VFX: HBO Max's <I>Titans</I>
Issue: November/December 2021

VFX: HBO Max's Titans

TORONTO — Folks VFX (folksvfx.com) provided visual effects services for Season 3 of HBO Max’s superhero series Titans. The show follows young heroes from across the DC Universe as they come of age. In Season 3, circumstances draw the team to Gotham City, where they reunite with old friends and face new threats.

Gunnar Hansen and Brodie McNeill of Folks VFX served as VFX supervisors on the latest season, which included the studio creating Beast Boy’s incarnation as a green tiger. Other VFX highlights included creating the powers of the various superheroes, such as Superboy’s super speed, and other-worldly environments, such as the planet Tamaran and the island of Themyscira.

Here, Hansen and McNeill share their insight on the studio’s Season 3 work.

Can you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and how Folks VFX got involved with Titans?

Gunnar Hansen: “I’ve been in VFX and CG for about 30 years. I started in traditional animation, and grew with the birth of CG animation in the mid ‘80s, then did my whirlwind training in advertising, and finally began working on bigger feature films at the end of the ‘90s. After freelancing for over 20 years as a production-side supervisor, I decided to start working at a vendor, and Folks was the right size with the best talent. Titans was the perfect project for Folks.”

Brodie McNeill: “I grew up in the local advertising post production scene, working as a Flame artist and on-set VFX supervisor for the now shuttered Section 8 companies in Toronto. I did that for just about 10 years, before making the jump over to features and episodic. Despite working in pixels and on similar software, those two worlds couldn’t be more different. Luckily, my timing was pretty good. I joined up with Mr. X as they embarked on a few major productions, namely Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and Shape of Water, through which I was able to figure out which way was up and what a real pipeline was. From there I took on compositing supervisor roles before moving over to Folks, where I continued that work and was given the opportunity to take on my first VFX supervisor role on a show called VWars.

“Folks was brought on to Titans Season 3 in the months before the pandemic began as the sole visual effects studio, with the mandate to take what had been done on previous seasons and bring it to the next level. It was a great opportunity for us because the Titans production team weren’t just looking for a vendor, they were looking for creative partners that would be able to support them in telling the best possible version of their story.” 

How big was the team and how did you manage workflow?

McNeill: “Our team expanded and contracted in scale throughout the series. The great thing about Folks and about our centralized network is that sharing work between studios is incredibly easy. We relied almost entirely on our core Toronto team, with an average of 30 or so artists consistently involved. As larger episodes, like Episode 9 and Episode 13 came in, we relied on support from our Montreal and Bogotá offices to help us keep up with the expanded shot counts.  

“All of our studios exist on a shared network and Shotgrid, so getting work to and from Montreal and Bogotá is as straightforward as doing that work locally. Work from home was a bit of a revelation, in that it completely flattened communication with artists and production, meaning that the way we communicated with our local Toronto artists was the same way we would communicate with the team in Montreal and Bogotá. It just felt like one big team, instead of three disparate studios. 

“With a show as large as this one, Gunnar and I separated our responsibilities. Gunnar was on-set for the entire production and was the one who took on what would typically be the client-side VFX supervisor role. He was instrumental in planning every aspect of how the visual effects would be covered on-set and was in all of the creative discussions on the various effects we needed to achieve. To stay on the same page, the two of us kept up a near constant conversation regarding creative briefs and shot approaches. From that, I would manage the artists on the studio side, ensuring everyone was working on and progressing through the various briefs, so that Gunnar could focus on the production.”

Tell us about how you were able to create the Beast Boy/green tiger effect.

Hansen: “Folks already had a solid team of creature builders, and were enthusiastic about doing a hyperreal tiger. Long before shooting began, they were at work testing the motion with muscle and skin on a new tiger model, and did a very convincing shot with the tiger running and attacking, as well as tests with environments such as mud, and various lighting tests for the fur. The biggest challenge, oddly, was nailing the right level of green: too green, and it looked quite fake, and often the tiger was in dark surroundings, so it was a delicate balance.

“On-set, we had the props department create a grey foam 2D cutout of the tiger at the correct scale, and placed it in the shot for reference. We had LiDAR of the GCPD set for accurate set interaction, as well as the standard HDRI and chrome/grey ball references.”

McNeill: “Folks has always had a strong creature team and has always been interested in expanding our repertoire. To that end, we’d already been using early pandemic downtime to build up creature tests. Knowing Titans was in our future, we put extra focus and time into building a Tiger asset. In fact, before Titans had officially moved back into production around September 2020, we had already put together some extensive animation, groom and rendering tests for the asset. We continued that work as production ramped back up and we were able to share what we’d come up with early in the process.  

“Our early work really paid off. The Titans production team loved the work. Having it come so early in the process did a lot to ensure a level of trust in our ability to meet and exceed their expectations, and was just a great win overall.”

What was the VFX shot count per episode, and do you each have a favorite sequence?

Hansen: “There were between 50 to 80 shots, but the heaviest episodes near the end, like the finale, went up to 186.”

McNeill: “On average we had about 90 shots per episode, with some, like Episode 9 and 13 doubling that.

“One of the first big sequences we worked on was the big Titans fight scene at the beginning of Episode 1. Fans of the show had a real desire to see the entire team working together as one cohesive unit and it was a lot of fun to put all of that together. Each of the heros had their moment, with Starfire’s entry and our first tiger shot being some key standouts. 

Hansen: “I loved how the one-off effects were given the same attention to detail as the big show stoppers, and that’s what makes the effects work so well in general. The team continually had me cheering, ‘yes!’, as first versions of shots often looked so great. 

“When filming the scene where the criminal, Valeska, gets barbecued by Starfire, it was treated a little like a minor, more off-camera effect. However, when we got the footage, we were in a tight shot of the actress’s performance. Oleg Memukhin and the team did a gruesome and very convincing first burn effect that just got better with every pass. 

“I also wanted to mention the moment when Gar reaches out to touch a bat in the Batcave. Eric Lin nailed the bat animation on the first pass.”