VES Toronto Speaker Series with Duncan Blackman
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Crunchyroll.
With the huge box-office success of Your Name, Weathering With You and Suzume, there is no denying the international appeal of Japanese filmmaker Makoto Shinkai. His potent cinematic mix combines teenage romance with time-shifting narratives that are framed by impending natural disasters – and Suzume ups the thematic ante. Because the impact will be of catastrophic proportions, doors throughout Japan must be closed to prevent a red molten-lava worm residing in the realm of the Ever-After from entering the land and falling to earth. On her way to school, teenage Suzume Iwato encounters the mysterious Souta Munakata, who has the task of locking the vulnerable access points.
“The central theme of Suzume is the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. Suzume being from the Tōhoku area, her entire life was uprooted in an instant. Because of this earthquake and tsunami, Suzume had to move from the east to the west, like many others. That meant her story was going to start from Kyushu, which is the most western point of Japan, and gradually she would travel east back to her hometown.”
—Makoto Shinkai, Director
Speaking through a translator, Shinkai reveals that Japan’s devastating history of earthquakes, rainstorms and tsunamis influenced where the doors were situated. “The central theme of Suzume is the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. Suzume being from the Tōhoku area, her entire life was uprooted in an instant. Because of this earthquake and tsunami, Suzume had to move from the east to the west, like many others. That meant her story was going to start from Kyushu, which is the most western point of Japan, and gradually she would travel east back to her hometown.”
The first stop on the countrywide road trip is in Ehime where Suzume meets fellow high school student Chika transporting tangerines that spill onto the road. “In 2018, Ehime had massive rainstorms that happened because of climate change, which resulted in many landslides. That was a very shocking story for us at the time,” Shinkai explains. “Then Suzume moves on to Kobe where in 1995 there was the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake that hit the western side of the country. From there she travels to Tokyo where in 1923, exactly a 100 years ago, there was a massive earthquake that hit the city. Ultimately, Suzume ends up in the Fukushima area where a massive earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear power plant to have a meltdown. Even to this day, that area around the power plant is completely quarantined and sectioned off. There are these remnants of human life where you can see people lived at one point but now can’t be inhabited. Thinking about where Suzume was going to travel across from where she lives now on the west side, all the way to her hometown of Tōhoku in the east, the disaster-stricken areas almost presented themselves and informed where she was going to travel.”
“Ultimately, Suzume ends up in the Fukushima area where a massive earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear power plant to have a meltdown. Even to this day, that area around the power plant is completely quarantined and sectioned off. There are these remnants of human life where you can see people lived at one point but now can’t be inhabited. Thinking about where Suzume was going to travel across from where she lives now on the west side all the way to her hometown of Tōhoku in the east, the disaster-stricken areas almost presented themselves and informed where she was going to travel.”
—Makoto Shinkai, Director
Suzume accidentally releases the western keystone that helps to contain the worm, and it subsequently takes on the form of a mischievous daijin (a cat that can speak) that casts the soul of Souta into a three-legged wooden chair, a childhood birthday present made by her mother who was killed by a tsunami. “With respect to the chair, we initially explored a 2D hand-drawn visual expression,” Shinkai reveals. “We ran some tests and had animators animate a few different scenes, but I wasn’t happy with the result because it was a movement that I had seen before onscreen reminiscent of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast where the china plates and cups are moving around. Life was almost breathed into these inanimate objects, which in the case of Souta was something I didn’t want to do. I wanted it to feel as though his soul was trapped inside of something rigid, so we started experimenting with 3D and ultimately shifted the entire process for that character into a 3D pipeline because I wanted that solid object to appear and feel solid and rigid, but at the same time express fast and swift movements.”
Early on, the decision was made that the worm would be animated in 3D. “This is because in Princess Mononoke, by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, there is this cursed god that appears in the film, which is a bunch of different worms that consume giant monsters and squirm around,” Shinkai states. “That was an original inspiration for the imagery of the worm that I wanted to create. But what we already knew at the studio was that it was going to be impossible to exceed what Miyazaki had achieved in that visual expression of the worm, even in 1997 when Princess Mononoke came out. The level of experience that Studio Ghibli had, combined with the budget they were able to access, created a potent combination we knew taking on would not be a good result for us. Instead, we animated in 3D from the onset and relied a lot on what the software can do right now. For example, some of the physics simulations. We did a lot of liquids simulating and particles, adding and complimenting that with hand-drawn animation, which is ultimately how we ended up with the visual expression of the worm that you see on the screen.”
“[I]n Princess Mononoke, by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, there is this cursed god that appears in the film, which is a bunch of different worms that consume giant monsters and squirm around. That was an original inspiration for the imagery of the worm that I wanted to create. But what we already knew at the studio was that it was going to be impossible to exceed what Miyazaki had achieved in that visual expression of the worm… Instead, we animated in 3D from the onset and relied a lot on what the software can do right now. For example, some of the physics simulations. We did a lot of liquids simulating and particles, adding and complimenting that with hand-drawn animation, which is ultimately how we ended up with the visual expression of the worm that you see on the screen.”
—Makoto Shinkai, Director
“Depending on what was in the background, where the sun was hitting and how tight the shot was, I adjusted the color palette to make sure we were evoking the mood that I wanted. You could take a torso-up shot of Suzume and the color of her eyes are different from a super-tight shot where you just see her eye. This isn’t normally something you would do in animation of this scale. But that produces a similar effect to live-action shots where cut by cut you get nuances of what the lighting is doing, and even the skin tone and mood will change from shot to shot. Instead of blanket-saying ‘This is Suzume’s color,’ I wanted to control shot by shot how that would look, and that’s how we resulted in what you see on the screen.”
—Makoto Shinkai, Director
Extensive attention was paid to the color palette and lighting schemes. “In regards to the color palette, or more specifically the lighting if you will, I was careful and intentional as to how I wanted to depict that,” Shinkai remarks. “Throughout the film there are over 2,000 shots, and I personally oversaw the coloring and lighting for each one of them. Normally for animation of this caliber, Suzume would have her own color palette and perhaps two other variants for how she would look in the morning, noon, where there is strong sunlight, and night when there isn’t as much light. I’m sure that is a result of trying to optimize the process of animating such a massive-scale movie. But I wanted to step outside of the that box and go shot by shot. Depending on what was in the background, where the sun was hitting and how tight the shot was, I adjusted the color palette to make sure we were evoking the mood that I wanted. You could take a torso-up shot of Suzume and the color of her eyes are different from a super-tight shot where you just see her eye. This isn’t normally something you would do in animation of this scale. But that produces a similar effect to live-action shots where cut by cut you get nuances of what the lighting is doing, and even the skin tone and mood will change from shot to shot. Instead of blanket-saying ‘This is Suzume’s color,’ I wanted to control shot by shot how that would look, and that’s how we resulted in what you see on the screen.”
Despite being known way beyond the borders of Japan, Shinkai has not forgotten his humble beginnings when he only had himself and a Power Mac G4, LightWave, Adobe Photoshop 5.0, Adobe After Effects 4.1 and Commotion DV 3.1. “I tend to use water, rain and lens flares a lot, and that has to do with my background and how I became a director,” Shinkai reflects. “I don’t have an animator background. I had never worked and had any experience in a major studio until later on. Self-producing my animated shorts [Voices of a Distant Star, She and Her Cat: Their Standing Points and Other Worlds] is what led me to rely on some of those techniques. When you’re creating animation alone the heaviest lifting in that context is the character animation, so I tried to figure out different methods of storytelling. Sometimes I would rely on 3D CG or cut to a blue sky. Part of those various elements that I had access to was rain or lens flares because in Adobe After Effects you don’t have to hand-draw every single droplet of rain. I could rely on the PC to do some of the lifting for me in terms of that visual expression. The same goes for the lens flares. I would say that this is almost a by-product of my unique career path [he was a video game animator at Nihon Falcom] that enabled me as a storytelling tool to rely on certain techniques that freed me up from the character animation. It’s the result of not relying solely on character animation as a form of expression or to drive the story forward that you still see those artifacts in my movies today.”
By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.
It’s a snowy Christmas Eve and a crack team of mercenaries has taken a wealthy and powerful family hostage in their luxurious mansion. Led by the self-named “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo), the criminals are well organized but have not anticipated a crucial detail: Santa Claus (David Harbour) has also arrived there while making his rounds with sleigh and reindeer. Furthermore, this is not your traditional Santa; rather, he is hard-drinking, gluttonous and tattooed, with a violent past – before becoming St. Nick, he was a Viking warrior named Nikamund the Red, wielder of a fearsome hammer. And when the night’s mayhem ensues, his reindeer flee, leaving him stranded. While there, the cynical Santa takes pity on a sweet little girl, Trudy (Leah Brady), who is among the hostages, and he decides to rescue her.
Tommy Wirkola directed the 87North Productions film, distributed by Universal Pictures. Beverly D’Angelo, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder and Edi Patterson were also in the cast. Crafty Apes, which provided the VFX, came to be involved because “we have been fortunate to work on multiple projects with Kelly McCormick and David Leitch and their 87North shingle over the years,” comments Matt Akey, Chief Marketing Office and Executive Producer at Crafty Apes.
Violent Night required some unusual VFX, including a digi-double Santa, CG sleigh and reindeer, magical travel through fireplaces, Christmas weapon extensions, snow-augmented environments and an AR-like naughty-and-nice list. An action-comedy for the holiday season, the film has elements of Die Hard and Home Alone, but is over-the-top bloody and definitely not for children. Yet, Violent Night manages to achieve a cheery seasonal look despite a whole lot of gruesome violence. “The film’s director, Tommy Wirkola, was very clear in his direction and what the movie should feel like. Despite the dark tones and humor, the essence of the film still needed to be a feel-good Christmas movie. We always relate Christmas to magic. It is what gives the film a heart, and that’s what we went after. We kept the visuals bright and sparkly,” says Crafty Apes VFX Producer Neh Jaiswal.
“The film’s director, Tommy Wirkola, was very clear in his direction and what the movie should feel like. Despite the dark tones and humor, the essence of the film still needed to be a feel-good Christmas movie. We always relate Christmas to magic. It is what gives the film a heart, and that’s what we went after. We kept the visuals bright and sparkly.”
—Neh Jaiswal, VFX Producer, Crafty Apes
Crafty Apes VFX Supervisor Aleksandra Sienkiewicz adds that Wirkola “wanted colors to pop, be bright, red, white and magical. Same with the set design, there is lots of warmth on set coming from the fireplaces, lights and interior design to make you feel cozy and embrace the Christmas ambiance.” Wirkola and Co-Producer Leitch also wanted the fights to have some Christmas spirit, she notes. “All of Santa’s weapons involved Christmas ornaments, candy canes, Christmas stars and Santa’s sack.”
Sienkiewicz continues, “We started look dev early in pre-production to ensure we set up the tone and look with Tommy while we were on set. We had our team back in [our] Vancouver and L.A. studios working on early FX sims, led by FX Supervisor Andrew Furlong and FX artists Jaclyn Stauber and Árni Freyr Haraldsson, while we were shooting back in Winnipeg. That was great to have constant feedback early in the game before we got all the plate turnovers.”
