By Iain Blair
Even if you don’t know who Crafty Apes are, you’ve definitely seen their visual effects work in movies such as Deadpool 2, La La Land, Captain America: Civil War and Little Women, and in episodics like Star Trek: Picard and Westworld. The full-service VFX company was founded by Chris LeDoux, Jason Sanford and Tim LeDoux and has locations in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Baton Rouge, Vancouver, Albuquerque and New York, and its roster of creative and production supervisors offers a full suite of services, including set supervision, VFX consultation, 2D compositing and CG animation, digital cosmetics, previsualization and look development.
Recently, Crafty Apes worked on two high-profile projects — the reboot of Steven Spielberg’s classic TV series Amazing Stories for Apple TV+ and the Disney+’s Stargirl.
Let’s take a closer look at their work on both. First up is Amazing Stories and Crafty Apes VFX supervisor Aldo Ruggiero.
How many VFX did you have to create for the show?
The first season has five episodes, and we created VFX for two episodes — “The Heat” and “Dynoman and the Volt!!” I was on the set for the whole of those shoots, and we worked out all the challenges and problems we had to solve day by day. But it wasn’t like we got the plates and then figured out there was a problem. We were very well-prepared and we were all based in Atlanta where all the shooting took place, which was a big help. We worked very closely with Mark Stetson, who was the VFX supervisor for the whole show, and because they were shooting three shows at once, he couldn’t always be on set, so he wanted us there every day. Mark really inspired me just to take charge and to solve any problems and challenges.
What were the main challenges?
Of the two episodes, “Dynoman and the Volt!” was definitely the most challenging to do, as we had this entire rooftop sequence, and it was quite complicated, as half was done with bluescreen and half was done using a real roof. We had about 40 shots cutting back and forth between them, and we had to create this 360-degree environment that matched the real roof seamlessly. Doing scenes like that, with all the continuity involved and making it totally photo-real, is very challenging. To do a one-off shot is really easy compared with that, as it may take 20 man-days to do. But this took about 300 man-days to get it done — to match every detail exactly and all the color and so on. The work we did for the other episode, “The Heat,” was less challenging technically and more subtle. We did a lot of crowd replacement and a lot of clean-up, as Atlanta was doubling for other locations.
It’s been 35 years since the original Amazing Stories first aired. How involved was Spielberg, who also acts as EP on this?
He was more involved with the writing than the actual production, and I think the finale of “Dynoman and the Volt!!” was completely his idea. He wasn’t on the set, but he gave us some notes, which were very specific, very concise and pointed. And of course, visual effects and all the technology have advanced so much since then.
What tools did you use?
We used Foundry Nuke for compositing and Autodesk Maya for 3D animation, plus a ton more. We finished all the work months ago, so I was happy to finally just see the finished result on TV. It turned out really well I think.
I spoke with VFX supervisor Gabriel Sanchez, a frequent collaborator with Wes Anderson. He talked about creating the VFX and the pipeline for Stargirl, the musical romantic drama about teenage angst and first love, based on the best-selling YA novel of the same name, and directed by Julia Hart (Fast Color).
How many VFX did you have to create for the film, and how closely did you work with Julia Hart?
While you usually meet the director in preproduction, I didn’t meet Julia until we got on set since I’d been so busy with other jobs. We did well over 200 shots at our offices in El Segundo, and we worked very closely together, especially in post. Originally, I was brought on board to be on the set to oversee all the crowd duplication for the football game, but once we got into post, it evolved into something much bigger and more complex.
Typically during bidding and even doing the script breakdown, we always know there’ll be invisible VFX, but you don’t know exactly what they’ll be until you get into post. So during preproduction on this, the big things we knew we’d have to do up front were the football and crowd scenes, maybe with some stunt work, and the CG pet rat.
What were the main challenges?
The football game was complex, because they wanted not just the crowd duplication, but also to create one long, seamless take because it’s the half-time performance. So we blocked it and did it in sections, trying to create the 360 so we could go around the band and so on.
The big challenge was then doing all those cuts together in a seamless take, but there were issues, like where the crowd would maybe creep in during the 360, or we’d have a shadow or we’d see the crane or a light. So that kind of set the tone, and we’d know what we had to clean up in post.
Another issue was a shot wherein it was raining and we had raindrops bouncing off a barn door onto the camera, which created this really weird long streak on the lens, and we had to remove that. We also had to change the façade of the school a bit, and we had a do a lot of continuity fixes. So once we began doing all that stuff, which is fairly normal in a movie, then it all evolved in post into a lot more complex and creative work.
What did it entail?
Sometimes, in terms of performance, you might like a take of how an actress speaks her lines technically, but prefer another take of how an actor replies or responds, so we had a lot of split screens to make the performance come together. We also had to re-adjust the timing of the actors’ lip movements sometimes to sync up with the audio, which they wanted to off-set. And there were VFX shots we created in post where we had no coverage.
For instance, Julia needed a bike in front of a garage for a shot that was never filmed, so I had to scan through everything, find footage, then basically create a matte painting of the garage and find a bike from another take, but it still didn’t quite work. In the end, I had to take the bike frame from one take, the wheels from another and then assemble it all. When Julia saw it, she said, ‘Perfect!’ That’s when she realized what was feasible with VFX, depending on the time and budget we had.
How many people were on your team?
I had about 10 artists and two teams. One worked on the big long seamless 360 shot, and then another team worked on all the other shots. I did most of the finishing of the long halftime show sequence on Autodesk Flame, with assistance from three other artists on Nuke, and I parceled out various bits to them — “take out this shadow,” “remove this lens flare” and so on — and did the complete assembly to make it feel seamless on Flame. I also did all the timing of the crowd plates on Flame. Ultimately, the whole job took us about two months to complete, and it was demanding but a lot of fun to work on.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.