The Expanse is the show sci-fi fans have waited for since Battlestar Galactica concluded its four-season odyssey. Like Battlestar Galactica, The Expanse marries futurism with political tension, but instead of spanning galaxies it sticks to home turf – or in the neighbourhood at least. The Expanse’s story unfolds some 200 years in the future, at a time when Earth’s Solar System has been fully colonised. It’s more Sol opera than space opera.
Now in its third season, The Expanse has won a loyal following thanks to its deep plot and hard sci-fi context. Ships in The Expanse don’t fly horizontally USS Enterprise style, but are instead kitbashed skyscrapers, built to capitalise on thrust force. Indeed, the show’s aspirations to scientific accuracy have won the production team speaking opportunities at Jet Propulsion Labs and Cal Tech University.
Of course, real-world science can only get you so far – visual effects take The Expanse the rest of the way. The first two seasons alone, totalling 23 episodes, comprise over 4,600 stunning VFX shots – and almost all were finalised using cineSync video review.
“There’s way more blue screen and CG than you’d think across The Expanse, beyond the obvious spacecraft and set extensions,” begins VFX Supervisor Robert Munroe. “In the first act of the first episode there are 80 VFX shots alone – it’s insane.
“There’s not a day that goes by where we don’t use cineSync on the show – for shot reviews, asset reviews, previs and post-production: you name it. cineSync is key to expanding The Expanse.”
VFX Supervisor Bob Munroe
An endless expanse of assets
Even for a VFX-heavy episodic show, The Expanse pushes the boat out when it comes to beautifully detailed sci-fi assets – all delivered at an incredibly high rate.
“The Expanse is a very asset-focused show, but nothing is precious,” jokes Munroe, “we continually blow up the most magnificent spaceships you can imagine! Then we build another one, just as detailed, but completely unique. We certainly keep people occupied, that’s for sure.”
Given the intricate detail visible on each asset, preparatory conceptual work is key. Feedback loops are constant between artists in Toronto and the showrunners in Los Angeles – and cineSync ensures creative vision remains intact on assets from start of production to end.
Indeed, at the time of writing, the first storyboards for The Expanse season three have just been turned over and presented to vendors via cineSync.
“There’s no way we’d be able to get through that number of assets if we weren’t able to do cineSync sessions,” says Munroe. “We annotate, draw and refer back to frames constantly, then send the notes off to concept designers, clearly demonstrating what we need to adapt to make these sci-fi designs ready for insertion into The Expanse.”
Showrunner Naren Shankar was particularly impressed by cineSync’s innate ability to close creative gaps. Within a week of using the software he asked all departments to acquire the tool, including the music department.
“Naren will scrub through an audio file while he’s in Toronto and the musicians are in Los Angeles. He then gives immediate, specific feedback on sections of the show, bringing them up in cineSync and saying ‘bring up the crescendo on this part’. He loves it!”
Throughout season one, The Expanse post team’s efforts were focused around spaceships and set extensions. But season two introduced a new challenge: a protomolecule being of energy encapsulated in a human-like husk – known, more succinctly, as ‘The Hybrid’.
The creation of this CG creature was a critical component of the show – and cineSync was invaluable in establishing its performance, as Munroe explains:
“cineSync streamlined the whole process: we could draw on the frame with a Wacom tablet and say: ‘Okay, if the creature’s over here, and our live character and the plate is running that way, do you want the creature looking over that way, or moving that way?’ We can clearly point out what we mean in cineSync, communicating visually and spatially rather than confusing such directions in email chains.
“That’s what cineSync was designed for, after all!”
Given that they’re so keen on destroying their creations, another focus for The Expanse VFX team is digital explosions. Again, each of these are perfected using cineSync’s toolset.
“I like to draw, so being able to sketch right on my tablet via cineSync and annotating in a really freeform way is great,” says Munroe. “It really helps when adjusting fast-paced, explosive action scenes. I’ll even do a little animation sometimes across a shot, stopping at each frame to draw the next cell, showing how an explosion will move, for instance. I use cineSync for little animations like that all the time. “
Likewise, all muzzle flashes witnessed in The Expanse’s shootouts are digital, as are the yellow and blue sparks that emanate from on-set squibs. Essentially, if a physical solution either isn’t safe or practical, it becomes CG, and cineSync is on hand to make sure the effect delivers the necessary impact.
Review on the road
Even when separated by several states, cineSync unites The Expanse production team across shots large and small.
On one memorable occasion, a premiere screening of the show’s first two episodes was held at a renovated theatre in Santa Fe – hosted by George R.R. Martin. Munroe drove down from Toronto to New Mexico so he could attend, all the while editing for later episodes on his Wacom tablet and joining VFX reviews on the road.
“My wife was driving through Texas and there I was doing a VFX review with Naren, using cineSync in the back of my truck!” exclaims Munroe. “There’s never any time for us to waste. It’s full-on work, but incredibly rewarding – and cineSync makes everything so much easier.”
And not just easier – but more fun. While waiting for fellow participants to join a session, Munroe and Shankar often pass time by doodling on the first frame in cineSync.
“We draw funny faces and little speech bubbles,” laughs Munroe. “We save those and post them onto Reddit and Twitter for our fans. They love it, and the response is fantastic. Although they do mock our drawing skills…but that’s all part of the fun!”
To infinity and beyond
The Expanse is now moving into season three and is planned to hit the small screen in 2018. With the plot focusing around Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, a larger and more complex slate of VFX work is sure to follow.
“Does that mean cineSync going to be part of my world moving forward?” asks Munroe. “Absolutely. cineSync will always be a part of what I do. I can only hope the show goes for many, many more years – it’s one of the most brilliant pieces of television I’ve ever seen.
“cineSync will be with me on that journey.”