‘It was really fun in a gruesome sort of a way’: The story behind 3 Body Problem’s intense ship scene

Adapting Cixin Liu’s scientifically dense novel The Three-Body Problem is no easy feat. The book is filled with page after page of detailed descriptions of scientific processes, from the impact three suns would have on a single planet to how a proton-sized supercomputer could interfere with the results of every particle accelerator on Earth simultaneously.

It’s a challenge for showrunners David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo for sure, as they had to make tough decisions on which elements of the novel to show, which to tell, and which to simply gloss over. But it was also an especially difficult job for the Netflix 3 Body Problem series’ visual effects team, who were tasked with bringing many of the novel’s most difficult concepts to life — communicating advanced scientific processes described in painstaking detail in the book, but understandably slimmed down to their core visual elements for a television audience.

“We definitely had some challenges with the more abstract stuff,” VFX supervisor Stefen Fangmeier, who worked with Benioff and Weiss on Game of Thrones, told Polygon. “For some of it, they basically just copied it straight out of the book, and now I have to figure out what it should look like. [Like] inside the particle accelerator to show how [the Sophon] is disrupting these particle elements, and the dimensional unfolding from the 10th dimension of a proton down to two dimensions. Even stuff like the countdown. It’s incredibly challenging, because we did so many versions of that, and didn’t want it to look like an alarm clock, but it had to be legible.”

Fangmeier says a crucial part of the sprawling VFX team was BUF, a Paris-based company who worked on the Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted revamp of the science documentary series Cosmos. Their experience in high science work (and their in-house software) was “essential” in the team’s ability to communicate some of the more difficult scientific processes.

The countdown in 3 Body Problem, depicted in wispy numbers, shows 1:20 remaining Image: Netflix

One of the biggest projects for the VFX team (and the whole 3 Body Problem crew) was the graphic destruction of a large ship and everyone on board as it passes through the Panama Canal in episode 5. It’s the kind of VFX challenge talented teams thrive on: a big moment you can conceptualize in theory but for which we have no real-world example to draw from. Adapted directly from one of the most memorable and horrifying sequences from the book, the sequence depicts what happens when nanowires are used to slice through a gigantic sea vessel, killing thousands on board.

All the challenges of adapting the terror unfolding inside the boat make for one of the starkest differences between how this scene is depicted in the book and in the show. The book, for better and worse, does not pay nearly as much attention to characters and character development as the Netflix adaptation. Unlike in the series, we don’t get to see life on the ship, or meet children who are about to meet their brutal end through our protagonists’ actions.

“We wanted to show it, we didn’t want to evade it,” Benioff said at a roundtable earlier this month. “I think when you actually see something on a screen, it is going to be more horrific than in the book. You’re reading these descriptions, but you’re not seeing blood, you’re not seeing a bunch of kids running away, you’re not seeing children’s backpacks getting split in half.”

A doomed Jonathan Pryce holds hands with a doomed child in a doomed cafeteria on a doomed boat in 3 Body Problem. Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

“The challenge here is we needed to at least meet, if not exceed, people’s imaginations when they read the book,” Woo says. “Give them everything that sequence implies. And so the logistical side of it took up probably more hours of blood and sweat per frame than any other sequence in the show.”

The wires are spaced out every 3 feet, cutting the ship into layers. For Fangmeier, the easiest visual comparison point came from an unlikely place: the dessert menu.

“Imagine you have a big cake that’s been sliced into all these layers on a cart and you push it. When it hits the wall, that’s when everything starts sliding off it,” Fangmeier says. “The point of resistance, stopping the momentum forward, makes all the pieces suddenly think, Oh, I’m still moving forward, because I’m not really connected to anything anymore. And that’s how we visualized it. The top layer would go first, and it would kind of take some pressure off the bottom layers, and so everything started sliding.”

The location was an additional challenge. Initially, the show looked into filming at the actual Panama Canal, but recent real-world events made that a no-go. “We checked in with the Panama Canal, but they weren’t really interested in having us film this in Panama after the [Ever Given incident at the] Suez Canal,” Fangmeier says. “[They said], ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with that.’ And then Netflix legal looked into it and said, ‘Yeah, but we can still call it the Panama Canal. It’s not trademarked, it’s a geographic location.’”

So in addition to animating the ship and its destruction, the VFX team also had to create a CG re-creation of the canal itself, using an Olympic rowing facility outside of London as a base and turning it into the “much more tropical” Panama Canal in post-production.

Once the slicing started, an extra element of chaos was injected. Some elements were shot practically — production built stages at Shepperton Studios in London to represent the decks of the ship, and stunt people ran through the halls getting “sliced.” But the majority of the sequence was CG, with some practical help.

The cruise ship in Three Body Problem, travelling through the Panama Canal, all in one piece. Image: Netflix

The cruise ship in Three Body Problem, sliced by nanofiber, is about to fall apart on the shore Image: Netflix

“Deb Riley, our production designer, drew lines on the walls saying This is where the fibers would be,” Weiss says. “Everything that crosses those fiber pads is going to be cut in half.”

“We had these LED strips set up that replicated the speed of the wires as the ship passes through,” Benioff says. “It was an incredible amount of prep work, and then an incredible amount of post work from the VFX team.”

The image of the backpacks being sliced is one of the most memorable of the sequence, and was executed via a combination of practical effects and CG.

“The special effects team actually [cut] those backpacks and timed it,” Fangmeier says. “They released them with a timer. So what we had to do is digitally stitch them back together, and then reveal the cut lines as they fall down.”

When it came to designing the visuals of people getting sliced by the nanofiber, the goal was to avoid going too far to the point of it seeming ridiculous.

“It’s nice to cut in the torso. Maybe nice right below the head,” Fangmeier says. “It got a little bit gruesome but not overly so. It wasn’t too exploitive. Like Kill Bill 2 — I still remember in that sequence all the arms getting cut off, fountains of blood squirting; it got pretty comical there. And that’s what we definitely wanted to avoid.”

“It was really fun in a gruesome sort of a way,” agrees Weiss. “There were really fun and funny production meetings about which department was going to do which thing and how they were all going to get stitched together.”

Fangmeier’s background gave him a unique perspective on bringing the whole project together, from an artistic and scientific point of view. A former computer scientist, he got his start in the entertainment industry while working with storm chasers to make three-dimensional models of how tornadoes were formed. As he put it, “The scientists walked in, and three days later, we’re filmmakers.” Ten years later, he worked on Twister, bringing that full circle, but his lengthy career includes work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, as well as directing the Eragon movie.

So with his background, does Fangmeier think the show passes scientific muster?

“Well, we’ll just see what Neil deGrasse Tyson has to say about it.”