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
Breaking out in a big way to showcase the digital artistry of the visual effects industry in South Korea was Netflix series Squid Game, which won the 2022 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Single Episode and received a VES Awards nomination for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode for Episode 107 titled “VIPS.” “The Korean visual effects industry has evolved drastically in the past 10 years from simple comp tasks to complex shots, which involves various 3D skills and technologies,” states Moon Jung Kang, VFX Supervisor at Gulliver Studios. “Previously, Korean filmmakers tried to avoid too much of digital augmentation because they were not sure of Korean visual effects quality. But as Korean content has gained global popularity, filmmakers started trying more diverse genres and Korean visual effects industry also evolved. In these days, it’s easy to find heavy visual effects shots in Korean content.”
Kang was a member of the Primetime Emmy award-winning team for Squid Game as Gulliver Studios was the sole vendor. “We had about 2,000 shots [for nine episodes], and the post-production period was about nine months.” Squid Game deals with human and social problems through classic Korean children’s games. Remarks Kang, “In the earlier stage, there was a concern about that these games were unique to Korea and the gameplay was too simple. In general, the visual effects environment work is mostly focused on realism, but in the case of Squid Game it was necessary to express the feeling of a realistic, yet artificially created set at the same time.” Most of the visual research was centred around environments. “In most cases, we research through images and clips from the real world, but in Squid Game we extended our research to classic paintings and illustrations. For the maze environment with a bunch of stairways, which the basic concept was surrealism, we actually referenced classic surrealism paintings and illustrations a lot during the asset and layout process,” adds Kang.
“In Squid Game, we had more than 10 environment extension issues, not only six unique game environments, but also a cave and an airport,” Kang notes. “Some game environments such as the marbles game town, the playground and the dormitory were large builds, and we extended mostly walls and ceilings. But the rest of environments such as the schoolyard, tug-of-war tower, circus tent and maze ways environments were heavily extended and reconstructed in CG. The circus tent environment included three different set locations such as main glass bridge, VIP room and floor ground area, and we had to combine them all in one and seamlessly connect plates, which were shot under different lighting conditions. Furthermore, the director wanted the circus tent lighting to be very dark overall with a hot spotlight on the bridge, but we had plates with huge fill light above the set. Interestingly, the sequence which gave us the hardest time brought us the honor of winning the Emmy Award.”
Every sequence had its own complex elements. “The piggy bank shots gave us the hardest time to execute,” Kang reveals. “It wasn’t because of shot solution complexity, but to get the exact look of the piggy bank that the director wanted. It wasn’t just about making the material look realistic, but we also had to emphasize the falling money inside the piggy bank.” The schoolyard sequence in Episode 101 is a personal favorite of Kang’s. “The schoolyard environment was the first space to show the boundary between real and fake space, and the practical set was mostly filled with blue matte. We didn’t have a final concept image, and whether the schoolyard should be treated as indoor space or outdoor space wasn’t decided at that time. In an earlier process, we looked through various options and suggested the indoor space with a big opening on top and walls with a hand-painting touch. The key concept of the Squid Game’s environments is the mix of real and fake space.”
Another major Korean Netflix series is The Silent Sea, which was originally a short film called The Sea of Tranquility by Choi Hang-yong. He subsequently expanded the sci-fi concept into eight episodes starring Bae Doona, Gong Yoo, Lee Joon, Kim Sun-young and Lee Moo-saeng. Key sequences had storyboards and previs. “They were used for planning the crash landing in Episode 101, Yunjae falling in Episode 103 and the appearance of Luna in Episode 105,” states Kim Shin-chul, VFX Supervisor at Westworld. “We used techviz for actual filming, to make a filming plan and use Ncam [virtual production] in the filming of the elevator fall scene while checking the appearance of the Balhae Lunar Research Station through a monitor.” A creative challenge was to convincingly convey what will happen in the future. Notes Chul, “It was fun to create the propellant that is in charge of fuel and how the lander docks with it. The structure of the docking station was created with the idea that it would be easy for passengers and astronauts to board the Moon in the era of relatively easy travel. In the part of walking on the moon, it was difficult to interpret the reference material and the actual appearance in a cinematic way.”
No practical location could be found for the Moon. “A set and an LED wall were used,” Chul remarks. “The powerful directional sunlight had to be implemented with only a limited number of lights without scattering of the atmosphere, but the position of the light could not be changed for each camera setup, so an LED wall was used to cover all angles. And the art terrain was filmed by changing only the position of the actor in one setup using the characteristic rock. Since LED wall shooting is still unfamiliar, we R&D and tested it together.” The monochrome starkness of the lunar environment contrasts with the dystopian Earth. Adds Chul, “Due to temperature changes, the topography of the sea level changes, and yellow dust and green algae are frequent. Maritime workers lost their jobs and abandoned fishing tools and boats. In the previous concept, we tried to show a corroded image of landmarks around the world, but it was deleted because it was judged to be an excessive expression of other cultures.”
Getting the proper performance for the reveal of Luna was critical. “The director thought a lot about the Luna character between an animal and an innocent child,” Chul explains. “To get the desired movement a digital double was used for her first appearance. After that, it could be more relaxed, and the director let the actor act as much as possible. It seems that the writer paid attention to the conflict between characters and the narrative rather than the visual.” The many concepts were discussed for Balhae Lunar Research Station. Notes Chul, “We decided on the location and width of the passage in detail based on the movements of the characters.” Yunjae falls while attempting to repair the communication tower. “In pre-production,” Chul adds, “we decided on the movement line with the action team through previs. However, it should be expressed as descending from a height of more than 35 meters, but the actual tower set was about five meters. In order to set the camera angle, Ncam was used to film while watching the background made in advance was viewed on the monitor in real-time.” A dramatic moment is the flooding and destruction of Balhae Lunar Research Station. “With the concept of being destroyed by the nature of water increasing indefinitely, the water was expressed with effects simulations and hallway miniatures, and the base was destroyed by freezing all of the outlets,” Chul says.
