Home Behind The Scenes ‘The Orville’ Interview: Tommy Tran of FuseFX On Creating The Effects Of Seth McFarlane’s Sci-Fi Series

‘The Orville’ Interview: Tommy Tran of FuseFX On Creating The Effects Of Seth McFarlane’s Sci-Fi Series

by Dave Elliott

‘The Orville’ Interview: Tommy Tran of FuseFX On Creating The Effects Of Seth McFarlane’s Sci-Fi Series

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to have a chat with Tommy Tran of FuseFX, VFX Supervisor on Seth MacFarlane’s brilliant sci-fi series The Orville.

The epic space adventure series is set 400 years in the future and follows the crew of the U.S.S. Orville continuing their mission of exploration, as they navigate both the mysteries of the universe and the complexities of their own interpersonal relationships.

Tommy is an award-winning VFX Supervisor and Artist who has been with FuseFX since 2013. His wide-ranging credits include shows such as ‘American Horror Story’, American Crime Story’, ‘S.W.A.T’, and ‘Scream Queens’, alongside movies such as ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon’, ‘Thor’, and ‘Prometheus’. He received and Emmy for his work on ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ as Compositing Supervisor, and an HPA as a VFX Supervisor for ‘The Orville’.

The third, and possibly final season of ‘The Orville’, was a long time in the making. Production began back in 2019, but like everything else, got halted when the pandemic hit. However, Tommy and the team at FuseFX used that time wisely, making some massive upgrades to the VFX on the series. We begin by talking about making those changes for this epic space series, and dealing with the expanded scope of Seth’s vision for season three.

Geektown: Thank you for coming on and chatting with me because I love ‘The Orville’ so much! The third season was a long time coming, but you can really see a step up in quality.

Tommy: I think, yes it was. I equate it to… Seth, in his mind, it being the last season, being coup de grâce he wanted, probably needed to move on to other ventures and he wanted to go out with a bang. He wrote big and all the scripts got deeper and more intellectual. And the visual effects… just the sheer number of visual effects doubled, quadrupled. And the content of each visual effect was threefold. It was just mind-blowing. We all knew that it was big. Cause we’d been working with Seth since season one and each year got a little bigger and bigger. But when we found out that this could be the end, we knew the perfect storm was coming. And when we got that first script and I read it and it was like, “Oh my god, the first act alone had enough visual effects to fill the entire episode or two episodes!” So we braced ourselves…

Geektown: Yeah, that’s been the thing with the third season. It went from being standard 45-minute episodes to little 90-minute movies for almost every single episode!

Tommy: Yes. The scope of the work that we did and all the other vendors involved… was immense. It felt like we were working on 10 features in the timeframe of episodic television and it was immense. We learned a lot. It taught us a lot about intestinal fortitude and the capacity at which our facility, FuseFX, could work and deliver a quality product to make everybody happy, including Seth, a very meticulous man. “Exacting” is the word.

Geektown: Yeah, you were also dealing with the pandemic with this as well, which stretched the production timeline.

Tommy: Yeah, we started in the first quarter of 2019 and then the pandemic hit. And it was unfortunate that those circumstances came up. But we made the most of it. I think we used it to our advantage. The production side shut down. No one could film for a while there, but we used it to our advantage in the fact that we were asked and tasked to retrofit the entire fleet as far as making the ships bigger, grander, and more beautiful. And so we use that, the industry downtime, to just concentrate on relentlessly upgrading the ships, The Orville, the shuttle, space station, all the fighters, they all got retrofitted to enhance the visual beauty of them. Thousands of panel lines went into The Orville, the shader network alone made it just so much more cinematic than the previous seasons. So we bridged that gap with what we call “asset retrofitting.” And you see it on the screen. Casual viewers may not have noticed, but the diehard fans for sure would’ve seen it on The Orville and all the other ships, and compared to last season. Their minds were blown, I hope.

Geektown: Yeah, looking around Reddit threads and on social media and stuff, there have been a lot of comments about the fact that “wow, they’ve really upgraded things this season.” So I think you definitely achieve that.

