3 Body Problem Judgment Day

The “Judgment Day” episode of the 3 Body Problem contains one of the most harrowing set pieces you’ll ever see: the deaths of hundreds of people, aboard a converted oil tanker passing through the Panama Canal, vis-a-vis tiny weapons known as nanofibers that slice their bodies apart.

Based on the book by Liu Cixin, 3 Body Problem was created by Alexander Woo and Game of Thrones veterans David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The sequence, directed by Minkie Spiro (Better Call Saul, Barry) has drawn comparisons to the infamous “Red Wedding” Game of Thrones massacre for its deft blend of emotion, surprise, and cruel efficiency.

We talked with visual effects supervisor Stefan Fangmeier and production designer Deborah Riley — both veterans of Game of Thrones — as well as editor Michael Ruscio (True Blood, Six Feet Under) about how they brought the unforgettable Judgment Day sequence to life.

The Real Horror of the 3 Body Problem Judgment Day Sequence

Behind the scenes of the 3 Body Problem visual effects — starting with the Judgement Day sequence.

The first time you see it, you might think the invisible nanofibers are racing across the deck and  down hallways, seeking out their victims. But the truth is even worse: They are long strands of material, stretched across two poles at either side of the canal, spaced out at 50-centimeter intervals from the surface of the water up to the deck of the tanker. (Fifty centimeters equal about 20 inches.)

Picture a fence in the Old West, with three lines of barbed wire — except the barbed wire is too thin to see. The fibers do not move. As the ship enters their web, everything in it is sliced at those 50 centimeter intervals — paper dolls, children’s backpacks, a hose, and finally bodies.

As the 3 Body Problem artisans planned the sequence, they started by thinking of happy things, like egg slicers and wedding cakes.

“We were just talking about it like one of those egg graters — you put a hard-boiled egg in it, and the wires go through it, and you end up with all these slices,” said Fangmeier. “So then the question was just, what would immediately happen, in terms of physics, to this tanker, in terms of the layers?”

The team decided that each layer of the ship – cut like a hard-boiled egg into slices — would stay intact because of the weight of the layers above. 

Until it ran aground. 

“And then of course, through that stop of the forward momentum, the slices would start to slide off each other and onto the shore,” Fangmeier continued. “If you’ve had a cake cut into many layers and you push them on a cart, it’s fine until it hits something. And then of course, the cake would fall.”

The nanofibers have already passed through the ship, but the weight of the layers above each slice keep it intact. Courtesy of Netflix.

Riley was responsible for creating the look and feel of the tanker — called the Judgment Day — which oil heir Mike Evans (Jonathan Pryce) has converted into a floating city for fellow followers of the alien race known as the San-Ti. 

She had to not only imagine a tanker, made cozy for adults and children alike, but imagine what it might look like sliced into sections.

“We had the deck of the tanker, which was built in the car park at Shepperton Studios, part of the Pinewood Group. And it was sort of there that we first started teasing out exactly how these cuts would work,” she said. 

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“We had an executive-level sort of corridor where we had Mike’s office, and we also had the office of Felix, which was a very high tech room where he had all of his screens, where he was able to watch all of the players. And then we had the level where we had the cafeteria, and the school level, where we could show how these people were living aboard the boat.

“I can’t tell you the amount of meetings we had about the journey of the boat coming through those fibers,” she added. “We have backpacks, there’s a fire extinguisher, there’s a pipe, there’s some framed pictures.”

The nanofibers slice through them all. The team had to calculate the speed of the tanker to determine how quickly everything would be sliced. Though at one point the team considered using a visible line to represent the nanofibers, everyone ultimately decided the scene was more effective if they were invisible.

“You can see the effect of the slices, but you can never actually see the fibers themselves,” Riley explained. 

Judgment Day and Digital Humans

3 Body Problem VFX supervisor Stefan Fangmeier replaced actors with digital versions of themselves for the slicing scenes.

After the buildup of seeing various inanimate objects sliced, comes the horror of seeing humans cut in half. No actors were harmed.

“They were all scanned, as is kind of customary,” said Fangmeier. “Once they got cut, we replaced them with digital humans that were obviously in parts and slices with guts and blood coming out.”

What makes the sequence so remarkable is how well it builds the world of the tanker — and then destroys it. The cuts have to follow the rules of physics — and everything has to happen at those 50-centimeter intervals — but the story also needs to let fear build, as well as a sense of terror and loss. 

Ruscio needed to do a lot at once with his edit.

“I always had to sort of be aware of what was pre-vis, what was already in the works, what the director wanted, what the three showrunners wanted, and how I wanted to deal out the information — keeping it emotional and yet factual,” he said.

“If we wanted to move things around, how could we do that and stay true to the design of what happened in each sequential order, as was planned? Plans do change in post production and editorial, and so we needed to move, shuffle some things around, and certain places we were hemmed in somewhat.”

Choices might be limited, for example, by who had the best shot. 

“You’re serving a lot of masters,” he explained.

So were the passengers aboard the Judgment Day. Their allegiance to an unseen alien force costs them their lives.   

But for Riley, Ruscio and Fangmeier, judgment day seems likely to be kinder. The spectacular sequence — one of many in 3 Body Problem — has put them deep into Emmy contention.

Main image: 3 Body Problem. Courtesy of Netflix.