additionally, in Episode 3, cinematographer P.J. Dillon (“Game of Thrones”) used LED light panels on stage coordinated by fellow DP Jonathan Freeman, where they facilitated rapid changes in the sky from day to night to show the unstable gravitational pull of the three suns. “It was so you got the sense that light was flickering on the platform and the actors,” Fangmeier said. “It was this novel attempt to do something new and use some new technology to do it.”

3 Body Problem. (L to R) Sea Shimooka as Sophon, John Bradley as Jack Rooney, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng in episode 103 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
‘3 Body Problem’Courtesy of Netflix

The VFX supervisor enjoyed the varied and often eccentric effects on “3 Body Parts” from a host of other studios (including BUF, El Ranchito, Pixomondo, and Screenscene). These ranged from the numbers in the sky to the panoramic VR game headset reflections, to the strange tanker destruction, to the interstellar climax.

“Some things were easier than we expected, and others were much more complex in terms of the creative design,” said Fangmeier. “And, in the end, we all came to the conclusion: ‘We don’t know if this is scientifically accurate, but just make it look cool.'”

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