The cinematographers behind Netflix sci-fi series explain why the sun was such an important element in the show’s VR game world and how they played the story’s fictional science straight down the line.

Attempting to do for science fiction what Game of Thrones did for fantasy, Netflix series 3 Body Problem mixes a large cast and a constellation of locations with shifting timelines, astrophysics and alien invaders.


Behind the Scenes: 3 Body Problem

Game of Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were reportedly handed $20m an episode – bigger than GoT’s budget - to adapt the sci-fi novels of Chinese writer Liu Cixin into eight parts of what is hoped will be the first of several seasons.

Like events in Westeros, the arc of the story is one of impending threat centred around a core group of characters, but there the similarities end. It goes from the domestic to the cosmic, from the known to the unknown, and from the stable to the unstable — all in a flash.

“We swing from extreme normality to extreme abnormality,” says Richard Donnelly ISC, who was cinematographer on the first two episodes along with fellow DP Jonathan Freeman ASC. “We have multiple locations, multiple worlds but the main drama takes place in very real everyday life. It was very important to give those everyday scenes a big sense of normality so that once you left and went into the VR game you would really feel the extreme abnormality of aliens travelling from four light years away to invade Earth in 400 years’ time.”

The first scenes are set in 1960’s China during the Cultural Revolution and filmed to evoke the colours of the period. Later in episode one, we see a Chinese military facility ‘Red Coast Base’. The location for this was found near Cáceres in western Spain, at the site of an actual military facility on top of a mountain ridge. Part of the workload for set decorator Andrew McCarthy included stripping out components of WWII aircraft, tanks, and other machinery to lend an era-appropriate and practical feeling to the base.

“The giant radar dish was added in post but it was very important to have this feeling of isolation when viewed from the top. When Ye Wenjie (played by Zine Tseng) looks up she sees a huge area of the forbidden zone and when she looks up at the mountain it looks quite impenetrable and private.”

It was shot on a hot spring day so Donnelly changed the colour temp in the camera to give the feeling of a harsh winter with cold blues.

“We timed the whole scene in which Ye arrives at the facility so that all the characters were backlit. When she is taken out of the truck and walked up to the entrance she squints and looks up at the radar and gets hit with the sun. I liked the end result because we worked with the weather and it was quite convincing.”

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Playing with light

The aliens manifest themselves to humanity in several ways including being able to switch on and off the very universe, placing a digital countdown in someone’s vision and by way of a hyper-real virtual reality game.


Behind the Scenes: 3 Body Problem

The destructive three-star solar system that the VR game recreates for its players meant that lighting was of special significance throughout production.

Freeman, who was lead photographer on the first two episodes, created complex and specific lighting panels to define, differentiate, and manipulate the lighting in the VR shots.

On a stage at Shepperton, he devised a 180-degree wall of LED SkyPanels, hidden behind a scrim, and manipulated lighting changes that play in the story.

“The most critical part of the VR game was the story of light and how even the motions of the characters are influenced by the phases of the sun,” Freeman says. “Most of the imagery was created virtually however the key human element would be our actors performing and reacting to light. We would be on close-up shots of their faces responding to light so we needed those transitions – to mimic sunrise and sunset – to feel as real as possible.”

They could have used a Virtual Production Volume where the background plates are used for interactive lighting but one challenge was that they couldn’t find one big enough or cheap enough.

“We have a scene with a hundred naked extras running from one side of the stage to the other which required a very large space; plus we had others walking, talking and travelling. So the space had to be large. In addition, we wanted to use real elements of wind and snow that can corrupt any high-tech Volume stage. Since we didn’t necessarily need high-resolution background images to create interactive light we used hundreds of SkyPanels as a screen array. It is in effect a low-res Volume, still expensive to build but less so than a conventional Volume.”

Operators were able to precisely control light movement and colour on the wall and program lighting differences specifically for the different skin tones of each actor.

