VFX Voice

The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.

Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


June 27
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

BREATHING BELIEVABILITY INTO THE TWINNING AND BIRTHING SCENES FOR DEAD RINGERS

By OLIVER WEBB

Images courtesy of Amazon Studios, except where noted.

Rachel Weisz behind the scenes of Dead Ringers. Weisz takes on the role of identical twin doctors Elliot and Beverly Mantle. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

Rachel Weisz behind the scenes of Dead Ringers. Weisz takes on the role of identical twin doctors Elliot and Beverly Mantle. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

A “gender-flipped” remake of the 1988 David Cronenberg film Dead Ringers follows Mantle twins Beverly and Elliot (Rachel Weisz) as they seek funding for their controversial birthing center. Afterparty VFX was responsible for over 200 VFX shots for the six-part Amazon Studios series, while Ingenuity Studios’ contributed a total of 142 shots.

“The DP had set a look that involved shooting with the Sony Venice at an extreme underexposure. The footage was intentionally extremely grainy, and Eric had been working with Ariel Altman at Fuse on a unified grain pipeline. If there was one overall challenge on the show, it was the grain. Creating visual effects on footage so grainy, required a whole new bag of tricks to make some of the sequences work perfectly.”

—David Gaddie, Visual Effects Supervisor, Afterparty VFX

“Initially, I met with clients VFX Producer Colleen Bachman and her partner VFX Supervisor Eric Pascarelli to discuss the various types of VFX work this show would require,” says Joyce Boll, Executive Vice President, Features & Episodics for Ingenuity Studios. “It was immediately clear that Ingenuity Studios would be an ideal fit. Since we have worked with Colleen and Eric often over the years, there is a deep level of trust between us. I’m proud of the work the Ingenuity team delivered for such a meaningful Rachel Weisz project, especially one that showcases a particularly strong female point of view.”

The series was completely different both visually and narratively from the original film. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

The series was completely different both visually and narratively from the original film. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

David Gaddie of Afterparty VFX was Visual Effects Supervisor on the show. “Eric Pascarelli approached me because he had worked with me years ago as a VFX supervisor at Framestore while I was working as a commercials director. He wanted someone with director sensibilities to work on some of the more narrative specific sequences, and that was how he pitched me and Afterparty to his team.”

Dead Ringers is a “gender-flipped” remake of the 1988 David Cronenberg film. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

Dead Ringers is a “gender-flipped” remake of the 1988 David Cronenberg film.  (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

“For a show with so many visual effects – every scene with twins was a visual effect – every effect had to be invisible. For the scenes of births, and the pregnancy process, we knew that many viewers have been through childbirth and know what it’s supposed to look like. We had to do our homework and make sure that everything looked 100% technically correct. There was no room for artistic license or interpretation.”

—David Gaddie, Visual Effects Supervisor, Afterparty VFX

Discussing her initial conversations when she came onboard the project, Boll explains that Pascarelli’s and Bachman’s primary concerns revolved around the need for seamless integration for each shot, especially for the twinning shots. “The shot breakdowns might not be as visually exciting on ‘invisible’ visual effects, like on this show, but the end results tell the story in an elegant way,” says Boll. The majority of Gaddie’s initial conversations instead revolved around grain. “The DP had set a look that involved shooting with the Sony Venice at an extreme underexposure. The footage was intentionally extremely grainy, and Eric had been working with Ariel Altman at Fuse on a unified grain pipeline. If there was one overall challenge on the show, it was the grain. Creating visual effects on footage so grainy, required a whole new bag of tricks to make some of the sequences work perfectly,” notes Gaddie.

Dead Ringers perfectly blends dark comedy, theatricality and realism. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

Dead Ringers perfectly blends dark comedy, theatricality and realism. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

“For a show with so many visual effects – every scene with twins was a visual effect – every effect had to be invisible,” says Gaddie. “For the scenes of births, and the pregnancy process, we knew that many viewers have been through childbirth and know what it’s supposed to look like. We had to do our homework and make sure that everything looked 100% technically correct. There was no room for artistic license or interpretation.”

For the birthing scenes and pregnancy process, everything had to be 100% technically correct. There was no room for artistic license or interpretation for Visual Effects Supervisor David Gaddie and his team. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

For the birthing scenes and pregnancy process, everything had to be 100% technically correct. There was no room for artistic license or interpretation for Visual Effects Supervisor David Gaddie and his team. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

Ingenuity Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Manda Cheung explains that the series was completely different both visually and narratively from the original film. “In fact, the original story was stripped down and reassembled from a female POV. It is truly a fresh take,” Cheung says. For Gaddie, the interpretation also felt very different. “All I took from the film was a sense that this was going to walk a fine line between dark comedy, theatricality and realism. We mostly scoured the Internet for medical imagery, and we created a very deep library of reference for every medical procedure depicted in the show. Our best reference for the cutting and suturing of the bellies was a series of Russian surgery instructional videos! The mantra in the studio was that an obstetrician watching the show should think the footage is real,” he explains.

“We mostly scoured the Internet for medical imagery, and we created a very deep library of reference for every medical procedure depicted in the show. Our best reference for the cutting and suturing of the bellies was a series of Russian surgery instructional videos! The mantra in the studio was that an obstetrician watching the show should think the footage is real.”

