Drama Quarterly: Global swarming
Featuring scenes that include whale-watching off Vancouver Island and locations in Norway, France, Germany and Peru, The Swarm is a big-budget drama that explores the mysterious effects of pollution and climate change around the world.
Yet the eight-part series, which will have its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, never went to any of those places. Instead, it was filmed almost entirely on location across Italy, with ocean-set scenes subsequently being shot at Europe’s largest water tank facility in Brussels, Belgium.
Five years in the making, the eagerly anticipated series is based on Frank Schätzing’s novel of the same name. It chronicles the struggle of humankind against an unknown enemy with swarm intelligence that lives in the depths of the sea.
When the reckless treatment of the oceans threatens the natural habitat of this mysterious collective, it strikes back – putting all human life under threat and leaving its survival in the hands of a small group of scientists.
From showrunner Frank Doelger (Game of Thrones), the series is produced by Schwarm TV Productions (a union of Doelger’s Itaglio Films and ndF) for Germany’s ZDF, France Télévisions and Italy’s Rai, together with ORF in Austria, SRF in Switzerland, Nordic streamer Viaplay and Hulu Japan. Beta Film and ZDF Studios are handling international distribution.
For production designer Julian Wagner, The Swarm is by far the biggest project he has ever been involved in, taking two-and-a-half years of work. He joined when only the first three scripts had been written and immediately set about scouting South Africa for potential filming locations. Then when the pandemic hit, planning was stopped abruptly, forcing the production team to consider shooting somewhere in Europe.
“That was one of my first missions,” Wagner tells DQ, “to think, ‘Where can we do this project and where can we find all these countries in one country? How can we show the diversity of the script?’”
Italy was the answer, and Wagner then joined a scouting team that travelled across the country to identify potential places that could double for the numerous locations featured in the show. “It was very intense and interesting, and sometimes frustrating as well,” he admits. “But then finally I came back with a concept of how to do this in Italy and how to visualise Canada, Norway, France, Germany and all these other countries.”
To recreate each country within Italy, Wagner had to identify something distinctive or characteristic about the setting he needed from the script – a certain style of architecture or a harbour, for example – and then look for it on the road.
“I was driving together with the scouts for nearly 2,500km. It was quite a journey,” he notes. “Every few kilometres, you just stop the car, get out and the film starts to roll in your head. You might think, ‘No, it’s not working,’ and then you get back into the car and go on. There’s not one strategy. You have to be open-minded all the time to change your own vision and the way you find it.”
Wagnger praises Doelger for giving him “all the freedom you want as an artist” while providing a script he could always return to as a reference guide. In fact, Wagner had read Schätzing’s novel when it was first published and immediately thought it would be perfect for a screen adaptation. What he didn’t imagine was that he would help to make it.
“This is one of those German novels that had to be scripted for the screen. But I never thought I would be in a place to do it,” he says. “When they called me, I thought, ‘I really have to do it.’ The script was calling me and so I was excited. There was a big challenge to create the swarm intelligence in the abyss – that was one of the biggest challenges as a designer.”
With recent credits including The Colony, The Titan and Heart of Stone, Wagner normally gravitates towards projects set in magical worlds, fantasy or science-fiction. But on The Swarm, Doelger made it clear the science was just as important as the fiction. That meant Wagner completed lots of research about the various scientific settings in the show, and also when it came to creating the swarm intelligence at the centre of the story.
Then once those ‘real’ tentpoles were in place, he was able to bring more imaginative elements to the series. “The labs themselves are complete fantasy, because lab buildings are very technical, functional and not very interesting,” he says. “Everything our scientists do in the show, all the tools they use, all the language they use, this is all really realistic, but the locations are completely made up.”
Once the location work was completed, filming continued on four sound stages that became home to a number of decks belonging to a ship that takes the story to its conclusion in episodes seven and eight.
“We went from a realistic exterior deck to a very sci-fi lower deck, the lowest point in the ship. It was a bit like going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland – the deeper you go, the more it becomes sci-fi-ish and bizarre,” Wagner says. “Then the bottom is the hangar, with a pool where you can dive into the water, so it’s a transition point from one world to another.”
The Swarm features an ensemble cast that includes Cécile de France, Alexander Karim, Joshua Odjick, Leonie Benesch, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, Oliver Masucci and Klaas Heufer-Umlauf. Directing them were Luke Watson (Ripper Street), Philipp Stölzl (The Physician) and Barbara Eder, who picked up the middle four episodes. She had just come off a gruelling shoot for Netflix series Barbarians and initially only wanted to shoot one episode, just for the chance to work with Doelger, but she loved the suspenseful international puzzle at the heart of the story and stayed on for more.
