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May 12
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Crafting Chaos in Deep Space for AVENUE 5

By IAN FAILES

The HBO comedy series Avenue 5, created by Armando Iannucci, finished its first season in March this year. Set on the interplanetary space cruiser, Avenue 5, the show follows the ship’s passengers and crew as their eight-week flight gets extended to more than three years.

The journey brings with it several moments of chaotic – and hilarious – action on board, requiring a wealth of visual effects. One of the show’s VFX vendors was Nviz, led by Visual Effects Supervisor James Fleming. The studio also delivered previs for the series.

VFX Voice asked members of the Nviz team about some of their key sequences, including a gravity flip involving the ship, an airlock disaster, graphics and user-interface screens, and a real-time flight simulator made for a crucial scene.

Nviz previs for the gravity flip sequence. (All images copyright © 2020 HBO.)

PLANNING OUT THE GRAVITY FLIP

The show’s first episode quickly places the Avenue 5 in its extended journey predicament after a disastrous ‘gravity flip’ that sends those on board – including scores of passengers in the middle of a yoga routine – flying in every direction.

Nviz firstly previs’d key moments for the gravity flip. Since the scene needed to involve so many people, Nviz tackled the previs with the aid of crowd simulation tool Miarmy instead of animating the crowd by hand. “Using rigged characters would have been quite heavy to deal with, and proxy rigs would make previs too simplistic and less accurate,” details Nviz previs artist Eduardo Schmidek. “Using a crowd sim tool meant we could iterate much faster and produce many more richer takes to play with during the creative process.”

The previs began with the use of basic textured rigs for the main characters such as the yoginis, along with animation clips showing them on the floor and being thrown into the air. “Once we had that,” says Schmidek, “we could start to play with the physical settings for the gravity flip. Should it be gradual? Sudden? Should they rise a lot? Or just float slightly above the ground? Which of those would make it funnier? How strongly could we throw them before it looks too painful to laugh? Should they collide scattered onto the glass? Or be bunched together? What happens when the normal gravity gets restored?”

The characters were rigged as rag dolls, allowing them to collide more realistically with each other and parts of the set. The simulation of some characters colliding in this way actually provided Nviz with a comedic starting point for their animation. “Once we found the right tone for how the crowd should behave, we refined the animations by hand,” adds Schmidek. “We were also able to re-insert the hand animations back into the simulation to get the crowd reacting to these new directions.”

That previs then helped inform the shoot. Stunt performers and a host of flying set pieces and debris made up the scene, which was supplemented with digital doubles, extra debris and a number of additional CG elements of the ship interior and exterior.

Scenes aboard the Avenue 5 ship for the gravity flip were filmed on sets in London.

Nviz realized the final shots with a myriad extra performers and debris.

“Once we had that [previs with rigs and animation clips] we could start to play with the physical settings for the gravity flip. Should it be gradual? Sudden? Should they rise a lot? Or just float slightly above the ground? Which of those would make it funnier? How strongly could we throw them before it looks too painful to laugh? Should they collide scattered onto the glass? Or be bunched together? What happens when the normal gravity gets restored?”

—Eduardo Schmidek, Previs Artist, Nviz

Squashed passengers after the gravity flip.

“By bringing [concept art for graphic art for communication displays and interfaces] to life and fine tuning them in the context of the action, we found that through this process the emphasis moved away from the elegant, finely detailed graphics of the in-camera screens to a bolder, broader style. This ensured that the relevant message – whether it be a vital piece of storytelling or a punchline to a joke – ‘landed’ with the audience in the limited time available in the cut.”

—Chris Lunney, Creative Director, Nviz

Original photography for a scene showing the vast ship interior.

Final composite by Nviz.

“We also developed looks for the

footage as it came through these [smart phones and wrist devices], designing glitches and various types of aberrations to convey the idea that although the technology was impressive, it still had the ability to be flawed, inconsistent and frustrating – even in the future!”

—Chris Lunney, Creative Director, Nviz

Original plate.

Set extension by Nviz.

“We also worked on numerous ‘Pebble’ screens that were placed on the walls throughout the ship. Originally planned for scripted action and a way of adding background texture via advertising, as the editorial process evolved [show creator Armando Iannucci] explored different ways of using these screens, which led to many of them requiring bespoke designs to either help reinforce certain story points, or to act as background gags for eagle-eyed viewers.”

—Chris Lunney, Creative Director, Nviz

CHAOS CONTINUES: THE AIRLOCK

At one point the passengers realize that the crew of the Avenue 5 are in fact actors, and they mistakenly believe they are all on a reality TV show instead of in outer space. When some try to leave the airlock of the ship, they are instantly frozen, an effect handled by Nviz. This began with on-set capture.

“After the initial on-set shoot had finished, the actors were asked to try and match their ‘freeze’ pose again for the photogrammetry process,” outlines Nviz CG Supervisor Sam Churchill. “Once processed, the geo needed some cleaning, but due to the nature of the final effect, any ‘blobby-ness’ that comes from even the highest quality photogrammetry could be used to sell the ice/frosting layer. The textures were then balanced to better match the lighting in the shot rather than the lighting in the photo scan booth, and we had a set of high-quality digi-doubles ready for use.”

