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June 06
2024

ISSUE

Summer 2024

UNSUNG HEROES: VFX DESIGNERS POPULATE FILMS WITH AN INVENTIVE CAST

By BARBARA ROBERTSON

The character Niffler from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them needed to appear realistic enough to fool Muggles. Senior Concept Artist Sam Rowan at Framestore worked from a sketch and previs model to achieve the desired shapes and feeling. (Image courtesy of Framestore and Warner Bros.)

The character Niffler from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them needed to appear realistic enough to fool Muggles. Senior Concept Artist Sam Rowan at Framestore worked from a sketch and previs model to achieve the desired shapes and feeling. (Image courtesy of Framestore and Warner Bros.)

They start with an idea, sometimes just the germ of an idea. Then, once they put pencil to paper or cursor to screen, they become the first people to show the world a character or creature that had previously existed only in someone’s mind’s eye. How do they do this? The short answer is iteration. The long answer involves years of study and skill perfecting, tons of research, remarkable imagination, communication skills and, some might say, an innate talent.

Character designers in a visual effects studio might work within an art department alongside modelers, texture artists, riggers, groomers and a facial performance team or on visdev teams. Their title might be concept artist, art director, visdev artist, lookdev artist and sometimes that all-embracing title, digital artist. Whether the client wants a visual effects character to bring a tear or scare a 12-year-old, and whether the character is a digital human, humanoid, talking animal, realistic animal, monster or fantasy creature, the principal goal is the same: Convince the audience the character is alive and fits within its world. And have fun creating it.

“What drives me is seeing a character come alive,” says Klaus Skovbo, who leads character design teams at MPC.

But long before a character is fully alive, character designers work with their clients to understand how visuals can support a story.

The first sketches Framestore’s Senior Concept Artist Sam Rowan created for the Chupacabra in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were scrapped when the design team learned the creature would be a small pet draped around an actor’s neck.(Images courtesy of Sam Rowan and Framestore)

The first sketches Framestore’s Senior Concept Artist Sam Rowan created for the Chupacabra in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were scrapped when the design team learned the creature would be a small pet draped around an actor’s neck.
(Images courtesy of Sam Rowan and Framestore)

THE BRIEF

“It depends on what stage the movie is when it comes to us, but most of the time we get a creative brief from the director or producer,” says MPC Art Director Léandre Lagrange. And sometimes, the client hasn’t gotten that far. Men director Alex Garland came to Framestore wondering if the movie he had in mind of a man giving birth could even be made. “It’s pretty crazy stuff,” says Sam Rowan, Framestore Senior Concept Artist. “Very literal. We did several sequences of this male character giving birth and showed it to him. He said, ‘OK, that’s brilliant. I now know the film can work.’ That was a great experience for us. We greenlit the idea in his head.”

The first sketches Framestore’s Senior Concept Artist Sam Rowan created for the Chupacabra in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were scrapped when the design team learned the creature would be a small pet draped around an actor’s neck.(Images courtesy of Sam Rowan and Framestore)

The first sketches Framestore’s Senior Concept Artist Sam Rowan created for the Chupacabra in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were scrapped when the design team learned the creature would be a small pet draped around an actor’s neck. (Images courtesy of Sam Rowan and Framestore)

By contrast, Rowan’s work on the character Niffler, a fan-favorite platypus-like character, is a more typical example. When he began working on Niffler for the first Fantastic Beasts film, he received descriptions and ideas. “They wanted to keep the Niffler grounded in the real world so muggles could see it and not realize it isn’t just a duck-billed platypus,” Rowan says. Working with production VFX Supervisor Christian Manz, Framestore Senior Animation Supervisor Pablo Grillo and other animators and artists including Ben Kovar, the creature took shape. “It was a nonlinear process,” Rowan says. “He is such a key character in the film and in so many shots, we spent a lot of time on this guy.”

Concept Artist Casey Straka from Industrial Light & Magic decided to make the Chimera in Percy Jackson and the Olympians unique and scarier than typical depictions of the mythological part-lion/goat/ snake creature and designed a creature with horns and a snakeskin texture. (Images courtesy of Disney+)

Concept Artist Casey Straka from Industrial Light & Magic decided to make the Chimera in Percy Jackson and the Olympians unique and scarier than typical depictions of the mythological part-lion/goat/ snake creature and designed a creature with horns and a snakeskin texture. (Images courtesy of Disney+)

Concept Artist Casey Straka from Industrial Light & Magic decided to make the Chimera in Percy Jackson and the Olympians unique and scarier than typical depictions of the mythological part-lion/goat/ snake creature and designed a creature with horns and a snakeskin texture. (Images courtesy of Disney+)