“[Director Tommy Wirkola] wanted colors to pop, be bright, red, white and magical. Same with the set design, there is lots of warmth on set coming from the fireplaces, lights and interior design to make you feel cozy and embrace the Christmas ambience. All of Santa’s weapons involved Christmas ornaments, candy canes, Christmas stars and Santa’s sack.”
—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes
Sparkly CG magic dust had to be created for Santa’s fireplace entrances and exits. Sienkiewicz recalls, “Back on set, we made sure we scanned all the rooms in the mansion, as there were several chimneys that Santa was escaping from. Our On-Set Supervisor, Adam Wagner, did a fantastic job doing photogrammetry that helped us with tracking and proper particle interactions. Industrial Pixels was responsible for Santa scans that were used to create the Santa digi-double, which we used to emit the particles and integrate with plate Santa. All the simulations were done in Houdini and composited in Nuke with the help of Point Render and Nuke particles by our amazing team led by Mark Derksen, Compositing Supervisor.”
Reindeer – practical and CG – posed a special challenge. Sienkiewicz explains, “After our first meeting with the pre-production team, director and producers reviewing the script and storyboards, we tried to figure out the logistics and the most cost-effective yet visually good-looking approach. There was lots of brainstorming involving several shots with reindeer, with different levels of complexity. From the beginning, we knew we needed two or three real reindeer. Time was pressuring us. Little did we know the reindeer were going to lose their antlers in February, so we needed all reindeer scenes to be scheduled as soon as possible. Since our main unit was shooting in Winnipeg, the only place in Canada to accommodate our request was Calgary. We decided to have a second unit in Calgary led by Wagner, who was responsible for shooting all the reindeer elements, reference photos and videos, textures, HDRI and light studies for all the shots we broke down earlier in storyboards.”
According to Sienkiewicz, “This material was very important to us, especially for the animation team led by Burke [Roane] and Trey Roane, to have visual references of the reindeer movement, walk cycles and overall body and head movement. Industrial Pixels was responsible for scanning the reindeer to help us with the CG models. Crafty Apes’ CG team led by Jon Balcome was in charge of generating eight reindeer, reins, sleigh and a Santa digi-double, which was fairly challenging,” explains Sienkiewicz.
“We started look dev early in pre-production to ensure we set up the tone and look with [director] Tommy [Wirkola] while we were on set. We had our team back in [our] Vancouver and L.A. studios working on early FX sims, led by FX Supervisor Andrew Furlong and FX artists Jaclyn Stauber and Árni Freyr Haraldsson, while we were shooting back in Winnipeg. That was great to have constant feedback early in the game before we got all the plate turnovers.”
—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes
Sienkiewicz adds, “Seeing all the characters coming to life and matching our on-set reindeer was very satisfying. In terms of Santa’s sleigh, the production team designed it, but we built our own CG sled asset based on the photogrammetry and LiDAR scan used for our in-air flying shots. Tommy always had a specific mindset about how the reindeer should move; he always described it as the reindeer threading in the water instead of flying in the empty void. That was always our biggest challenge – not to make the animals look cartoonish.”
Violent Night was filmed in Canada in the dead of winter, with temperatures ranging mostly from -15°C to -40°C. “Most of the movie was shot in cold Winnipeg,” Sienkiewicz says. “Interior shots were shot on stage at Manitoba Film Studios [in Winnipeg]. We had several rural locations in the middle of nowhere around Winnipeg and Calgary, which were pretty cold and miserable, but we still managed to have so much fun.”
The snow was mostly cooperative. Sienkiewicz comments, “I must say we were pretty lucky with the locations during the shoot in Winnipeg, so lots of the snow was practical. The sequence that required the most VFX was the end act, where Santa and Scrooge fight in front of the cabin ruins.” Due to extremely cold temperatures, “we decided to replicate the cabin in the studio and do set extensions behind the cabin where the snowmobile crashed. Adam Wagner took reference photos and plates that we stitched together and created a panorama that we re-projected on several cards in 3D space to create the environment behind it.” Jaiswal recalls, “We did a good amount of barn and mansion extensions, but most of the wintry landscape was scouted and on set. As nature intended, there were some no-snowfall days during the shoot period, and some days had a fair amount of snowfall. We had to add in falling snow in a number of shots at the end sequence to maintain continuity.” Cold weather was also a factor in other ways. “Having iPads and cameras dying all the time, tracking markers not sticking to the bluescreen or our feet turning into icicles was a struggle,” Sienkiewicz explains.
“From the beginning, we knew we needed two or three real reindeer. Time was pressuring us. Little did we know the reindeer were going to lose their antlers in February, so we needed all reindeer scenes to be scheduled as soon as possible. Since our main unit was shooting in Winnipeg, the only place in Canada to accommodate our request was Calgary. We decided to have a second unit in Calgary led by [On-Set VFX Supervisor Adam] Wagner, who was responsible for shooting all the reindeer elements, reference photos and videos, textures, HDRI and light studies for all the shots we broke down earlier in storyboards.”
—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes
A sequence involving Santa and a snowmobile flying through the air and crashing into the snow was “super fun to shoot,” Sienkiewicz says. “It was a mix of a location shot in rural Winnipeg and an in-studio shoot, since we couldn’t shoot a snowmobile crashing outside due to logistics and freezing temperatures. The team wanted to shoot as much as possible in the camera, so the special effects team was responsible for flipping the snowmobile and the Crafty team was in charge of CG Santa flying across, set extensions to the cabin ruins and snow enhancements. Firstly, Industrial Pixels scanned David Harbour and the snowmobile, providing us with textures and reference images. Our CG team was responsible for building a Santa digi-double that was used in several shots. We object-tracked the snowmobile and passed that to our animation team, who did the magic!”
While a lot of the fight scenes were shot practically, there were significant CG components for some scenes, according to Jaiswal, who comments, “The fight sequence inside the barn involved a lot of CG blood, a CG blade for the snowblower as one of the mercenaries gets pulled in it, [and] there are a couple of shots with a CG icicle during the scene where Linda is fighting off the mercenary, along with other sequences. Mark Derksen, our Comp Supervisor, did an amazing job leading the team to make it look seamless.”
Sienkiewicz adds, “We had an amazing prop team, and most of the weapons were practical, but we needed to augment them in some cases whenever it was not safe for the actors. We were responsible for knife extensions, flying weapons, candy cane extensions and adding CG nails to Gingerbread’s mouth in the Home Alone sequence. We were in charge of lots and lots of blood and wound enhancements. Tommy Wirkola was very particular about how the blood should look, so it was very important for us how we approached it.”
Crafty Apes was also in charge of buildings and environment extensions and augmenting the fire in the cabin ruins in the end act, according to Sienkiewicz. In addition, “the Viking environment shots were built from scratch. Tommy wanted to include his Norwegian roots in the movie, so with the help of our amazing DMP artist, Karlie Rosin, and the compositing team led by Mark Derksen, we created a mountainy Nordic environment. All the environment is DMP reprojections in 3D space, with lots of practical and FX embers, fire and smoke composited by Aragon Pawson.”
For Santa’s naughty-and-nice list, which looks like a high-tech ancient scroll, the production aimed to create something simple-looking and aesthetically pleasing that incorporated Santa’s ancient Viking roots, says Sienkiewicz. “Firstly, we developed several concepts to help establish the look with our talented DMP artists Katrina Chiu and Ivo Horvat before we started doing any FX work, which was done with Houdini. Tommy was going for the magical, warm, organic see-through look that would tie seamlessly into the plot and other effects visible in the movie. We decided to introduce runes, old-styled calligraphic lettering and lots of magical particles that bring the scroll to life.”
Sienkiewicz adds, “Lastly, the [house] vault – there were two shots where we needed to replace and animate the vault doors to spin and lock them in place. The CG team led by Jon Balcome and Sean Richie did an amazing job matching CG to practical vault rings. We were lucky to have all the data from the set and art department sketches to help us match the vault 1:1.”
Violent Night as a show grew in size for Crafty Apes. Jaiswal recalls, “The VFX segment almost doubled in terms of shots and potential complexity. So from the VFX standpoint, time was definitely a challenge. We had but a few months to deliver the show. There was constant communication with clients about upcoming deadlines and targets. But the team came through, and we were able to deliver all of our 300+ shots in a timely manner.”
By EVAN HENERSON
Photos by Doug Scroggins courtesy of Scroggins Aviation, except where noted.
Leave it to an aviation company that supplies airplanes and helicopters to the movies to help Adam Driver’s interplanetary explorer Mills take flight. Without an assist from Scroggins Aviation Mockup & Effects, the hero of the film 65 might have found himself stuck on a doomed planet, victim to rampaging dinosaurs, an apocalyptic media shower or both.
“It just always bothered me [the vehicle cockpits from 1977’s Star Wars], and so the one thing I want to do is create something that was really unique and different that looked like it was off-world, so we did just that.”
—Doug Scroggins, Founder/CEO, Scroggins Aviation Mockup & Effects
To this point, the Las Vegas-based Scroggins Aviation has been creating aviation mockups and effects for a range of movie and TV productions with a diverse slate of credits ranging from Iron Man 3 and Manifest all the way up through Spider Man: No Way Home and Black Adam.
But while they have created countless cockpits and choppers, the one genre largely absent from Scroggins’ output has been craft for science fiction films, with the 2018 Hulu series The First being – fittingly – the first time that the company was enlisted to mock up an actual spacecraft.
“We have been looking to do more in the science fiction world,” says company Founder and CEO Doug Scroggins. “For The First, we built an Orion space capsule, and the detail was just out of this world. 65 was a major take-on for us, and I was really honored to do it.”
In 2020, Scroggins was contacted by longtime friend and professional colleague, Kevin Ishioka, the Production Designer on 65 (which then carried the working title Zoic). The original request was for portions of the mothership including the airlock doors, control boxes, panel and one crew seat.
Scroggins takes pride in the detail of the interiors of its craft. An unabashed Star Wars fan, Scroggins acknowledges that the Home Depot-ish look of some of the vehicle cockpits from the 1977 classic have always been irksome. “It just always bothered me,” says Scroggins, who added that he would one day love to work on a Star Wars film, “and so the one thing I want to do is create something that was really unique and different that looked like it was off-world, so we did just that.”
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that [the spinning crew seats] changes everything. There goes all the physics, the engineering and everything. Now we’re going to need to have humans in this thing, and they’re going to be encapsulated while it’s being spun around in all kinds of different directions. Now we’re going to have to have an engineer sign off on this.”
—Doug Scroggins, Founder/CEO, Scroggins Aviation Mockup & Effects
Ultimately, as production needs developed, Scroggins Aviation was also asked to take on the escape vessel and the two crew seats that are featured prominently in the end of the film. Those seats would actually end up holding people and would need to be able to take the pounding of a motion-based rig or gimbel. Then came another wrinkle. The script called for the rig to be on a gyro platform that would enable the characters to be spun around. And that, says Scroggins, is where things started to get interesting.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that changes everything,’” Scroggins recalls. “There goes all the physics, the engineering and everything. Now we’re going to need to have humans in this thing, and they’re going to be encapsulated while it’s being spun around in all kinds of different directions. Now we’re going to have to have an engineer sign off on this.”