—David Gaddie, Visual Effects Supervisor, Afterparty VFX

When it came to approaching the workload, Gaddie and his team attempted to divide the teams into ‘twinning,’ general VFX and birthing sequences. “This was important because we needed to have the same artists handle the look of the many, many birthing shots. Because of the added grain level complication, we set up a grain production line. All degrain and grain QC was handled by one artist. To ensure continuity of look, one artist prepped key shots for each sequence and then passed those shots along to a team to carry across the rest of a sequence. As workload increased last year, it became very difficult to staff in New York. We ended up hiring some senior artists overseas who agreed to work on our New York time zone so that we could still provide real-time feedback.”

One of the birthing shots involved a prosthetic baby being delivered by C-section. There were many issues with the silicon baby in the shot, and the belly ended up being rebuilt in CG, building the textures and match-moving to the prosthetic. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

One of the birthing shots involved a prosthetic baby being delivered by C-section. There were many issues with the silicon baby in the shot, and the belly ended up being rebuilt in CG, building the textures and match-moving to the prosthetic. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

For Ingenuity, the most challenging aspect of the show was the size of files. “We were working with 32-bit, 6K float plates combined with shots that were dark while trying to keep as much of the original grain as possible. It was very satisfying that we were able to achieve Eric’s approval on the results. He brings a tremendous level of technical and creative acumen, and we understood his purposeful decisions throughout the process. The use of motion control throughout the show helped us avoid using unnecessary transforms and tracking on the plate which would have degraded the grain. This ultimately helped us keep the integrity of the grain, aligning with Eric’s intent,” Cheung explains.

The prosthetic babies looked incredibly real. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

The prosthetic babies looked incredibly real. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

The approach was always to use as much of the prosthetic babies as possible to ensure proper interaction with the filmed elements, then add parts of the digital baby, like moving arms and fingers. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

The approach was always to use as much of the prosthetic babies as possible to ensure proper interaction with the filmed elements, then add parts of the digital baby, like moving arms and fingers. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

There were two particularly challenging effects to realize for Gaddie and his team. “One of the birthing shots involved a [prosthetic] baby being delivered by C-section. It was a very long shot, and there were many issues with the shot. The silicon baby wobbled and bounced unnaturally and looked stillborn. The belly prosthetic was too smooth and looked artificial, but adding texture was incredibly difficult because it was smooth and glossy and couldn’t be tracked. We ended up rebuilding the belly in CG, rebuilding the textures and match-moving to the prosthetic. The babies’ arms and head were replaced with animated CG elements and we did further 2D animation to the baby. The result is one of the most successful and realistic visual effects shots we produced,” Gaddie says.

The trickiest twinning sequence involved Beverly and Elliot sitting down to a dinner in an upmarket restaurant, where Elliot is drinking from a cocktail glass that sits in front of her twin and her twin's image is refracted in the glass and the liquid. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

The trickiest twinning sequence involved Beverly and Elliot sitting down to a dinner in an upmarket restaurant, where Elliot is drinking from a cocktail glass that sits in front of her twin and her twin’s image is refracted in the glass and the liquid. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

“One of the birthing shots involved a [prosthetic] baby being delivered by C-section. It was a very long shot, and there were many issues with the shot. The silicon baby wobbled and bounced unnaturally and looked stillborn. The belly prosthetic was too smooth and looked artificial, but adding texture was incredibly difficult because it was smooth and glossy and couldn’t be tracked. We ended up rebuilding the belly in CG, rebuilding the textures and match-moving to the prosthetic. The babies’ arms and head were replaced with animated CG elements and we did further 2D animation to the baby. The result is one of the most successful and realistic visual effects shots we produced.”

—David Gaddie, Visual Effects Supervisor, Afterparty VFX

“The trickiest twinning sequence involved Beverly and Elliot sitting down to a dinner in an upmarket restaurant,” Gaddie continues. “Elliot is drinking from a cocktail glass that sits in front of her twin and her twin’s image is refracted in the glass and the liquid. We ended up rebuilding the entire glass in CG, including creating sims for the liquid inside the glass. This had to be match-moved and animated to line up with the actual glass and rendered over the Beverly plates. Our compositor did a great job switching between elements of the real glass and the CG element as the glass is handled and drunk from. These are the kinds of intricate shots that ensure that the audience never questions the twins are in the same space.”

Elliot has illegally bred two fetuses from Beverly’s eggs in a lab. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

Elliot has illegally bred two fetuses from Beverly’s eggs in a lab. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

The birthing sequences presented a great case for the perfect marriage of in-camera SFX with visual effects. “The births were all filmed with very elaborate prosthetics that got very close to realism most of the time,” Gaddie details. “The main problem with the prosthetics was that they looked great in still moments, but didn’t hold up in motion and couldn’t work for entire shots. For example, a prosthetic vagina designed for birthing a baby still had a huge rigid opening after the baby was delivered. We started by fixing all these issues and making the prosthetics move naturally. Skin, fat and muscle move differently to silicon, especially when cut. We ended up re-texturing every prosthetic to more closely match the visual reference we collected. We added photographic elements from actual pregnant bellies to the prosthetic bellies that included all the skin detail, stretch marks and bruising that made the final shots feel so real. We then added surgical elements for all the C-section footage. This included the blood and yellow iodine around the cuts. When the belies were sliced open we created blood sims and used geometry nodes in Blender to simulate opening flesh and skin. We also added fat simulations on the wounds because the movement of the fat layer was a crucial element in our reference and was absent in the plates.

