‘Tales from the Loop’ VFX Producer Andrea Knoll On Translating Painterly Aesthetic Of Swedish Artist Simon Stålenhag’s Work To Sci-Fi Drama

Matt Grobar
·10 min read

On Tales from the Loop, VFX producer Andrea Knoll helped build a world around an art book by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, working to preserve its painterly feeling in every frame.

Created by Nathaniel Halpern, the sci-fi drama follows the unlikely journeys of townspeople living above “The Loop”, a machine built to tap into the mysteries of the universe. In bringing this retro-futuristic world to life, the Tales team embraced a combination of practical and visual effects, always with an eye toward photorealistic imagery.

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Challenged to deliver feature-quality effects on a compressed TV schedule, Knoll faced myriad hurdles on the series, while designing everything from robots, to futuristic tractors, to bionic arms. Ultimately, though, she would earn her first Emmy nomination for her work, finding the project to be one of the most collaborative and rewarding of her career.

DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Tales from the Loop? What attracted you to the series?

ANDREA KNOLL: A very good friend and colleague recommended me for Tales from the Loop. We had worked on Stranger Things together, and he knew my quality of work and work ethic. The producer sent me the first two scripts, and immediately I was excited about the project after reading the scripts. They were so unique, mysterious, and had a very intriguing tone, as well.

Nathaniel’s writing is really beautiful, and I could tell that we would have the opportunity to do something really special, visually, with this series, especially given the look was based on Simon Stålenhag’s paintings. I’m a huge fan of his work, and so I pitched my thoughts on the approach I’d take for the visual effects, and here we are.

DEADLINE: What was your pitch for the show?

KNOLL: From day one, we were all on the same page, wanting everything to look photorealistic and not CG. One of my first meetings was with Nathaniel, the showrunner, and the producers, and I explained what we would need to achieve the quality of visual effects we all wanted.

The whole process was very positive, and I’m grateful to our amazing producer, Rafi Crohn, who’s very supportive of artistry. Because with this project, we wanted to maintain a painterly quality throughout the season, and we wanted the visual effects to preserve the feeling that is present in Simon’s book—that while there are these unique, magnificent sci-fi structures and elements in this town, they don’t overtake the story. The visual effects are there to service the story. At the core, this show is about the personal stories of the people living in this town, and interacting with the Loop, so we wanted to keep all images poignant, but maintain a sense of subtlety in the visual effects, so that we were supporting the story.

DEADLINE: What were some of the elements from Simon Stålenhag’s art book that you brought into the series? What was the process of translating his work for TV?

KNOLL: There are a lot of different approaches that we took. We definitely wanted to focus on taking as much of a practical approach as we could. So, we built the underground Loop. One of my first conversations on the show was with Phil Messina, the production designer on the pilot, and it was interesting because he wanted to build a vane turbine. So, that’s based on Simon’s book. He built a partial vane turbine, and then in visual effects, we enhanced the ice, and made a frozen lake, and added the top piece of that practical vane turbine. We also created CG vane turbines that are kind of sprinkled around that frozen lake. Even the entrance of the Loop comes from Simon’s book, and when we’re inside the underground of the Loop and the Eclipse Room, it was so exciting to hear in one of my first conversations with Phil that they were planning to build a partial Eclipse. Then, we sort of extended the Eclipse, and of course, we created a CG asset for that, as well.

The robots that we see, the two-legged robots, in Simon’s books, you kind of see a view from the back of the robot. So, we partnered with Legacy Effects, and they built a practical robot, and actually did a lot of the design work for that robot, because you don’t see the face of a robot in Simon’s book. So, they did this amazing design work, and then built a practical robot that we used in many of the shots, where we would sometimes only need to paint out the rig and the puppeteers. They had such an outstanding performance on the practical robot, and everyone was so happy with what they had done that, in CG, when we built the CG robot and had animation on the full robot, we actually matched to the range of motion that we had studied from the practical robot.

So, throughout the show, we took this joint, kind of hybrid approach to the practical, and what’s CG, and it was really a team effort. It’s a combination of approaches, working hand in hand with Legacy and their puppeteers, and kind of marrying the best of both worlds, practical and CG—and of course, always staying true to that tone and feeling of Simon’s work.