Scroggins ended up building three chairs composed of water-jetted steel, fortified by 10-lb. foam. “We vacuu-formed the parts and put the fiberglass in there and created the molds to hold it up,” Scroggins says. “The original seat was built for the straight up-and-down motion, not for the gyro arrangement. So that one seat you see when Adam Driver is in the cockpit seat and he’s sitting there flying the ship – that’s the seat.”
“We created a bible for the entire build. I knew we were going to have cast members inside the thing, and they’re going to roll it on a rotisserie, so I wanted to make sure that all the different materials we were using would be OK.”
—Doug Scroggins, Founder/CEO, Scroggins Aviation Mockup & Effects
The two additional chairs for the escape vessel were solid as well, but also had to be light enough so they could be placed on a device that could spin and, in Scroggins words, “shake the bejesus out of them.”
The company did indeed end up consulting with an engineering firm to approve the finished product, something that is not necessarily an industry standard. “We created a bible for the entire build,” Scroggins says. “I knew we were going to have cast members inside the thing, and they’re going to roll it on a rotisserie, so I wanted to make sure that all the different materials we were using would be OK.”
“We had [the escape vessel] completely covered, and we shopped it under secrecy. We didn’t want anyone to eyeball it or take any pictures.”
—Doug Scroggins, Founder/CEO, Scroggins Aviation Mockup & Effects
The build took place while much of the industry was in lockdown at the height of the COVID pandemic. In true across-the-globe collaborative fashion, Ishioka was coordinating the film’s production design from Japan while Scroggins was in Canada working on another movie, and the bulk of his eight-person team was at Scroggins Aviation’s shop in Las Vegas. The company also operates an overflow facility in Mojave, California.
When the escape vessel and seats were finished, they were loaded on to a flatbed truck that transported them to the production base in New Orleans in time for the start of production. “We had it completely covered, and we shopped it under secrecy,” Scroggins reveals. “We didn’t want anyone to eyeball it or take any pictures.”
While the escape vessel sequences late in the film showcase the work of Scroggins Aviation most vividly, movie-goers can also see their handiwork within the mothership early in 65. Between screen panels and touch screens, control panels, airlock doors and other cockpit devices that they constructed and supplied, the Scroggins team made sure that no movie-goer would ever accuse this science fiction film of looking low-tech.
After seeing how everything turned out onscreen in 65, Scroggins declared himself both satisfied and hungry for his firm to take another adventure. “The excitement of seeing the outcome just literally made the hairs on my arm start lifting up,” he says. “This was an original film with a good premise, and overall, on the visual effects side, it looked like they nailed it.”
By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of eOne, Paramount Pictures and Hasbro, Inc.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons in 2024, the most renowned RPG of them all, Paramount Pictures and eOne are releasing a new cinematic interpretation – Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. The movie strives to be true to the original lore and playful spirit of the D&D board game, which was designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and published in 1974, giving birth to the modern role-playing game industry and gaining tens of millions of fans in subsequent years. D&D’s roots lay in fantasy literature, including the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and miniature war games. The game has inspired novels, video games, podcasts, an animated series from 1983-1985, three live-action feature films from 2000 to 2012, and an upcoming eight-episode series from Paramount and eOne. It has also been referenced everywhere in entertainment from The Big Bang Theory to Stranger Things. It has been published by Wizards of the Coast (now a Hasbro subsidiary) since 1997.
The writers and directors of the movie “were clearly big D&D fans and players, and Wizards of the Coast – the guardians of the D&D universe – were heavily involved both in what happens in the story and in giving my VFX team support and advice as we came up with ideas and looks for the magic,” comments Ben Snow, ILM Production Overall VFX Supervisor.
In Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a charismatic thief and a band of unlikely adventurers attempt to retrieve a lost relic, but things go awry when they run afoul of some sinister characters and ferocious beasts. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein directed while Michael Gilio and Daley wrote the screenplay. Cast members included Chris Pine (Edgin the Bard), Michelle Rodriguez (Holga the Barbarian), Justice Smith (Simon the Sorcerer), Sophia Lillis (Doric, a Tiefling Druid) and Hugh Grant (Forge Fitzwilliam the Rogue). Legacy Effects took care of many creature practical effects, Ray Chan the production design and Barry Peterson the cinematography. ILM and MPC handled the VFX with help from Crafty Apes, Day For Nite and Clear Angle Studios.
“We sent a plates and environment capture team [to Iceland] to shoot stills and helicopter footage, including a great shot of an active volcano that you see in the film. Our characters and vehicles and sets were added in VFX by MPC using stills and filmed material and then enhanced. We based everything on the real photography and tried to use as much of it intact as possible.”
—Ben Snow, Production Overall VFX Supervisor, ILM
ILM was tasked with creating exotic D&D locations and bringing orcs, an Owlbear, various types of dragons, a Mimic Monster, a Gelatinous Cube and a Displacer Beast to life, among other duties. “Our creatures and magic spells were designed and evolved within the spirit of the D&D world,” says David Dally, ILM Visual Effects Supervisor.
Some days, the visual effects team were totally immersed in the D&D universe, during and after work. “The VFX on-set crew set up a D&D game,” Snow comments. “Charlie Rock, our VFX Coordinator, is an accomplished Dungeonmaster, and we had some enjoyable evenings gaming as a team. It helped us understand and connect, particularly those like me who hadn’t played in a few years.”
“Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves was a great VFX project due to the variety of work,” Snow says. “[It has] a rich universe of creatures, places and magic that the writers and directors were able to draw upon and that we could reference for the visuals. All the fantastical creatures were from the game and other D&D lore, but the directors were able to put their own unique spin on them. The directors had high standards of realism and we tried to shoot as much as possible. When it came to the digital work, they understood why and where we needed to use computer graphics, and our VFX team was given the time to get the passes and references we needed.”
The pandemic had a big impact on the whole production and visual effects processes, according to Snow. For example, the original plan was to shoot the opening in Iceland, but due to COVID and logistics it wasn’t possible to take the actors. Snow explains, “We sent a plates and environment capture team there to shoot stills and helicopter footage, including a great shot of an active volcano that you see in the film. Our characters and vehicles and sets were added in VFX by MPC using stills and filmed material and then enhanced. We based everything on the real photography and tried to use as much of it intact as possible.”
In addition to Iceland, filming took place in Northern Ireland in Belfast’s Titanic Studios and on location. “The quarantines affected where we could shoot,” Snow says. In one sequence, Doric escapes from Neverwinter castle. “It was a complex shot that MPC executed with collaboration from ILM. We’d originally planned a section to be shot on location, but the COVID lockdowns made that difficult, so we had a local scanning crew go out and scan the location based on our planning.” A CG version of the shot location was created.
Many practical creatures were made for the film, several of which received significant digital augmentation, according to Todd Vaziri, ILM Compositing Supervisor. “The giant fish creature that the villagers caught in their net, for example, was a giant puppet from Legacy Effects. ILM animated and rendered articulated eyeballs for the fish to give more life to the creature. In addition, ILM compositors warped and articulated the jawline and fish lips of the creature, as well as adding sheeting water glistening off the fish, and subtle splashes and drops of water coming off the creature.”
The Owlbear was the most popular creature among the VFX crew. It was also a tricky creature to nail down in animation, and finding the best blend of owl and bear mannerisms took some experimentation, according to Shawn Kelly, ILM Associate Animation Supervisor. “She’s a creature with the body of a bear and the head and feathers of an owl, so it was important to find a synergy between the two animals to create something that felt like a cohesive whole. We layered owl-like head movements on top of the bear motion and treated her beak and face as a blend between the two creatures. Replacing the typical fur groom for a quadruped with layered and owl feathers was a real challenge.”
“[The Owlbear] is a creature with the body of a bear and the head and feathers of an owl, so it was important to find a synergy between the two animals to create something that felt like a cohesive whole. We layered owl-like head movements on top of the bear motion and treated her beak and face as a blend between the two creatures. Replacing the typical fur groom for a quadruped with layered and owl feathers was a real challenge.”
—Shawn Kelly, Associate Animation Supervisor, ILM
The integration of Owlbear into the photography posed a classic challenge for visual effects. “How do we depict the power and speed of this large, dynamic creature without making the creature feel light and synthetic?” Vaziri recalls. “On the compositing side, we were very careful to add scale cues to help support the massive power of the Owlbear, including the displacement of dirt clods around Owlbear’s paws when she takes massive steps, and subtle dust and particulates when Owlbear went on the attack. The goal was always to make Owlbear feel powerful, dangerous and menacing, never light and floaty.”
Patrick Gagné, ILM Creature Model Supervisor, comments, “The Owlbear was a great challenge due to her multiple transformations. We needed to make sure the geometry of the base mesh was also suitable for a horse, a humanoid or an owl, for instance. The shape-shifting also needed to be split into parts for the animation department so they could achieve the effect needed. Toes becoming hooves, for example, as well as other face shapes for emotion. All of this was tremendously helped by the lookdev department.”
Snow adds, “The Owlbear was initially the way we first meet the Tiefling Doric and was going to be in one sequence, but we all fell in love with the creature and brought her back later in the film. Dungeons and Dragons has a whole host of interesting creatures from the lore,” says Snow about the Gelatinous Cube, which was both a conceptual and shooting challenge. “Gelatinous cubes have been featured in other movies and TV shows, so we wanted to differentiate ours and make it feel more grounded and believable.”
Vaziri continues, “We had to balance the realistic physics of such an object if it existed in real life and the visual storytelling requirements of the scene, which were frequently at odds with one another. Specifically, the refraction, reflection, fogginess and jiggle that would exist in a giant cube of gelatin were all heavily art-directed per shot to make sure the audience could clearly see our characters inside the cube and understand their motivations and strategy on escaping from the cube.”
“The Owlbear was a great challenge due to her multiple transformations. We needed to make sure the geometry of the base mesh was also suitable for a horse, a humanoid or an owl, for instance. The shape-shifting also needed to be split into parts for the animation department so they could achieve the effect needed. Toes becoming hooves for example, as well as other face shapes for emotion. All of this was tremendously helped by the lookdev department.”
—Patrick Gagné, Creature Model Supervisor, ILM
The Displacer Beast was another strange threat straight out of D&D lore. Dally describes it as “a big cat-like creature with six legs and tentacle projectors.” He comments, “It was great to work on such an iconic creature. The animators, asset and lighting team did a great job bringing the creature to life with its performance and realism. The comp and FX team worked together developing the projected beast’s disturbance effect. Snow adds, “For the shoot, we had stuntmen in black costumes chasing and interacting with the actors for designing the shots and to give everyone something to react to. We shot references of black fur the art department [had] sourced. The ILM team made the final CG version.”
“We had to balance the realistic physics of such an object [as the cube] if it existed in real life and the visual storytelling requirements of the scene, which were frequently at odds with one another. Specifically, the refraction, reflection, fogginess and jiggle that would exist in a giant cube of gelatin were all heavily art-directed per shot to make sure the audience could clearly see our characters inside the cube and understand their motivations and strategy on escaping from the cube.”