Ultrasound imagery of the twins required building a rigged and animated fetus model that could be rendered in cross section. Taking stock footage of fetuses and using 2D animation added limb movement and heartbeat. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

Ultrasound imagery of the twins required building a rigged and animated fetus model that could be rendered in cross section. Taking stock footage of fetuses and using 2D animation added limb movement and heartbeat. (Image courtesy of Afterparty VFX and Amazon Studios)

There were many shots of C-sections in progress that were enhanced with detailed texturing of prosthetic elements. We added layers of muscle and fat that had to be tracked and hand animated to create the independent movement of each layer. Shadow cast layers had to be had painted to create depth to each of those fleshy layers. Although we used the prosthetic skin elements, we reduced the thickness of the skin and created a more natural, uneven fatty edge to the underside of the skin with mattes and careful tracking of photographic elements. We also had to reanimate the skin to look softer than the prosthetic silicone. Several shots had full blood sim layers added to the open bellies to dial up the realism of the shots.”

Beverly is expecting twins. A stand-in for Rachel Weisz as Beverly is replaced by a pregnant Weisz in the final shot, joining herself as her twin Elliot.

Beverly is expecting twins. A stand-in for Rachel Weisz as Beverly is replaced by a pregnant Weisz in the final shot, joining herself as her twin Elliot.

Rachel Weisz plays the part of twin gynaecologists who push the boundaries of medical ethics. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

Rachel Weisz plays the part of twin gynaecologists who push the boundaries of medical ethics. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

The prosthetic babies looked incredibly real. “Because they didn’t move, they sometimes looked like stillborn babies,” Gaddie says. “For some shots, we dramatically improved realism by applying 2D animation onto the plate. We made the babies breathe by animating the chests and necks using grid warp tools. As long as the babies moved a little bit, they looked alive. We got away with a lot, even animating mouths opening to cry, all using grid warps and shadow animation. For other shots we replaced babies with CG. We worked with the team at Hi-Fi 3D to rebuild a CG baby that could replace the baby as shot. Our approach was always to use as much of the prosthetic as possible to ensure proper interaction with the filmed elements, but then add parts of the digital baby, like moving arms and fingers. As a final ‘realism pass’ we added motion to every prosthetic element. This included adding baby kicks to pregnant bellies, muscles flexing on the legs of birthing women and vaginal tears during birth.”

Every scene with the Mantle twins was a visual effect and every effect had to be invisible.

Every scene with the Mantle twins was a visual effect and every effect had to be invisible.

In addition to the birthing sequences, Afterparty created the medical imagery of the developing fetuses. “Some of the biggest challenges were creating realistic fetal scans at various stages of development. The ultrasound imagery of the twins required us to build a rigged and animated fetus model that could be rendered in cross section. We ended up combining many elements from Houdini with a lot of fine-tuning with our motion graphics artist working in After Effects to get the perfect result. We also created endoscope imagery of the developing fetuses by taking stock footage of fetuses and using 2D animation to add limb movement and heartbeat. This sort of imagery is not standard, so we had to really research what sort of movement the babies would make at that age and creatively interpret that,” Gaddie concludes.

Click here for Afterparty VFX’s video case studies on the how the twinning and birthing scenes were put together, as well as the creation of the Mantle Parker Birthing Center: https://www.afterpartyvfx.com/vfxdeadringers-casestudy



Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

AGING PHILADELPHIA FOR THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE
03 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
AGING PHILADELPHIA FOR THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE
The final season of The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live follows Rick Grimes and Michonne Hawthorne.
NAVIGATING LONDON UNDERWATER FOR THE END WE START FROM
05 March 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
NAVIGATING LONDON UNDERWATER FOR THE END WE START FROM
Mahalia Belo’s remarkable feature directorial debut The End We Start From follows a woman (Jodie Comer) and her newborn child as she embarks on a treacherous journey to find safe refuge after a devastating flood.
SINGING PRAISES FOR UNSUNG HEROES
15 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
SINGING PRAISES FOR UNSUNG HEROES
Recognizing ‘hidden’ talent pivotal to making final shots a reality.
CINESITE GETS SNOWED UNDER BY TRUE DETECTIVE: NIGHT COUNTRY
27 March 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
CINESITE GETS SNOWED UNDER BY TRUE DETECTIVE: NIGHT COUNTRY
True Detective: Night Country features a diverse cast including Jodie Foster.
GODZILLA MINUS ONE GAINS GLOBAL RECOGNITION
13 February 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
GODZILLA MINUS ONE GAINS GLOBAL RECOGNITION
Visual and special effects have dramatically evolved like the creatures in the Godzilla franchise.