His brief for the character Chupacabra in the second Fantastic Beasts film was simply four lines from the book and a Wiki link to the legendary creature from the Americas whose name literally means “goat-sucker.” “That creature was coyote-sized,” Rowan says. “We didn’t have the script, so the creature I drew was too big, and it turns out in the script that it’s a small pet. I had to go back to the drawing board. They didn’t like the shape, but they liked the translucent skin. So, I made one that was like a lizard with a mane and limbs like trunks. Another had horns instead of arms. One was a combination of a bird and a lizard. I did loads of drawings. We settled on one that looks cute at first and then you see its teeth. At the end, he lost his translucence. Sometimes, you can have too much.”

In that example, Rowan and the artists at Framestore had freedom to design the Chupacabra character until reined in by the script. Often, though, character designers work within an even more predefined box as did Sr. Concept Artist Casey Straka of Industrial Light & Magic. Straka designed the characters for the television series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, including Chimera and Cerberus. “We had an idea of what they should be from the Greek myths,” Straka says. “But we were given room to come up with ideas. It was like having finger holes in a box that grounded us.”

Percy fights with Chimera in the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, so Straka needed to find a way to have a mythical yet realistic creature, half-lion and half-goat, work in that environment. The character had to reference the past yet be something new. “I tried different kinds of mixtures of lion, goat and snake,” he says. “What if the goat is a wart on the side of a lion’s body? What if the tail is a snake? We tried horns and different snake patterns. The final design had a cool, spiky head. We wanted it to be imposing and scary to a 12-year-old.”

For Cerberus reference, Straka started with her own reference library, looking for dogs he might use for the three-headed creature. “I looked for dogs that are native to Italy and Greece, Italian Greyhounds, Cane Corsos. I felt lucky getting to look at dog pictures all day.” Eventually, with feedback from the show’s writers and author Rick Riordan, Cerberus became a three-headed Rottweiler. “I tried to give each head a personality,” Straka says. “I love how it turned out. One is drooling, one has an ear cocked up, one is not paying attention. Making stuff up is my favorite thing.”

TOOLS

Framestore artist Daren Horley began working on dinosaurs for a series of television shows and then moved onto visdev teams for film projects. Like many of the artists who design characters, he uses ZBrush and Photoshop. “I do a bit of ZBrush modeling, but the key is to get things done really fast,” he says, echoing statements from other character and concept artists. “We have to turn over ideas rapidly, try out things without getting too involved in building anything in 3D. When a client doesn’t know what they want until they see it, that’s when I bring a lot of design skills into play and explore ideas. I can paint in Photoshop quite quickly. I don’t want to labor on something that might not be what they want.” For example, given an open brief to create a vulture-like character for The School for Good and Evil, Horley needed to come up with something new from scratch. Among his iterations was a bird-like creature that had wings made from modified finger joints with branches on each side. “I couldn’t know what they wanted until they saw something,” he says. “They’d like some elements and offer more ideas. It was a collaborative process.”

The mythical three-headed dog Cerebus in Percy Jackson and the Olympians gave ILM Concept Artist Casey Straka an opportunity to experiment with using a variety of canines from Greyhounds to Cane Corsos before he settled on a design based on Rottweilers. (Image courtesy of Disney+)

The mythical three-headed dog Cerebus in Percy Jackson and the Olympians gave ILM Concept Artist Casey Straka an opportunity to experiment with using a variety of canines from Greyhounds to Cane Corsos before he settled on a design based on Rottweilers. (Image courtesy of Disney+)

GENERATING IDEAS

Most designers have personal reference files that they augment with online searches to begin generating ideas that might result in a character no one has seen before. Framestore’s Sam Rowan added another idea. “Researching on Google is great, but you are restricted by your search ideas,” he says. “So, I went on Amazon and bought some old, second-hand encyclopedias for kids that have loads of pictures in them.” Rowan picks up a book titled Animals, rifles through the pages and stops on one. “I open pages randomly,” he says. “Maybe I need to do a tiger character, so I’ll pick a random page and wonder if I could do a tiger character colored like a pigeon.” He opens to another page. “What if the tiger had amphibious feet? Or,” he says, getting another book, “Maybe I could make the tiger out of stone.” For his part, Framestore’s Horley likes to leave his desk and look at materials in the world outside. But what about AI for reference? “Clients sometimes come to us with AI images and that can help start conversations,” Horley says. “But these images don’t have finesse. They aren’t usable.” ILM’s Straka is firmly against AI for other reasons. “I don’t like giving a machine that takes from other artists and does the fun parts of my job,” she says.

