By Randi Altman
MastersFX has long had a reputation in the industry as a place to go for practical character/creature makeup effects. Recently this 30-year-old shop opened its Digital Makeup FX division, finalizing a path the company set out on almost eight years ago.
According to founder/owner/chief monster maker Todd Masters, “While we’ve just recently announced that we’ve opened a Digital Makeup division formally, the truth is that we’ve really been going in this direction for a quite a while now. Our pursuit of making better creatures and more believable character FX has always been the plan.”
Part of that plan has been building a team and upgrading their skill set. “Even in regard to the blending of practical effects and digital work, that’s nothing new for us. It’s actually where I started,” explains Masters, “working in animation and optical printing with Jim Danforth and at Boss Films. Things were different then, of course, but that mindset of using the best tools and the best abilities for the best character results has long been alive and embraced by our company.”
Upon hearing the news of the launch of this new division, we threw some questions out at Masters and his colleagues at MastersFX, VFX supervisor Andre Bustanoby and art director Werner Pretorius.
How many employees did you hire for the new venture?
Masters: Our new dMFX (Digital Makeup FX) venture (more like adventure!) really began when Andre Bustanoby re-joined our band about eight years ago. He had also worked at our studio in a previous decade — pre-digital on The Howling 6, Look Who’s Talking and others — and we also worked together as kids… making movies in Seattle!! So we go way back and have very complementary skills and ideas. We started very small and with only a few workstations.
The integration of both practical and digital FX was really just starting at that point and was used more for switch-outs, extensions and some limited 3D. As we grew, we challenged ourselves more and more. It was at this point we started working in concert with Johnathan Banta, while he was at another VFX shop. He is now our senior VFX supervisor here. We did several projects in tandem with him before he became available and joined our shop on a more permanent basis. That was right about when we were starting Falling Skies, Season 3, in 2012/2013, and perfecting our approach to the alien character on that show of “Cochise.”
Then we hired Christopher Brown, Eric McAvoy and Julia Howe, while, concurrently, our Vancouver shop really amped up as well. Several artists started to switch-hit, so to speak, taking characters through the practical process and then into digital. Yukiyo Okajima, Werner Pretorius, Chris Devitt, JJ Berezan and Brad Proctor are some of our Vancouver team with these amazing abilities. We keep the character of “Cochise” consistent and we have found many ways to save time and money by having a continuity of our team’s artistic approach to that character.
Can you talk about the tools you use for the work and about bridging the world between practical and digital?
Bustanoby: As artists, we use any and all tools that are appropriate for the task at hand. If a character is to be brought to life, we’ll use Clay, ZBrush, Photoshop, Graphite, Animatronics or Maya, for example. It’s about whatever works; whatever allows exploration, collaboration and effective execution. Digital tools are just that… tools.
Basically, we are enhancing and/or completing aspects of a character’s performance with a wide complement of digital tools and techniques that are extremely difficult or impossible to do practically. What we are finding is that the weaknesses of one medium are the strengths of the other. For example, many of our practical character’s eyes are static in the “actor-in-suit” make-up. They don’t move or blink physically. One could add practical animatronics, but this would not fit into the anatomy of the character given that an actor is inside the suit. Further, it is impossible to get the speed and fidelity of real eyes moving by purely mechanical means, so we use the computer to move the eyes instead.
CG is not bound by real-world physics, unless you want it to be. But we rely heavily on the images from set that are shot with the production camera: the DP has lit the character, the director has led the intent of the performance and the other actors can interact with the character there — on-set and in realtime.
Once we get into post, the core process involves a detailed analysis of the background plate images from set or location. We 3D track cameras and relevant objects to fully describe the perspective dynamics of the scene. We also generate 3D scan data and match color texture from images of our characters through photo-grammetry techniques. We want to fully describe the geometry of the scene and how everything inter-relates spatially.
We then begin the animation and compositing process principally in Adobe After Effects. We have digital “animatronic” rigs that relate to the practical analog. We account for anatomy (as required) and really leverage the actor’s authored performance — and then extend it digitally. We work procedurally but also set poses at key frames as required for any given shot. Essentially, the workflow and pipeline we’ve put together evolves during every project.
Other tools we use include Mocha, Cinema4D, Modo, SynthEyes, PhotoScan and proprietary scripts and plug-ins.
When did you first really begin blending the practical and digital FX on Falling Skies?
