Westworld World

How 'Westworld' De-Aged Anthony Hopkins & Other Special-Effect Secrets

young anthony hopkins in westworld
HBO

This post contains spoilers through the third episode of Westworld, "The Stray." Head to our Westworld show hub for more reviews, theories, and deep dives.

The third episode of HBO's Westworld took the series to a whole new level, and not just in terms of android abilities. The visual effects for the show also went up a notch in "The Stray," which flashed back to a younger version of Westworld's creative director, Dr. Robert Ford, played by 78-year-old Anthony Hopkins.

The de-aging work is just one of many visual effects that stand Westworld up against Hollywood blockbusters. Thrillist spoke to the show's visual-effects supervisor Jay Worth to get the rundown on the mind-bending drama's subtle, spectacular optical illusions.

Helping the hosts go haywire

It's not easy playing an artificial intelligence plagued by existentialist thought. Whenever the Westworld park's hosts need to go a little haywire, the visual-effects team is usually involved to sell the malfunction.

Worth says his team has three different methodologies for robotic breakdown. Old Bill (Michael Wincott), an early model who converses with Dr. Ford in the first episode, suffers from wear and tear, so jerking, mechanical-like motion was added with computer graphics. For the malfunctioning Sheriff Pickett (Brian Howe), Worth's team added glitching and eyeball movement that follows a fly.

Effects on Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum), Dolores' father, were even more delicate. "We ended up doing very little to Louis' performance," says Worth. "I wanted that to feel more like someone struggling, almost having a stroke, rather than something that felt mechanical, and because his performance was amazing and already felt very organic. But we did do a little bit of digital massaging using 2D tricks with making him stop and start when Dr. Ford was giving him commands to go between the 'previous builds,' as he calls it."

Flies: real or fake?

The hosts inside Westworld have a pretty rotten time. They're shot at, beaten up, and then hauled back to the mesa headquarters where they sit in a comatose state while the park's controllers interrogate them. To add insult to injury, the hosts must endure a true pest: flies -- that literally crawl over their open eyes.

So did actors like Evan Rachel Wood have to work with actual flies during filming? Surprisingly, yes. "We had real flies there on the day for most of the time, but then we mostly changed the performance, or ended up replacing flies or having one shot be a practical fly and one shot be a CG fly." For the close-up on Dolores, when a fly crawls across her eye, Worth spared the actress and digitally inserted the insect.

The secret to motivating real flies to act? Freezing them. "You get them cold and they wake up when they're on people, and then they crawl around rather slowly before they fly off," explains Worth. "We had our fly wrangler there and we had the Humane Society there to make sure no flies were harmed."

westworld map
HBO

Viewing the world of Westworld

Westworld's controllers keep watch over their artificial park via a 3D map projection. Although this did involve digital intervention, the map itself began with something much more practical.

"We brought in a company to help us figure out the logistics of carving this massive piece of Styrofoam on a turntable and having it look like topography," says Worth, "because we really didn't want a hologram sort of vibe. We wanted something that felt real and tangible but also felt like a representation of the park."

Visual-effects artists then built a 3D matte painting of the landscape and "projected" that onto the sculpted form. This could easily be changed to suit the time of day and therefore work for the storytelling point. "The hardest thing," notes Worth, "was to get a projection that rotated in sync with this turntable built by special effects, which took quite a bit of technical figuring out."

anthony hopkins westworld
HBO

Turning back the clock on Dr. Ford

Normally, de-aging visual effects are the domain of major movie productions. Think of the young Michael Douglas in Ant-Man or the "youthified" Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. But Westworld's makers tackled the same kind of shots in the third episode's flashback to young Ford.

"We took a scan of Sir Tony and used that as our base," explains Worth, "and then used a ton of photography and reference to figure out what we wanted him to look like. I think it ended up turning out really, really incredible."

Visual-effects studio Important Looking Pirates, in Sweden, was responsible for the shots. It made a photorealistic CG version of Hopkins from the scan and reference, and then placed that on the body of a stand-in. What made the shots particularly challenging, says Worth, was that the visual-effects team was conscious of a certain perception Hopkins has among audiences.  

"America doesn't really remember Sir Tony before Silence of the Lambs. Obviously we found every reference we could from every movie and every photo and everything from the correct timeframe. But it really came down to what feels most like our character in the past, as much as anything."

robot production line westworld
HBO

The visual effects that you don't notice

Another mostly practical effect was the 3D printing-like contraption that sculpts the host bodies that we often see mid-build, like sinewy skeletons. Even the ones we see dipped into a milky-white liquid were predominantly on-set creations, with extra muscle fibers added onto the skeletons at the visual-effects stage.

Indeed, many of the effects you see in Westworld are not immediately apparent. Some involve environmental fixes to the Western-themed locations -- the show was filmed in both Utah and outside Los Angeles, but had to appear like a desolate otherworld. "We do everything from road cleanup to telephone poles to airplane trails to continuity fixes," says Worth. Westworld's locomotive, the Black Ridge Limited, had to be completely added in after shooting. Worth praises his team's work on the opening shot in the second episode, "Chestnut," where the steam engine chugs along the ridge and transitions into the map.

"We always look at VFX as, first and foremost, an enhancer to the story," adds Worth. "So if it's not going to enhance the story we don't do it, and if we can do it practically or some part of it practically then we do that, and we only really do the things in visual effects that we can't do practically for whatever reason."

gunslinger westworld 2016
HBO

The Westworld legacy

In crafting the various visual effects for the show, Jay Worth's team also had a relatively tough act to follow. The original Westworld (1973), upon which the HBO series is based, is widely acknowledged as the first feature film to utilize digital image processing, the technique that put audiences into the futuristic POV of a robot. At the time, the effect was revolutionary.

"That's just one of the honors of getting to work on a project like this," acknowledges Worth, who has high admiration for the team of VFX artists and studios on the show (these include Important Looking Pirates, Shade VFX, CoSA VFX, Double Negative, and Chicken Bone VFX). "And you feel, because of Westworld's history, a little more protective of it, but also just a sense of being honored to be able to be part of the universe that is part of the story."

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Ian Failes writes about visual effects, animation, and humanoid robots whenever he can. Join him on the digital frontier @vfxblog.