Expanding the fantasy city of Tar Valon for The Wheel of Time Season 2


Expanding the fantasy city of Tar Valon for The Wheel of Time Season 2

18 March 2024

Travel through the city of Tar Valon with Outpost VFX Lead Generalist Nick White and Lead Lighting Artist Ben Hart-Shea who talk us through the build for The Wheel of Time season 2

In 2021, when Outpost joined the production on season 1 of Amazon’s The Wheel of Time, the team would begin by building the iconic city of Tar Valon, giving fans of the sprawling fantasy series a look at the city for the very first time.

The enormous and ancient city of Tar Valon spans an entire island and is protected by stone walls that guard the 600 feet tall White Tower. As an important location in Robert Jordan’s fantasy series, the Outpost team returned to Tar Valon for season 2 to explore it in even more detail, uncovering unseen locations and adding a depth and richness to every building, street and marketplace.

To find out more, we took a tour of Tar Valon with Outpost Lead Generalist Artist, Nick White and Lead Lighting Artist, Ben Hart-Shea.

Season 2 of The Wheel of Time is available to stream now on Prime Video.

Can you briefly outline the creative process you undertook for the city of Tar Valon for this season? What software did you use?

Nick White (NW): Gaea and Houdini. The first time we built Tar Valon we did it in Maya which was a very manual process, but this time we’re doing it in Houdini.

Ben Hart-Shea (BHS): We used Gaea because we wanted to get a sense of building the city over an existing landscape, rather than have the city dictate what our island looked like.

NW: Yeah, we literally built it from the ground up. We wanted to go for something that was a natural feel, imagining the terrain that they would find when they got there to build Tar Valon and then built on top of that. We knew certain things we needed to do, for example we needed to have a mound area in the middle where the White Tower was going to sit. After that, we started building tiers and roads and got the roads to cut into the terrain.

This season, there are a lot more dynamic camera moves across the city. Do we get to see parts of Tar Valon we’ve not seen before?

NW: You do. We had cameras that encompassed the whole city, so we had to build the whole city which was very hands-on. While we were building it in Houdini, and Houdini is procedural, there is still a lot of manual work involved to build a city like this.

In the books, the city is built by a race called the Ogiers, and they are at one with nature, so we wanted to add some more natural greenery throughout the city. Wherever the Ogiers build a city they always build a grove within it so they have somewhere to go to be in nature. 

BHS: We had the Ogier grove that’s all grown with natural trees; an enclosed forest. We wanted to get that feel across the entire city. Also, the walls of the city are a very important feature and we wanted to get a feel that this growth spread over to the walls. We looked at references of old Indian forts, particularly Gwalior Fort, to give us more detail in the outer walls which gave them more of an ancient feel.

As for the buildings and the White Tower, we used season 1 as a reference and added loads more detail. We fed off of the sets created by their production team which were designed with Indian architecture as inspiration, so we leaned into that in other areas of the build as well. Outpost’s Art Director, Steve Molloy, helped us with the concept art to carry on those themes.

How does your work on this season differ from your work on last season?

NW: It differed quite a lot this time, namely because it was different software we were using. Houdini allowed us to do a lot of stuff quicker and add more detail in a lot more easily than when we were doing it in Maya for season 1. With Maya it was a very manual process to do lots of things, whereas in Houdini, at lot of what we were doing was derived from drawing curves; drawing rows of buildings, then it would populate them and randomise them.

BHS: Due to the procedural nature of these curves, it was editable as well, which gave us a lot of creative freedom.

NW: And a lot faster which gave us more time to be creative and add in more detail. Once you’re using a bit of software that does more, you start adding more. It starts becoming more complex.

BHS: The faster the process takes, the sooner you can make more creative decisions. It wasn’t just the city as well; we got more creative freedom in terms of designing the tower, too. We could put more attention into that and build the detail up. 

NW: There was more of a concepting phase this time round too.

BHS: Yeah, we took a bit more time designing it and laying down initial plans before building it all up.

