Tag Archives: VFX

Axis provides 1,000 VFX shots for the TV series Happy!

UK-based animation and visual effects house Axis Studios has delivered 1,000 shots across 10 episodes on the second series of the UCP-produced hit Syfy show Happy!.

Based on Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson’s graphic novel, Happy! follows alcoholic ex-cop turned hitman Nick Sax (Christopher Meloni), who teams up with imaginary unicorn Happy (voiced by Patton Oswalt). In the second season, the action moves from Christmastime to “the biggest holiday rebranding of all time” and a plot to “make Easter great again,” courtesy of last season’s malevolent child-kidnapper, Sonny Shine (Christopher Fitzgerald).

Axis Studios, working across its three creative sites in Glasgow, Bristol, and London, collaborated with executive producer and director Brian Taylor and showrunner Patrick Macmanus to raise the bar on the animation of the fully CG character. The studio also worked on a host of supporting characters, including a “chain-smoking man-baby,” a gimp-like Easter Bunny and even a Jeff Goldblum-shaped cloud. Alongside the extensive animation work, the team’s VFX workload greatly increased from the first season — including two additional episodes, creature work, matte painting, cloud simulations, asset building and extensive effects and clean-up work.

Building on the success of the first season, the 100-person team of artists further developed the animation of the lead character, Happy!, improving the rig, giving more nuanced emotions and continually working to integrate him more in the real-world environments.

UK’s Jellyfish adds virtual animation studio and Kevin Spruce

London-based visual effects and animation studio Jellyfish Pictures is opening of a new virtual animation facility in Sheffield. The new site is the company’s fifth studio in the UK, in addition to its established studios in Fitzrovia, Central London; Brixton; South London; and Oval, South London. This addition is no surprise considering Jellyfish created one of Europe’s first virtual VFX studios back in 2017.

With no hardware housed onsite, Jellyfish Pictures’ Sheffield studio — situated in the city center within the Cooper Project Complex — will operate in a completely PC-over-IP environment. With all technology and pipeline housed in a centrally-based co-location, the studio is able to virtualize its distributed workstations through Teradici’s remote visualization solution, allowing for total flexibility and scalability.

The Sheffield site will sit on the same logical LAN as the other four studios, providing access to the company’s software-defined storage (SDS) from Pixit Media, enabling remote collaboration and support for flexible working practices. With the rest of Jellyfish Pictures’ studios all TPN-accredited, the Sheffield studio will follow in their footsteps, using Pixit Media’s container solution within PixStor 5.

The innovative studio will be headed up by Jellyfish Pictures’ newest appointment, animation director Kevin Spruce. With a career spanning over 30 years, Spruce joins Jellyfish from Framestore, where he oversaw a team of 120 as the company’s head of animation. During his time at Framestore, Spruce worked as animation supervisor on feature films such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Legend of Tarzan and Guardians of the Galaxy. Prior to his 17-year stint at Framestore, Spruce held positions at Canadian animation company, Bardel Entertainment and Spielberg-helmed feature animation studio Amblimation.

Jellyfish Pictures’ northern presence will start off with a small team of animators working on the company’s original animation projects, with a view to expand its team and set up with a large feature animation project by the end of the year.

“We have multiple projects coming up that will demand crewing up with the very best talent very quickly,” reports Phil Dobree, CEO of Jellyfish Pictures. “Casting off the constraints of infrastructure, which traditionally has been the industry’s way of working, means we are not limited to the London talent pool and can easily scale up in a more efficient and economical way than ever before. We all know London, and more specifically Soho, is an expensive place to play, both for employees working here and for the companies operating here. Technology is enabling us to expand our horizon across the UK and beyond, as well as offer talent a way out of living in the big city.”

For Spruce, the move made perfect sense: “After 30 years working in and around Soho, it was time for me to move north and settle in Sheffield to achieve a better work life balance with family. After speaking with Phil, I was excited to discover he was interested in expanding his remote operation beyond London. With what technology can offer now, the next logical step is to bring the work to people rather than always expecting them to move south.

“As animation director for Jellyfish Pictures Sheffield, it’s my intention to recruit a creative team here to strengthen the company’s capacity to handle the expanding slate of work currently in-house and beyond. I am very excited to be part of this new venture north with Jellyfish. It’s a vision of how creative companies can grow in new ways and access talent pools farther afield.”

