<I>The Umbrella Academy</I>: Inside Folks' VFX work
Issue: September/October 2022

The Umbrella Academy: Inside Folks' VFX work

Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is based on Gerard Way’s comic book series of the same name. The show centers on a dysfunctional family of adopted superheroes. In Season 3, the Umbrella Academy has returned home from 1963, where they stopped a doomsday event. But they soon realize that the present timeline still isn’t fixed and now clash with the Sparrow Academy while trying to return to their pre-apocalyptic lives. The show stars Elliott Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman and David Castaneda, and its third season premiered on June 22nd.

Montreal-based Folks (https://folksvfx.com) delivered approximately 570 shots in the nine months leading up to its release. The studio created CG ravens, flamethrowers, destruction and debris, while also developing the KugelBlitz, a blob that grows and disintegrates things, and a Kugel-Wave, a magic shockwave that destroys anything in its path. Laurent Spillemaecker served as visual effects supervisor and recently shared with Post details on the studio’s work.

Can you detail some of the work the Folks team did for the series?  

“For the third season of Umbrella Academy in a row, we delivered over 600 VFX shots across all episodes. Our key work included all of Fei’s Ravens, all the KugelBlitz shots and its multiple destruction waves, many CG environment shots of the city surrounding the Academy, the whole new Academy exterior building itself, the Cube (Christopher), the destruction of the Academy building and the surrounding city. Needless to say that we were pretty busy this year.”

What were some of the challenges for this season? 

“The large Kugel-Wave destruction shots and, of course, the destruction of the Academy, were the most demanding shots, as you could expect. We always need to find an effective balance between time, budget and amount of destruction detail. How many buildings do we need to actually recreate? How many internal details, structures and breakable layers do we need to create and rig in the simulation? Most of the wide city shots use either Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) or Chicago stock footage, but each one of them needed a huge environment work (dozens of CG buildings) to create our fictional city and eventually destroy it. So the key in these shots is to focus the effort on regions of interest. It's not realistic to assume that we will build 3,000 buildings with their internal structure elements and furniture and then just run a giant rigid-body destruction simulation. This is where we used a more procedural approach. Our FX supervisor built a system in Houdini with procedural internal structures (floors, beams, walls) for any kind of building. Then, we needed to add a magical feeling to these, where gravity does not act in a physical way but could be art directed on a per-shot basis.”

Are there any sequences that stand out?

“I personally love the destruction of the Academy building by the angry KugelBlitz, the first appearance of Fei’s Ravens in Episode 1, emerging from her back and chasing Luther and Alison in a corridor. Finally, I love the Kugel-Blitz asset as a whole, from the early lookdev and designs that we did long before principal photography in close collaboration with the production supervisor Everett Burrell, to the final shots and how it evolves, grows and interacts with our heroes.”

Can you detail how things developed?

“After several rounds of lookdev, the KugelBlitz is a big evolving Houdini FX fluid simulation with complex translucent shading, passing several custom AOVs to be dialed in compositing (heat, viscosity, disparity, velocity, etc.). But the most interesting aspect is the following: since we achieved most of the lookdev prior to principal shooting, we delivered early renderings of the KugelBlitz to production. Then they built a big LED cube (a few in different sizes) that would play our rendered images to create interactive light in the real scene. Actors would have something to look at, a bright pulsing cube, and act accordingly. There is nothing better than real lighting, right? Then we would, of course, re-render and comp the CG KugelBlitz on the plates in post production as usual. I think that this was a brilliant approach, a very clever idea from Mr. Burrell.”