— Todd Vaziri, Compositing Supervisor, ILM
Dally enjoyed the battle sequence of the dueling hands. “The challenge [was] to get both hands to read as more physical and present in the environment, and not to be too magical. The Earthen Hand form is made from its immediate surrounding environment; it would tear up the ground as it moves about and returns the rock and debris to the ground once it’s passed. This was a really exciting challenge, having the hand interact with all of its immediate environment, attracting, forming and collapsing whilst battling the Arcane Hand.”
The Golden Dragon is at first an unassuming sculpture in the courtyard, which comes alive with an awakening spell and battles the heroes, including the Owlbear. Dally explains, “Upon waking, the dragon animation has a staccato/stop-frame quality about it, which is shaken off once it’s fully alive. Throughout the sequence we maintained some of its stone-like rigid qualities, with its scaled stone armor proving a challenge – we had to ensure it didn’t stretch like skin and maintained its stone armor.”
The Black Dragon Rakor was created by MPC and “hewed very closely to the D&D lore version,” Snow says. “He’s mostly featured in a flashback to a battle 100 years before the film. We decided that the fact he spewed acid made him a unique take on the dragon. Special Effects Supervisor Sam Conway’s team came up with an initial look for how the acid would interact with the characters and ground.”
To create a spin on the classic Red Dragon from D&D lore, the directors proposed the idea that the dragon be incredibly overweight but still pose a big threat to the team. Snow explains, “For the shoot, the special effects team made a variety of rigs for dragon interaction and large rigs for moving set pieces. Legacy Effects developed the model based on some concepts by Wes Burt [Visual Development Artist]. Our previz team and Day For Nite helped develop the design further. Then MPC added a ton of detail and refinement when they built the asset.”
The portal heist sequence involved stealing a painting containing one side of a portal. Action was shot through both sides of portals in different locations. Snow reveals, “Some of the sets were an elaborate collaboration between the art department, camera department, visual effects, stunts and special effects to allow us to capture the shots. It was crazy, and there was a lot of action during the shoot and up to the point where editorial took the elements and combined them in Avid to show that the plans were working. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. MPC then took these elements and did some amazing compositing and a fair amount of reprojection, background cleanup and reconstruction to make it all blend together.”
The Doric escape sequence was “a big undertaking for a few minutes of film,” according to Snow. “The directors wanted a single shot following Doric through Neverwinter castle, out over the castle battlements into a cottage and through the streets of the city, all the way shape-shifting between different animals and her human form as all hell breaks around her. Day For Nite provided a previz building off work started by The Third Floor, and VFX used that to plan the shoot. We worked with the art department to work out the transition points between the different locations, trying to catch as much in-camera as possible, and using reprojections and blends to provide the background for our actors and CG. The team then created the creatures, worked out the transformations and blended the plates.”
For the Ethereal Plane sequence, it was a challenge to come up with the look of a magical sequence that is grounded foundationally in photorealism. Vaziri explains, “The slow, elegant destruction of the beach environment while Simon [the Sorcerer] wears the helmet had to happen slowly over the course of the sequence. We started by subtly moving sand around, growing grass, disturbing and stretching the rocks and mountains all around Simon and the Wizard. We wanted the water to displace by having orbs of seawater rise and become floating blobs. By the end of the sequence the beach is mostly obliterated, with pebbles and rocks floating and the world mushed together in a symphony of mountains, grass and water. When the wizard turns off the spell and the world becomes real again, it was a blast to collapse all of that distortion back into the real world. It’s a really fun moment, and hopefully it will get some laughs.”
The production wrapped in August 2021. Snow comments, “Post-production was mostly remote. I would go into ILM to look at shots projected on the big screen each week with one or two of the production team and others remote. I was able to look at shots not just from ILM but also our other vendors MPC and Crafty Apes there – the vendors would send us all the files. We’d do most of our director reviews remotely, but once we started finishing shots I’d fly down to L.A. every couple of weeks to look at shots with them at CO3 [Company 3 post-production facility].”
Vaziri concludes, “It was refreshing to work on a film that has obvious fantastic, otherworldly elements like wizards, magic, creatures and castles, [and keep] it grounded within a recognizable reality that we, the audience, can understand, but also to have fun with it. The movie is so witty and will get a lot of laughs. It’s a really fun film, and it was a thrill to be able to create our visual effects in a movie that has a little twinkle in its eye.”
The impact and benefits of a diverse workforce are immense. We employ artists and a production team from 100 + countries who speak more than 30 languages, and I’m proud that our team has more than 50 percent female leads. In building our team, I’m always looking for exceptionally qualified professionals, whose personal vision aligns with ours and can bring new insights to the work – because the people are our best asset. And every day that we learn something new from one another and expand our worldview, I’m truly inspired.
In my role, I ultimately want to hire the best person for the job, but I also see things through the lens of an African American man… so I created an environment that is diverse and open to new voices. I spend a lot of time talking with students about what I do and how I got here because young people need to see people who look like them and come from the same background. If I can inspire the next generation who didn’t think they could pursue this line of work, I have a responsibility to do that. I believer that cultivating different perspectives allows us to learn from each other culturally and artistically – and benefits the art that we create together.
Being the first woman to be named VFX Supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic was a great privilege and a huge responsibility. I felt the weight of representing all women, all minority women, and the need to be not just good – but excellent. I’ve seen how implicit bias manifests, the looks of disbelief from crew and clients that I could be a supervisor…the unknown quantity that many people find hard to accept, because there are just so few of us. It is harder to get work as a female supervisor, but the obstacles have increased my resolve to do well in this business and share what I’ve learned with those coming up next.
I believe that diversity in VFX is a business imperative. We work globally and our work is consumed globally. Fundamentally, the people who create the work should be as diverse as our consumers. To those who say you have to sacrifice talent for diversity, I say absolutely not. You just need to find the right people – they are definitely out there. We all want to create fantastically beautiful visual effects and work with the most talented people in the world. That’s a given. But, if we could do that and increase the number of women in creative roles, that would be a huge value impact for all of us.
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By OLIVER WEBB
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is an epic tale of the excessive and extravagant antics of numerous characters in 1920s Hollywood. Industrial Light & Magic provided the bulk of the visual effects for Babylon, with 377 visual effect shots being created for the film. “The creation of that insane world fell into visual effects, and that is where we came in,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Cooper. “We had done another movie for Paramount, which is how we found our way onto this project. We started talking with Damien pre-pandemic.”
“The most important thing was casting an elephant that was quite real. … We built this elephant and cast it from Billy the elephant who is at the L.A. Zoo. We went down there and took some photographs and did some motion studies… We put that in front of [director] Damien [Chazelle] and he gave us notes about trying to make sure that it fit into his movie. … This idea that during this insanely raucous time, one of the gags of this Hollywood party was to bring in an elephant. The elephant is used to create effect when they use it as a distraction during the party scene when they need to sneak an actress out of the back door. That’s the jumping off point in this larger story and helping Damien tell this really large tale.”
—Jay Cooper, Visual Effects Supervisor
Katherine Farrar Bluff was Senior Visual Effects Producer on the project. “I was the Senior Producer on Babylon along with producer Keith Anthony-Brown, and we had a full production team on at our San Francisco studio helping to manage the work,” Bluff says. “As the project qualified for a California film tax credit, the work was all done in our San Francisco studio, whereas we typically end up partnering with our global studios on projects. We did the majority of the VFX work, but we also partnered closely with production’s in-house artist, Johnny Weckworth, who did a ton of work.”
According to Cooper, one of Chazelle’s biggest concerns was regarding the photoreal quality of the CG creatures. “He didn’t want the audience to be taken back from that in any way. That was his primary concern. He had questions about approach and how to shoot things, but primarily he was reaching out because he was really concerned about getting a good-looking elephant,” he says.
In terms of creative references, Cooper notes that Chazelle had an extensive deck of images that were helpful for evoking time and mood, which he shared with the VFX team, as well as a large list of silent pictures. “Some of those informed some of our design decisions along the way, but primarily the most important thing was casting an elephant that was quite real,” Cooper details. “My feeling was rather than us trying to make an amalgam of different animals that we sourced, we should try to hone in on one thing that we felt that we could really match, and that became our compass for making decisions about texture and lighting and sort of proportion and things like that.”
“We put our heart and souls into making this elephant spectacular. We shot and gathered extensive references. Even the breed of elephant was really important; we had to determine if it was an African or Asian elephant. We were looking all around Northern California for sanctuaries to try and go and shoot the reference. The team was really methodical about how they planned this build-out from the get-go. To see how successful it is in this party sequence, where it fits seamlessly in there, I think that was such an amazing pay off.”
—Katherine Farrar Bluff, Senior Visual Effects Producer
Continues Cooper, “We built this elephant and cast it from Billy the elephant who is at the L.A. Zoo. We went down there and took some photographs and did some motion studies and all those sorts of things. We put that in front of Damien and he gave us notes about trying to make sure that it fit into his movie. Maybe a bit sadder, more juvenile, for example. We took the tusks off it. This idea that during this insanely raucous time, one of the gags of this Hollywood party was to bring in an elephant. The elephant is used to create effect when they use it as a distraction during the party scene when they need to sneak an actress out of the back door. That’s the jumping off point in this larger story and helping Damien tell this really large tale,” Cooper reveals.
“We put our hearts and souls into making this elephant spectacular,” Bluff add. “We shot and gathered extensive references. Even the breed of elephant was really important; we had to determine if it was an African or Asian elephant. We were looking all around Northern California for sanctuaries to try and go and shoot the reference. The team was really methodical about how they planned this build-out from the get-go. To see how successful it is in this party sequence where it fits seamlessly in there, that was such an amazing pay off.”
“We shot in The Orpheum Theatre [in L.A.] that was built for the City Lights premiere, which I thought was amazing. It’s an amazing theater. We used that for the interior for where they show The Jazz Singer. In that theater we did this really large crane shot where we are stitching together multiple plates for the crowd. Of course, we have to add The Jazz Singer onto the screen. Some of the complicated stitching was sometimes tough, but it was really exciting to be in places that existed at the same time and to be shooting in locations that felt like they were really tied to this story,”
—Jay Cooper, Visual Effects Supervisor
“One of the things we decided early on was that we were going to build a puppet, and the puppet was basically four people inside of a gray cloth with a proxy head for the elephant,” Cooper explains. “That would be the thing that we walked through the hotel that later became the interior location for the Wallach party. Doing that in terms of approach was fantastic because all of the actors have a great understanding in terms of physicality. Damien was able to direct the puppeteers to give some level of performance. It wasn’t everything that you’d expect from an elephant, but at least in terms of scale, position and timing, to get that to work with our camera, and it paid off brilliantly.”
“We also did a lot of really beautiful seamless 2D work and some fantastic matte painting work. Enhancing the Wallach mansion, for example, was a big design process with Damien. He was very particular about what it was going to look like and the kind of a silhouette it had against the sunset sky, but it turned out beautifully and sits really nicely in that sequence. There was lots of de-modernization work that we did throughout that was also really successful,” Bluff says.