MAKING THE CHARACTER WORK

“Clients always want us to give them something they’ve never seen before,” Horley says, “and so many designs have been done over the years, it’s a challenge to do something new.” But the characters must be more than unique to the eye. Designers need to consider that a creature or character depicted in 2D artwork will eventually become a rigged, animated 3D character. “A lot of times, a visual effects supervisor might present a beautiful artwork to us for a creature that looks fantastic,” says Gino Acevedo, Creative Art Director at Wētā FX. “And, the artwork has already been bought off by the director who thinks it’s really cool. But often we can see potential issues from an anatomical standpoint.” For example, he remembers receiving artwork for a character that had spikes on its shoulder. Acevedo could immediately see that if the character raised its arm, it would poke itself in the ear.

Framestore Character Designer Daren Horley wanted something other than a mummified vulture for the character Stymph in The School for Good and Evil, so he created wings from modified finger joints. (Images courtesy of Netflix)

Framestore Character Designer Daren Horley wanted something other than a mummified vulture for the character Stymph in The School for Good and Evil, so he created wings from modified finger joints. (Images courtesy of Netflix)

Framestore Character Designer Daren Horley wanted something other than a mummified vulture for the character Stymph in The School for Good and Evil, so he created wings from modified finger joints. (Images courtesy of Netflix)

The creature in Nope appears in the clouds, which meant that in addition to character design, Art Director Léandre Legrange and other artists at MPC also designed every sky for the movie in order to control their mood. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)The creature in Nope appears in the clouds, which meant that in addition to character design, Art Director Léandre Legrange and other artists at MPC also designed every sky for the movie in order to control their mood. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)The creature in Nope appears in the clouds, which meant that in addition to character design, Art Director Léandre Legrange and other artists at MPC also designed every sky for the movie in order to control their mood. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The creature in Nope appears in the clouds, which meant that in addition to character design, Art Director Léandre Legrange and other artists at MPC also designed every sky for the movie in order to control their mood. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The creature in Nope appears in the clouds, which meant that in addition to character design, Art Director Léandre Legrange and other artists at MPC also designed every sky for the movie in order to control their mood. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“When you’re designing a character, you have to bear in mind it will move and give a performance,” Horley says. “No matter how outlandish, you have to always refer back to nature, to animal anatomy. We generally do neutral poses. How it moves comes later, but it has to be anatomically feasible. You have to get reference from real-world animals.” Drawing from reality is true for textures as well as anatomy. “For textures, I also like to find things that are unusual but organic, like lichen on trees, rust on metal,” Horley says. “Maybe a satellite photo of a continent. If you’re creating a creature’s skin, you can go to unexpected sources to get inspiration.”

“When we send an ‘art ref pack,’ that goes to the models and lookdev department. It contains everything needed to create the creature,” Wētā’s Acevedo says. “I’ll imagine what I’d need if I were doing the texture. But many times, we create our own textures.”

In terms of creating a creature’s skin and fur, Valentina Rosselli, MPC Look Development and Texturing Lead, sometimes takes real-world reference to an extreme, especially when designing a creature’s fur. “Animals have extraordinary fur colors,” she says. “Some even have stripes along individual hairs. We can design the look of each fur layer and mix them together to get more accurate and realistic color patterns.” She used this workflow when working on the gorilla in One and Only Ivan, and on Honest John, the fox in Robert Zemeckis’s Pinocchio. She also paid attention to the characters’ eyes. “Eyes are normally the first thing we start to explore,” Rosselli says. “We study eyes and expressions to make sure that even in a still, the character has a soul. Ivan needed to be emotionally engaging. In the case of the fox Honest John, we needed to design a character with human eyes and eyebrows and keep the actor’s eye color. We started from a fox animal eye and then, trying to find the right balance between iris size and amount of white sclera, explored how human the eyes could become.”

INTO THE PIPELINE

Once a character leaves the hands of the designers, it begins its journey through the VFX pipeline, then through final modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, lighting and rendering. “Supervising a character design build can sometimes be designing by proxy,” MPC’s Skovbo says. “You help guide a talented group of artists within our MPC Character Lab, trying to get someone else’s idea through your mind and into the minds of individual artists. Modelers do one part, texture another. You hope it all comes out good and is on design.”

The designers hand off as much information as they can to the next artists in the pipeline: their drawings; the reference they’ve used; sometimes, perhaps color and lighting keys; and keyframes to show exaggerated poses in key moments. And sometimes they help visualize the backgrounds as well: the character’s context.

