Tales from the Loop gives the 'TV is an art form' argument a whole new dimension. By virtue of its unusual source material, the Amazon Prime original series, debuting April 3, is looking to offer something new to the television medium.
"I think what's so hard in TV is finding a mood and a world that's worth watching," showrunner Nathaniel Halpern says. "This has that in spades. There's an aesthetic that's so wonderful, and a lot of people have been mesmerized by its unique world."
The unique world that Halpern speaks of is Swedist artist Simon Stålenhag's original work (check out his art here). In 2013, a series of digital paintings created by Stålenhag went viral. After taking photographs of his rural homeland, Stålenhag created retro-futuristic art that blended everyday life with science fiction elements – images that instilled a sense of wonder, trepidation, curiosity, and existentialism in those who viewed them.
Those same paintings formed the backbone of Tales from the Loop, a 2015-published art book of Stålenhag's illustrations and short stories, written by the artist, that fleshed out his '80s-inspired world. For Halpern, who was exposed to Stålenhag's work by The Batman director Matt Reeves, having the opportunity to adapt a series of digital paintings into a TV show was one he couldn't pass up.
"I was really taken with the aesthetic that Simon had created," he says. "That wonderful marriage of the ordinary and extraordinary and, more than anything, I felt there was a wonderful sense of emotion. The images he created are very poignant. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to adapt it from one visual medium to another, and be inspired by paintings to create stories."
Tales from the Loop tells the story of a rural American town, and its inhabitants, who live above 'The Loop'. A particle accelerator machine that explores and unlocks the mysteries of the universe, 'The Loop' makes the impossible seem plausible, and acts as a steer to the everyday lives – and poignant human stories – of those who live alongside it.
As the first ever TV series to be adapted from digital paintings, Tales from the Loop is a pioneer in a sense. No other studio has attempted to build a show from this type of content before. It would be impossible, then, to produce a show that captures the essence of Stålenhag's work without involving the man himself.
"Simon was a wonderful collaborator throughout," Halpern says. "In some ways, the heavy lifting was done in terms of a world already being there. There were several elements, though, that I invented and I asked him, 'What does this look like in your aesthetic?' and he very generously designed those things. Our visual effects team would then build them, so it was wonderful to have him there as a resource and artist."
Bringing stationary pictures to life – and developing eight, one-hour long episodes based on them – seems like a daunting prospect. Ensuring that the audience couldn't guess how episodes would play out – a problem Halpern refers to as the "I get it" moment – to support the sense of wonder within Stålenhag's world was one of the first obstacles to overcome.
Above: art by Simon Stålenhag.
"Maintaining the feeling of Simon's work was the most important factor," Halpern says. "When you look at individual paintings, each one has a different sci-fi structure or element to it in a rather ordinary setting. I love how it's accepted as being normal, but you can run the risk of it becoming too normal. With some shows, if there's a heightened quality, you become used to it and it becomes mundane. You know what the feeling is in terms of possibility. With this structure, I was thinking 'How can I reset the wonder in every episode?'"
While that wonder comes from the show's sci-fi elements, it's the episodic personal stories that ground Tales from the Loop in reality. Instead of fleshing out Stålenhag's short stories, though, Halpern wrote original narratives that were heavily inspired by specific paintings from the Tales from the Loop artbook, as well as its follow-up Things in the Flood.
"What I took was the central premise," he says. "I took a single painting and used that as inspiration. What do I see here? What is the context? Who is that person, and what's the story? I'd start from there and inevitably a story would grow. Every episode has its own sci-fi concept that plays out within the aesthetic and setting of this town. It's a serialized TV program but it plays like an anthology where each episode has its own closed ending. But, if you're watching the whole season, you get a tapestry of the town and the people who live there."
In order to replicate Stålenhag's art style, the right VFX studio needed to work on the show. Justice wouldn't have been done to his visually striking alternate reality world if its earthly, everyday-inspired sci-fi aesthetic wasn't intricately recreated. Enter Rodeo FX, the Canadian-founded VFX studio whose recent work has included blockbuster films such as Pokemon Detective Pikachu and Aquaman.
"They were fantastic," Halpern says. "It was interesting as, when you look at Simon's work, his robots and buildings aren't treated as you usually see them. They aren't flashy, shiny toys. They're broken down, and I always make the analogy of looking at a broken down tractor in a field. It was wonderful talking to Rodeo to instil that sense of discipline to treat it like it's ordinary. It's exciting because it's sci-fi, but we treat it like it's no different than farm equipment. As a result, I think we did a nice match to Simon's work that has a unique quality that you don't see in other places."
To help the show's cast, including Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall, become immersed in Stålenhag's fictional world, practical effects were also utilized. Legacy Effects, whose work includes numerous MCU movies, were tasked with bringing Tales from the Loop's mechanical elements to life.
"They built robots and bionic arms – it was impressive what they did," Halpern says. "It brought a real sense of reality to the world when we were shooting it, especially for the performers. It was a hope of mine that you feel like you can drive to this town and not want it to seem so otherworldly. It's fantastical but you also recognize enough of this that you think ‘This place could exist', even though it's impossible."
Tales from the Loop will be released amid turbulent times. The coronavirus pandemic has completely changed the way that we work, socialize, and live. As news outlets discuss the current health crisis on an endless cycle, people are experiencing anxiety and fear in waves right now.
As a show based on hope and human connection, Halpern hopes that Tales from the Loop can provide comfort to viewers who feel overwhelmed and provide them with a form of escape.
"I personally find the show to have that hard-earned hope without it being sentimental which, for me, is very impactful," he says. "I take a great deal of comfort when I see something like this when I think ‘That's how that feels, I know that' and there's an element of empathy. It certainly doesn't shy away from life being hard, but the stories – for the most part – say there's always an element of hope. I hope the audience takes comfort from the show and what I was aspiring with it from a thematic point of view."
Watch Tales from the Loop's first season on Amazon Prime Video from April 3 worldwide.