VFX: <I>Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.</I>
Issue: July/August 2019

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

While showrunners recently announced that next season will be the final one for its hit, Emmy nominated series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., fans had a chance to delight in the show’s 6th season, which aired on ABC over the summer, recently concluding in a two-part finale. 

Here, Post had a chance to discuss some of the show’s outstanding VFX work as episodes were airing, with Kevin Yuille, digital effects supervisor at lead visual effects house FuseFX, who works closely with the show’s VFX supervisor Mark Kolpack.

Can you describe the scope of the visual effects work you’re doing for Marvel: Agents Of Shield? 

"We've been involved with Agents of Shield since the pilot episode, so it's crazy to think that it has been nearly six years. We've always done CG work for the show but each season seems to get more and more demanding and the visual effects more sophisticated. Early on, our largest shots involved "The Bus" (the original AoS airplane), a CG plane usually composited into matte painted environments or stock photography. By Season 3, we were doing CG characters such as Hive and Lash and by Season 4, Ghost Rider who would transform from the human Robbie Reyes to a CG skull in a single shot (no cutaways), complete with simulated flames from Houdini.

“Season 5 took us to the future where the Earth was destroyed and became an outpost for the Kree, so of course we had alien creatures like the Vrellnexian and several space ships to design. These days we are used to fully CG shots, utilizing digi-doubles for enhanced spectacle and character animation, and complex effects like a 2000-foot spaceship crashing into the Chicago skyline with debris, smoke and explosions. Season 6 continues the trend in pushing the bounds of episodic network television and I can't wait for fans to enjoy the ride.”

Can you detail a few of your favorite VFX shots? What was required/what were you trying to achieve and how did you achieve it?

“I have many favorites from the show, but two really standout. My first favorite is the very first time we see Robbie Reyes transform into Ghost Rider. Ghost Rider was a very complicated visual effect to pull off. It started with the photographed plate in which the actor wore an interactive LED lighting rig to imitate the light from flames cast onto his body and the environment. The rig along with the actors head were painted out from the plate. At times, the return side of his jacket where his neck once was would have to be restored. The plate was camera tracked and his head and body were match-moved to retain performance and interactive lighting. With a camera and matchmove, the CG rig was added to the shot and animators would alter performance as needed and animate the eye socket and brow area for added emotional expression (like Spider-Man's eyes). 

“Mark Kolpack would provide us with HDRI's of the set and we would light the CG skull with that as well as place kicker lights as needed for addition shape. Using Houdini, the magicians in FX would take the skull and source fuel off of it for the flames. This was extremely challenging depending upon the performance. Sometimes the flames were simulated in place and forces were applied to mimic the direction of the flames. Other times, the flames were simulated off of the moving skull. Both techniques held their advantages, but it seemed like every single shot we did had its own unique challenges to deliver frames with the proper characteristics we wanted.

“Transformations were their own beast. Without going into excessive detail, we also had a full digi-double of the actor which was aligned with the matchmoved performance, and again with Houdini. There were multiple render passes with there own reveal timing that would burn away at the skin and flesh of the CG digi, ashing away skin flakes into the air, and revealing the flaming skull beneath. Not a simple feat. Though we did the transformation many times, I still think the very first one is the best one we ever did.

“My second favorite is from the opening scene from the premiere episode of this season (Season 6). In this shot, we decimate a spaceship by slicing it in half with a giant plasma whip. When tasked to develop some kind of slicing weapon, we were given the creative freedom to make something cool and just plain bad-ass. We had a lot of fun with it and worked with our in-house concept artist, Jeremy Melton, to create a weapon that we feel is very unique and never before seen. The shot itself just came together beautifully from the cinematic nebulae background, to the silhouetted rim-lit lighting, to the amazing effects our Houdini team once again delivered. It is easily one of my favorite shots for the series.”

Any direction from show producers on a certain type of look they were going for this season in terms of VFX? 

“What makes working on Agents of Shield so enjoyable is that the show continually reinvents itself each season. For the most part, we aren't doing the same effects that we were doing last season, or 2 seasons ago, or from the beginning. Yes, there are some established looks for some of the inhuman characters' powers or various particle weapons and so on. But each season there are always original effects or CG set pieces or CG characters that need to be developed and created. This keeps the work fun and interesting to work on because it’s not stagnant.

“Season 6 was no different and immediately challenged us with creating bird-like creatures (named Shrikes) that spread a planet-killing plague by invading its hosts (through their mouths) and triggering a chain reaction of obsidian crystals bursting through their bodies. It's both visually spectacular and viscerally gut wrenching, and definitely pushed the bounds of what we've done with FX.”

Can you name a few of the key tools you’re using to create the effects? 

“We primarily use 3D Studio Max for all of our CG work when it comes to modeling, lighting and layout and render in Vray. Our character animation is done using Maya and a majority of our effects are done in Houdini and rendered in Mantra. All of our shots are compositing using Nuke. AoS is just one of dozens of shows that FuseFX works on, so storage is a big issue. As more and more shows move towards 4K and visual effects require the use of deep compositing to manage numerous render passes, Fuse has invested in a robust network and render farm that can be expanded as needed with the use of cloud rendering.”

Biggest challenge this season?

“The biggest challenge this season is the same challenge every season. On top of trying to outdo what has been done in previous seasons, it's how do we deliver the very best visual effects on television with television schedules and budgets. It's a struggle we always have because we always wish we had a little more time here and there to polish the work. Good enough to air is never good enough for all the artists involved. We take great pride in our work and want that to show in finished frames.”

Favorite episode in terms of VFX and why?

“My favorite episode is actually 2 episodes. Season 5 opened with a two-hour premiere and aired Episodes 1 and 2 back to back. Taking place in the future after the Earth had been destroyed, the scale of those two episodes is larger than any other individual episodes we've delivered. The Earth wasn't destroyed as in post-apocalypse or nuclear fallout. It was blown to pieces and the survivors of Earth clung to a remaining shard of the planet.  We had to build this environment and a massive asteroid ring along with the space station that attached to the bottom of this chunk of the Earth.

“Throw in a large junk hauling spaceship, Kree technology plasma weapons and alien creatures called Vrellnexians, the opening episodes felt more world building than anything preceding it. Jeremy Melton, our concept designer, knocked it out of the park with the design of the Vrellnexian. I was proud of the work we achieved and grateful to all the talented artists who contributed. This hard work was recognized with a VES nomination and an HPA Award win."