“For Jordan Peele’s Nope, because all the skies are CG and the creature is in the clouds, we wanted to control the mood of the skies,” MPC’s Lagrange says. “We broke down every scene of the script and designed every sky for the movie. That was fun. But what we do most are characters and creatures. We have conversations with Klaus [Skovbo] and the other artists as well to let them know things we want to draw attention to and to avoid. We don’t want to lose those meaningful design moments.”

Despite spending hours, perhaps days and weeks designing a character, the artists take letting go of their creations in stride. “Although sometimes we might hand off a Zbrush file with mattes, mostly we hand off images,” ILM’s Straka says. “We send our ideas out into the world and don’t follow them through. I think, OK, this is my part. It’s cool if it ends up the same on screen, but it’s the nature of the game. There are so many people involved in visual effects. You just have to let something go and be what it will be.” Framestore’s Rowan remembers a furry character he had worked on for a long time, and that after he finished working on the project, it turned into what he describes as a lizardy, fishy thing. “In a dream world, you could follow your design through the process, but that’s not always available,” he says.

A CHANGING WORLD

As the tools advance, photorealistic and fantasy characters have become more believable, and that in turn has inspired writers and directors to want more. “We’re doing many characters now,” says MPC’s Skovbo. “The build list is bigger, and it can be because the technology and pipeline allow it. Facial performance is something we’re always trying to push. One of the biggest challenges we have, especially on Disney movies, is landing in the middle between real and anthropomorphic. We use the word ‘appeal’ a lot.”

As for types of designs, Framestore’s Horley sees a trend toward less flashy visual effects. “If a magical creature is doing something with its magical powers,” he says, “it’s not lightning bolts now, it’s maybe magnetic fields. Something more grounded. More believable and less spectacular.”

With more demand for characters and creatures, it’s likely to open new opportunities for artists to consider character design as a career. ILM’s Straka challenges aspiring designers to challenge themselves to make something new. “Study your fundamentals, but on top of that, figure out what you like to see in creature design. Make your cool stuff. Make the self-indulgent art that gets your ears burning. Challenge yourself to make stuff outside what you like to do. And have fun with it. The work that stands out the most is the art you can tell the artist had a good time making. You think, ‘Oh man, this is really cool. The artist really loved making that.’”

Creating Bloater for The Last of Us

The 2024 VES Award for Outstanding Animated Character in
an Episode, Commercial, Game Cinematic or Real-Time Project went to Gino Acevedo, Max Telfer, Pascal Raimbault and Fabio Leporelli for creating the character Bloater in the episode “Endure & Survive” for the series The Last of Us.

These award winners from Wētā FX’s art department started with a huge rubber suit designed and fabricated by special effects makeup artist Barrie Gower. But the large guy fitted inside couldn’t move fast or with enough agility for the director and visual effects supervisor. So, Wētā artists sent the design to the gym.

“We started with a scan of the prosthetic suit and then widened the shoulders and lengthened the legs,” Gino Acevedo, Wētā FX’s Creative Art Director, says. “Then we added the cordyceps, a particular type of fungi that grows inside other organisms. For reference, we had artwork done for the video game and pre-designs from Barrie.”

Cordycep? Acevedo gives an example of a cordyceps that grows inside an ant, turning it into a zombie, living but under control of the fungus. “This is real stuff,” he says. “It’s the premise of the show, that these cordyceps grow inside and burst out from the characters’ heads. The Bloater was a lot of fun to create. I love my monsters,” Acevedo says.

Artists at Wētā FX needed to learn about a particular type of fungi to create Bloater for the HBO series The Last of Us. Gino Acevedo, Max Telfer, Pascal Raimbault and Fabio Leporelli received a 2024 VES Award for their work. (Images courtesy of Wētā FX and HBO)

Artists at Wētā FX needed to learn about a particular type of fungi to create Bloater for the HBO series The Last of Us. Gino Acevedo, Max Telfer, Pascal Raimbault and Fabio Leporelli received a 2024 VES Award for their work. (Images courtesy of Wētā FX and HBO)

Artists at Wētā FX needed to learn about a particular type of fungi to create Bloater for the HBO series The Last of Us. Gino Acevedo, Max Telfer, Pascal Raimbault and Fabio Leporelli received a 2024 VES Award for their work. (Images courtesy of Wētā FX and HBO)

MPC’s Lagrange adds a bit of advice, “When you get bogged down in technicalities, storytelling can get forgotten. But, the motivation behind color and shape is the storytelling.” That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed and isn’t likely to; the germ of an idea that will become a character started with a story. “It’s all about the story,” Skovbo says.



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