Primetime: Refuge VFX creates 'Grimm' characters
Linda Romanello
Issue: May 1, 2014

Primetime: Refuge VFX creates 'Grimm' characters

PORTLAND — NBC’s hit drama, Grimm, inspired by the classic Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, is centered around Portland, OR, homicide detective Nick Burkhardt and his unique abilities (as a descendant of an select line of criminal profilers known as “Grimms”) to spot often ghastly-looking creatures (“Wesins”) that walk among us. Currently wrapping up its third season, and returning for a fourth in the fall of 2014, Grimm heavily relies on a team of makeup artists and VFX specialists to bring the assortment of good and evil creatures to life. In fact, the character-centered VFX are central to the show’s plot lines.

The series is shot on-location throughout Portland, and one of its key boutique creature shops and visual effects houses is Refuge VFX and Animation, lead by VFX supervisor Fred Ruff. He officially launched the studio in 2013, after working as a lead product designer at Autodesk on 3DS Max, and working with other studios. Here, Ruff talks to Post about how he and his team of eight to 10 artists create VFX and animation for one of TV’s hottest shows.

POST: What was the initial goal for the visual effects on Grimm?
FRED RUFF: “They wanted us to make these creatures and have them transform on camera. At the time of the pilot, it was a little open ended. They wanted this morph transformation; they wanted these people to wiggle their heads around and violently transform. And during the pilot episode we explored that and they didn’t like it. So, they decided they wanted to show some sort of movement under the skin. We did a few tests, like I made this one character’s jaw pull out, break off and then go back into position. Some of the bones under the skin would shift. It was really pretty violent and in the end, they went with more of a ripple effect that goes across the characters’ face as it transforms and that’s what you see now on the show.
“But that work, especially in the first season, was extremely challenging — to take a human and make them morph into a creature that is not always the same shape and size of the head, and the features are different. Especially to do it in TV budget timeline. We don’t get more than four weeks to do an episode. We could do 20 morphs in one episode, so it’s intense. Luckily we worked out a lot of good workflows.”

POST: It seems like the visual effects are a huge part of the overall storytelling?
RUFF: “They are. Bigger than anything else you see on TV. If you think about it, Grimm is one of the few shows that has a significant budget to do that every week — who transforms is such an important part of the story line. So the effects aren’t just something extra that’s sprinkled in, but they are really central to the plot line.”

POST: Compared to other TV series that also emphasize VFX, it seems that these effects are more character-based?
RUFF: “That’s true, and that’s the part I love about it. I love that type of work — monsters, creatures, good versus bad, all of it. Portland has had a lot of stop-motion work over the years and because of that, I think Portland’s animation community is really top notch. Because we do these creatures on Grimm, I consider us a boutique creature shop. We do set extensions and greenscreens, as well. We’re not the only vendor but we still do the main characters — we do Monroe and Rosalie, and a lot of others. So, we’re really a big part of the show. We’ve been involved with it for three seasons.”

POST: What tools you are using?
RUFF: “Well, since I did work for Autodesk, and it was a big part of my career, I continue with that as I move forward. We are a shop that uses 3DS Max to pretty much do all of our 3D animation. We also use V-Ray as our renderer and are big fans of Hair Farm, a plug-in for 3DS Max that does hair. We do a lot of the furry creatures like Rosalie, who is Monroe’s girlfriend, and she’s a fox, so she’s covered in fur. It gives us such a nice look for hair. We also use Nuke from The Foundry for compositing — and it also adds to our pipeline; it makes it really efficient to get shots in and out.”

POST: What is the show shot on?
RUFF: “They shoot on the Arri Alexa camera — because of the workflow of it. Everything’s in ProRes and can come right off the camera. They just send us a classic DPX file and we return them right back to them in the same format.”

POST: You made references to your pipeline and workflow earlier; can you go into a little more detail?
RUFF: “It’s a very fluid, very simple kind of pipeline that keeps us able to make changes in time for television. Also, one of the keys to our pipeline, when starting my own studio, was to rely on Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud). I realized I had the horsepower of Amazon’s computing cloud behind me, and these machines to render for me. I didn’t have to shell out the $120K for 60 to 100 computers, find a spot to put them, get air conditioning, network them. I actually have one computer in the cloud and that computer can easily be converted to like a 100. And I don’t pay for what I don’t use.”

POST: What’s are the keys to doing VFX successfully for TV?
RUFF: “One thing is, that after four weeks, you aren’t going to hate the shot you are working on. But if you work on a shot for nine months, there’s definitely going to be a point where all of a sudden you don’t want to work on the shot anymore. There’s just so much noodling and fussing, that you start to lose interest. Unfortunately, that’s when you start to lose productivity. In TV, you have a new shot to look forward to in the next couple of weeks. 
“Also, there are a lot of people involved in making a TV show. You really have to be able to be willing to extrapolate what they’re looking for and roll with stuff. You have to be willing to adjust and adapt and be honest with them. It’s a tough business, but the people at NBC and Grimm are the best clients I ever worked with, and that’s saying a lot.”