What was the process like on team for season 2?

NW: Covid actually influenced our work on season 1 as it was done through lockdown. We were working remotely from home for the first season, whereas this season, there were more of us in the studio together. It’s easier if you’re all in the same place, particularly Ben and I being in the studio together to have those conversations, it made it easier. There’s more of a creative flow.

BHS: You can’t always get your point across as easily when working remotely. In studio we could bounce ideas off each other.

NW: Ben kept turning up at my desk [laughs].

What was the creative brief for the creation of Tar Valon and were you given any references from the client?

NW: We knew what the city looked like at street level because we had all the reference from season 1, so we were using all of that. But in terms of the broader strokes, we actually had a lot of creative freedom. 

BHS: Yeah, we based the look of all the sets of the interior of the tower, so we knew the architectural design that they were after, then we looked up all these references of all these different temples that we then collaged together. [Outpost Art Director] Steve Molloy made a proof of concept which we could then follow as a brief to build the tower, which was a hero feature. We had a lot of freedom to build that.

How did you add life to the city? It feels a lot more alive, especially when you’re viewing it from above.

BHS: We designed the town to be more open so there’s more exterior balconies where people can walk on, whereas season 1 was more closed off. The cameras were a big thing; we spent a lot of time designing the cameras to really showcase the city’s intricacies. We also put a lot of atmosphere in there; all these things that even though they’re not necessarily movement they bring it alive.

How did you use texture and weathering in the Tar Valon to communicate the scale of the city?

BHS: We actually cut it back a bit from the first season. We still had it on the buildings and certain areas, but the walls were the big thing. Large areas of these huge walls we really textured up. With the tower we had a lot of good references from temples, some of them hundreds or thousands of years old, using those really helped with the tower. The whole idea of tower is it’s the White Tower, so we need to keep that but make it look authentically ancient.

NW: That was always an interesting balance. It’s old and weathered but needs to retain its iconic colour.

BHS: Also finding out the type of stone that was used to make things, the marble effect on some areas, limestone on others, where in the references a lot of the dirt and weathering goes an orange colour. So, we tried to feed that in so you have that balance of white and different tones rather than just white and grime. There’s lots of tones all over.

Are there any nice details you think people may miss on first viewing?

BHS: There’s one shot where, I don’t know if anyone realises, the Flame of Tar Valon – a logo representing the White Tower which as mentioned in the books – is on the pillar. Blink and you miss it but it’s there. It’s multi-coloured and all the colours of the Aes Sedai. Also, all over the tower itself there are indented tiles hidden within the detail which are the colours of the Aes Sedai as well.

NW: And there’s the stained-glass windows at the very top as well.

BHS: That’s right, on that spiralling down shot where you see all of the roof of the tower, we took the design that they’d used on set for the Amyrlin Seat, the throne of the head of the Aes Sedai, and we took that design and put it on top of the tower roof, a stained glass in all the different colours of the Aes Sedai. 

There are little details all over. The Flame of Tar Valon room, where they melt the ring, there’s a stone sculpture on the side of the building which is a flame to represent that this is the level of the Flame of Tar Valon. 

How do you feel about the final shots in the series?

NW: I think it came out really well; they look really good. When you’re going through the whole process, you’re just looking at this thing and just figuring out problems and making creative decisions, you’re just in it. It’s not until the end, particularly when you see the breakdown shots, you’re like, ‘wow, that looks good’. When you’re working on it you’re not subjectively looking at it, but when you have a little break you go back and appreciate it.

There were specific areas that we played particular attention to, like Northharbour, and I think we were seeing from the cameras that it’s what you do, you work up those areas. But when you see it from other angles you’re like, ‘that holds up’. It’s a really versatile asset.

BHS: It works from every angle. Like any sequence, there are shots you would want to refine a little bit, but you can put the camera anywhere and it looks good.

Learn more about the team's work on season 2 of The Wheel of Time here.

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