“The most complex aspect of it was to create real hard sunlight but we could get away with that here because of the artificiality or heightened reality of it being a VR game world. Also, we are dealing in worlds with multiple suns and on a larger scale than that of Earth’s relationship to the sun so we could be more forgiving.”

DP PJ Dillon, who shot episode 3, put together an LED platform on the floor for when alien intelligence the Sophon walks on lava.

Enter the Sophon

The novels merge science fiction with heavy, practical science and DP Martin Ahlgren, ASC dived into research for his block of episodes 4-6 with director Minkie Spiro.


Behind the Scenes: 3 Body Problem

“The question for everyone was how to do an alien invasion series in a way that is more scientifically rooted than a lot of film versions of this genre,” he says. “That leant itself to a more naturalistic approach.”

Ahlgren was tasked with a scene explaining the background of the aliens (called San-Ti) and their interest in invading Earth. We learn that the San-Ti are light years ahead in terms of technology than the human race and have created Sophons, which act as a quantum device that allows the aliens to keep track of humans in real-time. This scene takes place in the VR game and features a female human embodiment of the Sophon.

Minkie and I spent a lot of time working out how to tell this story with the show’s science advisor physicist Dr Matt Kenzi. In some ways I felt I spent as much time researching the science and how to visually tell the story than anything related to cinematography.”

He experimented with a GoPro Max 360 camera mounted on a boom pole as a storytelling device to move between the VR world and flashbacks to previous episodes while the Sophon explains mysteries like why the stars in the night sky seemed to blink.

They swapped the GoPro for an Insta360 Pro which captured feeds from eight high-resolution cameras, stitched together in post. “It also had a very decent close focus so you could even do transitions with close-ups on someone’s eye,” says Ahlgren.

It was important to play the sci-fi straight down the line in order for an audience to believe in the story’s fictional science.

“We are stretching the limits of what is possible according to physics but we also have to leave it a bit fuzzy unless the logic falls apart,” he says.

VR world building

The VR headset is gold mirrored and looks as if it’s made all of one metal. It comes presented in a luxury white box with the name of the player embossed on the top. Production designer Deborah Riley calls it a “hero prop”, that set the tone for the virtual reality worlds which were a mix of VFX and physical sets.


Behind the Scenes: 3 Body Problem

The first of the VR worlds that appears in episode 1 is of a Chinese-style pyramid referenced from the Shang Dynasty. The gothic architecture of Wells Cathedral was used as a template for the VFX build of late 16th century Italy and an audience with the Pope. One of the biggest builds of the season was the observation deck of Xanadu’s pleasure dome in another VR world.

“It was meant to be of the era of Kublai Khan [from Coleridge’s poem],” Riley explains. “We were looking at Mongolian architecture but there was very little by way of research that points particularly to timber construction in Mongolia. The setting was originally scripted as an observation deck, but because that caused VFX far too many difficulties and turned every shot into a VFX shot, I had to turn the deck into a balcony. Adding various levels to that design meant that the structure was able to hug our actors in a way and give us a backing, so that the camera could look into them and make sure that our actors could still look out onto vast Mongol armies.”

VFX producer Steve Kullback led a team of vendors that included Scanline VFX, BUF and Cadence Effects and extensive VFX work that included a photoreal Panama Canal through which an oil tanker (also part VFX) passes through in ep. 5 as well its destruction by ‘nano-fibre’ threads that make it look like it been through a meat grinder.

The physical special effects team plays a role as well, smashing numerous sheets of plate glass so we have just the right look when the Sophon puts one character’s head through a window.

For the prosthetics team, creating the flattened, dehydrated body of the character Follower was one of the most challenging tasks across the show. They made two versions and also created another 80 dehydrated bodies.

Eagle-eyed viewers might be able to spot the 3 Body Problem logo hidden in the visuals throughout the show — on the handles of weapons, woven into the fabric and tassels of costumes, carved in stones, in the architecture, and elsewhere.

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