Prolific showrunner Greg Daniels released the comedic sci-fi series Upload on Amazon Prime Video, May 1, and the show was quickly picked up for a second season. The series focuses on Nathan (Robbie Amell) whose consciousness is uploaded into Lakeview virtual heaven moments before death. At the last minute, his clingy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) has him uploaded to her account, making her master of his well-being in this pay-as-you-go virtual world where the wealthy can afford a much more enjoyable digital afterlife, while the poor are capped at 2 GB of data per month. The series jumps back and forth between the real world and the idealistic Lakeview virtual experience.
As Nathan falls in love with his real-world handler Nora (Andy Allo) and struggles to find a way to break up with Ingrid (without being deleted), questions about his death start to arise.
When he was ready to shoot the pilot, Daniels tapped longtime collaborator David Rogers, ACE, to serve as consulting producer, editor and to direct one of the episodes. Rogers explains that he has worked with Daniels for many years, going to back to the first season of The Office. He eventually rose to the level of co-executive producer on the show, earning him five Primetime Emmy® nominations (including two wins) and three ACE Eddie Award nominations, winning two. After that, he worked with Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project before signing up for Upload, as well as Daniels’ latest comedy series Space Force, which premiered just a month later on Netflix.
In his consulting producer role, Rogers primarily focused on “making sure post was running smoothly from the creative stand-point … basically being Greg’s right-hand man, when it comes to post-production. Because I’ve been with him for so long now, sometimes I’m better at getting answers from Greg. I can be a little more specific. You know, everybody has pressing questions, but some are more pressing than others.”
The pilot was shot in Los Angeles in early 2018, then picked up by Amazon and started shooting in January 2019 in Vancouver. The series was lensed by cinematographer Simon Chapman, ACS, and the pilot by Amy Vincent, ASC. “The pilot was interesting and challenging, because it was the first time where Greg and I were really doing a lot of visual effects work. We both come from comedies where we do some VFX, but it’s usually just small stuff, like adding a set extension or something in a New York street,” says Rogers.
He explains that Daniels had done extensive storyboards and knew what shots he wanted. “But then, you’re like, ‘How do we really make this work? What does this look like?’ Then it was just hammering out the design,” he says.
“There was a lot of back and forth with the effects house on the design of what the VFX would look like.” That included developing the look of the ever-present hand phones, as well as transitional visual and sound effects for when people jump in and out of the virtual world. Rogers explains that he originally started temping in Star Trek-type sounds, but only as a guide. It was never really supposed to sound like that. “These are just shortcuts in storytelling for us. And then we went through later and replaced them all.”
He stresses that VFX always had to serve the story and never overwhelm the audience, but on the other hand, the audience has certain expectations and “cheap VFX can really take you out of the story.” Vancouver-based FuseFX was the primary VFX house on the show under VFX supervisor Marshall Krasser, along with a team that includes VFX artist Jeffrey Olney and VFX editor Devin Schwyhart. Rogers explains that the filmmakers relied heavily on color to distinguish the real world from the virtual heaven of Lakeview. While the real world was darker and greyer, Lakeview is always bright, with rich colors. He adds,“We had originally talked about doing more handheld stuff in the real world and only using Steadicam and dollies and things like that in the virtual world.”
Another key distinction was in the costumes. In the real world Nora might be wearing sweatpants and a hoodie, while in virtual heaven, she’s in a nice tailored outfit. Rogers recalls that they tried to play with the idea of subtle computer glitches in virtual heaven. “You’ll see birds flying and then one of them will kind of disappear and then pop back in again as the computers catch up. That got flagged by the technical people at Amazon because they thought it was a real error with the footage and we had to explain that it was intentional.”
Overall, Rogers cut five episodes. Rob Burnett cut four and Dane McMaster was brought on to cut one episode. Burnett was another alumnus of The Office as well as The Mindy Project. McMaster had worked with Burnett on the NBC comedy A.P. Bio. Rogers relates that while he was editing in L.A. they would get the previous day’s footage overnight and he could start cutting in the Avid the next day. “Our assistant editors would get it. And they would start prepping it for us, running it through ScriptSync, and consolidating media where we needed to consolidate it. And so, they would prep everything, and gather elements like music, temp FX or stock footage.”
He was assisted by Tim Kuper for the series. Josh Toomey served as assistant editor on the pilot. Carmen Hu served as assistant editor to Burnett. In addition, Brandon Brown was added as an assistant to help keep everything on track.
Additionally, Rogers directed episode 7, “Bring Your Dad to Work Day” where Nathan meets Nora’s father Dave (Chris Williams) in virtual heaven. But back in the real world, someone sets off a bomb in the Lakeview server room, and suddenly, the virtual characters start to lose their resolution, reverting to a low-res, Lego-block version of their avatars as the backup servers kick in.
Rogers explains that the VFX team gave them a bunch of options for how the low-res avatars might look. But the scene is actually a comedic moment, so they needed something that supported that and helped sell the gag.
In fact, the scene transitions rapidly from a suspenseful moment when someone plants the bomb, to a dramatic moment where Nathan is having a man-to-man discussion with Nora’s father, to a comedic moment, when he suddenly turns into a Lego-block avatar.
Editorially, that was one of the challenges of the show. Rogers explains, “The show has different genres. There’s romance; there’s the sci-fi aspect; there’s the mystery; there’s some action in places and then there’s a romantic comedy. “So when you’re cutting one scene, you’re editing in a certain way to tell that story when there’s comedy. And then if there’s mystery, you want it to be a little scary and your pacing and things like that are a little different,” he explains. “It was almost like four different shows in one.”
This led the editor to really experiment with a wide variety of temp tracks. “We loaded in a ton of things. And we had a lot of needle drops in the pilot. I know there were a bunch of places where I laid in songs that I knew were going to get replaced, but at least you could watch the scene right away and get the sense of, ‘Oh, okay. This is what we’re going for,’” says Rogers. For temp tracks, the editor would grab music that conveyed the mood of the scene, whether Nathan is stressed and frustrated or calm and happy.
He explains that after he shot episode 7 in Vancouver, he flew back to L.A. to start editing it. He agrees that editing his own show gave him a bit of an advantage in the edit suite, knowing the material and the intent so well. “I might take a couple extra days with my editor’s cut, but it’s kind of a director’s cut at the same time,” he says. But he stresses that when he’s in the editor’s seat with another director, he’s there to serve the director’s vision.
“I always told them that if they have any info they want to give me while they’re directing, that’s great. If not, I will build it the best I can and then we’ll just go through it when it’s time for the director’s cut,” he says.
Overall, the biggest challenge was probably the sheer volume of work to be done. “We could’ve used a third editor right from the start and more in-house VFX artists because we had so many things to deal with. By the time we got to the end of the show, we were just flying by the seat of our pants,” he says. “I don’t want to say we underestimated it. But you look at the calendar and think, ‘Oh, we have all this time to build these shows.’ But all these shows have new, different VFX in them. It’s not just people popping in and out.”
Rogers reported that while the scripts for season 2 are currently being written, it’s not clear when they will be able to go into production due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re still trying to try to figure out what changes will be made because of the virus,” he says. “I think we will have a little bit of freedom with our Lakeview environment, because it’s possible that we could do more stuff greenscreen and use VFX to build environments that can be a little digital looking to match that kind of world. But we’ll see. Who knows what’s going to happen?”