Just in terms of post-production and working with Nathaniel, we really would interrogate every frame and every episode and say, “Does this look like a painting?” That was something that I know everyone was very aware of during the shoot, but we also were aware of it really until the final delivery of the show, that we wanted to maintain that painterly quality throughout.

DEADLINE: For Emmy consideration, you submitted pilot episode “Loop.” What are you particularly proud of, thinking back on that piece?

KNOLL: The first episode nicely represents the whole series. We’re setting the look and the tone for the entire season, and it’s just also representative of our approach to the visual effects on the show. It’s fun and challenging, working on an anthology series like this, because we get to do something different in each episode, and with the pilot, we have a little bit of everything, from a visual effects perspective. We have full CG assets, CG character animation, CG enhancements, set extensions, CG props, cleanup work. We had to do snow extensions, and snow cleanup. It was kind of unpredictable, the weather, so there were patches of snow on some of the shoot days.

So, I think ultimately we touched almost every single shot in this pilot, and that’s something I’m very proud of because a viewer might watch and think it has minimal visual effects, aside from the more magical shots of the snow floating up in the cabin, or the house destruction shot.

For example, when the two kids are on the pier, the frozen lake behind them, that’s a CG frozen lake. It was just snow in the background in Winnipeg on the shoot day, and there was no lake. Everything that you see when the two kids are on the pier is visual effects, but I think when visual effects are done right, you can’t tell that anything was done. It’s seamless. On Tales from the Loop, our goal was to create visual effects that are photorealistic, subtle, enhancing what is already there, and I think the pilot is a great example of that.

DEADLINE: As you mentioned, the episode features an extraordinary sequence in which a house comes apart, piece by piece, and floats up into the air. How did you approach that moment?

KNOLL: That house destruction shot was one of the more challenging shots in the whole series, and it’s actually the only shot that we did some previz on prior to the shoot, just visually conceptualizing how we were going to have that look.

That was an interesting shot because basically, it’s a magical shot. We wanted to maintain this photorealistic look to it, but then of course we’re doing this antigravity sort of effect. We’re moving in the opposite direction of gravity, so we want to show the destruction, and we want it to look like a real house that’s destructing upward, but it’s a very surreal event happening. So, we had many, many discussions and meetings, and kind of back and forth, with the artists at Rodeo FX, and we had to just be surgical about it. I think ultimately, that shot actually took the longest amount of time of all the shots in the [pilot], because it’s so surreal that it’s very challenging to make it look realistic. So, we would just get surgical about the details. We needed to look at each piece of the house and make sure it looked like the actual insides of the home.

DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges of the series in general?

KNOLL: The biggest challenge was, we had less time to complete the work than most streaming shows, and we had to lock into what we were doing very quickly so we could take the time for integration.

Also it’s a unique show because it’s a series that is based on paintings—so, we had this great gift of Simon’s work as source material and inspiration, but we also had a big challenge because he has a dedicated fan base, and we wanted to do his work justice at all times, visually.

DEADLINE: Were there particular highlights or memorable moments from your time with Tales from the Loop?

KNOLL: I think working on Tales from the Loop is actually one of the best experiences in my career, and I loved the team that was put together on this show. Everyone worked really well together.

Also, for me, working with Jodie Foster was a dream come true. It was amazing to work one-on-one with her and see her in her element. She’s one of the best directors out there, and a huge inspiration to me. So, those are definitely huge highlights.

DEADLINE: You earned your first Emmy nomination for your work here. What does that mean to you?

KNOLL: It is very exciting and it’s also a huge honor, coming from the TV Academy, because your peers are voting on the recognition. So, it means a lot to have recognition on a show like this, because again, it was sort of the best experience I’ve had to date in my career, for so many reasons. It really is special to be recognized by my peers, but also for a project that really felt like a passion project, for all of us that were working on it. It’s a daunting task to live up to Simon’s work and presenting, visually, a show that has that painterly aspect throughout. So, it was very rewarding that we were successful in what we set out to do.

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