Pixomondo’s Nhat Phong Tran is the VFX Supervisor on Fox’s hit sci-fi series, The Orville. His partner is VFX Producer, Daniel Carbo. They are the team responsible for transporting us to exotic worlds each and every week on Seth MacFarlane’s labor of love.

Not only that, but they help to make the ship an integral part of the action. At SCIFI.radio, we were fortunate enough to sit down with these two experienced gurus who were more than willing to pull back the curtain and take us behind the scenes of this extraordinary show.

Nath Phong Tran, VFX Supervisor for The Orville at Pixomondo.

The Interview

SCIFI.radio: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us! Let’s discuss your backgrounds. Nhat, I know you recently did Crazy Rich Asians and The Fate of the Furious.  And Daniel you worked on Counterpart, Ghostbusters and Solo: A Star Wars Story. How did both of you get involved in special effects?

Pixomondo's VFX Producer for 'The Orville', Daniel Carbo
Pixomondo’s VFX Producer for ‘The Orville’, Daniel Carbo

Daniel Carbo: I fell into it. I started as a production assistant at Sony Pictures Imageworks on The Polar Express. So that was a very complicated film, it was fully HD. At that time, the studio hadn’t done an HD film before utilizing motion capture.

Through that experience, it was a good entry point for me as a production assistant. However, nobody really knew what they were doing. After that, I continued making movies with Robert Zemeckis. I did Beowulf and A Christmas Carol.

I did all of those films and then transitioned into visual effects. Basically, I just worked my way up.

Nhat Phong Tran: So, I was a film major and I was thinking about what I wanted to do. Visual Effects combined my passion for film and the art that comes with filmmaking but also, I loved the technical side as well.

I decided to specialize in visual effects and computer graphics programming. Then I became involved with Pixomondo and I have been with them ever since.

SCIFI.radio: How did both of you end up working on The Orville?

NPT: Dan actually started on the second season of The Orville and I was still writing off on another project. And then I came on for Identity Part 2 and that is how we both got started on the show.

DC: Nhat and I are in a good partnership. His talent and attitude really work well with me. He is the greatest producer I have worked with. We have had challenging projects and I don’t know if we would have been as successful as we were if the two of us weren’t together. 

The Road Not Taken

SCIFI.radio: When the Kaylon ships chased after the shuttle causing Gordon to enter the ice cavern, was this a difficult scene to create? How long did it take?

DC: We did the previz and the animation for the ice cavern chase. There was another team that did the shots for the final. I am actually not sure who it was. There were a lot of teams involved because it was a visually effects heavy episode.

Pixomondo focused on the shuttle going underwater, the Orville in the Marianas Trench and the ship flying out of the ocean. Those were the main areas that we worked on for The Road Not Taken.

SCIFI.radio:  I did want to talk about that! Was it difficult to make the Orville come alive so to speak underwater? It was really believable that she was in the Marianas Trench. Did you use Maya, ZBrush, Nuke and Houdini or other tools to create that realistic effect?

NPT: We primarily use Houdini for our physical simulation and procedural debris and particle generation. The Trench was generated using a combination of real heightmaps modulated by an erosion simulation.

Hero type detail was sculpted using ZBrush.  For atmospherics, we rendered the scene with an additional AerialPerspective shader using Vray. The final integration and compositing were done in Nuke with the depth spectral color absorption and diffusion using an implementation of a natural logarithmic curve. 

SCIFI.radio: How many people do you employ to create a scene like that?

DC: On that sequence in particular, I’d say we had about 30 people working on that scene. Other than that, we had our environment team, our lighting team putting everything together and lighting all the shots.

There were also people involved with flying the shuttle as it meanders its way to the bottom of the trench and populating that and the background into shots. It’s quite an effort and you have a certain time to turn it around from previz through final for that kind of sequence.

Memories of Season 2

SCIFI.radio: What effects were you the proudest of in the memorable 2-part episode, Identity?

NPT: I am the proudest of the sequence of The Orville descending through the clouds on Kaylon. It was very balanced aesthetically.

SCIFI.radio: Did you experience any challenges this season?  

DC: We were asked to do an episode where we were visiting a new planet. Most of the time that was our work having to come up with building out worlds. We had to do this five or six times this season. You know, it’s hard.

Obviously, you can only reuse so much. We did reuse a lot of stuff but at the same time, everything was unique.

In Primal Urges, we worked on the creature that was peddling pornography that worked with John (LaMarr). I enjoyed that episode quite a bit. That puppet was really well-done. There was a man inside the suit, it had great details and looked fantastic. However, it didn’t quite have the articulation that the filmmakers wanted.

Seth felt it was really underwhelming. There was a lot of work put into it but they wanted an extra 10% to put it over the top. So, we did a full head replacement on the puppet to articulate the nostrils on the nose and we also paid attention to the hands and the feet.

This was something a little outside of our comfort zone but it allowed some of our artists an opportunity to shine. I am very proud of the team because it could have gone poorly.

Another visual effect that I was happy with dealt with the Kaylon world. The digital computer wall that we put together. We came up with the look and the technique. That ended up being well over 100 shots.

We took this on as a last-minute challenge. It had a lot of moving parts because it had to be visually stunning and we had to pull it off where it seemed grounded in that environment. I am very pleased with how it turned out.

SCIFI.radio: Is it hard to make your deadlines?

DC: Never. (Insert laughter). The schedules are really challenging. Since I come from a feature background, there’s a longer lead time. I’ve worked places where I have gotten nervous thinking, “We’re not going to make it.”

The network schedule…just crunching numbers, it doesn’t mathematically work out. Nothing is ever done, right? But you deliver it.

SCIFI.radio: What is it like working with Seth MacFarlane?

NPT: We usually communicate through Luke McDonald.

DC: Luke is the main conduit to Seth. Seth has a lot to look at. That is who we contact through the project. The team is really fantastic!

SCIFI.radio: Is Pixomondo preparing for Season 3 or are you at a standstill right now and working on other projects?

DC: I am not sure I am going to be able to answer that. (Insert laughter)

SCIFI.radio. Understandable!

SCIFI.radio (Cont.): Do you have any advice for our readers that want to get into special effects and might not know how to go about it?

NPT: Passion is important. You will be challenged. Be interested and open to anything and everything.

DC: Our jobs are very collaborative. Nobody works on an island. You are always playing off of other people. There is a level of responsibility that comes with this job as well because you are expected to produce.

SCIFI.radio would like to thank Nhat and Daniel for taking time out of their busy schedules to chat with us. If you would like to see what other movies and shows that Pixomondo has worked on, you can visit their website.

We hope we will be seeing more of their work on The Orville in the very near future. Fingers crossed!

What do you think of The Orville’s special effects? Do you have any favorite sequences? Let us know in the comments.

Susan Leighton
Susan Leighton