Discussing the collaboration with Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Cooper explains that it was a working relationship on set. “He was asking us questions to make sure that we had what we needed. It was in that vein when he gave us passes and elements when we requested them. Damien didn’t really want to change process for visual effects. Almost as a matter of process, it was our role to fit into a production that was very traditional in its construction. There is no greenscreen or bluescreen work in the strict sense in this movie. At one point, we wrapped the buck with greenscreen just in order to do some matting so we could get our CG elephant to work. There’s no greenscreen shoot per se, no Stagecraft shoot. Damien and Linus wanted to go to real places and locations, and they wanted to have a very grounded and real feeling for the movie.”
Another particularly challenging sequence to capture was the battle scene. “There is a massive battle between 700 extras on the day, which we helped fill out with more CG fighters. That was really exciting,” Cooper says. “There was a lot of interesting camera work that we were able to help seam together multiple plates. This was a location in L.A., and there were elements of this environment which we had to clean up. There’s an undercurrent of that kind of thing across the movie, moving things that weren’t period appropriate or got in the way of the story. In this case, we cleaned up the grass and moved things that weren’t meant to be there. There is a spear that flies through the air that was on a cable, and removing the cable and re-creating the tent were required. A lot of it goes to extending and supporting the style that Damien has about long takes and swish pans, and almost crafting the movie like it’s set to music, where there is a rhythm to it that he is very specific about.”
“One of the things we decided early on was that we were going to build a puppet, and the puppet was basically four people inside of a gray cloth with a proxy head for the elephant. That would be the thing that we walked through the hotel that later became the interior location for the Wallach party. Doing that in terms of approach was fantastic because all of the actors have a great understanding in terms of physicality. Damien was able to direct the puppeteers to give some level of performance. It wasn’t everything that you’d expect from an elephant, but at least in terms of scale, position and timing, to get that to work with our camera, and it paid off brilliantly.”
—Jay Cooper, Visual Effects Supervisor
Concludes Cooper, “Obviously, L.A. is not what it was in 1928 or 1932. We shot in the Orpheum Theatre that was built for the City Lights premiere, which I thought was amazing. It’s an amazing theater. We used that for the interior for where they show The Jazz Singer. In that theater we did this really large crane shot where we are stitching together multiple plates for the crowd. Of course, we have to add The Jazz Singer onto the screen. Some of the complicated stitching was sometimes tough, but it was really exciting to be in places that existed at the same time and to be shooting in locations that felt like they were really tied to this story.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Marvel Entertainment and Disney+.
In the world of animation, Marvel Studios is seems to have had a lot of fun with experimentation, whether it be the multiverse chaos of the What If…? anthology, which introduced zombies into the MCU, or Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, based on the comic book by Brandon Montclare, Amy Reeder and Natasha Bustos where a 13-year-old Lunella Layfayette partners with a 10-ton T-Rex from another dimension to battle criminals and supervillains pilfering and threatening her Lower East Side neighborhood in New York City. The Disney+ series, executive produced by Laurence Fishburne, Helen Sugland and Steve Loter, has a pilot that is a double-sized introduction running 44 minutes while the rest of the 16 episodes last 22 minutes each.
“Our Supervising Director, Ben Juwono, with show designers Sean Jimenez, Chris Whittier and Jose Lopez, all got together and were able to pursue something unique and do things they always wanted to do in the animation industry but never had the opportunity to do,” explains Executive Producer Steve Loter, who is originally from Brooklyn. “I was in New York City during the height of the graffiti art scene, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s street art; those were a huge inspiration for me. Sean is into all types of art: pop, underground and New York-specific street murals. It is a pen-and-ink-style drawing because we wanted to do something as kinetic as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; however, by going with something more hand-drawn, and pen and ink with spotted blacks, felt like a different direction to go and that was its own identity.”
“One of the biggest challenges with the show was getting this high quality of craftmanship and drawing and still have it move well. We balanced our animation styles to be immediate in places where we wanted to keep energy up, so we can save time and budget for when we want to get flowing and have lots of in-betweens to say either the action is cool here or we need to do moments where the acting is more high level and the characters are feeling grounded and real. It’s a balance of finding the contrast between those two and peppering them throughout an episode.”
—Kat Kosmala, Animation Supervisor
Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is not trying for realism. “One of the things that I love about these designs is that they have a modern blend where you have structure and anatomy so the characters can turn and move dimensionally, but you also have that mixed with flat graphic elements so you can do pushed expressions and things that go far away from structure,” states Animation Supervisor Kat Kosmala. who worked with the team at Flying Bark Productions. “One of the biggest challenges with the show was getting this high quality of craftmanship and drawing and still have it move well. We balanced our animation styles to be immediate in places where we wanted to keep energy up so we can save time and budget for when we want to get flowing and have lots of in-betweens to say either the action is cool here or we need to do moments where the acting is more high level and the characters are feeling grounded and real. It’s a balance of finding the contrast between those two and peppering them throughout an episode.”
“[O]ne style is not enough for this show, apparently! We knew that music was going to be an important element to the show early on and that each episode would have a music focus sequence, usually the climax of an episode, an action sequence or something along those lines. It gives animators an opportunity to expand the vocabulary of animation because all of the mixed tapes are so different from each other. Each one is based on the theme and mood of the song it’s trying to display.”
—Steve Loter, Executive Producer
Graphic design icons and symbols like dollar signs or hearts appear in comic book speech bubbles and the goggles of Moon Girl. “The iconography in cartoons has been around since the 1930s when characters would talk and there would be little lines coming out of their mouth to indicate audio. But we’re pulling on a lot of comic book sensibilities bringing those graphics in,” Kosmala notes. “One of the cool things about it is, this show uses the visual medium. It’s not a cartoon where it’s just talking heads and you do all of the story through dialogue. There are so many visual shortcuts. The emojis in the show lets us speed through parts of the story that would take a lot of time with exposition or dialogue to get through and spend more where we want to. It’s a fast-paced show.”
To heighten fights with villains, a different animation style is used to create what is called a “Mixed-Tape Sequence.” “That’s because one style is not enough for this show, apparently!” Loter laughs. “We knew that music was going to be an important element to the show early on and that each episode would have a music focus sequence, usually the climax of an episode, an action sequence or something along those lines. It gives animators an opportunity to expand the vocabulary of animation because all of the mixed tapes are so different from each other. Each one is based on the theme and mood of the song it’s trying to display.” Kosmala loves animating to music. “Music is art and time, and animation is art and time. Neither of these things are static,” Kosmala adds.
As for the visual style, Kosmala observes, “The colors get intense. We drop details so that the characters get more animatable and we can be freer with their movements. The initial challenge was keeping up the energy. At the same time, we have a big dinosaur that has to feel heavy and weighty, so he can’t necessarily pop pose to pose. For a moment that is melodramatic and comedic, we’re going to get simple, superficial and fun with the movements and timing. When characters are dealings with emotions or situations that are heavier, you’re going to have some fallout. We slow the animation down and get more weighted and natural. It’s paralleling what is happening in the story the same way that color palettes signal how you should be feeling.”
“For Devil, we absolutely started with [comic book artist] Jack Kirby and worked to get the design to a place where it was going to be something that was animatable and fit in the whole design aesthetic we wanted to establish. The voice actor for Devil Dinosaur, Fred Tatasciore, wanted lines of dialogue written in the script so his grunts and groans would translate that into something unique and more anchored to the emotion of the scene.”
—Steve Loter, Executive Producer
Devil Dinosaur speaks through grunts and groans rather than words. “I did some vocalization for Devil for when he first says his name, and that was a fun thing to do and one of the first things that was animated,” Kosmala remarks. “When you have characters that have to communicate through pantomime, it’s interesting because you have to get creative and expressive with the movement.” A legendary comic book artist was responsible for the original design of the red T-Rex. “For Devil, we absolutely started with Jack Kirby and worked to get the design to a place where it was going to be something that was animatable and fit in the whole design aesthetic we wanted to establish,” Loter states. “The voice actor for Devil Dinosaur, Fred Tatasciore, wanted lines of dialogue written in the script so his grunts and groans would translate that into something unique and more anchored to the emotion of the scene.”
Harmony was the primary animation software while the minimal 3D work was done in Maya. “3D was used for vehicles and things that need to be perfectly formed when turning,” Kosmala reveals. “With a lot of 3D and even 2D effects that are generated. you get away from this feeling of it being hand-drawn and handmade – that’s not in the spirit of the show. We tried to stick to traditional methods. There are simple tricks like taking different textures and panning them across each other, and that simplicity is part of what makes the visual effects work charming. It’s not overdone or overworked. It retains that hand-drawn quality so it blends in seamlessly with the rest of the show.” Photographic effects were avoided, Loter points out. “Everything is done in color so things that feel like they’re glowing are just the intensity of a color against another color to create a glow effect.” Kosmala adds, “Because we don’t want that evenness when its generated perfectly via a program. You want it to feel a little imperfect in places.”
“With a lot of 3D and even 2D effects that are generated. you get away from this feeling of it being hand-drawn and handmade – that’s not in the spirit of the show. We tried to stick to traditional methods. There are simple tricks like taking different textures and panning them across each other, and that simplicity is part of what makes the visual effects work charming. It’s not overdone or overworked. It retains that hand-drawn quality so it blends in seamlessly with the rest of the show.”
—Kat Kosmala, Animation Supervisor
The show captures that moment in time when New York still felt like a vibrant artistic place before gentrification happened. “My parents are still there, and I have to go back to New York now and then, so I have to do this right or I’m not going to be able to go back!” Loter chuckles. “A lot of buildings, streets and architecture that you would see on Lower East Side is accurate to real New York and also captures the community. New York is diverse. That was another advantage I had growing up, living in a community that had some many different beliefs, people and tastes. It felt like such an amazing place to be as an artist, to be a part of all of these various cultures.”
New York City is treated as a character. “We have a big meeting room that has a lineup of all our incidentals [which numbers around 70],” Kosmala states. “It’s a bunch of people who could be used to populate any scene. It’s so heartening to see all different ages, sizes, colors and body types. Everybody is represented. It’s an emotional thing to look at.”
By CHRIS McGOWAN
Over the last few years, the VFX industry has surged due to an infusion of visual effects in almost all films and series, the expansion of the streamers, a boom in animation, and the growth of video games and immersive formats. This is happening while LED stages and virtual production have been altering filmmaking and post-production processes, bringing them closer together.
At the same time, VFX work has continued to expand across the planet. “The globalization of the VFX business has been happening for a while, but the opportunities for remote working that have been accelerated by the pandemic have been a great enabler of this trend with artists and teams able to collaborate ever more easily and effectively across geographies,” says Namit Malhotra, Chairman and CEO of DNEG.
Streaming platforms Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount+ launched between 2019 and 2021, joining Netflix and Amazon Prime, collectively boosting production. “The strong growth in demand for content driven largely by the streaming companies has opened new avenues in content creation for VFX and animation companies,” Malhotra says. However, he feels the accelerated recent growth of the industry is now becoming more balanced. “The number of productions globally is now being rationalized to the reality of what can be produced. Demand was outstripping supply to such an extent that it was actually becoming unsustainable. What we are seeing now is more of a sensible and sustainable approach to content creation, and it is finding equilibrium – which is a good thing. There is still growth, but it is a lot more structured and sustainable.”
