VFX: Netflix's <I>Raising Dion</I>
Issue: March/April 2022

VFX: Netflix's Raising Dion

In the Netflix series Raising Dion, a single mom discovers that her son has super powers and tries to figure out how to raise him safely. Season 2 debuted back in February, and the team at FuseFX were responsible for creating the series’ visual effects, including effects that showcase teleportation, force fields and plasma energy projectiles. The studio was also tasked with with making character Pat Rollins (Jason Ritter) appear out of thin air, and further evolving The Crooked Energy - a character made from smoke. Kevin Yuille served as VFX supervisor on Season 2 and recently shared insight into the show’s VFX challenges, as well as his own career. 

Here, he shares those details with Post.

Tell us about your background and how you arrived at FuseFX?

“It’s hard for me to believe that I am coming up on 10 years as a compositor and supervisor at FuseFX. My journey into visual effects has been anything but direct. I received an undergraduate degree in architecture and spent some time in web development when working at a few dot com ventures and startups. Unhappy with my career path, it wasn’t until I received an MFA in VFX that I found my calling. 

“In 2012, I was hired by FuseFX as a compositor and got to work on many series, such as American Horror Story, Hell on Wheels, Turn and Salem. I was fortunate enough to be one of the original compositors on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Over its seven-season run, I stayed attached as a lead artist, developing many of the looks for the various effects and superpowers, such as Daisy’s Quake beams. As one of the compositing supervisors and eventual DFX (digital effects) supervisors, I established a strong working relationship with the client-side VFX supervisor, Mark Kolpack. 

As for Raising Dion, it was brought to FuseFX by Mark. Having so many years of collaboration with him on S.H.I.E.L.D., and understanding each other’s tastes and expectations, it made sense that I would lead the team at FuseFX. After each season of S.H.I.E.L.D., Mark knew where we left off and always wanted to raise the bar. Raising Dion was no different. He pitched his idea of the main bad guy as an anthropomorphic smoke wraith, named the Crooked Energy. Smoke creatures had been done before, but we were tasked with creating a character made of smoke that had to talk, preserve details and features as it moved, and also evolve in its form over the course of the season. Though clearly not a small task, I was immediately excited and thrilled to work on such a creative project.”

Can you talk a bit about the process of bringing the Crooked Energy to life?

“The Crooked Energy was definitely the big effect for the season. FuseFX’s lead concept artist, Jeremy Melton, did an amazing job coming up with the design of the character. After the client approved our concept work, we were given the daunting challenge of bringing a smoke creature to life that had to emote and speak, which took months of R&D to dial in. Smoke and pyro simulations are very difficult to tame and control, especially when trying to preserve features and/or details. Smoke has a tendency to soften features as it dissipates or completely obscure them when there are rapid movements. 
“In order to overcome these obstacles, our talented Houdini FX team, led by Ashkan Azarmi, had to develop custom solvers, shaders and volume deformers. The process also included a dedicated character setup to load the stretch and deformation of the bones, procedural tattering for the cloth simulations, and nine separate pyro simulations for the head, body, cloak, hands and hoodie. The many passes were rendered with deep data and assembled in Nuke. Deep renders allowed compositors full control over the various smoke layers that could be pushed forwards or backwards in space to achieve the desired amount of detail. Light selects and a vast array of AOVs allowed comp to dial and seamlessly integrate the Crooked Energy into the scene. To add another layer of complexity, the Crooked Energy evolves over the course of the season, from a faceless anthropomorphic entity to a more formed cloaked wraith. The Crooked Energy was the crowning achievement for the season and a visual effect that our team is most proud of.”
How did you create some of the superpowers in the show, such as force fields, teleportation, etc?

“For Dion, his teleportation powers were re-envisioned from Season 1 to have more visual impact. They were larger, more explosive, and had more internal energy coursing through them. We really wanted to sell the directionality and inertia of the effect depending upon Dion disappearing or reappearing.
“Dion’s plasma powers required each hand and arm to be matchmoved in order for Maya artists to generate special render passes, such as bones, veins and nervous system, which compositors used to illuminate the energy beneath the skin. Houdini was used for the wispy strands of plasma licking off the fingers, the heated vapor off the hands, as well as the plasma projectiles that simulated swirling energy balls with particle trails and bursting impacts.

