Showtime revisits themes of otherness, vice and greed with this episodic continuation of Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth
Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 feature film The Man Who Fell to Earth, featuring a captivating and otherworldly performance by David Bowie, gained cult status for its unique style and visual impact. His adaptation, based on Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel of the same name, tackled themes of otherness and not belonging, as well as human vice, greed and corruption.
Continuing with a similar sentiment – perhaps more pertinent today than ever before – Showtime’s The Man Who Fell to Earth is set 45 years after Thomas Newton (David Bowie) first visited Earth in a bid to save his planet.
Now, almost half a century later and with the species close to extinction, the survival of an overheated Anthea and its inhabitants rests on the shoulders of alien protagonist Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor). With a narrative that feels all too familiar, Faraday, teaming up with scientist Justin Falls (Naomie Harris), meets resistance from corporate entities placing more importance on exploitation than preservation.
Outpost were involved from the early stages of the project, with Outpost Art Director Steve Molloy working collaboratively with Dimension and showrunners Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek: Discovery) and Jenny Lumet (Star Trek: Picard) to design the sci-fi elements of the series.
Working from the showrunners’ initial ideas, Outpost and Dimension helped flesh out the show’s unique visual identity, in particular the alien landscape of Anthea, the space shuttle and Anthean technology, the vaporators. The teams worked together very closely, sending notes and concepts back and forth and evolving early conversations and concepts into the show’s unique style. Then, Outpost’s 2D and 3D teams began building out the concepts and working on early layouts.
Beyond the conceptual work, Outpost’s involvement was varied across a total of almost 150 shots, from invisible VFX, to sprawling outer space environments, hard surface modelling, and complex FX sequences.
One of the first big sequences Outpost worked on was based on Earth; it was the opening sequence shot at the Royal Albert Hall. We are first introduced to Faraday as a tech-guru, and watch him as he gives a tech talk to a full auditorium.
For this sequence the team received plates with a small group of actors sitting in various places of the hall, the rest of the audience was created using digi doubles. The team also did some blue screen replacement for these shots to show the images and headlines on the projector screens behind him.
Episode one was also the first time we are introduced to a vaporator, a machine of alien technology engineered to process Anthea’s little remaining water supply. On the creative development of the asset, Molloy says: “The client wanted something natural and less industrial looking, and we were working from the idea that the race of Anthea is an evolved insectile race and so it made sense they would base their technology on nature.
"The initial concepts we came up with incorporated elements from a lotus flower, with petals and a core, as well as stem-like tubes that reach from the core to the ground, sucking the water up into the centre for processing."
"These stems featured several large nodules that were intended for storing the water that was processed,” Molloy continues.
“Throughout the iterations that these early designs went through, we also added webbing along the tubes and translucency to the ‘petals’ and the central dome. We also added the hexagonal pattern, a visual theme that runs throughout the different Anthean assets.
“Details of basalt columns were added to the vaporators too. These can be seen on any of the flying or floating assets such as the floating underground cities and the shuttle that transports Faraday to earth. We worked off of the idea that this was what held their flying technology. We took inspiration of these columns from sites like the Devil’s Tower in the U.S. and the East coast of Iceland,” Molloy recalls.
Creating the Anthea landscape was also a creative challenge the team faced, taking inspiration from the acid lakes of Dallol in Ethiopia and the expansive, dry landscape of Jordan. “The whole idea was to show that Anthea was a dying planet that had become toxic,” says White, “so it was about getting the right colours and textures in there.”
Still taking inspiration from the natural world, the team also researched different unique land formations. “A word we used a lot during the creative process for the environments was tafoni. There are a number of theories as to what exactly creates tafoni, but most believe it to be when salt works its way into rock pores creating honeycomb type patterns. We built this into the Anthea landscape, but being mindful not to push it too far,” White continues. “You can probably see it most in our interior cave sequences.
“This kind of pattern reinforces the idea that the Anthean race are a hive community as the showrunner wanted them to resemble a bee colony. This meant that Faraday is essentially a drone within their society,” White explains. “The cities inside the cavern sequence were also loosely based on what ant colonies look like when concrete is poured into them to make a cast,” he continues.
Not only was Anthea created by our environments team from the ground, but our 3D team also created Anthea as a planet as seen from outer space, which in itself also came with some challenges.
“We had to create consistency around the Anthea planet asset, whether we’re looking at it from space or if we’re on the surface of the planet itself,” Outpost VFX Environment Artist, Maeve Edymann recalls.
“This was quite a challenge. However, we had one of our FX artists create a to-scale fly through of the full launch sequence from 2 metres high off the ground to well into space. This helped us grasp the relative scale and layout, but also potential issues that we might run into further down the line, for example how big the planet would look from the perspective of a person (or alien) on the surface of that planet and its relative scale to earth,” Edymann continues.
Edymann also recalls working from the concepts that Molloy produced: “I was working up some concepts from Steve before we had any footage from the client, which was really fun and allowed us to get a jump-start ahead of any shots being turned over.”
By establishing and maintaining a close relationship with the client from the early stages of development the overall process from concept to completion was streamlined, allowing for more collaborative creative environment that would lead to the show’s final look and feel.
Watch the team’s work on The Man Who Fell to Earth on Showtime and Paramount+.