Because of the streamers, “there is a lot more episodic content than there was five years ago,” comments Pixomondo CEO Jonny Slow. “This is not a new factor, and the growth of it may slow down a little in the short term, but I don’t see this trend going away. This is a whole new sub-genre of content. In publishing terms, it’s like the invention of the novel, and it has created millions more viewing hours per week.”
The streamers have generated plenty of filmmaking work in domestic production centers across Europe and Asia, from Oslo to Seoul, which in turn has generated more VFX work around the world. India has become an especially important pole of visual effects with many foreign-owned and locally-owned VFX houses working at full throttle there.
Vantage Market Research forecasts that “the increased demand for advanced quality content among consumers across the globe and the introductions of new technologies related to VFX market by industry players are expected to augment the growth of the VFX market,” and predicts that VFX global market revenue will climb from $26.3 billion in 2021 to $48.9 billion in 2028, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.9% during the forecast period.
“VFX is now an integral component of cinematic narrative in film, episodic, commercials and themed entertainment. Due in part to the convergence of gaming workflows, GPU-accelerated computing functions and cloud computing, VFX is increasingly accessible to all levels of complexity and budgets in storytelling,” says Shish Aikat, Global Head of Training at DNEG.
ACQUISITIONS AND EXPANSIONS
The dynamic activity of the VFX business in the last year includes acquisitions and foundings. One of the biggest deals in 2022 was Sony’s purchase of Pixomondo, which has facilities in Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal, London, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Los Angeles. Recent projects include: Avatar: The Last Airbender (Netflix) and the next seasons of House of the Dragon, The Boys, Halo, Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and many others. About the sale, Slow comments, “It allows us to benefit from being fully aligned with the whole Sony group, both creatively and from a technology development perspective.”
Also last year, Crafty Apes acquired Molecule VFX. The Fuse Group (owner of FuseFX) bought El Ranchito, which has studios in Madrid and Barcelona. Outpost VFX and Framestore opened Mumbai facilities and BOT VFX a Pune branch. After purchasing Scanline VFX at the end of 2021, Netflix acquired Animal Logic in 2022 and signed a multiyear deal with DNEG through 2025 for $350 million. DNEG will open an office in Sydney this year to go with its existing facilities in London, Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Montréal, Chennai, Mohali, Bangalore and Mumbai.
DNEG’s four Indian studios played a role in how India has become a significant source of global VFX production. MPC and The Mill (owned by Technicolor Creative Services), FOLKS VFX (The Fuse Group), Framestore, BOT VFX (based in Atlanta and with three studios in India), Rotomaker India Pvt Ltd, Mackevision, Outpost VFX and Tau Films are other multinationals with facilities in India.
One of India’s leading local visual effects firms is FutureWorks, which has 325 total employees in facilities in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai. CEO Gauray Gupta comments, “Of these, our Chennai studio is geared as a global delivery center to service our international clients. Our Mumbai studio, which was our first one, is focused on Indian filmmakers, and also works closely with platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix for their Indian productions. Early next year will see us relocate to a larger studio in Mumbai and expand our Hyderabad operations with a bigger facility in Q2.” He notes that FutureWorks’ recent portfolio “spans global hits including: The Peripheral for Prime Video, Westworld for HBO, Netflix’s Lost in Space and [the Hindi-language movies] Jaadugar, directed by Sameer Saxena, and Darlings, directed by Jasmeet K. Reen.”
FutureWorks currently has “around a 50% split between our domestic and international customers, and our business strategy is to continue along those lines as we grow,” according to Gupta. “Global demand for VFX services has fueled the rapid increase in VFX studios in India. Indian studios are now full of creative sequences and shots, not just RPM or back-office work.”
Gupta notes, “Global demand and supply have increased concurrently, and there is plenty of room for everyone. What we see is a truly global marketplace, [with] more choices for clients in terms of where and who can execute the top-end work. However, [having] more studios also means that the industry needs more talent, and that talent has a wider range of options than ever before.”
Gupta adds, “This is the most excited I’ve been about the industry in India since I founded the company. There is a huge demand for content from OTT networks and filmmakers. Relationships are global, technology is global, vendors are global. The scene here currently is creative, ambitious and evolving at a rapid pace.”
ACROSS THE PLANET
Ghost VFX is opening a studio in Pune in May and has facilities in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, London, Manchester and Copenhagen, with nearly 600 total global employees (Streamland Media purchased Ghost VFX in 2020). “Having studios across the globe means we’re able to work together across a single technology workflow so we can react to the ebbs and flows of demand,” says Patrick Davenport, President of Ghost VFX. “We’re also in several key locations for tax incentives. Although we offer our employees the option of working from home, hybrid or in-studio, having global studios helps us retain talent who want to work in different countries as well as [work] in-studio.”
Davenport adds, “We have larger projects which we share across the studios, but still focus on being able to support local productions. For example, our Copenhagen studio just worked on Troll, a Norwegian film for Netflix. On a global scale, we’ve worked on several projects including: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds that artists in Copenhagen and Vancouver worked on, and for Fast X we currently have teams in our U.K., Copenhagen, Pune and L.A. studios working on the film.” Another is the new season of The Mandalorian, “one of several projects we’re working on for Lucasfilm.”
Glassworks has studios in London, Amsterdam and Barcelona. “Speaking as a studio with multiple locations across Europe, I can definitely see [having them as an] advantage. The benefits come in different aspects, including a shared pool of resources, access to specialized talent across offices, and opportunities within each market or in tandem across facilities,” says Glassworks COO Chris Kiser. “Scalability is always important in our business, and it’s great to be able to work with artists and producers that you know and trust before needing to go outside of your own studio.”
For Glassworks, “The year started with a couple of big commercial projects, including the Turkish Airlines Super Bowl spot featuring Morgan Freeman and Apple’s Escape the Office film,” Kiser says. “Young adult and fantasy fans will have seen VFX from our team in both Vampire Academy and Fate: The Winx Saga, [and] we have other projects in the works for Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime.”
VIRTUAL PRODUCTION IMPACT
Virtual production has greatly transformed the VFX business and inspired the construction of hundreds of LED stages, both fixed-location and bespoke/pop-up. Last year ended with the completion of two notable facilities in Culver City. Amazon’s stage, located on Stage 15 of the Culver Studios lot, has an 80-foot diameter with a 26-foot-high volume, a virtual-production takeover of what had been the production scene of many famous movies in the analog era. Nearby, a new LED stage rose at Sony Innovation Studios on the Sony lot, in the same year that the firm purchased Pixomondo and its three LED stages.
Virtual production was valued at $1.46 billion in 2020, projected to reach $4.73 billion by 2028 and expected to grow at a CAGR of 15.9% during the forecast period from 2021 to 2028, according to a market report by Statista.
“Things are normalizing a little now, but along the way virtual production became a more widely adopted production solution, and for a few players, including Pixomondo, there is no turning back from this as we have created some very effective tools. That said, we see it as very complementary to our VFX services business, not a replacement – and in fact, we are able to integrate the processes to deliver additional value and speed of delivery,” Slow says.
INCENTIVES MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Tax breaks are still having an impact on the geography of VFX. “Incentives do create additional production spend overall, as they directly impact how far a production budget will go,” Slow says. “However, not all of the benefit stays in VFX ultimately – our clients have to balance productions books overall somehow. But, a more generous scheme in one region will influence where our clients want the work to happen, so a small change in the rules can create a very big shift in demand for work in a particular region. This has been very effectively used as a tool to drive investment and jobs into Canada, the U.K., Germany and many other places. It’s a big success story, and I think we will see this continue to evolve.”
Malhotra notes, “Frankly, these incentives make the use of visual effects more competitive for our clients, allowing them to create higher-quality content. This is important all round, as it creates more sustainable employment, as well as great quality of work for our clients, while helping them mitigate the costs of content creation.”
ARTIST CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Davenport comments, “Demand for VFX looks likely to continue, though there is still the challenge of delivering the work within budgets and compressed schedules at a time of rising costs, particularly of labor.”
Malhotra observes that the talent gap is another challenge. “We need more talent in our industry with more experience – not just to creatively deliver projects, but also to manage and produce them,” he comments. “Training is a key focus – the fact that everyone is working from home compromises the culture of learning from your team and those around you, where you gain more experience by asking questions and looking at each other’s work. This has an effect on the time it takes to bring new recruits in our industry up to speed, which poses some interesting challenges for us as an industry — it’s a universal issue.”
Kiser adds, “The biggest challenge to our industry is bringing in the next generation and providing them with training and opportunities to succeed. Many of us were able to get a break somewhere or discover the potential for a career in VFX thanks to technical training or personal connections. We need to take advantage of the momentum and interest in film and TV to reach a wider, more diverse group of young people.”
“The convergence of visual effects and real-time gaming technologies, and the emergence of opportunities in the metaverse, virtual reality, immersive experiences and web 3.0, all significantly contribute to the possibilities for visual effects artists to leverage their skill sets beyond movies and television. It is a very interesting time for our industry and the people that work within it,” Malhotra says.
“We certainly hope the trend for VFX and animation will continue as it has been thrilling and made for some amazing content. The industry and budgets are likely to fluctuate in the same way they have over the years, although the demand has never been higher,” Kiser says. “The key now, as it has always been, is retaining talent and fostering creativity within our teams. We can’t control what happens in the outside world, but we have the ability to build a productive and enjoyable environment where the best creative work happens.”
“[In the] short term,” Slow concludes, “activity levels are calming down a little, but this is a good thing for the industry and the people working in it. Long-term, I don’t think there is any change to the overall trend of continued, healthy, year-on-year growth.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Much has been made lately of the proliferation of artificial intelligence within the realm of art and filmmaking, whether it be AI entrepreneur Aaron Kemmer using OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT to generate a script, create a shot list and direct a film within a weekend, or Jason Allen combining Midjourney with AI Gigapixel to produce “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” which won the digital category at the Colorado State Fair. Protests have shown up on art platform ArtStation consisting of a red circle and line going through the letters AI and declaring ‘No to AI Generated Images,’ while U.K. publisher 3dtotal posted a statement on its website declaring, “3dtotal has four fundamental goals. One of them is to support and help the artistic community, so we cannot support AI art tools as we feel they hurt this community.”
“There are some ethical considerations mainly about who owns data,” notes Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Founder and Chief Scientist at All These Worlds LLC. “If you put it out on the web, is it up for grabs for scrubbers to come and grab those images for machine learning? Machine learning doesn’t work unless you have millions of images or examples. But we are out at an inflection point with the Internet where there are millions of things out there and we have never put walls around it. We have created this beast and only now are we getting pushback about, ‘I put it out to share but didn’t expect anyone would just grab it.’”
‘In the style of’ text prompts are making artists feel uneasy about their work being replicated through an algorithm as in the case of Polish digital artist Greg Rutkowski, who is one of most commonly used prompts for open-source AI art generator Stable Diffusion. “I just feel like at this point it’s unstoppable, and the biggest issue with AI is the fact that artists don’t have control of whether or not their artwork get used to train the AI diffusion model,” remarks Alex Nice, who was a concept illustrator on Black Adam and Obi-Wan Kenobi. “In order for the AI to create its imagery, it has to leverage other artist’s collective ‘energy’ [and] years of training and dedication to a craft. Without those real artists, AI models wouldn’t have anything to produce. I believe AI art will never get the artistic appreciation that real human-made art gets. This is the fundamental difference people need to understand. Artists create things, and hacks looking for a shortcut only know how to ‘generate content.’”