Tommy: Yes, we definitely use the pandemic to our advantage, our studio anyway.

Geektown: As you mentioned, there are other effects vendors involved. You are one of the key ones, but I think they were up to something like 14 vendors by the end of the series.

Tommy: That was, first of all, I have to give credit to Brooke Noska, the visual effects producer. She pulled the rabbit out of a hat for the end of the season. What happened was, the scripts got bigger and bigger towards the end of the season, so by episodes 7, 8, 9, and 10, our facility and the two other main vendors had all pretty much taken on the capacity we could without taking more than what we can deliver. Brooke had asked our facility to take on much more at the end, but we knew that if we did, the quality of the work and the sheer fact that we may not be able to deliver to the show on time made us step back and say, “Brooke, we can only take this much.” And I’m sure the other three main vendors were in the same predicament.

So therefore her stable of vendors had to get much larger. She had her main vendors and I’m sure she had her side vendors, the overseas vendors, maybe totalling five or six. But then she had to call upon every studio that she knew of, and use her contacts and her cunningness to make them jump into a show and deliver what you saw as probably some of the best visual effects in the last three episodes of current television, episodic, streaming, or whatever you call it. It was a feat of masterful producing on her end. I have to give full credit to her. So yeah, 14 vendors, that’s unheard of for an episodic. But that’s what it took to give the audience, Seth, and Hulu, what was needed, what was expected.

Geektown: It is an astounding piece of work, just managing that from her, it really is! Talking about some of the specific things that you worked on, the “Domino” episode, I think is probably one of the biggest. You didn’t do the entire thing, it was split between a few vendors, but this was the huge space battle sequence between the humans, the Moclans, the Krill, the Kaylon… Just everything on screen!

Tommy: The kitchen sink! “The Kitchen Sink”, it should have been called! Yes, we did. We were asked to do the end sequence, where they went into the atmosphere of Draconis 427. We did the sky battle and then we did the ground battle there. And those were monumental in scope, size, and scale every which way. The sky battle was immense. But then the ground battle encompassed an asset build that was the biggest asset that we had built. We built the trench, the city around it, and the reactor core. And then in the end we had to blow it all up. It took a lot of brain trust to get that up and out the door in time. And the results, I think, speak for themselves. How much blood, sweat, and tears my team put into it. By far, it was the biggest single sequence that I, or dare to say, FuseFX, have worked on with just the sheer amount of shots in the complexity of each one. Not to mention just the storage and the data involved that we had to render it. And some of these renders are so heavy that at first, it took days per frame to get out.

So with some ingenuity and help from our pipeline and IT department, we got those vendor times down to the point where they were manageable. But trust me, there were days when I would log off in the middle of the night saying, “We just put so much onto our farm that it’s going to melt! I’m going to wake up and the studio’s going to be on fire!” And it kept me up at night! (Tongue in cheek…) [laughs]

Geektown: Yes, that is something of a worry! [laughs] What were your instructions and inspiration for it? Because there are definite hints of Star Wars in that sequence…

Tommy: We can’t take much credit for the conceptualising of it. Seth worked very closely with Brandon Fayette, the production side VFX supervisor, to create the look. So by the time it came to our doorsteps, the look was already set with concept work, the colour of the sky, and the previs [Previsualization] for most of that sequence. It was our previs in-house team that did it, but it was directly led by Brandon Fayette. So when the sequences came to us, they were already built, the look was already set. And when it came to the secret base asset, there were numerous concept pieces of art with daylight, the height of the sun, the cast of the shadows, the warmth of everything, was already set in pictures. So it was just up to us to take those still pictures and make them move at 24 frames a second for what seemed to be an eternity. There was a little back and forth of the colour of the clouds. Seth was very adamant on late sunset, golden hour, just a majestic feeling. And there was a fine line between two oranges and sunset and not enough blues and greens. So we had many, many meetings with the client to dial in that loop. Once it got dialled, we were off to the races. To me, it was a spectacular achievement on both ends, the client and us.