The initial idea for the sequence was that the freeze effect would happen mainly off-screen during the reaction shots, enabling Nviz to give a simpler nod towards the effect in 2D on the actual freeze pose shots. This meant the poses did not need to be exactly the same, with the cut-away enabling Nviz to go from plate to CG without any concern about seeing a slight hand movement between the two slightly-off poses.

“However,” notes Churchill, “after putting the sequence together myself, Production Visual Effects Supervisor Simon Frame really wanted to push the frosting effect into the first freeze shots. In order to achieve this we had to take the photogrammetry of each actor and line them up through the camera so that the geo and the plate matched perfectly. Then by projecting that plate back onto the geo and adding the frosting layer over the top we were able to get the final look working and ensure the sequence then tied together without the need for any off-camera tricks.”

The final look was achieved by creating an ice layer over the characters. Continues Churchill, “We duplicated the geo, applied the raw photogrammetry texture to the base geo and applied a very high frequency displacement map to the outer ‘ice/frosting’ layer with an ice shader set to capture reflection from the digitally recreated set and also refract the raw color from the layer underneath. The beauty of doing it this way meant we had a very accurate output from the ray-traced scene, we had an effective slider for how much or little frosting we wanted and were also able to animate the displacement to make it feel like it is growing over the skin.”

User interface and holograms made up several interior scenes in the ship.

Nviz orchestrated graphics for a number of news broadcasts seen during the series.

GRAPHICS IN SPACE

Nviz had a major hand in creating 400 graphics shots for different displays and user-interfaces on the ship; there were 144 different setups in total. Their work launched off of a style guide established from Production Designer Simon Bowles’ art department.

“From that,” explains Nviz Creative Director Chris Lunney, “we then set about developing ideas from concept art given to us by Simon Bowles and Simon Frame. By bringing them to life and fine tuning them in the context of the action, we found that through this process the emphasis moved away from the elegant, finely detailed graphics of the in-camera screens to a bolder, broader style. This ensured that the relevant message – whether it be a vital piece of storytelling or a punchline to a joke – ‘landed’ with the audience in the limited time available in the cut.”

News and video call footage was a significant part of Nviz’s deliveries, and for this the studio devised a number of communications interfaces for Mission Control on board the ship, including smart phones and wrist devices. “We also developed looks for the footage as it came through these devices,” says Lunney, “designing glitches and various types of aberrations to convey the idea that although the technology was impressive, it still had the ability to be flawed, inconsistent and frustrating – even in the future!

“We also worked on numerous ‘Pebble’ screens that were placed on the walls throughout the ship,” adds Lunney. “Originally planned for scripted action and a way of adding background texture via advertising, as the editorial process evolved Armando explored different ways of using these screens, which led to many of them requiring bespoke designs to either help reinforce certain story points, or to act as background gags for eagle-eyed viewers.”

Plate photography for a shot revealing the airlock disaster.

Final VFX by Nviz.

“[T]he final design [of the flight simulator] had to look like a simulation – this meant some kind of post process would be needed to take the crisp images we would be outputting and applying a 16-bit video game look, as per the brief. We talked about using other software to achieve this look and maybe going down a more traditional VFX pipeline, but we found we could achieve this within Unreal Engine 4 using their built in post-processing tools, which gave the client the ability to dial the look up and down during reviews, controlling the color palette, level of pixelation and frame rate in real time.”

—Sam Churchill, CG Supervisor, Nviz

A plate shot of second engineer Billie (Lenora Chrichlow) working in the ship’s atrium.

The final shot with VFX by Nviz.

Nviz’s flight simulator setup crafted in Maya and Unreal Engine.

Flight simulator lookdev.

FLIGHT SIMULATION

Nviz’s wide gamut of visual effects work continued for a sequence in which the ‘faux’ captain of the Avenue 5 is taught how to dock the ship at a space port using a flight simulator. His initial attempts end in cataclysmic simulated destruction. Nviz built the simulator in Maya and Unreal Engine. The studio was an early adopter of real-time game engine tech for its previs and post projects.

Churchill identifies one of the major benefits of handling the flight simulation with Unreal Engine as almost non-existent render times, meaning more iterations could occur. Also, he says, “the final design had to look like a simulation – this meant some kind of post process would be needed to take the crisp images we would be outputting and applying a 16-bit video game look, as per the brief. We talked about using other software to achieve this look and maybe going down a more traditional VFX pipeline, but we found we could achieve this within Unreal Engine 4 using their built in post-processing tools, which gave the client the ability to dial the look up and down during reviews, controlling the color palette, level of pixelation and frame rate in real time.”

“It was obviously not without its difficulties,” acknowledges Churchill. “Trying to get the destruction of a massive space port, huge spaceship and hundreds of shuttles from a simulation in Maya to work and look exactly as designed in UE4 was no mean feat. The team did a fantastic job of making the whole process seamless.”


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