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January 02
2020

ISSUE

Winter 2020

Clashes Between Humans and Flying Faeries Stoke VFX Fires in CARNIVAL ROW

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

Image Engine was responsible for shots requiring full CGI creature work. To ensure credible interaction between characters, a black-suited stunt performer festooned with tracking markers would give the actor a physical presence with which to interact. (Images courtesy of Image Engine, Legendary Television and Amazon)

Screenwriter Travis Beacham’s original take on Carnival Row was as a feature film story, one which made the Hollywood Black List as one of the best unproduced scripts. Expanding it to a series for Amazon Prime Video involved Beacham and showrunner René Echevarria. The fantasy tale is set in a quasi-Victorian realm where man and faery share an uneasy existence. A series of gruesome murders further exacerbate the tensions between races, as human detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) crosses paths with a Fae, his one-time lover Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), who has been illegally smuggling faeries from their ruined homeland into his Republic.

Shot in the Czech Republic, mostly at Prague’s Barrandov Studios, production of Carnival Row’s initial season was accomplished in 108 days. Visual Effects Supervisor Betsy Paterson, who had overseen effects for the Netflix version of Marco Polo and supervised features ranging from Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk to The Ring Two and Yogi Bear, joined the project early on, during what became a nearly 20-week pre-production period. “The design process was very much a group effort, a totally collaborative process,” she relates. “VFX became involved very heavily with the art department as well as the special effects makeup team, both of which created a number of sketches for the locations and characters. We looked at all of this work and made a determination about which aspects could best be handled on set. Sometimes that meant production built a partial set, and oftentimes it meant that a creature would be done with a prosthetic.”

The wings of the faeries were an immediate concern. “There are practical wings that the actors wear when they are static on the ground, but when they start to flap and fly, that transitions to VFX,” Paterson explains. “Hand-painted silicone wings were molded and dressed for each actor – their hero wings, if you will – and then there were hundreds of wings that could be employed for background faeries. The wings are translucent and iridescent, so getting that to look just right was very tricky. They only glow a little and in specific circumstances – just enough to seem magical – and the play of light from sources upon the wings is something production relied on a lot.”

Depicting flying creatures in fantasy has always been a filmmaking task that doesn’t offer easy solutions. “Right up front, we put a lot of stunt people up on wires. We experimented with how the wing motion would look in different conditions, such as taking off and landing. We knew that it was going to be a case of having actors on wires for as many shots as they possibly could do, because we wanted to keep things physical and ‘real’ in that way whenever possible. The general thrust was to avoid using greenscreen except when there was no alternative to doing so.”

For scenes of faeries in flight, their wings would be produced via CGI, though finessing and finalizing the look of the wings was time-consuming. “With the faeries, it was a case of iterate, iterate and iterate,” she states. “It became a matter of figuring out the speeds, whether they were more hummingbird or dragonfly – we wound up somewhere in the middle most of the time. We had fight scenes where somebody gets hurt, and the combat tactics involve deliberately going after your opponent’s wings to disrupt their flight pattern, so the injury manifests visually in the change to the wing motion. We have a few large crowd scenes in the sky in flashback scenes, where there are people shot on greenscreen elements, and some where they are practically shot against the set and location, but others where they are fully CG. For the most part, they were hand-animated, because I think the most we ever had was about 60, so flocking-type solutions weren’t needed. Pixomondo spent quite a while developing that wing look, coming up with a lot of interesting stuff. I monitored their progress, making sure it stayed within our desired window for the look.”

Crowds of airborne faeries were often achieved by shooting multiple live-action performers on wires. Important Looking Pirates handled a number of these shots, adding wings with flapping cycles that reflected their physical capabilities, as damaged creatures would often demonstrate weakened wing action. (Images courtesy of Important Looking Pirates, Legendary Television and Amazon)

“Hand-painted silicone wings were molded and dressed for each actor – their hero wings, if you will – and then there were hundreds of wings that could be employed for background faeries. The wings are translucent and iridescent, so getting that to look just right was very tricky. They only glow a little and in specific circumstances – just enough to seem magical – and the play of light from sources upon the wings is something production relied on a lot.”