 

Amazon’s Good Omens: VFX supervisor Jean-Claude Deguara

By Randi Altman

Good versus evil. It’s a story that’s been told time and time again, but Amazon’s Good Omens turns that trope on its head a bit. With Armageddon approaching, two unlikely heroes and centuries-long frenemies— an angel (Michael Sheen) and demon (David Tennant) — team up to try to fight off the end of the world. Think buddy movie, but with the fate of the world at stake.

In addition to Tennant and Sheen, the Good Omens cast is enviable — featuring Jon Hamm, Michael McKean, Benedict Cumberbatch and Nick Offerman, just to name a few. The series is based on the 1990 book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

Jean-Claude Degaura

As you can imagine, this six-part end-of-days story features a variety of visual effects, from creatures to environments to particle effects and fire. London’s Milk was called on to provide 650 visual effects shots, and its co-founder Jean-Claude Deguara supervised all.

He was also able to talk directly with Gaiman, which he says was a huge help. “Having access to Neil Gaiman as the author of Good Omens was just brilliant, as it meant we were able to ask detailed questions to get a more detailed brief when creating the VFX and receive such insightful creative feedback on our work. There was never a question that couldn’t be answered. You don’t often get that level of detail when you’re developing the VFX.”

Let’s find out more about Deguara’s process and the shots in the show as he walks us through his collaboration and creating some very distinctive characters.

Can you talk about how early you got involved on Good Omens?
We were involved right at the beginning, pre-script. It’s always the best scenario for VFX to be involved at the start, to maximize planning time. We spent time with director Douglas Mackinnon, breaking down all six scripts to plan the VFX methodology — working out and refining how to best use VFX to support the storytelling. In fact, we stuck to most of what we envisioned and we continued to work closely with him throughout the project.

How did getting involved when you did help the process?
With the sheer volume and variety of work — 650 shots, a five-month post production turnaround and a crew of 60 — the planning and development time in preproduction was essential. The incredibly wide range of work spanned multiple creatures, environments and effects work.

Having constant access to Neil as author and showrunner was brilliant as we could ask for clarification and more details from him directly when creating the VFX and receive immediate creative feedback. And it was invaluable to have Douglas working with us to translate Neil’s vision in words onto the screen and plan out what was workable. It also meant I was able to show them concepts the team were developing back in the studio while we were on set in South Africa. It was a very collaborative process.

It was important to have strong crew across all VFX disciplines as they worked together on multiple sequences at the same time. So you’re starting in tracking on one, in effects on another and compositing and finishing everything off on another. It was a big logistical challenge, but certainly the kind that we relish and are well versed in at Milk.

Did you do previs? If so, how did that help and what did you use?
We only used previs to work out how to technically achieve certain shots or to sell an idea to Douglas and Neil. It was generally very simple, using gray scale animation with basic geometry. We used it to do a quick layout of how to rescale the dog to be a bigger hellhound, for example.

You were on set supervising… can you talk about how that helped?
It was a fast-moving production with multiple locations in the UK over about six months, followed by three months in South Africa. It was crucial for the volume and variety of VFX work required on Good Omens that I was across all the planning and execution of filming for our shots.

Being on set allowed me to help solve various problems as we went along. I could also show Neil and Douglas various concepts that were being developed back in the studio, so that we could move forward more quickly with creative development of the key sequences, particularly the challenging ones such as Satan and the Bentley.

What were the crucial things to ensure during the shoot?
Making sure all the preparation was done meticulously for each shot — given the large volume and variety of the environments and sets. I worked very closely with Douglas on the shoot so we could have discussions to problem-solve where needed and find creative solutions.

Can you point to an example?
We had multiple options for shots involving the Bentley, so our advance planning and discussions with Douglas involved pulling out all the car sequences in the series scripts and creating a “mini script” specifically for the Bentley. This enabled us to plan which assets (the real car, the art department’s interior car shell or the CG car) were required and when.

You provided 650 VFX shots. Can you describe the types of effects?
We created everything from creatures (Satan exploding up out of the ground; a kraken; the hellhound; a demon and a snake) to environments (heaven – a penthouse with views of major world landmarks, a busy Soho street); feathered wings for Michael Sheen’s angel Aziraphale and David Tennant’s demon Crowley, and a CG Bentley in which Tennant’s Crowley hurtles around London.

We also had a large effects team working on a whole range of effects over the six episodes — from setting the M25 and the Bentley on fire to a flaming sword to a call center filled with maggots to a sequence in which Crowley (Tennant) travels through the internet at high speed.