Geektown: When you’re dealing with something which is that huge and has that many assets in it, particularly the space battles, keeping track of everything and all the ships, are you developing new tools to help you get through that process?

Tommy: Yes. Needless to say, FuseFX has been around for a while and this isn’t our first rodeo dealing with big shows, we’ve been involved in many. So to back that up, our pipeline is pretty solid. We know how to keep track of CG assets, 2D assets… the pipeline is solid. But when it came to season three of The Orville, there were a lot of learning curves too. New procedures and new tools had to implement in order to get the job done. So it was a constant battle to figure out what our next steps would be outside of the working pipeline of FuseFX, which was robust to start. But there were many, many days and nights where we just had to figure out collectively as our management team, our leadership team, how are we going to do this? And more often than not, we wrote proprietary codes just for getting The Orville out because we had to sometimes step outside the pipeline of the FuseFX network umbrella. So much kudos to my leadership team, which consisted of more team members than any one given show could have ever had. We could have outfitted three or four other episodic TV shows with the artists that we had and the management team. I mean, I had three of everything working with me.

Geektown: That entire space battle is just insane. There are things blowing up everywhere! You’ve got laser fire and going across all over the place, and you sort of forget that everything in there is an individual asset of some description.

Tommy: Yeah. I mean down to the trivial things that you would, as a viewer, would just think, okay cool, they had 600 ships all shooting lasers. But think about it… We had to attach lasers to every one of those ships and make them fire in a certain direction and hit this and that, and people would change their minds. So on this frame, this ship shouldn’t fire. And we proceduralized a lot of that through tools in Nuke, which is our compositing software. And my co-VFX supervisor, JV Pike, was instrumental in coming up with what we call “gizmos”. Little things that would, just at the hit of a couple of buttons, proceduralise attaching different coloured lasers to different ships to fire different colours at different times, offsets and speeds. You would think that the speed of a laser is the speed of a laser… No, not when it came to Seth and his meticulous scrutiny. We had to speed up and slow down the lasers. Something that the common audience would not relatively see quickly. But Seth saw it and we changed it.

Geektown: Right. Absolutely! It is a spectacular sequence. There are other battle sequences in the season too. I think there was one in the episode “Twice In A Lifetime” that Seth mentioned in an interview that he thought particularly worked well.

Tommy: Yes. That was the space battle. There was a complete 180-degree turnaround from the traditional way the space battles looked. And it was pitched by Brandon early to not over-light. Things like space battles, we have sunlight coming from every direction, although we did a good job of shaping the ships previously in previous seasons and whatnot. But when it came to this episode, we wanted to hearken back to a more cinematic feel where there is not a lot of light, a lot of backlighting, a lot of silhouettes. The scene became much darker, gloomy or more dire. So if you look at it, you’ll see the differences between all the other space battles that had come previously. And that is, I think, the pivotal point in the season where Seth said, “Yeah, I want to go more cinematic.”

Although he had this set look, everything prior back to season one, I think that was when he said, “more contrast, that silhouette, let’s play less on lighting and emphasise this, that or the other.” So the grandeur of that space battle was huge. We had millions of little parts and bits of broken pieces of ships and then we had ships flying around them and then we delved into the new lighting scenario and it took some work to finally find a happy place between too dark and gloomy and stay within The Orville realm. And in the end, as you mentioned, Seth was over the moon. And he brings that up in a lot of his interviews. The reason I think he loved it so much was that it was the pivotal point where the show went a little more cinematic, for lack of a better term.

Geektown: Yes, I get what you mean. As I say, the quality over the whole thing, you can tell there is a change just but it’s subtle, but you can see it.

Tommy: Staying within what was already the precedence of what was already established and then taking it just that next step without going from changing venues. We want to keep what The Orville audience used to what they’re seeing, but just add a little more… not subconsciously, but not make it feel like they’re watching an entirely, entirely different episodic. I think the way that both production and the VFX side navigated those waters worked out quite well in the end.