Rather than rely on the Internet, AI artists like Sougwen Chung are training robotic assistants on their own artwork and drawing alongside them, which follows in the footsteps of another collaboration that lasted 40 years and produced the first generation of computer-generated art. “There was some interesting stuff going on there that nobody knows about in the history of AI and art,” observes Morie. “Harold Cohen and the program AARON, which was an automatic program that could draw with a big plotter that learned as it drew and made these huge, beautiful drawings that were complex and figurative, not abstract at all.” AI is seen as essential element for developing future tools for artists. “Flame’s new AI-based tools, in conjunction with other Flame tools, help artists achieve faster results within compositing and color-grading workflows,” remarks Steve McNeill, Director of Engineering at Autodesk. “Looking forward, we see the potential for a wider application of AI-driven tools to enable better quality and more workflow efficiencies.”
Does the same reasoning apply to the creation of text-to-image programs such as AI Image Generator API by DeepAI? “When we saw the research coming out of the deep learning community around 2016-2017, we knew practically every part of our lives would be changed sooner or later,” notes Kevin Baragona, Founder of DeepAI. “This was because we saw simultaneous AI progress in very disparate fields such as text processing, gameplaying, computer vision and AI art. The same basic technology [neural networks] was solving a whole bunch of terribly difficult problems all at once. We knew it was a true revolution! At the time, the best AI was locked away in research labs and the general public didn’t have access to it. We wanted to develop the technology to bring magic into our daily lives, and to do it ethically. We brought generative AI to the public in 2017. We knew that AI progress would be rapid, but we were shocked at how rapid it turned out to be, especially starting around 2020.” Baragona sees AI as having positive rather than negative impact on the artistic community. “We’ve seen that text-to-image generators are practically production-ready today for concept art. Every day, I’m excited by the quality of art that takes a couple seconds to produce. Visual effects will continue to get more creative, more detailed and much cheaper to produce. Basically, this means we’ll have vastly more visual effects and art, and the true artists will be able to create superhuman art with the aid of these computer tools. It’s a revolution on par with the rise of CGI in the 1990s.”
Undoubtedly, there are legal issues as to who owns the output and whether the original sources should be given credit. “As the core building blocks of new AI generative models continue to mature, a new set of questions will arise, like it has happened with many other transformative technologies in the past,” notes Cristóbal Valenzuela, Co-Founder and CEO at Runway. “Ownership of content created in Runway is owned by users and their teams. Models can also be retrained and customized for specific use cases. We are also building together a community of artists and creators that inform how we make product decisions to better serve those community needs and questions.” The AI revolution is not to be feared. “There are always questions that emerge with the rise of a new technology that challenges the status quo.” Valenzuela observes. “The benefits of unlocking creativity by using natural language as the main engine are vast. We will see so many new people able to express themselves through various multimodal systems, and we’ll see previously complicated arenas like 3D, video, audio and image be more accessible mediums. Tools are only as good as the artist who wields them, and having more artists is ultimately an incredible benefit to the industry.”
Should AI art be the final public result? “I think that the keyword prompts used should also be displayed along with it, and any prompt that directly references a notable piece of existing art or artist should require a licensing deal with that referenced artist,” remarks Joe Sill, Founder and Director at Impossible Objects. “For instance, if an AI art is displayed that has utilized the prompt of ‘a mountaintop with a dozen tiny red houses in the style of Gregory Crewdson.’ you’re likely going to need to have that artist’s involvement and sign-off in order for that art to be displayed as a final result. If AI art is simply used in a pipeline as a starting point to inspire an artist with references, I think it’d be great for the programs themselves to start being listed in credits. Apps like Midjourney or DALL·E being credited as the key programs that help artists develop early inspiration only helps with transparency and also accessibility. If an artist releases a piece of work that was influenced by AI art, they can credit the programs used like, ‘Software used: DALL·E, Adobe Photoshop, Sketchpad.’”
AI has given rise to a new technological skill in the form of “the person who can write a compelling prompt for a program like DALL·E 2 to extract a compelling image,” states David Bloom, Founder and Consultant at Words & Deeds Media. “To some extent it’s a different version of what artists have always faced. If you are a musician, you had to learn how to play an instrument to able to reproduce the things that you were hearing in your head. I remember George Lucas saying in the 1990s when they put out a redone version of Star Wars, ‘I’m never going to show the original version again because the technology now allows me to create a film that matches what I saw in my head.’ It’s just like that. The technology is going to allow new kinds of people to see something that they have in their head and get it out without necessarily having the same or any technical skills, if they can articulate it.”
Part of the fear of AI comes from misunderstanding. “It’s not as powerful as people think it is,” notes Jim Tierney, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Anarchist at Digital Anarchy. “It’s certainly useful, but in the context how we use AI, which is for speech-to- text, if you have well-recorded audio and someone who speaks well, it’s fantastic but falls off the cliff quickly as the audio degrades. There is a lot fear around AI. We were supposed to have replicants by now! Blade Runner was set in 2019. Come on. Where are my flying cars?” As for the matter of licensing rights, Tierney references what creatively drives artists in the first place. “If you say, ‘Brisbane, California, at night like Vincent van Gogh would have done,’ that’s going to create something probably Starry Night-ish. But how is that different from me painting it using that visual reference and an art book? It’s complicated. I spent a bunch of time messing around with Midjourney. If you go in there looking for something specific and say, ‘I want X. Create this for me.’ You will have to go through many iterations. People can make some cool stuff with it, but it seems rather random.”
What is affecting the quality of AI art is not the technology. “People have this idea that you type in three simple words and get some sort of masterpiece,” observes Cassandra Hood, Social Media Manager at NightCafé Studio. “That’s not the case. A lot of work goes into it. If you are planning on receiving a finished image that you are picturing in your mind, you’re going to have put the work into finding the right words. There is a lot of experimenting that goes with it. It’s a lot harder than it seems. That applies to many people who think it’s not as advanced or not too good right now. It can be good if you put the work in and actually practice your prompts. We personally don’t create the algorithms, but give you a platform and an easy-to-use interface for beginners who move onto the bigger more complicated code notebooks once they graduate from NightCafé. We are focusing on the community aspect of things and making sure to provide that safe environment for AI artists to hang out and talk about their art. We have done that on the site by adding comments and contests.”
“If you put it out on the web, is it up for grabs for scrubbers to come and grab those images for machine learning? Machine learning doesn’t work unless you have millions of images or examples. But we are out at an inflection point with the Internet where there are millions of stuff out there and we have never put walls around it. We have created this beast and only now are we getting pushback about, ‘I put it out to share but didn’t expect anyone would just grab it.’”
—Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Founder and Chief Scientist, All These Worlds LLC
“My opinion on this AI revolution has changed,” acknowledges Philippe Gaulier, Art Director at Framestore. “It has probably been a year or year and a half ago that AI has really exploded in the concept art world. At the beginning I thought, ‘Oh, my god, our profession is dead.’ But then I realized it’s not because I saw the limits of AI. There is one factor that we shouldn’t forget, which is the human contact. Clients will never stop wanting to deal with human beings to produce some work for whatever film or project that they have. However, there will be less of us to produce the same amount of work in the same way when tools in any industry evolve to become more efficient. The tools haven’t replaced people because people are still needed to supervise and run them because machines don’t communicate like we do. But there has been a reduction in the number of people for any given task. I have been in this industry long enough to understand that things evolve all of the time. I have already started playing around with AI for references. I’m not asking myself whether it’s good or bad. I’ve accepted the idea that is going to be part of the creative process because human beings in general like shortcuts.”
In the middle of the AI revolution is Stable Diffusion, which was created by researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich and Runway ML, and supported by a compute grant from Stability AI. The release of the free, open-source neural network for generating photorealistic and artistic images based on text-to-images was such a resounding success that Stability AI was able to raise $101 million in funding for its open-source AI research, which involves other types of diffusion models for music, video and medical research. “A research team led by Robin Rombach and Patrick Esser was looking at ways to communicate with computers and did different experiments looking at text-to image,” remarks Bill Cusick, Creative Director for DreamStudio, run by Stability AI. “Their goal was to get to a place where instead of being limited by your physical abilities you could be able to translate your ideas into images. It has evolved in a way where now we can see what is possible, and there is a bifurcation of what the approaches are. Stable Diffusion and DreamStudio are tools. DreamStudio gives you settings and parameters to control image generation. I had a meeting with an indie studio creating a workflow using Stable Diffusion, and it’s as complex as a Hollywood workflow would be, and the results are incredible. There are also people authoring Blender and Unreal Engine plug-ins, and I’ve reached out to as many community devs as possible to help accelerate their development, and I hope more folks get in touch.”
Cusick adds, “AI is never going to whole cloth recreate someone’s picture. By the time this article comes out, there is going to be text-to-video, and the question of did my art get stuck into a dataset of billions of images is meaningless when the output is animation that is unique and moving in a totally different way than a single image. I agree with all of the problems with single images and the value of labor. But it’s momentary. We are moving towards a procedurally generated future where there is a whole other method of filmmaking coming.”
“I want concept artists to treat [AI] as a tool because it’s going to be more powerful in their hands than anybody else’s.”
—Bill Cusick, Creative Director, Stability AI
By TREVOR HOGG
Visual effects have proliferated far beyond Hollywood productions, with talented filmmakers and digital artists in China, South Korea, Mexico, Germany, Australia and India collaborating to produce a wide range of stories. “One of the major changes that I’ve seen over the past four to five years is the model changing from outsourcing to insourcing,” states Sudhir Reddy, Senior Vice President & Head of Studios, Canada & India at Digital Domain. “Almost every major post house has set up in India physically or virtually. India is playing a big part in work sharing. There is so much content being created that there is work for everybody. The domestic studios are thriving doing local and outsourcing work.”
Visual effects for films and television are common nowadays in China. “A lot of small productions and even online series have access to visual effects in China,” remarks VFX Supervisor Samson Sing Wun Wong. “The use of AI and game engines, and virtual LED screen stage shooting, are allowing visual effects companies to finish a huge task with less time with more contained teams. The size of a company will no longer determine the quality of work; it eventually will change the way companies are structured and formed. There is always demand for visual effects, but it’s really about how a company and the artists are able to readapt themselves with new technologies and skillsets within the new platform. That’s the future.”
