Disney+’s The Mysterious Benedict Society is a mystery/adventure series based on the children's books by Trenton Lee Stewart. The series stars Tony Hale as Mr. Benedict, who gathers four children to stop a global emergency. The series premiered on Disney+ on June 25th and consists of eight weekly episodes, with the finale released in early August.
Philippe Thibault is the co-founder/senior VFX supervisor at Folks VFX in Montreal (https://folksvfx.com). The studio also has locations in Toronto, Bogota, New York, Vancouver and Atlanta. He served as VFX supervisor on the series and recently took some time to detail the show’s visual effects needs.
As VFX supervisor, what was your goal in creating the world for The Mysterious Benedict Society?
“My main goal is always to make the vision of the show runners/creators come to life in the most enjoyable and spectacular way. Always focusing on telling the story the way they envision it while creating the most beautiful and sophisticated visual effects. All of this in addition to respecting the budget and time constraints. For me, the VFX has to be integrated into the story, and I never want it to feel like it’s on top of everything else. It has to be there to support and tell the story. Storytelling is our business!”
The Mysterious Benedict Society is a best-selling book series turned Disney+ show. Did the already established fanbase and success of the original novel impact how you brought this beloved world to life?
“Absolutely. The first thing I did when I got involved on the show was I read the first book that the series is based on. I wanted to understand where all the love for The Mysterious Benedict Society comes from, and in every creative meeting we had, we always stressed the importance of respecting the origin of this beautiful story.”
What tools did the team at Folks VFX use to work on this show?
“We developed a tool in Houdini that helped us create the wide variety of styles in all the buildings and architecture of Stonetown. David Gagne in environment wrote a custom tool that allows us to create neighborhoods using our low-res blocking and the architectural module. After the first automatization, some custom attributes allow us to add an extra layer of details, such as number of windows per floor, roof drainage angle, corniche depth, clothesline, etc.”
How were you able to develop a town of this scale with so much detail?
“Like I mentioned, the whole city and the surrounding area was extremely complex, with a lot of buildings, all with different styles of architecture and external details. We had 33 different districts in the city, each of them with unique architectural design. The CG also had to incorporate real locations and buildings. It was a great challenge to put it all together, but our CG team, led by Gabriel Beauvais, did a terrific job, and we are extremely pleased with the final result.”
How about the CG backgrounds and animals? Can you talk about how the Folks VFX team tackled those challenges?
“The CG backgrounds are part of the Stonetown main asset. When we got the plates shot by production, we worked on the layout using our asset. Once we found a position we liked and that made sense with the city and location, we did a first pass render in CG, then added fine details with matte painting in places where we wanted/needed more photorealistic materials. Nothing secret about that methodology, it was especially useful on this show. We got really close up on our CG and the camera was mostly static, which allowed for simple projection and paint on our original asset. As for animals, we did two for this series, a deer and a falcon. We also had to create a bunch of fish. We went through the regular process of creating a creature with the only goal being that we wanted these animals to look photorealistic. I would bet no one will know there were any CG animals in this series.”
What was the most challenging part of working on this series?
“COVID! Production did miracles to get us filming. On our side, we had to connect all of our artists remotely and learn to work using Zoom and Google chat. Fortunately, we have a state of the art set up at Folks VFX and we were able to connect all the artists remotely and keep the security very tight. It is all working amazingly well. And production managed to get the whole series shot despite all the layers of complexity the pandemic threw their way. It was impressive to see.”
What role do the show’s invisible effects play?
“I’m hoping all the effects are invisible. This show is very much grounded in reality and has beautiful sets and locations. It was always super important for all of us to be there to help tell the story. If we did our job right, VFX won’t be noticed. So far so good. Everyone seems very pleased with our work.”
Do you have a favorite scene or shot as far as the VFX work?
“I truly enjoyed the series as a whole. My team at Folks was extraordinary. The show runners Todd Slavkin, Darren Swimmer, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are the best, they are so smart and respectful of our work. The whole ride was an absolute blast, but if I have to pick one moment, it is for sure the opening of the show. It was complex and challenging, but the result speaks for itself. Stonetown has come to life, I hope you enjoyed it.”