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September 12
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

CRAFTY APES VFX REACHES NEW HEIGHTS WITH I’M A VIRGO

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Crafty Apes VFX and Prime Video.

The set for Bing-Bang Burger was actually a miniature, so careful attention had to be paid to make sure that the shadows were cast correctly.

The set for Bing-Bang Burger was actually a miniature, so careful attention had to be paid to make sure that the shadows were cast correctly.

When it comes to tall orders, I’m a Virgo Visual Effects Supervisor Todd Perry asked Crafty Apes VFX to produce a 13-foot high teenage protagonist named Cootie, who gets to experience the world beyond his sheltered existence for the first time in the satirical Prime Video series created by director/writer Boots Riley. “Boots didn’t want to use CG to make Cootie look bigger, so several different approaches were utilized for every shot,” states Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, Visual Effects Supervisor at Crafty Apes. “We had shots with puppets that we had to replace the head or augment the body. Or Cootie was shot in a miniature set with him being closer to the camera so he was appearing bigger. Or he was on a platform.” The methodology had to appear indistinguishable to the viewer. “For me, it was interesting to see because I grew up watching a movie like Elf where they did a lot of that kind of trickery,” remarks Ruth Stewart-Patterson, Production Manager at Crafty Apes. “We were doing our comp work and trying to make things look seamless.”

For the driving shots through the city Crafty Apes VFX had to add motion to hands of the puppet and do a face replacement.

For the driving shots through the city Crafty Apes VFX had to add motion to hands of the puppet and do a face replacement.

“Boots [series creator/director/writer Boots Riley] didn’t want to use CG to make Cootie look bigger, so several different approaches were utilized for every shot. We had shots with puppets that we had to replace the head or augment the body. Or Cootie was shot in a miniature set with him being closer to the camera so he was appearing bigger. Or he was on a platform.”

—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, Visual Effects Supervisor, Crafty Apes VFX

I’m a Virgo is a superhero satire created by Boots Riley about a 13-foot tall teenager named Cootie.

I’m a Virgo is a superhero satire created by Boots Riley about a 13-foot tall teenager named Cootie.

Over a period of six months Crafty Apes created 210 shots. ”The thing about working on TV is when you break it down per episode or sequence, it’s easier,” Stewart-Patterson states. “You might have five sequences per episode, and sometimes you get episodes in different orders, but at the end day it’s like a movie where you go one sequence at a time and assign another team to a different sequence so that they work all together – the organization and the types of shots as well. For example, on some shots we’re integrating Cootie and on another one with CG. You have to gather the work together and figure out what pairs with what, and once you figure that out, then you try to keep these teams together as you go per episode or sequence.” Consistency had to be maintained throughout the seven episodes. “We try to keep similar shots with the same artist to make sure everything is cohesive and we’ve shared techniques with all of the artists,” Sienkiewicz remarks. “We would talk to Todd and Boots to make sure that we’re on the same page.”

Elements meant to be significantly larger, like Baby Cootie, were shot closer to the camera.

Elements meant to be significantly larger, like Baby Cootie, were shot closer to the camera.

“For the scene when Cootie is on the car driving through the city, it was shot with a massive puppet on the car. We had to remove the rig, replace the head and add motion to the fingers so he looked realistic. There were a lot of 2D techniques that we used. The face was shot on a greenscreen so we had several different takes with various lighting conditions to choose from. We used cues [in the plates] to track in the face into the puppet and added a little bit of motion into the face.”

—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, Visual Effects Supervisor, Crafty Apes VFX

The specular quality of the puppet for Cootie was different from natural skin so lighting adjustments had to be made by Crafty Apes VFX.

The specular quality of the puppet for Cootie was different from natural skin so lighting adjustments had to be made by Crafty Apes VFX.

Every shot was storyboarded to show how the actors would be positioned in front of the camera. “The elements we received from Todd Perry were awesome,” Sienkiewicz states. “The lighting conditions were always matching in the plates,  and there were sometimes several plates that had to be merged together.” Since Cootie was closer to the camera and every character were on different planes, close attention had to be paid to shadows. Sienkiewicz explains, “In Episode 101, Cootie was super big in Bing-Bang Burger while the set was miniature. We had to make sure that the shadows of him are interacting with the walls and the other characters, as well as ensuring that the lighting conditions are matching. It was a different way of thinking compared to other shows I’ve worked on before.” Stewart-Patterson joined the project later on. “Our Shotgun mirrored their Shotgun, so it was easy to find what needed to be done, relay and see what’s left to do. It’s a lot easier when you have a road map rather than chaos,” Stewart-Patterson offers. Receiving editorial turnovers can be stressful because sometimes they come in earlier or later than expected, so flexibility is paramount. “We might get a turnover of 50 shots within an episode, so we pick out some key shots,” Stewart-Patterson details. “From there you can focus on those 10 shots and spread them out as you go further along in time. The trust between us and the client was strong, so picking the correct takes and making sure that we’ll get things done on time and scheduled properly was key to completing this project.”

Cootie has an intimate moment with Flora, who has the ability to rapidly flash a multitude of colors in a manner that resembles a hummingbird.

