VFX: Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'
Issue: September 1, 2015

VFX: Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'

On the heels of its Season 3 premiere on ABC, Marvel’s high-profile Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. scored an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Special Visual Effects" for its Season 2 episode, “The Dirty Half Dozen."  With storylines closely tied to the box office juggernaut Avengers films, “The Dirty Half Dozen” episode aired just days before the weekend opening of Age of Ultron, featuring the “time to bring in the Avengers” lead-in line. That same episode also featured a host of Marvel-quality VFX work, including “Inhuman” characters with special transporting and telekinetic powers, and the fiery mid-air destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s airborne mobile command center, known as the Bus. 

According to VFX supervisor Mark Kolpack and VFX producer Sabrina Arnold, the team is typically asked to deliver roughly 2,000 VFX shots for a 22-episode season. Kolpack says, “the episode that has the largest variety of effects is usually the one you want to [submit to the Television Academy] because it shows the larger scope of work.”

Kolpack adds, that to be nominated for an Emmy, is “very, very nice. It’s always nice to have one’s work recognized by your peers. We’re doing what we want to do, which is great work, and the recognition is always flattering.”

In general, Kolpack says the VFX demands on the series range and are always evolving. “We really run the gamut on the types of effects,” he says. “We always have new things pop up and so it’s always challenging. But basically, we have what you would consider your hard surface types of effects, the Bus, the QuinJet, the HQ hangar (which is a virtual set), digital double work, a lot of effects animation, all of the after burners and the exhaust (it’s all effects animation), a host of matte paintings and set extensions, and a fair amount of character animation and motion capture with digital doubles. 

“We’re always striving to create Marvel feature-for-television visual effects. That’s my personal mandate. It’s maintaining Marvel brand. It’s never showing a disparity between the cinematic universe and the television one. We were the first and only live-action Marvel television show on the air, so it was important that we do that. And every season we obviously build upon and try to elevate the work, where we see areas that could have been better. Those are definitely the ones we focus on more, along with any of the new challenges that come up. And there are always new challenges.”

“The Dirty Half Dozen” episode featured a complex storyline, a host of characters and explosive visual effects — the Marvel team relied heavily on vendors FuseFX (Burbank, CA) and Pixomondo (Los Angeles), with additional support from Cosa (North Hollywood, CA), Greenhaus GFX (Culver City, CA), Lion VFX (El Segundo, CA) and Synaptic (Burbank, CA).

“We’re proud of all the episodes that we produce,” says Kolpack. In Season 2, we were hoping that Episodes 21 and 22 were going to play as a two-hour because we had Skye (Chloe Bennet) taking down a forest [using her telekinetic powers]. We thought, ‘This is great, we’re going to have all these creative sets in one episode.’ But that didn’t work out as we had hoped and we looked at all of the episodes and said, really, the most complex work was the ‘Dirty Half Dozen,’ with the whole destruction of the Bus — which was one of the cornerstones of the show.

“Doing fire realistically on television is a tall order. You don’t get the representation of what a real fire element looks like using software, but the guys at FuseFX, those FX animators are amazing. It takes a long time and a lot of set up to get things right. And it wasn’t just the fire, it was the smoke and the debris, and then it was the cloaking device, and May [show star Ming-Na Wen] in the cockpit and it was May on bluescreen. Between Houdini and the particles we had to create for that one shot — a big giant virtual shot where we had a QuinJet come down and all the debris is falling all around and there’s fire and smoke, that sequence was what that episode was about. It was a big scene to pull off.

“One of the things I always find is really important for audiences to relate to the effect sequence is that you have to put the humanity into the shot whenever you can. In this case, it was Ming-Na Wen being shot and so this way, the plane comes around, with all the debris and you see her in the QuinJet in this freefall.”

Kolpack explains that his team receives the script and they break it down, identifying where the large sequences are and how to pull them off, even storyboarding all the action that’s going on “so we can get a jump on it.”

He adds, “One of the most important things of pulling off this type of level of work is doing it early enough. When there are standalone CG sequences like this, it’s really much easier to plan ahead, board it out, get those boards over to Fuse, they go into animation blocking based on the boards, then we revise that animation blocking, then it goes into lighting, then it goes into effects animation, and so on. It also serves a double purpose when the director is going to shoot all the interior stuff. We kind of have an idea of the tone and scope of what’s happening all around them, so in this case, there are no windows except for the cockpit, so only May would be seen out there, so at least we were able to share with people what the idea was and this way the actors can understand the scope.

“We have a normal television post schedule and if you live in that normal world, you can’t pull off this kind of work. I mean, we do what other shows don’t do…If you have a Game of Thrones, they have 10 episodes a season in the time we do 22. You can’t reward or qualify someone based on more time or money, but the fact is, they have more time and more money. But we’re recognized right alongside them and that’s a huge honor. We’re doing a big feature in nine to 10 months with around 2,000 visual effects. That’s a lot of VFX [laughs]!”

The series, which is shot in Culver City on Arri Alexa cameras, relies on such key VFX tools as Houdini, 3DS Max, Nuke, After Effects and a host of plug-ins. “It’s a lot of work and you can’t do it without the right tools,” says Kolpack.

According to Arnold, she and Kolpack are sometimes tracking up to 700 shots at once, “because we have three to four episodes going at the same time.” 

Other VFX shots within the “Dirty Half Dozen” episode include character Gordon (Jamie Harris) transporting through various locations, lead character Skye facing off in battles with telekinetic powers, and the death of Bakshi (Simon Kassianides) who disintegrates into particles. “

The splinter bomb effect [used for Bakshi’s death] we had done before, so we had that pretty much dialed in,” says Kolpack. "There were effects and animation on that as well. He was shot against greenscreen and background plates, and we added several layers of different erosion techniques, taking his body away, and then having all the actual particles dynamically coming off of him as he moved.”

Speaking to the various challenges of completing the episode, Arnold says, “Getting it all done in the time we had — the particle work we did on that, the rendering factors and the fire — it was a challenging episode.”

Kolpack says he’s happy with the episode’s outcome, although he’d always “love to have had more time on things. I will say I am really happy with it. We submitted it based upon the episode we were most proud of to represent Season 2 with — and I guess we chose wisely."

Arnold adds, “I agree that we’re always looking to perfect it and we’re never completely happy, and I think that’s a part of what makes us always successful on this show. Our team is always trying to push that limit and make things better and improve that story.”