When entertainment industry veteran Mark Kolpack, VFX supervisor for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., began assembling a team to support the series back in 2012, he needed both strong internal and strong external resources to ensure that the show’s effects held up to Marvel’s exceptionally-high standards. After all, this was their first live-action show. The work needed to be in line with the quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Kolpack immediately hired Sabrina Arnold, current VFX producer with the show, as well as editor Ryan R. Moos, and others to round out his internal team. “FuseFX was the first call that I made, and they have remained our primary effects house since the pilot, including every single episode thereafter,” says Kolpack. “We have developed a great deal of trust working closely together, and they are in alignment with my mantra that nothing is ever ‘just good enough.’ Together, we have raised the bar and proven that visual effects — when done correctly — can support character and story development. Feature-quality work can absolutely be achieved on broadcast television. You have no time to waste, but it can be done.”
In this shot from Season 1, both the plane and the environment are entirely CG.
Back when the show began, it was a different climate, however. “A lot of work was being funneled outside of Los Angeles. There were no tax credits like there are now, and many in the industry didn’t regard visual effects as a tool that could play a more important role in fleshing out the story and enhancing characters,” notes Kolpack.
An efficient technology pipeline is also a huge requirement for Kolpack, as well as impeccable organization, given short lead-times in episodic work. Kolpack adds: “Organization doesn’t hamper creativity; it helps it! Otherwise, you’re eating up time. Being organized means you don’t have to settle for shots. We start with outlines and storyboard out action sequences to visualize the number of shots and then prioritize them, knowing there may be changes ahead.”
This is the moment in Season 2 that, using VFX, Inhumans were introduced to the Marvel Universe.
In Season 1, for example, the FuseFX team created a full CG virtual model of The Bus (a plane), a matte painting of the hangar, as well as other environments such as the aircraft carrier and water.
Season 2 brought increasing complexity. Lead character Daisy (codename Quake) has vibrations coming out of her hands, which cause destruction. When gaining her powers midway through Season 2, Daisy introduced Inhumans for the first time to the MCU. As a result, people with special abilities have become central to the overarching storyline.
A dramatic Hive ushered in big VFX moments in Season 3, including the sculpting and rigging of a 3D model from 2D sketch concepts from Marvel’s Joshua James Shaw. Kolpack wanted to make sure that Hive’s octopus-like head didn’t have doll eyes. “The viewers needed to see a completely believable sense of thought and soul in the eyes which we achieved,” he notes.
Season 4 brings us Ghost Rider’s famous flames, which were created by FuseFX with Houdini FX simulations. Kolpack knew Ghost Rider needed to show emotion without having skin, muscle or eyes. Ultimately, having eye orbs squint and expand did the trick, as well as adding indentations around the temple region of the skull as exhaust for flaring flames.
Hive, one of Season 3’s primary villains, ushered in big visual effects moments that were created using motion capture.
Many of the main characters have had their moment in the spotlight, such as Yo-Yo Rodriguez, who can run at bullet speed. In Season 5, she lost her arms, which were replaced with robotic arms, delivered by FuseFX via match-moving the live-action plate, and digitally painting out the actress’s arms, which were then fully replaced by sleek CG arms.
A look back and ahead
"This show is very high-end and always pushes our creativity,” says David Rey, DFX supervisor at FuseFX. “It's freeing not to be bound by the real world. The Marvel world is way more fun, and it's great seeing comic book characters come to life. Thanks to our colleague Kevin Lingenfelser (VFX supervisor, Seasons 1-4) for laying a solid foundation; and to fellow DFX supervisor Kevin Yuille; CG supervisor Hnedel Maximore; CG artists Matt Lefferts, Ignacio Garceron and Bruce Coy; and the other designers, riggers and artists that have supported this series as needed."
FuseFX artists used Houdini FX simulations for Ghost Rider's famous flames, introduced in Season 4.
Kevin Yuille, DFX supervisor at FuseFX, adds: “We’re very proud of our work on S.H.I.E.L.D. Our goal has always been to deliver feature-quality shots that really wow viewers. Episodic work can be challenging, typically allowing about two weeks worth of lead-time. However, the sense of reward and achievement outweigh any stress along the way. We enjoy working with Mark, Sabrina and the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, and aside from working on the show, we all love watching it, too! We are thrilled that there will be another season.”
Kolpack sums it up best: “It has been a wild ride, and it’s an understatement to say that we’re all excited about Season 6! Every year, the visual demand feels fresh, exciting and invigorating!”