At the water tank in Brussels, Eder found shooting just a few seconds of footage might take a whole day, but she was amazed by the facility’s technology that allowed her to adjust the lighting to specific settings – an option that meant sunsets could last for hours.
Barbara Eder directed the middle four episodes of the eight-part series
“There was a lot of preparation, a lot of storyboarding – you can’t just go in and do whatever you want,” she says. “The prep time was really hard because you had to storyboard everything [and consider] what was a visual effect or a special effect.
“We made reefs, and I had scenes with whales that are circling around. But those were actually divers underwater with sticks that said ‘whale,’ so the actor could work with something. We had to do the whales later on [digitally], of course. You could even choose the current and how big the waves were.”
Charged with creating those whales and the other digital elements of the series was VFX supervisor Jan Stolz, who has worked on movies ranging from I, Robot and Fast & Furious 8 to Marvel hits Spider-Man: Homecoming and Captain America: The First Avenger.
His journey on The Swarm started three years ago when he became the first member of the show’s visual effects team to begin work during early preproduction. He had also read the book, and describes it as a “visual effects dream.”
“One of the real challenges for the project was the ever-changing scripts, because if something comes up where Frank thinks it could work better, he doesn’t hesitate to change scripts radically. But for visual effects, that is counter-productive if you want to plan ahead and budget shots. So there was a constant fight for what can we keep, what’s staying, what’s changing and what’s important, always with an eye on the budget.”
Most of that work was done during the peak of the Covid pandemic, with contingency planning also eating up a slice of the budget in case work had to be stopped at any point.
“So we had to deal with smaller budgets and renegotiate with the directors over how to approach these scenes, what to show and what not to show, and also how to find a visual language that was appropriate yet still show enough that you can tell your story,” he continues. “But we did quite a good job to juggle the budget and the visual development of the story, which was a constant challenge throughout pre-production, during shooting and in post-production as well.”
With 1,200 visual effects shots to complete across eight episodes – the same number for an entire Marvel movie – Stolz and his team certainly had their work cut out. But despite putting in the hours, he’s honest about the impact VFX can have on a show’s success.
“No show will be awesome because of the visual effects,” he says. “The show will be awesome because it’s a good show and there’s something that keeps you watching it – and that’s not usually the visual effects shots. It’s the acting and the story; and the visual effects, like any other department, can only support that in the best way possible. Even if it sounds like The Swarm is a purely visual effects show, it’s more about telling a good story and having visual effects supporting that in the best possible way.”
The biggest sequence on which Stolz worked features a super tsunami striking the coasts of the Shetland Islands and Norway. His team studied real instances of the giant waves to ensure they were recreated as accurately as possible, while emotional intensity is added by cutting the images with scenes of characters relating to the impending disaster.
“There is also a sequence where one of the characters is trying to attach a tagging device to a pod of sleeping whales, which we shot in the Belgian water tank,” he says. “We just grabbed the diver [from the tank] and digitally pulled him into this virtual environment with sleeping whales. We were trying to create a mood that is related to wildlife photography – this calm situation with the whales sleeping and then they start to wake up and get busy, which was one of my favourite sequences.”
For the whales and another sequence involving crabs approaching a beach, a pre-visualisation was created to inform which angles needed to be recorded on location, before VFX were applied later on. Stolz supported the production by creating as many mock-ups as possible to illustrate how finished shots might look – or if filming locations changed, he would be called upon to devise a way to incorporate those new shots into the series.
“It was always a creative back and forth,” he says. “Julian also had a very good understanding of where the cut line is between his department and the locations and where visual effects begin, and I was really amazed by the locations he found, particularly in Italy, where we had to find locations for South Africa, the Shetlands, Norway, Germany. It was a great collaboration with Julian to find how far we could go in camera and when visual effects would take over.”
As fans of the novel, both Stolz and Wagner say The Swarm is about more than just the natural disasters they both helped to bring to the screen, believing viewers will be drawn to the characters affected by those events. That the real world is also facing up to the battle against climate change will only make the series more topical and relevant.
“It has to be different from the novel because you adapt it for the screen,” Wagner says. “Sometimes you might miss something but I think we took the right decisions. We lost a bit of action and added a bit more drama because you want to feel the characters and explore the story with them. This is what the show does.”
“The adaptation is really well done because the characters are new and fresh,” adds Stolz. “The problems being discussed in the book – related to problems of climate change and the oceans being polluted – were very visionary at that time. And I like the fact the big focus is not on the huge visual effects scenes; they’re there to tell the story.
“It’s a new approach to the book. It’s less fantasy, it’s less fiction, and maybe it’s more science. It feels more like it could really happen. There’s nothing that is out of this world.”