By TREVOR HOGG
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.
By TREVOR HOGG
Even with the proliferation of visual effects in high-end episodic, it is difficult to name the number of shows that have central CG characters, which is probably due to the tight budgets and schedules as well as screentime being the equivalent to a trilogy of feature films; however, things are beginning to change somewhat with the plethora of soulful animals and supernatural beings in His Dark Materials, a legally smart green giant in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, a faithful companion that is a detached hand in Wednesday, a toy in search of its owner in Lost Ollie, a CG-enhanced puppet that channels an up-and-coming Jedi master in The Mandalorian, indistinguishable digital doubles for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and a softball team a week before a championship game in the CG-animated series Win or Lose.
Visual effects supervisors are utilized in different ways and given various levels of access on shows. “It’s not a job with a clearly defined role as most people think,” notes Russell Dodgson, Creative Director of Television, Framestore and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor for His Dark Materials. “I was fortunate to be in a production that understood the show, to a degree, lived and breathed through the right use of visual effects, and by giving me a seat at the table afforded them the potential to get through that work as cost-effectively, efficiently and creatively as possible.”
Understanding anatomy is critical in creating believable creatures. Remarks Dodgson, “We do a lot of deep dives into our creatures, and sometimes we have external experts come in and educate us on how everything is truly structured.” All creatures have a personality but many of them are not given character arcs. “At the beginning of Season 1,” Dodgson explains, “Iorek Byrnison has a completely different body language and his ability to look at somebody in the eye isn’t there. By the end of the season, Iorek has regained his pride, his posture is different and he can keep eye contact. It’s such a subtle thing, but it flavors the performance in exactly the same way an actor would.” When anthropomorphizing natural creatures, less is more, he says. “I always work body, head and then face in terms of what I care about. Most of the time when you have good animators, like we did on His Dark Materials, and the body is doing the right thing, you feel the emotion in the shot anyway, and the face is something you sweeten it with. You try to do as little as possible so it doesn’t get weird.”
There were numerous things that Jan Philip Cramer, VFX Supervisor at Digital Domain, had to learn when creating the CG titled character for She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. “She-Hulk is a female character who is bubbly, positive, uses makeup and wears high heels and lots of different outfits,” Cramer notes. “One of the problems for us was how much subsurface you would see coming through, which is stuff that you would sometimes cover up with makeup. Similar with rouge; we would put some on lightly because we had to be so careful that her overall skin tone would stay untouched.” Unlike her green-skinned cousin, the physique was not modeled on a bodybuilder. Comments Cramer, “The whole story is about Jennifer Walters struggling with everybody wanting the prettier She-Hulk version of her, who is meant to be strong and elegant-looking. We had 12 different outfits and she needed to be wearing different bras. We had to develop a shape-wear system because we realize that when you wear a pyjama or super tight-fitting legging or ballgown, the body is a completely different shape [created] by the outside forces. We were running a muscle system that we needed to maintain. You basically have different base geometries, depending on the costume, that is completely different whether it is pulled together or not. This proved to be challenging.”
Given an opportunity to stretch its fingers in Wednesday is the disembodied hand known as Thing, which is fiercely loyal to the Addams Family and a constant companion of Wednesday Addams as she attends her parents’ alma mater, Nevermore Academy. “They were smart and found a way around the budgetary constraints by using [magician] Victor Dorobantu, who as an individual is very good with his hands to bring on what that character is and capture the audience,” states Lon Molnar, Co-President and Co-Founder of Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies VFX (MARZ). “We had a lot of ramp-up because Tom Turnbull [Production VFX Supervisor] took the initiative to say, ‘This is going to be challenging. We need to take advantage of every day now until we start shooting and the plates start coming in.’”
The cinematic aesthetic of filmmaker Tim Burton and his background as an animator were taken into consideration. States Molnar, “When you’re a fan of animation and studied it, you know he is going to be looking at frames, and posing and silhouettes are important to him.” The mandate was not to emulate previous versions of Thing. Adds Molnar, “Instead of studying hands, it’s studying characters in film. One of the things we were spit-balling was Buster Keaton. Some of the early tests were how would a walk cycle look like with a hand. It’s looking at it like an upright human being walking. The great advantage Thing has is he can move from all fours to upright to back to all fours. The direction we were getting was almost like parkour; when you see them, they’re leveraging their body parts.”
