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 13
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

ENHANCING THE PRACTICAL MANTRA OF WENDELL & WILD

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Netflix.

Composing a shot for one of the different demonic forms of Wendell and Wild.

Composing a shot for one of the different demonic forms of Wendell and Wild.

There is a real handmade charm associated with stop-motion animation because of the artisan craftmanship that goes in manufacturing characters, props and sets as well as articulating nuanced performances frame by frame. Expediting the laborious process along with expanding the scope of the storytelling is the incorporation of digital effects into the practical wizardry. Such was the case was in the Netflix production of Wendell & Wild, which brought together the animated expertise of Henry Selick and live-action sensibilities of Jordan Peele to make a horror comedy that embraces the yin and yang of human nature with a devilish wit. A guilt-ridden delinquent teenager attempts to resurrect her dead parents while two demons running afoul in the land of the living unleash the wraith of their father who happens to rule the underworld.

“Seams were left in all of the shots because we wanted to see that charm,” Abels explains. “If it got to a point where the seams were distracting, we did clean them up. Obviously, there are always going to be rigs in all of these shots that need to be removed digitally. They would shoot the backgrounds clean without the puppets, and many times those shots had to be reassembled because there were different parts of the set that were removed so the animators had access, and the visual effects team had to put that all back together.”

—Heather Abels, Digital Supervisor

Every set was surrounded by greenscreen or bluescreen.

Every set was surrounded by greenscreen or bluescreen.

Extensive detail went into creating miniature props for the sets, such as desks situated in the classrooms of Rust Bank’s all-girls Catholic School.

Extensive detail went into creating miniature props for the sets, such as desks situated in the classrooms of Rust Bank’s all-girls Catholic School.

“This was my second experience working with puppets and doing backgrounds for that, but working for Henry Selick, you’re like, ‘This is absolutely a dream,’” states Heather Abels, Digital Supervisor on Wendell & Wild. “Because we love Jack Skellington [from The Nightmare Before Christmas] and his work; it inspired my generation to go into this industry. My career has shifted to be more digital, but I started out wanting to do miniatures and physical sets. It was so refreshing after a long decade of strictly digital environments to work on something that you can feel the artist’s touch in every shot.” Visual effects can be found throughout the production, resulting in 1,568 shots featuring contributions by Windmill Lane, FuseFX, Distillery VFX, One of Us, Midas VFX, Firebrand VFX, Outlanders VFX, Labyrinth, Track VFX and an in-house team. Abels remarks, “We tried our best to compartmentalize environments or shots, but there were shots, like the Belzer rising sequence, which were challenging because we had to split [the work]  amongst three vendors.”

Cut-out animation was the style chosen for the underworld sequence, which meant that several different facial expressions had to be created for each angle.

Cut-out animation was the style chosen for the underworld sequence, which meant that several different facial expressions had to be created for each angle.

Various sizes of puppets were created for Kat, from the full-size to a tiny 3D-printed version to fit inside a six-inch van for wide shots.

Various sizes of puppets were created for Kat, from the full-size to a tiny 3D-printed version to fit inside a six-inch van for wide shots.

The dilapidated shops found downtown on the Main Street

The dilapidated shops found downtown on Main Street.

“Sister Helley is a hell maiden and can travel with this smoke beam. All of that was done in visual effects as well. There are these light trails and vaporous black smoke, and she rises out of this swirling smoke. It was cool looking. Some of my favorites are when she’s in the basement at the school and smoke fills up around her. It’s epic. It’s the first time that you see her emerging from this smoke to talk to Manberg. It was incredible trying to get the interactive lighting of the furnace in there and the smoke, and she’s coming out of the middle of it.”

—Heather Abels, Digital Supervisor

Interestingly, facial seam removals were not a top priority for the visual effects team. “Seams were left in all of the shots because we wanted to see that charm,” Abels explains. “If it got to a point where the seams were distracting, we did clean them up. Obviously, there are always going to be rigs in all of these shots that need to be removed digitally. They would shoot the backgrounds clean without the puppets, and many times those shots had to be reassembled because there were different parts of the set that were removed so the animators had access, and the visual effects team had to put that all back together.” Separate passes were captured with motion control cameras. “Many of the sets that were built onstage had to be constructed at different scales, so they had to compute that math to plug into the motion control system so they could film the backgrounds at different scales than the foreground. The math didn’t always compute, so there were challenges trying to get the wide establishing shot of the bridge. We had to cheat it because the stage is only so big, and you can’t take the walls and roof off.”