Japan has a small visual effects industry that does the vast majority of the digital augmentation on domestic projects. “You don’t see many companies here doing visual effects,” notes Jeffrey Dillinger, Head of CG at Megalis VFX. “In Japan, they haven’t pushed visual effects studios to get the quality of work like Wētā FX, but they haven’t had a project go overseas. They are fine with a stylized approach.” A lot of the initial work that the company got to do was effects simulations. Remarks Dillinger, “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale was our first full project. It was initially going to be stop-motion animation and we were going to do CG enhancements, but eventually they decided to do full CG because it would have taken years.”
Character designs had to be translated from 2D to 3D for the Netflix limited series, which consists of four episodes. “The most important thing we had to establish was the asset pipeline [Solaris, USD, Arnold] because we didn’t have one. We ended up doing more than 2,000 assets,” Dillinger adds. Most of the challenges were technical. “When we first decided to use Arnold and Solaris, you couldn’t render hair, and the most important thing for our characters is the hair. Our protagonist has an Afro, and the characters are meant to be made out of felt, which you can’t accomplish that without having a layer of fuzz. We were able to accomplish quite a tactile feel where you can almost reach into the screen and touch these characters at times,” Dillinger describes.
Getting to contribute to Season 2 of Alice in Borderland was an exciting opportunity for Megalis VFX. “It’s a good project, Season 1 was fun to watch, and you could tell creatively the director and DP were good,” Dillinger remarks. “In each episode there are these games that happen. In the case of Episode 206, if people lose the game, acid falls on them and they melt. Onset, instead of acid, they used water and smoke, which makes sense, but when water hits somebody it behaves differently than acid. Usually, acid has more of a yellowish tint to it, so they’re trying to give it a little bit of that without going over the top. In a lot of those cases, it was a static camera and body, so it was a lot of 2D work to put on top of the skin.” Alice in Borderland does not hold back on the blood and gore. “Onset, they actually built a maquette of what a human looks like after acid has been dropped on them. We didn’t use it per se, but that ended up being concept art for us,” Dillinger notes. The game takes place at the Japanese Supreme Court. “Apparently, you cannot shoot there, and on Google we only found three photos that show the interior. It’s an artistically interesting building and has these concentric circles that rise up like an upside-down funnel. We spent a lot of time trying to stay true for those who might have seen it in person. There are also lot of graphical elements, like numbers in the air, which is a visual, stylistic way of showing the contestants realizing the type of game that they’re playing.”
Entering into its fourth season on Netflix is Babylon Berlin, which has visual effects produced by RISE Visual Effects Studios. “There was no German series before featuring so many visual effects shots,” observes Robert Pinnow, Managing Director and VFX Supervisor at RISE Visual Effects Studios. “In the first season, we delivered over 830 and worked on over 900, which at that point was an insane amount. There were approximately 50 full CG shots. The way that we suggested to use visual effects was new and quite common in the U.S. market, which was, ‘Don’t solve it conventionally by putting something there and still not have a right image. Just shoot it, we’re going roto and exchange the whole background rather than just that little antenna.’ The freedom they had was new for German visual effects.” Quite a few Berlin landmarks make an appearance. Comments Pinnow, “We rebuilt the Alexanderplatz correctly because they were insisting on shooting there, but it has a tiled ground that didn’t exist back in the 1930s. The residential areas are made up. Some of it got shot in the city, especially things like the railway station, and others got shot in the backlot at Babelsberg Studio.” For a full year, the entire production office was put into a former federal building that was supposed to be redone. “Shooting took place on one level within that building for all of the interior sets and police department. For Season the production office had to move to another one, and now they’re in a former school.”
Every episode is directed by creators Henk Handloegten, Achim von Borries and Tom Tykwer. “One was shooting in one location, no matter what episode it ended up in, and everyone else had to follow it,” Pinnow explains. “Sometimes, someone had 50% on an episode and on another 10%. The three of them were doing it together.” The trio had to approve the visual effects work. “That was interesting, indeed,” Pinnow observes. “One was like, ‘It looks good.’ The other one was like, ‘It doesn’t fit my needs. It could be this or that way.’ And the third one, Tom, was straightforward and had everything in context. During the early days of Babylon Berlin, the decision was made to support all of the driving sequences with digital backgrounds. Describes Pinnow, “They could drive the whole city day and night. The background plates in the streets wouldn’t have been usable anyway because of modern elements. The buildings we made for that were the key to designing the streets that were backgrounds for normal shots. That then became part of the concept process. We delivered a turntable of every house. In this way, they could grab one frame that was in the right perspective, put it together in Photoshop and send it back to us. On Season 2, we did it ourselves because they trusted us. There was not much concept art unless it was something specific.”
It is important that visual effects are applied constructively. Concludes Pinnow, “There were a few shots where one of the directors said, ‘If we had known how good they looked, we would have used more of them.’ And the other one said, ‘I like that the good and great shots in this sequence are a side effect.’ You need the visual effects to show the sequence, but it’s not on the eye. It’s helping the storytelling.”