—Betsy Paterson, Visual Effects Supervisor

The production art department provided detailed conceptual art for the neo-Victorian cityscape, which was then built practically in Prague to a mix of one and two-story structures. MR. X replaced the contemporary aspects above the set build and extended the industrial landscape in 3D, often embellishing the skies and clouds. (Images courtesy of MR. X, Legendary Television and Amazon)

Paterson elected to break up vendor assignments by type of effect whenever possible. “I find that grouping all the creature shots or environmental work with dedicated vendors is the best way to maintain consistency over the run of a show,” she declares. “For some of the more complicated scenes that involve flying and fight scenes, we may choose to have a single vendor do everything. Pixomondo did environments as well as flying in one instance, and UPP did everything in another, but when the most efficient and effective way to work involves sharing elements between vendors, then we’ll go that route as well.” Other principal VFX houses included Important Looking Pirates, MR. X and Rhythm & Hues. Image Engine was responsible for the show’s full CGI creature work. “There’s a very big baddie, plus various additional monsters met along the way,” Paterson reveals. “In most cases, we would have a stunt guy dressed in a black suit on set to give the actors something to play to or physically push on, which gets you more credibility than simple miming. For the big creature, we put our guy in a rubber suit and up on stilts, to get the proper height and eyeline. We also had many actors wearing prosthetics, so there was invariably a fair amount of cleanup on that end of things as well, with seams and weak edges. Every show requires some of that kind of final polish, and here there were all those flying rigs that needed painting out, too.”

Major action sequences and key select moments benefitted from the use of previsualization. “When you’re doing separate pieces on multiple locations for a single shot, every aspect needs to be considered and accounted for in advance of shooting,” notes Paterson. “We did previs whenever it was really necessary, particularly where we had to figure things out in some detail, like the specific beats during that first time we see Cara fly,” Paterson notes. “She dives off a cliff, and in a very elaborate camera move, we follow while moving around her as she starts to fly. We had Cara on a wire atop a mountain and she was just so game, she just jumped right off. The visceral aspect of getting something live on location just can’t be duplicated.

“From there, it got very difficult,” she continues. “We had two transitions during that shot, first going from her in live-action to CG as she falls, and then we come in on her face, and that is a greenscreen element of the actress. Because this was so close, there wasn’t anything to hide behind, like mist or objects between her and the camera, so it was a matter of working the transitions in when the camera was behind her. We knew her face would be live-action, but when it was on her body that was going to be fully CG.”

The principal design influence in the city is Victorian. “The art department gave us a pretty detailed painting for that environment,” says Paterson. “Then we took that forward into 3D and figured out the details. Production had built huge sets that went up one or two stories, so we replaced and extended everything above that level, plus the sky in many instances. We got away with some 2-1/2D versions in some instances, but most of those were fully 3D, since directors like moving the camera a lot these days, and we don’t want to hold them back or impose limits on their vision.”

Pixomondo developed specific characteristics for the look of faery wings. Translucent and iridescent, their looks proved tricky to refine, conveying a magical quality as well as a seeming credible means of propulsion. (Images courtesy of Pixomondo, Legendary Television and Amazon)

Part of that vertical extension included an elevated train. “There was a lot of discussion about just how much interactive presence we could create for the train passing overhead,” Paterson states. “We created a kind of cart that could go by, but the effect of its passage wasn’t really noticeable on our day shoots. Ultimately, we were able to use that at night, with a big array of lights rolling down the track inside the cart, suggesting illumination from within.”

Another Victorian-looking element is a Jules Verne-like airship, which originated in the art department. “We took that much further along with development through the VFX artists,” acknowledges Paterson. “Airship battles were another aspect that benefitted from previs, with these vessels using a primitive form of hand-cranked machine guns against the faeries. Those were built practically so the actors could use them, while we added the cannon fire coming out and the resulting explosions, which often feature practically shot pyro and dust elements. But when the explosion is supposed to take place in the middle of 100 extras, you’re not going to dare try to do actual gas pyrotechnics. Though we enhance all of the explosions in post, usually by embellishing with a hot, fiery core to the blast, it is always best to start with something real for the actors. They had special effects create a blast with a bunch of cork, so there was lots of debris that couldn’t actually hurt anybody raining down. Along with the actual dust and smoke, that really helps sell it.”

Paterson finds, “The color pipelines are pretty streamlined these days, so production LUTs are available right from the beginning. Then if everybody plays by the rules,” she chuckles, “everybody winds up working on the RAW neutral uncorrected plate. We have monitor tables that the DP is involved in creating so you can view the footage in the proper color space as it looks in the final.”

To be cognizant of potential issues with the HDR finishing pass, Paterson had a 4K monitor set up in her office to do what she calls the “Final final color check. That lets me see just how far we can push the HDR. The color range is just so huge now, and you can find yourself very surprised by stuff that you would never see on a standard monitor, but which is very evident – and potentially very distracting, even blinding, in HDR. You also obviously have to really trust your colorist, but even so, in my position, I am visiting there a lot during that process – just to make sure it all holds up and proceeds as expected.”


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