Cootie has an intimate moment with Flora, who has the ability to rapidly flash a multitude of colors in a manner that resembles a hummingbird.

2D rather than 3D effects were the focus. “It was cool to see actual characters and models already in camera [rather than having to construct everything in CG],” Stewart-Patterson notes. “Aleks and Todd had a great relationship, so Aleks already knew where Todd was going to go and probably what his notes were going to be.” Boots Riley has a specific vision when it comes to how he wants to shoot and see the shots. “It was like a fresh breath of air,” Sienkiewicz remarks. “I’ve been in this industry for the past 13 or 14 years, and this was the first time I worked with miniatures, rather than build CG characters we needed to blend or augment their movements, or do face replacements. For the scene when Cootie is on the car driving through the city, it was shot with a massive puppet on the car. We had to remove the rig, replace the head and add motion to the fingers so he looked realistic. There were a lot of 2D techniques that we used. The face was shot on a greenscreen so we had several different takes with various lighting conditions to choose from. We used cues [in the plates] to track in the face into the puppet and added a little bit of motion into the face.” The puppet had more of a specular quality than normal skin. “There was some augmentation in terms of the brightness,” Sienkiewicz adds.

Series creator Boots Riley did not want to use CG to make Cootie look bigger, so several different approaches were utilized for every shot.

Series creator Boots Riley did not want to use CG to make Cootie look bigger, so several different approaches were utilized for every shot.

“A shot that stands out to me and was one of the most complex ones was Flora’s flashback in Episode 103. There was an oner shot that was 5,000 frames, and we had 13 plates that had to be stitched together because the motion was not seamless. In addition to that, it was at super speed so everything around her is still, so we had to stabilize all of the actors to make sure they don’t move or blink. If you wanted to change one thing, all of the 5,000 frames had to be rendered.”

—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, Visual Effects Supervisor, Crafty Apes VFX

The miniature house was shot against greenscreen and then composited into the plate photography.

The miniature house was shot against greenscreen and then composited into the plate photography.

Some sleepless nights were spent thinking about the project. “A shot that stands out to me and was one of the most complex ones was Flora’s flashback in Episode 103,” Sienkiewicz reveals. “There was an oner shot that was 5,000 frames, and we had 13 plates that had to be stitched together because the motion was not seamless. In addition to that, it was at super speed so everything around her is still, so we had to stabilize all of the actors to make sure they don’t move or blink.” Alternations could not be taken lightly. Continues Sienkiewicz, “If you wanted to change one thing all of the 5,000 frames had to be rendered. We divided shots between different artists. You need to find the perfect spot for making a transition where you can hide things, typically motion blur or foreground elements that make it look natural.” Flora has the ability to flash a multitude of different colors. Sienkiewicz explains, “Flora’s effect was cool. All of the Flora elements were shot at different speeds and colors. We also had plates with flashing lights that we needed to select frames that Boots liked. Because Boots liked the postvis that editorial did, we ended up asking editorial to export us AAF files that we could import into Nuke. Rather than go through minutes or hours of footage, we exactly knew which element he liked; that was our baseline for timing and then we could enhance and move forward with other effects. Boots never wanted things to look perfect; he likes an old, ragged look but with a modern twist. There was a lot of creative brainstorming about how we wanted this character to look like. Boots compared it to the Tasmanian Devil.”Another creature comes to mind for Stewart-Patterson. “When you play it fast it looks cool because it appears like a hummingbird changing colors.”

Every shot was storyboarded to show how the actors would be positioned in front of the camera.

Every shot was storyboarded to show how the actors would be positioned in front of the camera.

“The shots in Bing-Bang Burger was a real Cootie shot close to the camera, but the set was a miniature. He was touching his head, so there was lots of trickery to make it look realistic. The biggest challenge was to make sure that the puppet and the real elements were cohesive and working together. There was lots of comp trickery involved!”

—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, Visual Effects Supervisor, Crafty Apes VFX

Boots Riley wanted to have an old, ragged look, but with a modern twist.

Boots Riley wanted to have an old, ragged look, but with a modern twist.

Lots of compositing trickery was called upon when doing the face replacements on the puppet for Cootie. “The neck was one of the biggest issues, to make sure that he’s tucked in nicely behind the shirt,” Sienkiewicz states. “And even the chest,  because the puppet was bigger that Cootie himself, so we needed to slim him down; there was some complex paintwork involved. There were a lot of rigs involved with the puppet, so there was massive cleanup in some of the shots. The shots in Bing-Bang Burger was a real Cootie shot close to the camera, but the set was a miniature. He was touching his head, so there was lots of trickery to make it look realistic. The biggest challenge was to make sure that the puppet and the real elements were cohesive and working together. There was lots of comp trickery involved!” The major task for Stewart-Patterson was being able to adapt to meet needs of the production. “When working closely with creatives, we try to reel them in but also give them as much space you can. It’s being able to assist and properly reflect to the client what creative changes might be or how much time it might take. This team really brought it in well, and the show looks great.”

Watch the VFX breakdown reel for I’m a Virgo from Crafty Apes VFX. Click here: https://vimeo.com/834933437.


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