Behind the Scenes: Outer Range at Ollin VFX

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December 14th, 2022

Outer Range centers on Royal Abbott, a rancher fighting for his land and family, who discovers an unfathomable mystery at the edge of Wyoming's wilderness. A thrilling fable with hints of wry humor and supernatural mystery, Outer Range examines how we grapple with the unknown. 

To bring this neo-Western, Amazon Studios Original series to life, creator Brian Ealkins enlisted the help of Ollin VFX. One of Latin America's top visual effects (VFX) studios, Ollin worked on all 8 episodes of season 1 and 536 VFX shots. 

We spoke to Ollin’s Outer Range VFX Supervisor, Yabin Morales, to learn how they built the paranormal world of Outer Range with VFX, using Clarisse for scene assembly, look development, lighting and rendering. 

Hi Yabin, can you tell us some background on Ollin VFX? 

Ollin VFX is located in Mexico City and was founded in 1996. We’re typically a team of about 50 to 80 people, depending on projects, who are split out across our compositing, CG, matte painting, rotoscope and matchmove departments. 

For the last 13 years the focus of our work has been mainly on the US market for feature film, television and streaming services. Some of the land mark projects we’ve worked on include: Godzilla King of the Monsters, Tron Legacy, some of the DC projects like Suicide Squad and Deadpool for Marvel. We also have a long history of collaboration on projects directed or produced by David Fincher, from Zodiac and The Social Network, to more recently House of Cards, Mindhunter and Mank.

What is your role at Ollin VFX?

I am a VFX supervisor and it’s my job to provide creative direction and solutions for all our departments to ensure we achieve the creative objectives of each show. I also work with the directors and any other VFX supervisors involved in a show, in order to provide solutions and tools that meet their needs, and deliver the best possible final shots. 

Now let’s talk about your recent project Outer Range. Can you tell how many episodes and shots Ollin worked on for the show?

We worked on the 8 episodes that make up the first season, a total of 534 shots over a  period of 8 months.

Can you tell us what type of work you did on these shots?

Our work was mainly the development of CG environments, and 2D and 3D compositing. We created two main CG elements for use throughout the series: The story mountain, which was a neighboring mountain to the Abbott family house, and the Grand Teton mountains which formed the backdrop for the house and the "hole". We also created a Time-lapse sequence to show the evolution of the earth from volcanic times to the present day.

What challenges did you face as a studio on this project? 

The main challenge we faced was to put together 5 full CG environments that needed to be in motion at all times. We couldn't make use of traditional techniques like feeding photos to aid realism or making use of scans because everything had to be moving in every frame and look fluid over time. Everything had to come straight out of CG to work with the morph-like animation that was created to narrate the development of the land. 

We also worked on the project during the COVID 19 pandemic, so the communication between us and the show supervisor, Jason Piccioni, was fully remote. This raised the level of complexity for a project of more than 530 shots.

We know that you adopted Clarisse for use on Outer Range. Can you tell us what led you to choose Clarisse for this project?

We were looking for a way to be more efficient. We needed a user-friendly tool that would allow us to quickly manage huge files with full visibility; in this type of project, rapid iteration and reaction to client changes is essential. 

We were impressed by Clarisse for how robust it is when it comes to handling scenes with billions of polygons. It fulfilled everything we needed: being able to handle all these scenes quickly and smoothly, with a very simple interface, manageable for any artist with basic knowledge of 3D.

Did you compare Clarisse to any other software when assessing it for use on this project?

Yes we looked at Houdini, Maya and 3ds Max. But we ultimately chose Clarisse for its ability to handle large scenes in a simple and fluid way. Clarisse’s handling of scatters is really powerful. The context structure makes it very easy to handle complex environments, since you can have several scenes in the same file and combine them quickly without overloading the program. And most importantly, learning Clarisse is really easy, in a short time you can create rich environments.

How was the experience of integrating Clarisse into your pipeline?

Thanks to Clarisse’s support for Python, integration was simple. We were able to add ShotGrid and create new tools to facilitate and speed up various processes for creating folders, rendering, and publishing. We also created some scripts for assembly and animations that had previously been very tedious to execute manually.

You created many incredible scenes with Clarisse. Can you tell us about any especially memorable shots and sequences that you used it for? and how it helped you overcome the challenges you faced in creating these shots? 

The Time-lapse is probably one of the most memorable. It’s a 32 second sequence shot where we see the evolution of time on earth from the volcanic era to the present day, where the history of the Abbott family unfolds.

For the look development of the Time-lapse we used height maps, scatter maps and color maps, which were then animated in Nuke. Managing the height maps and scatters was really easy in Clarisse. We also formed three mountain assets in Clarisse, look developing each one from the mountain's formation to the time narrated in the series. We then combined those three assets and cloned them, playing with the scale, rotation and continuing to add more, until we formed the complete worlds. Clarisse's robustness allowed us to clone the asset up to thirty times, each with grass and trees, without any issue visualizing the results quickly. 

To an untrained eye you would think that Outer Range was shot on location, but we imagine you did a lot of invisible VFX. Can you tell us about the invisible VFX on the show?

Throughout the series the mountain next to the Abbott family home is prominent, and had to be digital as it had specific story-relevant features and scales that were difficult to find on location. We created that mountain using a simple height map, adding hundreds of stones using the scatter tool so that at any angle it has details and good resolution. Above the stones we placed trees and grass, also using the scatter tool, to achieve a photorealistic result from every angle without having to use traditional 2D matte painting. 

We also recreated the Grand Teton Mountains which are located in Wyoming, the story takes place there, but the series was filmed in New Mexico, so they also had to be digital. To recreate the Tetons at the correct scale, we used more height maps available online, and imported them into Clarisse to do shading and lighting. Not to mention the many invisible effects we created to transform the landscape to make it look like Wyoming, because the terrain and climate is different than in New Mexico. 

Clarisse was key to creating the mountain assets, as it allowed us to place hundreds of trees and grasses quickly and in great detail, with great machine performance.

How did you find Clarisse’s performance when working with such huge scenes?

Overall Clarisse's performance is amazing in terms of polygon usage and handling, we could iterate and see the results almost instantly. Because the Time-lapse scene was made up of billions of polygons, we had to break it down into phases in order to work. But it wasn’t difficult to divide, because the use of contexts in Clarisse made our work much easier.

Did you use Clarisse for rendering? And if so, how was the experience of rendering so much photo-real, invisible VFX in Clarisse?  

Once we had the scenes in Clarisse, there was no reason to change render engines. The Clarisse engine has everything you need for photorealistic rendering and it’s fast when rendering scenes with billions of polygons.

Can you tell us about any of your Clarisse favorite features that were used on the show? 

Definitely the scatter tools. It’s very easy to paint where and how the tree libraries are going to be placed, you see results almost in real time, and you can add slope so that they’re automatically placed according to the inclination of the terrain, which makes it look really natural.

Have you continued to use Clarisse on other projects since completing Outer Range? 

Yes, Clarisse is now our main assembly tool for all things CG, and is being used on all of our current projects at the studio. 

Lastly, how was your overall experience of using Clarisse for a TV show? 

Having a show with so many environments and a CG team of 4 people working remotely with constant iterations with the client, and short turnaround times, Clarrise was a key piece in getting the project off the ground.