Networks, cable television and streaming programming platforms are all offering a rich pool of visual effects opportunities for studios across the globe. Whether it’s a hitman turned hero who gets help from a CG sidekick, a retired superhero who recharges his powers to aid his community or the unraveling of decades-old mysteries and secrets in a small German town, studios around the world are boosting a slate of new shows with some serious VFX.
Nick Sax (played by Christopher Meloni), an alcoholic ex-cop turned hitman, gets the full Roger Rabbit treatment in the Syfy series Happy! When Nick is revived, after being shot and left for dead, he can see a small, blue cartoon donkey-unicorn named Happy (voiced by Patton Oswalt). The goofy creature is the imaginary friend of Hailey, Nick’s estranged daughter who has been kidnapped by a deranged man dressed as Santa Claus. Happy escapes from captivity to seek Nick’s help in saving Hailey.
One of four vendors working on the series, UK-based AxisVFX (www.axis-vfx.com) is responsible for the personification of Happy and his friends, transforming the blue donkey-unicorn from the pages of the cult graphic novel into a CGI character who is required to have “as much presence and personality as our protagonist, Nick,” says Grant Hewlett (pictured, below), co-founder and VFX supervisor at AxisVFX.
Close to 700 shots of Happy, the villainous three-headed patchwork dog Raspberry and a gang of other imaginary friends were spread across AxisVFX studios in London, Bristol and Glasgow. “New workflows were developed to increase cross-site efficiency across all departments,” Hewlett says.
“In the comic and the script, Happy has a huge range of abilities and emotions. This meant he had to be designed very thoughtfully, considering his anatomy and characteristic features,” he explains. Hewlett remembers the “exciting moment when the rig approached final and all of [Happy’s] fur and shaders were applied. “We had our stretchy, crazy, lovable blue flying donkey-unicorn!”
Since a flying donkey-unicorn isn’t constrained by the laws of nature, the animators had some latitude in determining his movement. But, as Hewlett notes, “Happy is a busy shape with the four limbs, wings, horn, tail and big head, so when animating him, we had to pay close attention to getting his silhouette as clean as possible for clear lines of actions.
“Before the project started, we did a lot of tests regarding how cartoony he would have to be; we had to balance photorealism against his crazy squash-and-stretch nature. When Happy was on screen with Nick, we made sure that he shined when it was his time to shine, but when Nick was the focus, we made sure Happy would not distract from him.”
Animators were given “a lot of freedom” to bring emotion to Happy’s performance. “Since he mainly flew, when he was sad we could pose his limbs to be drooping down, even his nose would be slightly more down turned and his movements would be slower, more lethargic. When he was…happy…then he would be more perked up, front legs tucked up, hips pushed up so his body formed his classic bean shape, and his movements would be more energetic,” Hewlett explains.
Artists at AxisVFX primarily used Autodesk Maya for modeling and animation with in-house tools for fur dynamics and caching. “Our texturing workflow was completed mostly in [Allegorithmic’s] Substance Painter, but our artists are free to use whichever package they prefer,” says Hewlett. “Scene assembly and rendering is always done using [SideFX’s] Houdini, and we have a proprietary lighting and shading pipeline utilizing [SideFX’s] Mantra as our renderer. The power of Houdini’s digital assets really helped us meet our very tight deadlines on the show.” The Foundry’s Nuke was the studio’s compositing tool; Axis created tools for loading characters and picking up other 3D outputs such as cameras and geometry.
Happy! is shot on-location in New York City, and AxisVFX worked with the show’s VFX senior producing supervisor, Ajoy Mani, who coordinated the interaction among the director, editorial and Axis. “Ajoy’s team provided us with all the reference photos for photogrammetry, HDRs and other lighting reference plates, including Macbeth [ColorChecker Color Rendition] charts, diffuse lighting ref and a blue unicorn plush toy roughly representing Happy’s color and form. These were very helpful for getting an idea of how Happy would actually look.”
Most of the time Christopher Meloni visualized Happy without a prop stand-in. “This allowed for a very organic and spontaneous performance,” according to Hewlett, but “one of the biggest challenges was getting the focal planes to gel. As stand-ins were not shot, there were many situations where, for instance, the focus remained on Nick, but Happy needed to be sharp in the foreground. There were a lot of clever solutions per shot from our comp team, and they were always able to get a good integration.”
Hewlett adds, “but there was a lot more contact with Nick than we had anticipated, so we often had to go back to 3D for an additional shadow pass or object track. “We also did any of the effects needed in shots with Happy — water, blood, glass, deflations, transformations. There were a lot of extra effects called for by the edit, so we would often have to produce simulations with a fast turnaround across our sites.”
A support group segment featuring Happy, Raspberry and a host of friends — including a very profane Little Bo Peep — perched on folding chairs was a standout animated sequence. Challenges largely had to do with rigging “very unusually shaped bodies, such as Goose the Toad, whose tiny arms and bloated torso constantly wanted to intersect with his clothes,” says Hewlett. Or take Raspberry, a hero character who underwent as much development, if not more, as Happy with his three facial rigs and extended moustache/eyebrow hairs.