Geektown: Stepping away from the space battles, one of the other things Seth mentioned was the Dolly Parton segment, which I believe you guys worked on as well. Looking at that, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there was VFX work.

Tommy: That was the beauty of it. It was the subtle, hidden visual effects, which, as visual effects artist or artists, we take pride in when we do the seamless effect, when we get a chance to do something that the audience just doesn’t realise and they take it as the truth. Working on a space show, it’s kind of hard to do that. Where in space, it looks good, but we all know it’s all visual effects. But when it came to Dolly and when the reviews started coming in and all the fans were just blown away about how good she looked, the first couple of reviews were like, Oh she looks great, she looks great. And then I kind of just sat back and said, “Wow, they didn’t think it was a visual effect.” But then a couple of days later the word got out. And, to me, that was a very special moment when we hid the fact that we enhanced Dolly a little. Just a little bit. Because she’s still so beautiful.

Geektown: Yeah. It was a sort of de-ageing thing, wasn’t it?

Tommy: It was, believe it or not. You would think that a little section that we did for Dolly, would come and go. Right. No big deal to us. But it was the fact that we got to do something that was photo-realistic in an environment that was not, and we sold it and Seth absolutely loved it. And then when Dolly tweeted that she was over the moon with it was okay, pat on the back. We did it fellas, the whole team.

Geektown: That was amazing to see. It didn’t even occur to me when I was watching it that there might have been visual effects in there and you do just look at it and go, “Wow, she looks really good.” So yeah. You mentioned the hidden effects and, like you say, it’s a huge visual show and there are effects everywhere. Are there any other smaller or subtle effects which you’ve done on the show which people may have missed that you quite liked?

Tommy: I’m sure I’m missing some subtle effects and I don’t want to make light of anything, but I mean if you truly want to know something that’s inside or joke… and I maybe get lit up for this… but the button hits every time they touched the keypad was a chore in itself because Seth wanted an exact tempo. The button gets hit, it fades off for three frames, then off on the fourth. And you would laugh at the amount of notes that we got from our client because we just didn’t get that last frame to fade out correctly. Or because they were shuffling on their fingers, we couldn’t figure out what button they were hitting!

Geektown: That’s a lovely little bit of background though. It shows you what a perfectionist Seth is.

Tommy: Oh yeah. It is an inside joke. And we did it and we did it with a smile on our faces, but it was a thorn in our sides. Let me tell you, a button hit… sometimes it would take me longer to review a button hit shot than it would be a full visual effect shot cause we were just baffled at what frame, what finger was what. So yeah, it’s a memory that I will take with us. And not to say the notes from the client were out of line. I mean, they didn’t go off on time, so we had to figure it out. But yeah, those shots alone, trivial as they may have seemed to the audience, they took work, they took time and effort… more so than I wanted to… but we got it done.

Geektown: Yeah, it shows you, like you say, how meticulous Seth can be with things and that’s why he produces such an incredible piece of work.

Tommy: Yeah, he’s an incredible man. He’s a creative powerhouse and he’s passionate and he’s a caring man too. He would often sense that the vendors were overloaded or just needed a little pep talk or something. He’d call us into a meeting, Seth, the showrunner, he’d call us in and say, “Hey guys, thank you for your work, your dedication. I realise things are hot and heavy right now, but keep up to good work and you have no idea what that means.” That meant a lot to our team. To be called into a meeting with Seth thinking that “oh, he’s probably really mad at us for not doing something on time”, or whatever. And it turned out that it was a thank you from him, from somebody of that status to reach out to us individually. It meant a lot, so shows a lot of Seth’s character. So I just wanted to make sure that people knew that not only is he one of the best showrunners out there, but he’s a caring, compassionate man, in all aspects.

Geektown: Yeah. From everything I’ve seen about him, that certainly seems to be the way he is, which is wonderful. Going back to the work, were there any Easter eggs you snuck in while you were doing stuff or any little bits and pieces that people might need to look out for?

