Union VFX re-created the largest rocket ever planned to be built, in Ronald D Moore’s Apple TV+ dystopian drama For All Mankind.
Independent visual-effects facility Union VFX created the epic season finale visuals 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 concluding with the televised launch of a Sea Dragon rocket into space.
The Union team had a substantial task in constructing the rocket, as 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 brief in terms of model placement, timing, and camera angles.
After a few more rounds of previs Union VFX locked down the 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, the Union team added additional elements including buoys, seagulls, a boat and two helicopters to provide scale and realism to the scene.
Union had a good reference for the rocket build – which was modelled and textured in Houdini – given that the blueprints for the original design are accessible, however, following consultation with the clients, some artistic license was employed to help realise the rocket’s full epic on-screen potential.
The final delivery was a 4K, 2544 frame single shot of a rocket launch from under the ocean – with required interaction of water, white water, foam, pyro and smoke.
Given the magnitude of the sims and renders the Union VFX team looked to the AWS cloud to provide the capacity required to deliver the work within the time frame.
Their largest sim (the rocket plume) took them 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 Union’s size.
Once the first renders were complete, the team 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.
The Union team used digital matte painting techniques to create the sky and the USS Enterprise battleship in the deep background, and in comp, a layer of additional crashing wave elements were added to supplement the FX water as the rocket emerges from the sea and the engines ignite.
Union VFX also 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. The TV screen look was also added, which Union created from period reference as it needed to stand up to us travelling through the pixels.
Episode 10 of For All Mankind closes with Union VFX’s rocket soaring upwards into the heavens, an explosive end to the dystopian drama finale.
Find out more about Union VFX at: unionvfx.com