Embarking on an odyssey to reunite with his owner is a toy rabbit in Lost Ollie. “For Lost Ollie, we wanted something that had a flexible performance,” states Hayden Jones, VFX Supervisor at ILM. “A lot of the scenes are incredibly emotional, so we needed a character to convey that, but similarly we also had to restrict it to something that didn’t belong in the real world. Ollie was a handmade, stuffed toy rabbit, so we could not give so much animation control over the face.” Long patchwork ears are a signature physical attribute of Ollie. Remarks Jones, “In a traditional production, you would animate the character and leave the ears to a creature effects team to put on and do the dynamics for. But we couldn’t afford that iterative cycle between animation and creature effects. Instead, a system was designed where we would give animators control over the physics on the ears, so while animating they could hit a button and there was a Houdini engine plug-in that simulated the ears for them. As the animators were iterating their animation, they were also iterating the creature development on the ears, so both could be brought onboard at the same time. If needed, we could override it and let the animators take control of the ears and craft the performance that the directors really wanted. That was really tricky.” The CG supervisors came up with semi-automated system for doing the level of polyester fiber filling inside Ollie. Explains Jones, “An animator would pose Ollie to get a certain reaction, but when you simulate all of the internal stuffing, it would slightly repose him. What we needed to do was to dial it back in certain areas. We came up with a flexible system not only to make Ollie as real as possible, but also dialing back the reality so we could give him the intended performance as well in areas, too.”
Jones was also the Visual Effects Supervisor for the Grogu shots in London for Season 1 of The Mandalorian. Jones states, “We did some tests early on where we created a much more realistic Grogu that wasn’t based on the puppet. But as soon as we saw Grogu in his puppet form, everyone knew that was what we needed to do and keep. The puppet gives such a nice nuance performance and has such a feeling of heritage back to the Star Wars tradition of how the franchise has used puppetry and practical creatures throughout the shows. We still had lots of work to do because sometimes shots work and others need a little bit of enhancement. In fact, we ended up creating a great CG double for Season 1, and many times you won’t realize that you’re looking at a CG version of Grogu; that is down to the sheer artistry of everyone involved in the creation of the character and the animators who poured over what the puppet looked like to make sure that the CG version matched 100%. Sometimes we will take the puppet and only add eye blinks to it. Other times you’re doing more complex movements.” Jones adds, “Even though there is a lot of character animation in there, you know that the ground entry is the world’s greatest puppet, so you design your performance around that.” Jones notes that the costume of Grogu proved to be difficult. “The sheepskin collar with flowing cloth underneath was quite tricky to get right, but it all worked out in the end.”
Digital doubles have become a major part of action-oriented shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for performance and safety reasons. “There is no time to waste if the sequence is over five minutes and you’re not sure where the digital double is going to be shown,” remarks Sébastien Francoeur, VFX Supervisor at Rodeo FX. “We have pictures, LiDAR scans and photogrammetry. Those guys are in booths and scanned, but the detail is not all there. We align everything and double check the model because it needs to fit. The eyes and teeth need to be perfect, and the folds on the clothing need to be near perfect. If you change half a centimeter between two eyes, it’s not the same guy again. It’s not working if you’re not doing the right smile with the right volume in the cheeks. You can go forever and forever when you’re doing that, but at some point you have to think about if the clothes need to be the same kind of folds or if it looks a bit different, nobody will care. It’s not about R&D. The client needs to be aware when we’re doing that. The price also comes when we’re doing that. For The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we had the time frame to build it right. If it’s not the case, we need to know every shot, where we’re going to fit in and how we’re going to see it, then we can make decisions based on that. We get less and less of previs, so it’s up to us to come up with the staging, how the creature will fight and where they’re going to be based on the plate. With The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we received a previs, but it kept changing until the last minute.”
Not everything is live-action centric, as a cast of CG characters had to be created for a Disney+ animated series created by Pixar which can be described as The Bad News Bears meets Rashomon. “That’s a fair way to characterize it, I suppose,” laughs Lou Hamou-Lhadj, Character Supervisor/Director for Win or Lose. “Given the conceit of the show, that we have a different point of view per episode, you potentially have eight protagonists, and we want to make sure that each of those designs speaks to that particular character, their world view and experiences. For an ordinary production, you would probably build your secondary cast in a fairly bespoke way. What we tried to do, as we were filling out the rest of the world, was leveraging those characters who are carrying the emotional arcs as a pool that we can pull from as a starting place for everyone else. That hopefully means we are being smarter and more efficient how we can shift, redress and pad out, especially our tertiary cast as much as possible.”
Expressiveness was paramount for the character-driven show. “There were some new technologies that we developed to allow us to hit what on a feature budget would be an expansive, broad character range of expression. We don’t want to water down the performance at all.” Personality traits influence the rigging of characters. “If someone is a loud mouth and boastful, we want to evoke that in their design and make sure we have the real estate on that face to go broad and do big things. We do have a baseline of a shared shape and visual language so everything feels of the world. But we would certainly have other characters who are quieter and have different expectations. Maybe their mouth range is much smaller, but there is some other aspect of their physicality that we need to capture in the way we design and rig them so that their personality comes through.”