Tommy: Easter eggs? No, because we were afraid they’d get caught because of the meticulous ridiculous eyes [laughs]… But, I don’t know if you call it an easter egg, but one of the most special moments for me was we had lost a team member early on, right after Covid hit and he passed on. He was one of our CG supervisors and immediately we told ourselves we need to find a way to include him and his family in the show. So we waited until the big episodes at the end and we asked Brandon to ask Seth if we can reanimate one of the shots and rename one of the ships in his name.

Geektown: That’s so lovely!

Tommy: So it was a scenic space station establishing shot with an Orville parked right there. We asked permission to rename a ship, we got permission, and then we realised the ship didn’t pass by the camera close enough. So we asked to be able to reanimate it, which was something we never did. If Seth wanted this ship to fly this way at this speed, it happened. Right? There was no digressing unless it was a technical error or something like that. But for him to come back and say, “Yeah, do what you got to do for that shot,” it was a very heartening moment for us. So the ship flies by gracefully and his name John Schratz, the ECV 187 John Schratz slowly passes by, no one would ever know. But to us, that was a cheerful moment to celebrate John. And that’s our Easter egg, The one and only I think.

Geektown: That’s such a beautiful thing and the fact that Seth said “go ahead, do it” is so lovely.

Tommy: Yeah, and I did not expect a “no” from Seth, but had to ask the question. But I knew that Seth would say, “Do it. Go ahead and do it,” cause that’s just the kind of man he is.

Geektown: Yeah, absolutely. Across the whole of the third season, are there any other particular shots, other than what we’ve already talked about, you were proud of or were memorable for you to be working on?

Tommy: There was a gaggle, a lot of special shots, but particularly the environments, which were plentiful, the new alien environments this year that we were awarded to do. We did space battles first season and second seasons. We knew how to blow stuff up and make space battles look good. But what was special about this year was we did a lot more of the environmental work. We created the giant storm planet in episode one, and then we actually went into the planet and we created this atmosphere that was just 300 miles an hour typhoon force winds, with the winds interacting with the ship and lightning and stuff. That we didn’t do historically. We created Krill City and episode 304, which is a standout. Just a vast 200-kilometre-wide city that we flew around, landed in, and fought in. So the memorable moments definitely came when we were doing things outside of space. New territory as you want to call it. And they were peppered all through the season for us, including “Domino”, which is the sky battle and the trenched battle.

Geektown: Yeah, I mean the Krill homeworld was an interesting one given that, from the point of the viewer, we didn’t really know much about the Krill other than they wanted to kill things!

Tommy: Yeah. A dark, dimly lit city devoid of any sunlight. We got a lot of concept work and there was actually a stage set built. A full ground floor of the marketplace, which we set extended, but that gave us the building blocks to which to design the architecture of that city. And that was a big build-out for us. Beautiful too, I have to say.

Geektown: Yeah, spectacular!

Tommy: I do think I need to mention the arachnid episode, which is probably 302. The spider guys running around. Half of it was guy stunt guys in suits and half of it was visual effects. And when we saw the cut come down, it was hard. I think I asked myself in a review or asked the crew, “did we do that shot?” And the answer was, “Yeah, we did it.” And even to myself, sometimes I forget how close we got to being photoreal on that sequence. It was amazing. The crew that did that episode outdid themselves to the fact that I had to ask, “do we do this?” That I want to get that out there.

Geektown: The fact that you can do it to that level at this point and it is so seamless, is astonishing. As you say, we don’t actually know if this is the final season of The Orville, but it seems like this may be. I don’t think he’s officially said one way or the other, but he certainly seems to be leaning towards this potentially not returning…

Tommy: I have no insider information [laughs]

Geektown: No, I’m sure you don’t! [laughs] But given that isn’t another season of this, at least imminently, what’s next on the plate for you? If you can say that is.