A down shot of the kitchen belonging to Mariana.

A down shot of the kitchen belonging to Mariana.

Everything built had concept art and was prototyped. “We had additional artwork to dictate the symbolic meaning of all the colors throughout the film,” Abels remarks. “Father Bests’ funeral is the only time in the movie where we have saturated colors. When we’re going for more blues and purples, we ended up keeping all of that beautiful blue spill from the bluescreen. We had to figure out a way to remove it from the edges to avoid having blue halos, but keep it in the shadows and colors of the costumes because we were so in love with the original photography.” Many sets were destroyed for the dilapidated versions. “For example, when we see Kat’s house in her happy memory in the summertime, it’s beautiful and pristine,” Abels observes. “Then we see its current state. That’s the same set repurposed. The same thing would happen with winterizing a location or a burned down version of the brewery. Continuity wasn’t as much of a challenge there. It came into visual effects because we were filling in the background digital matte paintings and set extensions, and making sure that we had a throughline for the emotional color story that fit the language of the film.”

Conceptualizing the road that leads to the school, surrounded by mist.

Conceptualizing the road that leads to the school, surrounded by mist.

The character designs of Pablo Lobato informed how the puppets were animated.

The character designs of Pablo Lobato informed how the puppets were animated.

Exploring the lighting for the redemption chamber, which features a shadow puppet version of Kat.

Exploring the lighting for the redemption chamber, which features a shadow puppet version of Kat.

“Many of the sets that were built onstage had to be constructed at different scales, so they had to compute that math to plug into the motion control system so they could film the backgrounds at different scales than the foreground. The math didn’t always compute, so there were challenges trying to get the wide establishing shot of the bridge. We had to cheat it because the stage is only so big, and you can’t take the walls and roof off.”

—Heather Abels, Digital Supervisor

Effects such as water were a marriage of practical and digital. “Incredible shots were worked out, such as a tire breaking the ice, which was practical and gorgeous. Shots like that sell the rest of the scene, so when we do add CG snow or fog, the environment feels tangible,” Abels notes. The cold breathes had a practical component. “Everybody always did reference. For the breaths, we had a snowstorm in Portland and asked people to go out and shoot reference of them reading dialogue lines so that we could calculate how many breaths we would need in a shot, what they would trail out [breath] like and how much they covered up faces or moved to the side.” Some of the skies were practical. Adds Abels, “Most of them were matte paintings or set extensions. They only built a couple of houses in the neighborhood, and we digitally extended to have streets and rows of houses. We relied heavily on the photogrammetry of the actual props.”

A painting of the Scream Fair that resides inside of Buffalo Belzer.

A painting of the Scream Fair that resides inside of Buffalo Belzer.

An example of a color script created for Wendell & Wild.

An example of a color script created for Wendell & Wild.

Residing in the belly of Belzer is the amazing Scream Fair set. “There was a 10-foot model so they could puppet the roller coasters, and digitally we could take that and put it in Belzer’s belly,” Abels reveals. “We had a giant hand the size of a Volkswagen Beetle so that those other puppets look small in the hand. They had some big Belzer puppets for some close-up facial animation, and we had a regular-size Belzer puppet so that we could do a tiny Scream Fair for that.” Premonitions have an aesthetic that combines shadow puppets with a stylized green night version. “Rigged lights were placed in the eyes of Kat and Sister Helley so we could get a pass of multiple exposures of an eye glow, so that would affect the scene. Then we had versions without [the rigged eye lights] that turned on with certain key lights. Then all of the shadow puppet memories on the wall and the walls themselves were all digitally animated.”

“Everything is animated traditionally in the stop-motion style. The facial animation was done ahead in previs with Dragonframe to make sure that they got the desired expressions framed for that and it was based off of a 3D model. Then Henry [Director Henry Selick] would sit down and watch that. You could parse that information out of Dragonframe, sit down with a Maya sculpturer, and he could spin it around and watch that facial animation in 3D before they would set up to shoot.”

—Heather Abels, Digital Supervisor

The vocal performance of James Hong for Father Bests informed how the character moved.

The vocal performance of James Hong for Father Bests informed how the character moved.

Retaining the facial seamlines of the puppets was part of embracing the stop-motion animation aesthetic.