“For Dion’s teacher and mentor, Tevin, his force field abilities required that we develop a setup that could accommodate any curved shape and size. Using the hexagon as the root structural pattern, Maya artists would block out the timing, shape and scale of the force field, and hand this over to FX. Houdini artists would then run it through their setup to generate a multitude of passes for flowing particles, traveling seam energy, refractive passes, contact ripples and many others. Compositors used all these passes for dialing in the intensity of the force field depending upon the time of day or whether an object or person is striking it.”
What would you consider some of the VFX highlights from the show?

“In Episode 202, we were tasked with reconstituting the character, Pat, out of thin air, starting with his nervous system, to his bones, organs, muscles, skin, clothes and hair. All the while, there was circling smoke trails, atmospherics and lightning strikes. As a one-off effect, it was pretty huge. 

“It started with creating Pat's digi double, and all of his internal organs were modeled and textured as well. Led by our talented senior Houdini artist, Tyler Britton, the FX department used this to slowly form Pat as the shot progresses, iterating many times to strike the fine balance between visually interesting and readable. Many, many elements were added and removed to find this balance. Each 'internal' body part had a unique transition and effect, whether it be the nerves, respiratory system or other organs. The lightning strikes around him also played a big part, not only did they jolt him when he is struck, but they also revealed the next stage of his transformation. The procedural nature of this process constantly involved all departments working on the shot, and a lot of back-and-forth had to be done each iteration.”

It sounds line Houdini and Maya were important tools for this show?

“We used Houdini for all of our FX work. This show was unique in that nearly every VFX shot was an FX shot, requiring to be rendered out of Houdini. We used SynthEyes for tracking and matchmove, while we used Maya for animation and outputting utility passes for compositors to use for the look of the plasma hands. Due to the complexity of the Crooked Energy, the many smoke passes were rendered in deep, and all of the compositing was done in Nuke.”
What was your biggest challenge working on this series?

“Obviously, there were plenty of technical challenges we had to overcome regarding the Crooked Energy and other FX work. Since the Crooked Energy evolved over the course of the season, it was always in development. Even by the last episode, we were adding new types of smoke and tweaking methods of how to control the smoke sims. It was an extremely advanced setup that fortunately had a lot of flexibility built-in. For all the custom tools and shaders that were developed to bring the Crooked Energy to life, I have to again mention our FX lead, Ashkan Azarmi, for his invaluable contribution. He and the whole FX team are true wizards. As with every show, it feels like time is never on your side and you always wish there was more of it for polishing. That said, by the end of the schedule, we wrapped the season on a very high note. The client was extremely happy with our work, and I was very proud of our team and what we achieved.”
How big of a crew at FuseFX worked on this project?

“This wasn't just a collaborative project between the FX team and the compositing team.  It was also a huge collaborative undertaking between the Los Angeles office, where I work, and our Vancouver location. We've all adjusted to the world post-COVID and have become quite comfortable working from home. However, this is the first time I led such a large team at a sister office. 

“When the pandemic first struck in 2020, FuseFX did a great job setting everyone up for remote work. As with many other industries, this transition to work from home has reshaped how the VFX industry functions today. I don’t think we will ever return to the traditional commute-to-work model. As our lives return to a state of normalcy, I think most of us will choose to work from home a majority of the time and adopt a hybrid model, where going into the office is limited to once or twice per week. Were it not for all these new tools for communicating, such as Microsoft Teams for video chat and ClearView Flex for media streaming, my ability to work with our amazing BC producer, Joanna Liu, and the Vancouver team would not have been as seamless. Distance was not an issue and meetings between sister offices were identical to those with my LA team. It truly felt like a team effort and I think this shows how the VFX industry has adapted and advanced over the last couple of years into a broader more collaborative one.”