Tommy: No, I really can’t say because I’m under NDAs for any possible future projects. What I will say is, it was three years out of my life that were enjoyable, but it did take a toll. So I’m taking a little breather time just doing little things, little things here and there around the shop and waiting for my next one to hit. And I don’t foresee it not being sci-fi related, just say that. Without saying too much, I think I’ve pigeonholed myself into space and electron beams and ethereal effects work and stuff like that, which I’m greatly looking forward to. But right now it’s kind of just taking a breath and catching up with friends and family.

Geektown: Yeah. Good. Well after three years of working on that and doing such a spectacular job, you definitely deserve it.

Tommy: Yeah. But I say that now, but come Monday I’m going to find where Seth lives bang on his door and beg him for a fourth season. [Laughs]

Geektown: Yes! I would be very happy to see a fourth season of the show!

Tommy: I think the fanbase deserves it, and I would like to see a fourth one. But considering Seth’s schedule and what he contractually has for the next umpteen years or so, we have to wait and see. It takes a lot of time and effort to get something like The Orville going and to make sure that it’s at the level of season three. We don’t want to go backwards now. Right?

Geektown: Yeah, absolutely!

Tommy: So it’s would have to be even bigger and better for season four, if it happens. Honestly, I’m waiting to see what happens. Part of me wants it to happen. A part of me wants to move on, but if it happens, sign me up.


Geektown: Yeah, absolutely. So last two questions for you. They’re always TV related and they’re the same for everybody. First question – What TV shows are you watching at the moment or have watched most recently?

Tommy: Right now I’m watching Peaky Binders.

Geektown: Excellent.

Tommy: I’m quite enjoying Picky Blinders. I just finished Terminal List, which was phenomenal. Ozark was before that. Gosh, what am I saying about myself that I should be careful about here? Right?

Geektown: No, you’re good so far! That’s a good selection of shows, and it doesn’t surprise me that they’re all kind of not sci-fi related if that’s what you’re doing at work.

Tommy: I do watch the Obi-Wan and The Mandalorian and things of that nature. I do enjoy them, but I guess, because I work in the industry, when I want to relax and forget about things, I don’t want to watch stuff that I just saw for 14 hours straight and log off and go watch something VFX-heavy. But that’s not to take anything away from the sci-fi genre, which is what pays my paycheck. It’s just when I need to relax, I need to just forget about visual effects altogether. And this is the first time I’ve actually said that out loud. I am making it up as we go. But you know, when I think about it, I just want to relax and watch things like Peaky Blinders.

Geektown: Yeah, I absolutely get it. You wouldn’t believe the number of composers I talk to that watch shows that have no music in them!

Tommy: There you go!

Geektown: And the last question – If you had the opportunity to work on any show, which can be something from the past, something that is around in the present day, or some sort of future genre, which maybe you hadn’t worked in, what would it be?

Tommy: Oh, that’s a tough one… I am a big fan of the John Wick series. Big fan! I’d like to do a shoot ’em up. Honestly, I would like to do a John Wick-esque, spy culture… something in that vein. In o 28 years of doing visual effects, I’ve done it all… blood and gore, space… I think I want to do a shoot ’em up.

Geektown: Well, there is The Continental series, which has just moved to Peacock, filming right now… So if you can get FuseFX onto the vendor list for that…

Tommy: Yes! Oh yes. Actually, a Fuse VFX Supervisor took that job.

Geektown: Oh really?

Tommy: Yeah. A FuseFX supervisor took that job and then when I found out, I was like, I got to work the angles! Unfortunately, whether he would’ve accepted and made that happen or not, my schedule was horrible for the last three years, so there’s no way I could have slipped it in, and I think he knew that.

Geektown: That’s such a shame! But yes, that looks like it’s going to be a great show.

Tommy: But I can’t wait for that one either. So I have to set my schedule aside, I was a little disheartened that I wasn’t part of The Continental and, tongue in cheek, I tried to weasel my way in there knowing that there was no way… [Laughs]

Geektown: Well I mean maybe if it goes to a second season or something…

Tommy: Clear my schedule! [Laughs]

All 3 Seasons of ‘The Orville‘ are available now on Disney+ UK and Hulu in the USA.

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