Although Season 2 of Happy! has yet to get underway, AxisVFX is ready to go with “a sharpened set of tools” should the company get the call. “Quite a lot of further improvement on our hair/fur system has already been taking place, as well as the infrastructure for working across our three sites,” says Hewlett. “Networks and storage are freshly upgraded which can only increase efficiency. Looking back we now know what we didn’t before, therefore we can only get better at providing even more awesome animation and VFX for Happy!.”
Based on the DC Comics character of the same name, The CW’s new series Black Lightning follows the retired superhero and current high school principal Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), who is forced to unleash his powers and return to crime fighting when a local gang threatens his community. Black Lightning can harness and control electricity; his elder daughter, who eventually fights crime as Thunder, has her own superpowers, while his younger daughter, Jennifer, is just beginning to discover her abilities.
The series is shot in HD in Atlanta and debuted in January for a 13-episode run. Burbank-based Encore VFX (www.encorepost.com), assisted by its now permanent office in Atlanta, is the sole VFX vendor for the show.
It’s not surprising that the key VFX for the show have been Black Lightning’s signature superpower. “The comics were great for reference, but television is a different medium: What might look good in a drawing may not look as good as live-action effects,” notes Armen Kevorkian (pictured), creative director and senior visual effects supervisor at Encore VFX. He serves as VFX supervisor for Black Lightning.
Encore was challenged to take something — lightning — that everyone recognizes and “change it up” by adding other elements. “We didn’t want it to feel like it was just bolts,” Kevorkian explains. “So we comp’d in secondary elements to give almost a sizzle off the bolts like a residual energy.” Artists achieved this look using Thinkbox Software’s Krakatoa plug-in for Autodesk 3ds Max.
“Every scene is different, so there are long and short bursts of lightning and a move where he swirls his hands to harness the energy before it shoots out,” says Kevorkian. “Everything is pretty intricate and customized, not from a library. The lightning is 3D; the 2D department integrates the lightning with interactive lighting and other elements.” Encore also devised variations on lightning, including a power shield layered over the core lightning blast and a power bubble that forms around Black Lightning.
The superhero’s daughters exhibit more subtle, energy-themed powers. Anissa Pierce (Thunder) uses a stomp or clap to send out a thunderous energy wave. “It’s a distortion effect, played up or down depending on the environment and how much you want to read it, with a little color to show it off,” says Kevorkian.
The younger Jennifer Pierce displays subsurface energy under her skin, mostly on her hands. “It’s one of my favorite effects,” Kevorkian reports. “It comes and goes and undulates; it’s almost like when you stick a flashlight in your mouth and you see the veins in your cheek. The effect shows a bit of veins and muscle detail. You see this on Jefferson Pierce, too — on his neck and chest. It’s the energy that lives within him all the time.” An “eye gag” also reveals the energy welling up in Jefferson’s pupils.
Cress Williams was scanned with and without his suit so Encore could create digital doubles of Black Lightning for stunt sequences, hovering and flying shots. Some flying scenes feature the actor shot against greenscreen and composited into environments, others are all digital with a digidouble and CG environments.
For Season 1, Encore also crafted muzzle flashes, CG piranhas for an aquarium scene and CG weapon darts.
The artists’ toolset features Maya for animation, Pixologic’s ZBrush for modeling, 3ds Max for lighting and rendering, Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes for tracking and Nuke for compositing.
Encore’s Kim Rasser is on-set VFX supervisor for the show, providing expertise on shooting for VFX and ensuring that the best possible plates are delivered to the VFX team. Encore had “a small presence” in Atlanta before, says Kevorkian, and now has a permanent office in the production hub. “The Atlanta office does a lot of comps for the final look of everything, and they’re starting to do some 3D now.” All QC and reviews are done in Burbank.
“The post team is great and Salim [Akil] is a very collaborative EP to work with,” Kevorkian says. “He knows what he wants and trusts us to come up with those looks. It’s a very no-nonsense process.”
The Tick recently wrapped its first split season on Amazon Video. The series mixes tongue-in-cheek humor with the high-energy action of an almost invulnerable superhero clad in a blue tick costume. The always optimistic character, who debuted as a comic book hero in the 1980s, befriends the nebbishy Arthur, who becomes his sidekick in their quest to save The City from supervillain, The Terror.
FuseFX (www.fusefx.com) offices in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver provided VFX for the first season’s 12 episodes, which were split into two runs in 2017 and 2018. While the company created a diverse array of 2K shots for the first six episodes — flying sequences, digital doubles, a bus crash with explosions — the second set of episodes upped the ante with the appearance of the Very Large Man (VLM), a 2,000-foot tall, naked man.
“Every show you work on you push further. It’s a VFX arms race,” declares Chad Wanstreet (pictured, below), VFX supervisor at FuseFX. “The Season 1 finale, which had 45 full-CG shots, was one of the biggest episodes we’ve done for any client.”
FuseFX worked with The Tick creator Ben Edlund and show EPs David Fury and Barry Josephson on design and concept early on; the company also worked with the editorial team on previs to help shape the storytelling.
