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October 27
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Up Close and Personal with the Aliens in WAR OF THE WORLDS

By IAN FAILES

Sometimes visual effects artists are involved on a particular project for a long period of time and develop a close association with the creatures or shots they are working on.

That was the case for the crew at Cambridge, U.K.-based Vine FX, the sole vendor on Fox and Canal+’s War of the Worlds TV drama, based on the classic H.G. Wells novel. As part of their delivery of 500 visual effects shots, one aspect of the work involved an industrial-looking alien creature. Vine FX actually gave it a name: ‘Fluffy.’

“We realized early on that we needed a name for our alien creature,” details Vine FX founder and Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Illingworth. “We decided on Fluffy on account of it being the least fluffy thing you could imagine – we liked the irony and it stuck throughout the whole production. Even people on set were calling it Fluffy!”

An on-set stand-in for the alien creature helped enable interaction with the actors. (All images copyright © 2020 Fox and Canal+. Courtesy of Vine FX.)

The final rendered shot.

Later, during the animation phase, Vine FX’s crew became close to the creature, as Illingworth explains. “Our lead animator was a superstar when it came to bringing Fluffy to life. He told me he’d get to his desk in the morning, load the Fluffy model up and then have a chat with him as though it was a dog. ‘We’re going to have a good day today, Fluffy. You’re going to be a good boy, aren’t you?’ We worried about him at first – but the animation speaks for itself, so we left him to it!”

The creature went through several design iterations prior to the shoot, since it needed to be signed off before principal photography so that two life-sized models could be part of filming. “One served as lighting reference,” says Illingworth, “and the other was a dead Fluffy. We also had a simplified prop for interactive scenes, so it could be puppeteered to fight back, allowing the actors to feel some force. It helped massively with making the one-on-one tussles more believable.”

Original plate.

Final shot of the menacing alien.

In addition to the alien creature work, Vine FX also delivered a number of environments and environment augmentations. “Our main aim was to enhance the destruction caused by mysterious aliens throughout the show,” outlines Illingworth. “The characters not only have to deal with their personal dramas,  but also survive in this deserted, wrecked environment where death can be waiting around each corner.

“One of our tasks was to create an alien spaceship crash site the size of two jumbo jets in the middle of a forest,” he continues. “We built the spaceship and at the end of the series we broke it apart and digitally scattered parts along the ground, and textured the pieces to make them look charred and burned. We made another crash in Central London which was caused by pods falling from the sky.”

On-location photography for the spaceship crash.

Vine FX’s digital matte painting and environment visual effects enhanced the scene.

Delivering a 500-shot show was a significant one for the Vine FX team, but one aided by a distributed workforce. The studio had about half of its artists working remotely at locations as diverse as Bulgaria, Greece, London and Australia.

“Most,” says Illingworth, “were using remote software enabling them to use workstations set up in the Cambridge office, meaning they were completely integrated into the pipeline, as though they were in the room.

Original plate for the alien creature approaching a victim.

The final shot incorporating Vine FX’s ‘Fluffy.’

“Since the coronavirus outbreak caused everyone to work from home,” adds Illingworth, “we were already kitted out to make the transition quickly and keep the workflow high.”

Watch Vine FX’s VFX breakdown video for War of the Worlds:


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