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October 02
2018

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Gradient Effects: Big Tech Solutions from a Small VFX Studio

By IAN FAILES

Visual effects has always been about the combination of art and science, and the more difficult scientific challenges are better handled by teams at bigger studios.

Smaller VFX shops are, of course, still regular technical innovators, and often need to deftly problem solve in order to compete with the larger players.

Gradient Effects is one such studio that regularly uses a small team to come up with hi-tech solutions for projects like Stranger Things, The Revenant, The Host – and even to generate beer for God of thunder, Thor.

Their most recent work has been for a short film project about an alien invasion called Megan, which was finished for 8K. VFX Voice asked Gradient Effects founder Olcun Tan to elaborate.

Watch Megan

“We developed a tool specifically to track the eye, and rapidly turn it into a 3D camera and 3D track, which we then could attach a digital 3D iris to. That was the start of a tool called Shapeshifter.”

—Olcun Tan, Founder, Gradient Effects

“I’m an effects developer,” says Tan, who co-founded Gradient in 2006 after stints at Mill Film and DreamWorks Animation. “But at the same time, I’m also an artist. My background always was in creating our own tools and then using them on our effects shots. So that’s also the model we are using in our current company, because it’s just how I work.”

One of these tools is Shapeshifter, a software tool used specifically on The Revenant to emaciate Leonardo DiCaprio’s character after he is left to die in the wilderness. Earlier, Gradient created a solution to efficiently make accurate tracks, particularly for changing eye colors in the films Cloud Atlas and The Host. “We developed a tool specifically to track the eye, and rapidly turn it into a 3D camera and 3D track, which we then could attach a digital 3D iris to,” describes Tan. “That was the start of Shapeshifter.”

Original plate for a scene in Stranger Things, Season 1.

Final shot featuring Gradient Effects’ digital spores work.

“We used [Shapeshifter] in Stranger Things, too. You see a girl coming out of a tree and the slimy spidery web thing holding on to her, all over her body, and there were no tracking markers on her. And if you look at that, you can see that the spider web is perfectly tracking all over her.”

—Olcun Tan, Founder, Gradient Effects

“We used it in Stranger Things, too,” adds Tan, who also oversaw significant digital ‘spore’ work on season 1 of that show. “You see a girl coming out of a tree and the slimy spidery web thing holding on to her, all over her body, and there were no tracking markers on her. And if you look at that, you can see that the spider web is perfectly tracking all over her.”

Looking to capitalize on work done on those films and television projects, Gradient collaborated with its sister company, Secret Lab, and Decipher Entertainment to make the short film Megan out of the studio’s LA office (Gradient also has a presence in Frankfurt and Montreal). The short was financed and produced by Tan, Giuseppe Mercandante and Jean de Meuron, and had support from RED Digital Cinema, Helinet, Dolby and Production Resource Group.

With Megan, Gradient was looking to present their established pipeline for TV production and show how it could work for extremely high-definition projects, in this case, for 8K. Plates were filmed and visual effects shots were also finished in that resolution. “We wanted to present our pipeline, which is far more light, compressed and lean, but at the same time delivers to you what you would get at a much bigger facility.

A CG model of Megan’s alien.

“It was also exploration for us to say, ‘Hey, look, what happens when you put people into one room, who do this day-in, day-out, just visual effects, dealing with insane amounts of data, and they lead the experts in it. What can you do with a small group of people like that, what can you put on the screen?’”

—Olcun Tan, Founder, Gradient Effects

“It was also exploration,” continues Tan, “for us to say, ‘Hey, look, what happens when you put people into one room, who do this day-in, day-out, just visual effects, dealing with insane amounts of data, and they lead the experts in it. What can you do with a small group of people like that, what can you put on the screen?’”

The Megan short certainly showcases what Gradient Effects is capable of in high-definition production and in more traditional visual effects work. But there’s one project that again required some innovative tech: a beer simulator for a scene featuring Thor and the title character in Doctor Strange. It’s a mid-credits scene in which Thor’s beer appears to magically refill.

Watch a featurette on the Doctor Strange mid-credits beer sequence.

“We wrote a custom fluid software, running on the GPU, creating foam and everything for the shots,” says Tan. “It was quite interesting because I would take out my guys on a Friday and say ‘Let’s have a beer.’ Then they would look at the foam and want to [celebrate our creation], but I would go back and continue hacking and adding features to our software. I would say it’s one of the most difficult effects we did, because it had to look so photoreal.”


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