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February 18
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

WATCHMEN: Crafting a Cattle Battle

By IAN FAILES

In HBO’s Watchmen television series created by Damon Lindelof – based on the 1987 DC Comic series – you could say a lot of crazy stuff happens. One of those things is a shoot-out that occurs in the Pilot episode involving some hapless cows.

Production Visual Effects Supervisor Erik Henry tapped Outpost VFX in Bournemouth to provide around 50 CG cows and some effects-heavy gore shots for the sequence, in which the character Sister Night attempts to hide behind the downed cows as cover under .50 caliber gunfire.

VFX Voice asked several members of Outpost’s team what was involved in filming, building and animating cows and adding extensive gore to the shots.

Greenscreen cow cut-outs used as placeholders.

“I do remember the excitement that ran through the team when we received the previs because we all knew we had a highly original sequence on our hands to create. But we also knew we had a lot of prep to do before the plates from the shoot started to roll in.”

—Nick Hurst, Visual Effects Supervisor, Outpost

The final shot with real and CG cows.

FILMING THE SCENE

The sequence was shot over two nights in a remote paddock in Atlanta. Several real cows were filmed here based on previs from The Third Floor, aiding in providing reference for the CG cows and in particular some interaction for the actors.

“I do remember the excitement that ran through the team when we received the previs because we all knew we had a highly original sequence on our hands to create,” recalls Outpost Visual Effects Supervisor Nick Hurst. “But we also knew we had a lot of prep to do before the plates from the shoot started to roll in. Before the shoot and while the shoot took place, we had our pipeline team running render tests with the cow assets that had already been developed.”

Then, on set, greenscreen cut-outs of cows were utilized, while the team also managed to wrangle and shuffle some cows in place so that each plate had a real cow in it. “This helped in all manner of ways for each department,” states Hurst. “The groom team could see how the light on the night was bouncing, and reacting to the fur, lighters had perfect reference for light direction and density of shadows, and the comp team always could measure whether our CG cows were integrated to the same level as the real cows we had on set.”

 

HOW TO BUILD A COW

Since a couple of real cows – who remained unharmed – were filmed on set, Outpost had to match those with their CG versions. “The first step was to identify any variations that we noticed, and also identify how many we would have to build to make sure that the integration would be seamless,” outlines Outpost Head of 3D Maurizio Giglioli. “We were able to generate IDs from all the cows on the show and reapply the groom and shader settings so that we could maintain consistency across the various shots, but also giving us the flexibility to change the resolution based on the distance that some cows would have in a shot or another.”

An original plate overlaid with Outpost’s CG geometry for the dead cow.

“We quickly discovered in the early stages that getting the weight distribution as the bullets hit the cows would be the key to ensuring the believability factor in these shots, as we needed to ensure these felt like 2000 lb. cows.”

—Nick Hurst, Visual Effects Supervisor, Outpost

The final shot featuring CG gore.

ADDING THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF GORE

For scenes of the mutilation of the cow in front of Sister Night, Outpost’s FX work was informed by an elements shoot of blood hits. Artists composited in the elements, but there would also be a significant digital FX side to the work.

“An area that we needed to pay most attention to was the level of gore,” notes Hurst, who says it was fine line to walk in terms of keeping the sequence realistic while making it “as thrilling and visceral as possible for the audience.”

“We quickly discovered in the early stages that getting the weight distribution as the bullets hit the cows would be the key to ensuring the believability factor in these shots, as we needed to ensure these felt like 2000 lb. cows,” details Hurst. “Also, we knew we had to develop a system which would be lightweight enough to quickly turnaround iterations and also quickly enable us to populate each shot.”

A wide shot of Outpost’s CG cows produced for the ‘cattle battle’ scene.

“We’d have regular cineSync reviews from the get-go to ensure there was constant communication between us and the clients, a crucial way of working when feeding information back to our artists.”

—Megan Smith, Producer, Outpost

WORKING WITH PRODUCTION

Several VFX studios worked on Watchmen, which meant that it was crucial for Outpost to have a good line of communication with production throughout the process.

“Having the opportunity to work with Erik Henry was a real pleasure for our team at Outpost VFX,” attests Outpost producer Megan Smith. “Having Nick on set meant we had a clear understanding of Erik’s vision for each episode, which was hugely beneficial when it comes to working on a sequence like the Cattle Battle. We’d have regular cineSync reviews from the get-go to ensure there was constant communication between us and the clients, a crucial way of working when feeding information back to our artists.”

Adds Hurst: “We knew the sequence would be pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in a series in terms of visual quality but also the visual effects would be needed to play a vital role to help push the narrative and add jeopardy to the first episode in the Watchmen series.”

Watch Outpost VFX’s breakdown of the cow sequence.

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