Pretorius: On Season 3 of Falling Skies, which debuted in summer 2013, we were presented with a unique challenge: the producers wanted an alien (“Cochise,” played by Doug Jones) in full makeup, but they wanted the character to perform on set like Doug Jones but to also have non-human features …for example, his eyes are far wider than any human. So we had to be creative in our thinking; we mulled the idea around to just go with a 3D head comped onto Doug Jones’ body, but that seemed really expensive and time consuming. Instead, we came up with this amazing process where we could performance capture Doug and paste him back onto himself.
We were no longer limited by what the foam rubber face could give us, and Doug was able to project his uninhibited performance back onto his alien face… and all of a sudden the sky was the limit! This was a real “eureka” moment for those of us who work in the make-up effects world, since we were now able to use real physical creatures on set played by award-winning actors and capture all of their acting subtleties. It allowed the actors to drive the performance and allowed us the ability to marry digital and practical effects for a fraction of what it would traditionally cost. Wow.
Since then we have used this amazing technique on almost all of the main creature characters on Falling Skies. I think our total count is five or six main alien characters and a few background aliens. All the aliens, except for the creatures called “Skitters,” of course, are a blend of animatronics and a traditional 3D process.
Have you used these techniques on other shows as well?
Masters: Yes, some of it developed out of the Fringe television show and through our work on True Blood, but since those have wrapped, we’ve been busy with a new Netflix show called Hemlock Grove for their Season 2. Our werewolf transformation sequence received quite a bit of notice very quickly. We’ve also done a few invisible “vanity” film projects (getting rid of blemishes and making performers look younger in a post make-up process).
Some of us here at MastersFX are actual makeup artists, so we work tightly with other makeup artists and their actors if ever after-tweaks are needed. Also, interestingly enough, we are currently involved in our first original film co-production, Master Cleanse, which is currently shooting with Johnny Galecki, Angelica Huston and Oliver Platt. This project actually became possible, and was greenlit, because of this practical/digital innovation we’ve been perfecting.
So are you now a traditional VFX house as well or really just specializing?
Masters: Our team is world-class, so it’s not like we turn away “sparkle” shots, as we call them. And often when character shots include an additional matte or set extension, it makes sense for us to do that. But our focus and interest is getting the character effects right. We are first at heart character makers. So, related to the first question, it’s this continued pursuit. Whatever tools we need to create a better monster, those are the tools we’ll use.
Bustanoby: We want to focus on characters and the make-up effects techniques required to bring characters to life. In the case of the digital component of the studio, we use digital tools in concert with the practical ones. The artists decide what is appropriate for the task at hand. For example, we have some artists who work with a clay sculpture one day and then get on a computer the next to extend the sculpt in ZBrush, digitally.
So just characters and creatures?
Pretorius: Historically, that has long been the specialty of MastersFX, but to answer your question, NO, not just characters and creatures. Our process can work in myriad ways; it can be used to extend an actor’s performance, or run a beauty pass on someone or even comp an actor or object into a scene just for reference purposes. And recently we have been extending our pipeline into 3D printing with digital lifecasts as part of our performance capture process. These unique tools then make it possible for us to also previs a makeup or facial tweak and present those to a client in the design phase of the character. As I said earlier, the sky is the limit with this process.
What unique perspective are you bringing to the table with the digital division taking your practical experience into account?
Pretorius: If you’ve never made a “rubber monster” in real life, and you don’t understand the limitations, successes or the look of something that can appear in real life on a set, then you shouldn’t be doing that digitally! It really is the difference between having a digital supermodel or just a plain, old digital Jane… on a budget, of course.
Bustanoby: If there is anything unique in our approach to bringing characters to life it’s that we will use any and all techniques available — from the oldest to the cutting edge. We don’t want to limit ourselves in any way. It’s the old, “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”
I believe our clients appreciate the varied approaches we take to a creative/visualize a problem. Simpler is often better, and just because a technique is 30-plus years old, for example, doesn’t mean it isn’t as relevant now as ever.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Masters: As a kid, I used to make effects movies with my buddy, Andre Bustanoby, and for us it was never about only doing this part of the film or that part — we did the entire thing. So, when we both pursued this work as a career, we never were very departmentalized-minded. We just wanted to make these weird images and slimy things the best way possible, no matter what the technique. We both worked at various VFX shops and animation houses during the course of our early careers, learning every aspect of the FX business, and pushing it as far as we could. Then Andre and I reunited again at MastersFX.
Now we’re weathered, grizzled old industry vets (kidding), and we enjoy reminding each other of our original passions. We push each other to innovate and try new things, and this really helps transcend all the challenges of our Industry. It also reminds me why we do what we do in the first place.
Today, it feels like we’re STILL working as we did as kids — but now we just have access to better tools, we have decades of skill behind us, and our imaginations helps drive our modern techniques. Now, we’re more focused and well-honed than ever before!