Retaining the facial seamlines of the puppets was part of embracing the stop-motion animation aesthetic.

Sister Helley goes through a literal transformation. “Sister Helley is a hell maiden and can travel with this smoke beam” Abels states. “All of that was done in visual effects as well. There are these light trails and vaporous black smoke, and she rises out of this swirling smoke. It was cool looking. Some of my favorites are when she’s in the basement at the school and smoke fills up around her. It’s epic. It’s the first time that you see her emerging from this smoke to talk to Manberg. It was incredible trying to get the interactive lighting of the furnace in there and the smoke, and she’s coming out of the middle of it.” The only CG characters were shadow puppets. “Everything is animated traditionally in the stop-motion style. The facial animation was done ahead in previs with Dragonframe to make sure that they got the desired expressions framed for that and it was based off of a 3D model. Then Henry would sit down and watch that. You could parse that information out of Dragonframe, sit down with a Maya sculpturer, and he could spin it around and watch that facial animation in 3D before they would set up to shoot.”

Practical lights were built into the eyes of Kat and Sister Helley for the moments when they glow green.

Practical lights were built into the eyes of Kat and Sister Helley for the moments when they glow green.

The shadow puppets were fully CG.

The shadow puppets were fully CG.

A pivotal moment is the bridge crash where the parents of Kat drown and she survives. “Those bridge shots looked so good on their own, but we had to take all of the different pieces like the debris falling off of the car as its crashing through,” Abels explains. “The lightning flash is a separate pass. The rain has to be added and had to look like it’s hitting the roof of the car, which was practical. You have to match that as it’s crashing slowly towards the camera and getting that lightning flash in the back of the bridge. Stuff like that we had to add in later. It was challenging to match the mood and concept art and then putting together all of these pieces so that it looked like the picture in their head.”

The true monsters of the story turned out to be villainous humans.

The true monsters of the story turned out to be villainous humans.

Getting up close and personal with the Scream Fair.

Getting up close and personal with the Scream Fair.

Belzer coming out of the ground was the most complex scene to execute, Abels says. “The stage team did all of these film passes and used light rods to get practical lightning. Each lightning hit could be a separate plate element that we could add on top. We also had to add steam coming off of Belzer, snow melting on the ground, steam coming up from around him, the upheaval of the rocks and the whole underground. Those were incredibly challenging shots as well as ones where Belzer is in the tub of water. The integration between what was captured on set and visual effects was challenging on those shots.”



Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

2024 STATE OF THE VFX/ANIMATION INDUSTRY: FULL SPEED AHEAD
09 January 2024
Animation, Exclusives
2024 STATE OF THE VFX/ANIMATION INDUSTRY: FULL SPEED AHEAD
Despite production lulls, innovations continue to forward the craft.
CHANNELING THE VISUAL EFFECTS ON SET FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME SEASON 2
23 January 2024
Animation, Exclusives
CHANNELING THE VISUAL EFFECTS ON SET FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME SEASON 2
In the case of the second season of The Wheel of Time, the on-set visual effects supervision was equally divided between Roni Rodrigues and Mike Stillwell.
HOW TIME KEEPS SLIPPING AWAY IN LOKI SEASON 2
19 December 2023
Animation, Exclusives
HOW TIME KEEPS SLIPPING AWAY IN LOKI SEASON 2
Created by Michael Waldron for Disney +, the second season of Loki follows notorious Marvel villain Loki (portrayed by Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s adopted brother and God of Mischief.
GAIA BUSSOLATI: CONNECTING HOLLYWOOD AND ITALIAN CINEMA – AND STAYING CURIOUS
09 January 2024
Animation, Exclusives
GAIA BUSSOLATI: CONNECTING HOLLYWOOD AND ITALIAN CINEMA – AND STAYING CURIOUS
VFX Supervisor bridges Italian cinema, Hollywood blockbusters.
DIGITAL DOMAIN GOES INTO MACHINE LEARNING MODE FOR <b>BLUE BEETLE</b>
05 December 2023
Animation, Exclusives
DIGITAL DOMAIN GOES INTO MACHINE LEARNING MODE FOR BLUE BEETLE
Pushing the boundaries of digital humans has become standard practice for Digital Domain, with the title character of Blue Beetle providing an opportunity to fully test a cloth system driven by machine learning and a custom neural system known as ML Cloth.