VLM was initially envisioned as an actor whose live-action plates would be integrated into massive CG environments created by FuseFX. When the producers determined they couldn’t capture the dynamic shots needed in the allotted time, they tasked FuseFX with the challenge of creating a digital VLM. The VLM appeared in full body mode and as five additional assets: Toe, foot, foot and leg, butt and back, and head and shoulders.
After the actor hired for VLM was scanned, FuseFX went to work adding realistic details to the digital body, such as nose hairs, wrinkles, perspiration, beard follicles and toenails, to support the tight shots. “We did a lot of hand sculpting and texturing to bring fidelity to the character,” says Wanstreet. “The base scan was 10 times less detailed than what we ended up with. We looked at the photography from the scanning session and extrapolated all the detail. We even took reference footage of our own gritty feet.” Artists used ZBrush for sculpting and The Foundry’s Mari for texturing.
FuseFX was required to build environments to two different scales for the VLM and The Tick, although both roles were played by six-foot-tall men. “We scaled environments up and down with different render passes, a terribly complicated endeavor” that involved using Chaos Group’s V-Ray, says Wanstreet. Itoo Software’s Forest Pack scattering tool for 3ds Max proved invaluable for scaling all types of foliage.
FuseFX worked on digital doubles for The Tick and Arthur for the entire season, adding details “every chance we got,” including facial rigs that they didn’t have at the beginning of the series. By the end of Season 1, “full facial rigs allowed the digidoubles to emote and talk,” Wanstreet says.
The CG T-Ship, hidden in the letterform of a huge sign until The Tick breaks it out and flies off in it, was matched to set pieces and enhanced with additional detail. The purple energy explosion around the VLM was accomplished with “major non-sim VDBs” using Houdini, an idea from one of FuseFX’s artists. “We had never done it before,” says Wanstreet. “The hand-keyed techniques and hand-animated shapes look like a simulated cloud but allowed us to get complex, multiple iterations in the time allotted.”
Wanstreet says that the last three episodes proved the value of FuseFX’s AWS cloud rendering pipeline. “One night we submitted hundreds of render passes and 1,400 nodes, and the cloud turned them around overnight,” he notes. “Instead of buying our own render farm infrastructure that would soon be out of date, the cloud gave us scalability, access to the best, heavy-duty machines and a huge savings in cost and speed.”
Dark, a German sci-fi thriller series, debuted on Netflix’s streaming service last December. It spans six decades with storylines set in 1953, 1986 and 2019 in the fictional German town of Winden. Missing children, family secrets and the discovery of a wormhole in the cave system beneath the local nuclear power plant reveal some very dark mysteries indeed in this first German-language Netflix original series.
Berlin-based Rise Visual Effects Studios (www.risefx.com) provided all the VFX shots for Season 1 of the series. VFX supervisor Sven Pannicke was responsible for planning the visual effects, including design and VFX set supervision during principal photography.
The “apparatus” time-travel machine was one of the challenges Pannicke faced on the show. “On set, we wanted to use a practical model, built and provided by the art department,” he explains. “We had to figure out how far we could go with the practical model in terms of functionality. We added all the moving parts to the model as CG elements — all the turning wheels, gears and cylinders. To make life a bit easier for us, I decided to make a digital copy of the complete practical model using our 3D Lidar scanning workflow. So if the apparatus needed to come to life in a shot, we could replace the whole apparatus with our CG model. This was easier than enhancing just parts of it.”
Since there were two practical models of the apparatus, to illustrate different time periods and different stages of development, Rise created two different versions of the CG model as well.
In addition to the apparatus, Rise crafted environments and handled effects animation for the wormhole, or portal. In-camera techniques and DI color correction signal shifts in the timeline.
Pannicke considers the nuclear power plant to be his personal highlight in Season 1. “Everybody looks for typical VFX shots like time shift effects, but they don’t expect to see a full CG power plant in the background,” he explains. “The main entry of the nuclear power plant in the series was shot at the back entry to Berlin’s Olympiastadion — not even all of our Berlin friends noticed that!” The location was chosen as the most appropriate venue for the shot in the Berlin area and because “shooting close to a real nuclear power plant is always a nightmare due to the hard security rules.”
The Olympic stadium location looked perfect to Pannicke, with its trees forming “a natural matte line to split the foreground from the CG background. But due to the pretty complex shooting schedule, the principal shoot on that location shifted to winter, there weren’t any leaves anymore and unfortunately I lost my natural matte line. So we had to replace them with CG trees as well.”
Since Rise was founded 11 years ago, “we’ve been constantly building and growing our own in-house workflow, based on third-party tools,” Pannicke points out. “We were one of the very first companies in Europe to use Nuke for compositing. Some years later, we started using Houdini as our main tool for animation, shading/lighting and rendering,” the latter done with Mantra, and again leading the way with this toolset in Europe.
“We have our own in-house database, called RiseBase, for tracking all our productions and connecting all our proprietary tools nicely,” he adds. “This is an ongoing process, so there was no need to establish any new workflow for Dark. Even the 4K workflow had been implemented already.”