HBO is now two episodes deep into Westworld, and we”ve not yet begun to scratch the layers of this world. As our Alan Sepinwall said, HBO has thrown viewers into the deep end. With little to no hand-holding, it”s up to the audience to suss out the cracks in the machine. So far, Westworld has shown us the theme park itself, the entry point for guests, the living quarters of the employees, and the production facilities for the hosts.
Perhaps the most mysterious part is what exactly the hosts are. In Episode Two, “Chestnut,” two surgical engineers working on host Maeve (Thandie Newton) lament she”s contracted MRSA from a guest. For those lucky enough to know what that is, MRSA is a highly antibiotic-resistant strain of staph bacteria that literally eats abscesses into their host. Do not Google image search. Don”t do it. But how does a robot become a viable source for an organic-based infection?
“The idea is that you have a skeleton. This muscle tissue gets threaded onto the skeleton, and then the skeleton and muscle tissue move over to this bath.” Westworld Makeup Department Head Christien Tinsley says, speaking of the host assembly line. “The concept behind it was the body gets dipped into this sort of protein liquid that attaches itself to the muscle tissue. That then builds the tissue around the body. You have those flashes of light in the back which is this UV ray concept.”
As to what the process is called? VFX Supervisor Jay Worth clarifies the milky substance is colloquially known as “The skin dip.” Which is where things start to get interesting.
While in the real world, Tinsley”s team creates a silicon dummy to fit inside the host mold, he explains that “[I]n the story world, it's a biological material. I don't want to start getting into the timeline as far as when this story takes place, but you know we have to assume technology can create something that's so believable and so realistic. In some ways, we're right in that world now. Biological and 3D growing and everything like that is very real, it just hasn't caught up to the speed of what we see in this story.”
So the hosts are organic. At least to some degree. That explains how MRSA was able to latch onto Maeve and cause both an infection and physical pain. But creating the hosts from organic material is a slippery slope in a world that is already playing the “What makes a human, human?” fire. From what little we”ve seen, the skeletons are made of the same organic material as the skin dip. Based on the Man in Black”s (Ed Harris) proclivities, we know the hosts can bleed to death. Which means unless the brain of the hosts are synthetic, they are literally made of the same stuff as you, me, or the guests. If the brains of the hosts are made of “organic material,” what separates them from us other than their origins being a skin dip instead of a womb? Programming is just another word for memories, after all.
Bringing an ethical quandary like the host creation facility to life is no small undertaking.
“99.9% of [the set] is real,” Tinsley reveals. “It actually happened, those were actual robot parts, actual mechanisms dipping and moving and shifting. Even the machine that was threading the sinewy tissue onto the skeleton body, that robot. All real. What wasn't real was the actual sinew fiber coming out of the machine and attaching itself going back and forth, that was the only sort of visual effect.”
Worth credits special effects coordinator Michael Lantieri with using water-and-glue to create a visceral consistency which made the VFX team”s job easier. “It gave it those great textures and dripped off things. [Then] we did all the muscle weaving, as we called it. The actual spraying of sinew onto the skeleton. The nice thing is there's so much synergy between all the different departments throughout the project.”
As the season progresses, hopefully, viewers will get to see more of the process. The bodies going through the skin dip have placeholder eyes, for example. And there are many questions still unanswered. As organic constructs, do the hosts have to eat? Do they have other bodily functions? And most importantly, how does Behavior take the bodies and turn them into creatures that think and feel?
One thing is certain, ‘Westworld” clearly has many secrets waiting for viewers to uncover. And sometimes learning those secrets raises more questions than answers.