Union Launch Sea Dragon in For All Mankind Season Finale
We were approached to create the epic season finale for Apple TV+’s dystopian drama For All Mankind. Created by Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Galactica), For All Mankind dramatises an alternate version of 1960s USA in which the Russians beat the Americans to landing the first man on the moon.
The season concludes with the televised launch of a Sea Dragon rocket.
Although never built, the Sea Dragon was an immense, sea-launched, two-stage vehicle designed by Robert Truax for Aerojet in 1962. At 150m (490ft) long with a diameter of 23m (75ft), Sea Dragon would have been the largest rocket ever built. Even today, it’s still the largest rocket that has ever been fully conceived.
Season VFX Supervisor Jay Redd provided some initial previs of the launch which acted as a pretty good brief in terms of model placement, timing and camera angles.
After a few more rounds of previs we locked down our transition from viewers watching the launch broadcast live on TV through their set to a crystal clear, full-width shot of the launch.
Alongside the rocket, we added additional elements including buoys, seagulls, a boat and two helicopters to provide scale and realism to the scene.
We had a pretty good reference for the rocket build given that the blueprints for the original design are accessible. However, in consultation with our clients, some artistic license was employed to help the rocket to realise it’s full epic on-screen potential.
The rocket was modelled and textured in Houdini.
Our final delivery was a 4K, 2544 frame single shot of a rocket launch from under the ocean - pretty ambitious considering the required interaction of water, white water, foam, pyro and smoke.
Given the magnitude of the sims and renders we looked to the AWS cloud to provide the capacity required to deliver the work within the time frame.
Our largest sim (the rocket plume) took 8 days to sim on systems with 96x CPU’s and upwards of 768GB RAM generating ~4 billion voxels! Capacity ordinarily well out of reach of a studio of our size.
As soon as we had our first renders, we got to work building the shot in Nuke. The CG elements consisted of the rocket, helicopters, buoys, water, waves, pyro thrusters, engine plume, atmos and smoke. Given the length of the shot and the interactions between the various elements over time, there were multiple sims and renders for each.
Digital matte painting techniques were used to create the sky and the USS Enterprise battleship in the deep background. In comp, we added a layer of additional crashing wave elements to supplement the FX water as the rocket emerges from the sea and the engines ignite.
There was also a fair bit of work involved getting the transition from the living room plate to the sea correct. We built the living room in 2.5D taking parallax from the walls and created a camera to push-in and transition smoothly for the full CG takeover.
We also added the TV screen look which we had to create from period reference as it needed to stand up to us travelling through the pixels.
Episode 10 closes with our rocket soaring upwards into the heavens.