Animation: <I>Love, Death + Robots - Bad Travelling</I>
Kendra Ruczak
Issue: September/October 2022

Animation: Love, Death + Robots - Bad Travelling

World-class animators bring captivating stories to life in Netflix’s acclaimed anthology series Love, Death + Robots. Spanning a wide range of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, comedy and horror, the series explores intriguing alternate realities across a multitude of visual styles. Oscar-nominated director David Fincher, who is among the show’s executive producers, helmed the second episode of Season 3. Titled “Bad Travelling,” the episode marks Fincher’s computer-animated directorial debut. 

Based on the short story of the same name by Neal Asher, the episode follows a dishonest crew of shark-hunting sailors as they traverse an uncharted ocean. When ships are lost at sea during these voyages, it is said they have met the fate of a “bad travelling.” As the crew navigates stormy waters, they encounter a ravenous monster of the deep known as a “Thanapod.” The massive crustacean-like creature brutally attacks the crew, turning the surviving sailors against each other before striking a deal with the ship’s navigator, Torrin (voiced by Troy Baker).  

Fincher collaborated with Blur Studio, an award-winning animation and VFX firm founded by Tim Miller (creator of Love, Death + Robots), to craft the eerie nautical tale. The studio successfully delivered 386 shots for the episode in only six months. Two key crew members from the Blur Studio team — compositing supervisor Nitant Ashok Karnik and CG supervisor Jean Baptiste Cambier — shared insight into the rendering workflow behind this dynamic project.

All hands on deck

Bringing Fincher’s distinctive cinematic aesthetic to an animated production required close collaboration between the members of the Blur Studio team. Establishing a clear line of communication with Fincher was essential for bringing his creative vision to life on screen. 

“I think one of the first steps was just to get to know him as a person,” recalls CG supervisor Jean Baptiste Cambier (pictured). “We experimented with color and lighting to get to know each other and see how he would respond.”

The team studied a range of reference images to solidify the project’s visual aesthetic, including work from various painters, like Rembrandt, and cinematography from films that included The Black Stallion [1979], No Country for Old Men [2007] and The Witch [2015]. Next, the team developed concept art to flesh out the episode’s distinctive character design. 

“These characters are so heavily sculpted and stylized, so we wanted to use that to our advantage,” notes compositing supervisor Nitant Ashok Karnik. The project’s art director, Alexey Andreev, completed numerous “paintovers” to develop the look of the episode. 

“Those concept frames really helped drive the conversation,” states Karnik. “Fincher would respond well or negatively, and that’s how we would get a direction to start in.” 

Fincher’s extensive experience with visual effects also enhanced the episode’s development process. 

“He’s done VFX forever, so he’s very used to that,” says Cambier. “I was amazed by how easy he was to communicate with. He was very familiar with the process.”

Embracing the darkness

Fincher is known for embracing low-key lighting and dark color palettes to explore the pitfalls of human morality in his films. The Blur team began establishing a lighting style very early in the look-development process, which required the aesthetic of each sequence to be fully refined prior to creating any assets. 

“Fincher is keenly aware of the practicality of different textures, surfaces and materials, and the physics of how they react to light in the real world,” notes Karnik. “His eye for color is insanely precise. For example, when we were establishing lighting for the ship’s cargo hold, Fincher specified that he only wanted oil lanterns and moonlight — specifically 1,800K and 4,000K, respectively. And of course, they were all spot-on in look and feel.”

Karnik (pictured, right) also recalls a review session during which the director noticed a very subtle trace of color. 

“He was looking at an image and saying that the glancing angle of the light reflecting off the varnish, filtered through the panes of glass, was making this wood look magenta. It was interesting to hear his thought process. He was breaking down the physics of why magenta existed in the image.”

Fincher was also very intentional about the emotions he intended the audience to experience as the events of the episode unfolded. 

“We worked hard to make these characters feel like they were in a horrible, wretched place, and to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as the characters looked,” explains Karnik. “We also played with lighting on the characters. For the antihero, Torrin, our art director had the idea of using a 50/50 lighting style, where only half his face was lit. Conceptually, we thought this lighting mirrored how morally gray his behavior was. You can see this transition from the beginning of the short, where the light wraps across Torrin’s face, to the end, where he’s murdered his entire crew and his face is half-lit.”

Tools of the trade

Specialized lighting tools made it possible to apply Fincher’s distinctive live-action aesthetic to an animated workflow. 

“Unlike live action, animation does not often leave much room for on-set happy accidents or instinctive decisions — everything is thought about, planned and calculated,” explains Cambier. The team utilized V-Ray to bridge the gap between live action and CG animation. A physically-based renderer developed by Chaos, V-Ray has received both an Academy Award and an Engineering Emmy for its role in the widespread adoption of ray-traced rendering in film and television. 

“Chaos have been our partners in crime for a very long time,” notes Cambier. “Even David Fincher’s relationship with V-Ray goes way back: his video for Only by Nine Inch Nails [created with Digital Domain in 2005] was the first time V-Ray’s photorealistic ray tracing was used in a commercial project.” 

The team leveraged V-Ray’s Light Selects and Physical Camera Exposure controls to bring intuitive live-action lighting and camera movement to the episode’s animation workflow. Blur Studio also developed Light Rig, a proprietary tool for Nuke that mimics the way a cinematographer controls lighting on a live-action set. The tool interactively controls the exposure of each individual light without requiring re-rendering, which makes it possible for the environment, characters and fluid sims to be lit in realtime. 

“It allows you to turn off lights for all of your render elements,” Karnik explains,“so you can quickly see what it would look like if you turned off the key, for example.” 

This allowed Fincher and the team to easily experiment and find the precise look they were seeking without the challenge of extensive render times. 

Crafting an immersive seascape

A crucial environmental element of the episode is its treacherous seascape setting. The animation of the waves needed to feel immersive to deliver the full emotional impact of the story. The team utilized V-Ray’s infinite VRayPlane tool to define the horizon lines throughout each sequence and maintain a constant sense of realism. 

“Everything in ‘Bad Travelling’ happens on a boat at sea,” explains Cambier. “This represents a relatively-contained space, so we knew that our representation of parallax and scale was key to making the final render look realistic.”

After defining the horizon lines, the team tackled the task of creating the constant swaying motion of the ocean’s waves. They had the option of swaying the entire ship and its contents — including the characters’ clothing and hair — or simply moving everything around the ship to create the illusion of swaying. 

“The choice was quickly made to sway all that is around the boat, as it would have been a nightmare to animate everything happening on the deck,” recalls Cambier. “Using the VRayPlane was essential for this too. It allowed us to do some simple coding to include and snap that infinite ocean in all our renders, from animation to lighting, all the way to the final comp.”

Love, Death + Robots is now streaming on Netflix. 

Kendra Ruczak is the Managing Editor of Post’s sister publication, CGW.