“The central question as a visualist is what method will be the best way to express that core emotion of a character or to drive the narrative forward,” notes acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), who digitally simulated fog, extended a mountaintop set, had CG ants crawling over the face of a corpse and inserted crime scene photographs onto a wall when making Decision to Leave. “Visual effects is one of the important tools. But you have to be cautious and only use visual effects when it’s absolutely necessary. Visual effects have great advantages, as directors can imagine executing things that were not possible in the past, and it cuts down on the production costs, too.” In Decision to Leave, Detective Hae-joon has a fatal obsession with murder suspect Seo-rae. “The one scene that I would want the audience to never miss out on is the finale where we see the whirlpool that is made on top of the tomb of Seo-rae,” remarks VFX Supervisor Lee Joen-hyoung, who has collaborated with Park ever since Oldboy. “That whirlpool or vortex is something that I wanted to put in different places throughout the film because it represents Hae-joon’s emotional entrapment to Seo-rae. When he makes coffee, the steam that comes out produces a little vortex movement, and when Hae-joon is scattering the ashes of the dead mother of Seo-rae, they swirl around him before going away, as if it’s Seo-rae’s presence.”
Renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) achieves his ambitious visions with the help of Visual Effects Supervisor Samson Sing Wun Wong. “My first show with Zhang Yimou was Shadow in 2018, which is stylized like a traditional Chinese ink painting and has a lot of visual effects,” he explains. The partnership has gone on to produce Cliff Walkers, Snipers and the upcoming Under the Light. “In the last five years, the movies that Zhang Yimou directed are all invisible, seamless visual effects, requiring lot of environment extensions, effects elements and paint-outs.
My role requires a close collaboration with the action director, art director and cinematographer to find the best methodology to achieve the best results. We shoot lots of references and avoid right-in-your-eyes visual effects, but help the storytelling in a subconscious way. Visual effects are no longer about fanciness, it is about precision.” A creative challenge was the car chase in Cliff Walkers. “In one or two cases where certain driving actions were slow, we did a full background replacement, but for the majority we managed this by increasing the speed of the snow,” explains Adam Hopper, VFX Supervisor at House of VFX. “For each shot requiring a little more danger, stunt vehicles were used to perform the action. We used these quite successfully as animation reference, but since the stunt vehicles were slightly larger and heavier, we had some alterations to consider in getting the weight distribution correct.”
Getting award circuit nominations for Best International Feature Film and Best Visual Effects is the German remake of All Quiet on the Western Front. “Visual effects did little things in the background where we had planes chasing each other to illustrate that even when they are in the barracks resting, there is still a war going on in the skies,” explains Production Visual Effects Supervisor Frank Petzold, who reunited with German director Edward Berger after working together on the television series The Terror. “We had to do research as to what planes existed at that time and the same goes for guns.” A tank travels over a trench. “That was one of my favorites,” Petzold notes. “I come from the film days of multiplane downshooters and optical printers. To make it look absolutely photoreal, I wanted to use as much photographic stuff as I could get and stay away from CG models or particle simulations for explosions. The tanks going over the trenches is traditional A and B plates. We shot the foreground, and literally on the day we rushed to our special set where there was a narrower trench dug out like a car pit, we rested the camera. Then we did a quick video lineup and had the tank drive over the camera. In CG, we had to fix a lot of stuff on the closeup shots, because when you look under the tank, the wheels and chains were slightly different.”
Whether it be creating the impression the entirety of that Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was captured in one continuous take or depicting a graphic grizzly bear mauling in The Revenant, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu astutely uses visual effects, and in the case of Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths he utilizes them to illustrate the mental state of Mexican journalist and documentarian Silverio Gama. “The movie navigates between memories, reality and surrealism,” notes VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron. “You can’t be too stylized because you never want the audience to understand where you enter a visual effects sequence. It’s constantly mixed. When Silverio Gama meets with his dad, they go into the bathroom and start to talk. Over one cut you enter the surrealism where Silverio, who is a 50-year-old man, now has a kid’s body and adult head; he feels like a kid in front of his dad but is still his own self. You have to be mindful of driving things as photographically as you can.” Joining the project during post-production was VFX Supervisor Olaf Wendt. “The sequences involving the digital babies were some of the most challenging work, especially doing a digital human in these long shots that come so close to the camera. There are interesting things, like the opening shot of Silverio’s shadow racing over the desert, just because Alejandro wanted this shadow to communicate the personality of his protagonist. It’s something that I’ve never seen before.”
Becoming an international sensation is the epic action drama RRR [Rise Roar Revolt] by Indian director S.S. Rajamouli, which is a cinematic spectacle that blends CG animals, major action set pieces and musical numbers within the era of colonial British rule of India. A signature moment is Gond Tribal leader Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) literally battling a tiger in the jungle. “The tight closeup was a benchmark for us when doing the actual tiger asset,” states VFX Supervisor Srinivas Mohan. “I needed to have a log mark on the right side of face that was previously on the left side. We had to build an extra blend mark there and add more detail to it. We did extensive previs for it mainly to determine the speed of the tiger as it can run 50km and he can only do 10km. We added some obstacles because the tiger was reaching him too quickly.” The reflection in the eye of revolutionary leader Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan Teja) as he stands in front of the police station was captured in-camera. “I genuinely thought we were going to be here for a while,” admits Pete Draper, CEO and Co-Founder of Makuta VFX. “But it’s Charan’s eye, a live background, one shot. There are no layer comps and cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar got it literally in a single take. Here’s the fun thing: There is no camera paint-out at all. But what there is is digital crowd extension. The guys standing on the hill and the falling watchtower man were digitally added in as well as a few extra flags.” Miniatures were utilized for the bridge explosion and rescue. “The festival area where Ram Charan comes running out chasing the guy, a small piece of road on top of the bridge, two pillars and a full-size train car [for a few shots] were actual set pieces,” explains Daniel French, Producer, VFX Supervisor and Co-Owner of Surpreeze. “But other than that, there was a fairly large miniature that was built with fully functional train cars at 1/8 scale. Because the eight train cars had to be set on fire and blown up, we had to build them in metal to get the proper weight. When you have fire elements you need to construct them as large as possible, but still keep it at a practical scale so you can lift the train cars up, do resets and work with it in a practical manner.”
Australian director George Miller has exacting standards, and for Three Thousand Years of Longing a collaboration was forged with VFX Producer Jason Bath and VFX Supervisor Paul Butterworth to bring to life the time-traveling genie Djinn and his unique relationship with British narratologist Alithea. “Effects simulations play a big part in the shaping of the Djinn’s character, with many different aspects requiring their own look development pathway,” Bath explains. “The Djinn Bottle Vortex that shows his body being ripped apart is the most complex, but he’s also defined by the seductive vapor of his kiss, the energy from his fingertips as he ‘reads’ books and the aura he creates when he ’tunes’ the modern world’s noise into music. The Djinn is subtly scaled up throughout the film with both 2D and in-camera trickery. The scene where the Djinn first appears to Alithea, oversized and squashed into the hotel room, was achieved with classic scaled photography techniques using a 1/5th miniature hotel room set and motion control to film Alithea separately on the full-sized set.” One of the vendors contributing to the 596 visual effects shots was Fin Design + Effects. “The hero Djinn’s legs were originally meant to be filmed on set, and in an effort to match George’s vision for their unique look became full CGI in every frame across over 100 shots,” explains Roy Malhi, VFX Supervisor at Fin Design + Effects. “We created a feathers and scales system in Houdini specifically for this challenge, enabling us to have intricate control and flexibility to achieve the 4K closeup realistic feathers we were required to render.”
Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva is part of a proposed trilogy and cinematic universe known as Astraverse, created by Indian director Ayan Mukerji, that had visual effects support provided by DNEG and ReDefine totaling 4,200 shots. “We shot the climax first, which was the most complex part of the film, and that gave everyone a deep learning,” remarks Jaykar Arudra, VFX Supervisor at DNEG. “Interactive lighting was the biggest thing that was required because fire has to move to various places and different energies are casting so much light. Designing the entire shot and ensuring that so much of the interactive light was happening correctly was the largest part of the on-set stuff. We programmed these large LED screens.” The cosmic energy powers were effects driven. “Even fire didn’t look like real fire,” remarks Viral Thakkar, VFX Supervisor at ReDefine. “It had a lot of details, like galaxy particles. We call it love fire so the color is different, and the embers are connected to the galaxy, so they had to be floaty. We could use nothing from practical fire.” Arudra adds, “Even when you do concept art of a frame, it’s not the entire story. We would take one scene and say, ‘Let’s develop the look of this power based on this concept.’ Once we start putting effects layers into that, it develops more and more and gets refined. The love fire had gone through iterations of development of how exactly we need to add the color and cosmic particles into the fire.”
An ambitious production was a modern interpretation of Wolfgang Mozart’s classic opera The Magic Flute by German director Florian Sigl. “The musical aspect of the production and how it transports into the visual effects were quite challenging in a lot of aspects, but as creative partners and working closely with the client we were able to provide bespoke solutions throughout every step of the project,” states Max Riess, VFX Supervisor at Pixomondo. “The dress simulation of the Queen of the Night took the longest time to develop. We extended the real dress of the singer with five to 10 giant CG cloth ribbons moving in sync with the voice track. We’d never done anything like this before, and it took some time to get the setup right.”
“One of the major changes that I’ve seen over the past four to five years is the model changing from outsourcing to insourcing. Almost every major post house has set up in India physically or virtually. India is playing a big part in work sharing. There is so much content being created that there is work for everybody. The domestic studios are thriving doing local and outsourcing work.”
—Sudhir Reddy, Senior Vice President & Head of Studios, Canada & India, Digital Domain
One year of look development was spent on the Giant Snake, which went through several iterations. “We had versions with dragon-like horns and venomous but, in the end, for colors we decided to create an animal native in its environment with sand colors and realistic animal features. The jaw and teeth anatomy are inspired by several other big creatures, like a shark and crocodile. For a giant snake, it would not make sense to have two venomous fangs. Another challenge was the movement, to find the right pattern, speed and behavior so that the viewer would see the snake as not out to catch and eat the prince, but to taunt and scare him.”
The Korean War drama The Battle at Lake Changjin cost $200 million to make and grossed $931 worldwide, making it the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. A trio of directors was responsible: Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam, while the extensive digital augmentation was handled by VFX Supervisor Dennis Yeung. “We created two movies in 10 months, and the films also covered a large number of CG,” states Yeung. “In addition to the huge workload, most of the shooting sites were in the suburbs, and we shot many night scenes. There were many details that had to be worked out before shooting scenes, such as the model of the car, and the clothes of the soldiers had to be historically accurate.”
Among the visual effects vendors recruited was DNEG. “There was one plate element for the opening scene that was shot on a crane with the actor, and we had to insert that into the flying camera and make him work in the overall CG world,” remarks Lee Sullivan, VFX supervisor at DNEG. “You see a column of 100 soldiers in uniform marching out of a landing ship, and they built just the big doors as a front. A couple of real tanks and jeeps are driving as well as 20 tents, which is a big build, but at the same time, we had to extend that crane move, transition into a drone shot and extend everything around the beach. Then you cut down to more surface-level shots where we are extending out the tent village, vehicles and planes flying overhead; meanwhile, the burning Inchon is always in the background.” Being able to balance stylization and realism was not an easy task. “I remember there was this tank fight, and you’re following the bullet in a bullet-time type of shot that was full CG,” recalls Philipp Wolf, the film’s Visual Effects Executive Producer and Executive-in-Charge, Corporate Strategy at DNEG. “That was interesting to get it right – to create a stylized shot that ultimately needs to feel real, which is hard when you’re doing something a camera can’t do. But it was neat in the end.”
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