Despite the fantasy nature of the subject matter, it was important to Gaiman that the CG elements did not stand out too much. We needed to ensure the worlds and characters were always kept grounded in reality. A good example is how we approached heaven and hell. These key locations are essentially based around an office block. Nothing too fantastical, but they are, as you would expect, completely different and deliberately so.

Hell is the basement, which was shot in a disused abattoir in South Africa, whilst heaven is a full CG environment located in the penthouse with a panoramic view over a cityscape featuring landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, The Shard and the Pyramids.

You created many CG creatures. Can you talk about the challenges of that and how you accomplished them?
Many of the main VFX features, such as Satan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), appear only once in the six-part series as the story moves swiftly toward the apocalypse. So we had to strike a careful balance between delivering impact yet ensuring they were immediately recognizable and grounded in reality. Given our fast five-month post- turnaround, we had our key teams working concurrently on creatures such as a kraken; the hellhound; a small, portly demon called Usher who meets his demise in a bath of holy water; and the infamous snake in the Garden of Eden.

We have incorporated Ziva VFX into our pipeline, which ensured our rigging and modeling teams maximized the development and build phases in the timeframe. For example, the muscle, fat and skin simulations are all solved on the renderfarm; the animators can publish a scene and then review the creature effects in dailies the next day.

We use our proprietary software CreatureTools for rigging all our creatures. It is a modular rigging package, which allows us to very quickly build animation rigs for previs or blocking and we build our deformation muscle and fat rigs in Ziva VFX. It means the animators can start work quickly and there is a lot of consistency between the rigs.

Can you talk about the kraken?
The kraken pays homage to Ray Harryhausen and his work on Clash of the Titans. Our team worked to create the immense scale of the kraken and take water simulations to the next level. The top half of the kraken body comes up out of the water and we used a complex ocean/water simulation system that was originally developed for our ocean work on the feature film Adrift.

Can you dig in a bit more about Satan?
Near the climax of Good Omens, Aziraphale, Crowley and Adam witness the arrival of Satan. In the early development phase, we were briefed to highlight Satan’s enormous size (about 400 feet) without making him too comical. He needed to have instant impact given that he appears on screen for just this one long sequence and we don’t see him again.

Our first concept was pretty scary, but Neil wanted him simpler and more immediately recognizable. Our concept artist created a horned crown, which along with his large, muscled, red body delivered the look Neil had envisioned.

We built the basic model, and when Cumberbatch was cast, the modeling team introduced some of his facial characteristics into Satan’s FACS-based blend shape set. Video reference of the actor’s voice performance, captured on a camera phone, helped inform the final keyframe animation. The final Satan was a full Ziva VFX build, complete with skeleton, muscles, fat and skin. The team set up the muscle scene and fat scene in a path to an Alembic cache of the skeleton so that they ended up with a blended mesh of Satan with all the muscle detail on it.

We then did another skin pass on the face to add extra wrinkles and loosen things up. A key challenge for our animation team — lead by Joe Tarrant — lay in animating a creature of the immense scale of Satan. They needed to ensure the balance and timing of his movements felt absolutely realistic.

Our effects team — lead by James Reid — layered multiple effects simulations to shatter the airfield tarmac and generate clouds of smoke and dust, optimizing setups so that only those particles visible on camera were simulated. The challenge was maintaining a focus on the enormous size and impact of Satan while still showing the explosion of the concrete, smoke and rubble as he emerges.

Extrapolating from live-action plates shot at an airbase, the VFX team built a CG environment and inserted live action of the performers into otherwise fully digital shots of the gigantic red-skinned devil bursting out of the ground.

And the hellhound?
Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin) sends the antichrist (a boy named Adam) a giant hellhound. By giving the giant beast a scary name, Adam will set Armageddon in motion. In reality, Adam really just wants a loveable pet and transforms the hellhound into a miniature hound called, simply, Dog.

A Great Dane performed as the hellhound, photographed in a forest location while a grip kept pace with a small square of bluescreen. The Milk team tracked the live action and performed a digital head and neck replacement. Sam Lucas modeled the head in Autodesk Maya, matching the real dog’s anatomy before stretching its features into grotesquery. A final round of sculpting followed in Pixologic ZBrush, with artists refining 40-odd blend shapes for facial expression.

Once our rigging team got the first iteration of the blend shapes, they passed the asset off to animation for feedback. They then added an extra level of tweaking around the lips. In the creature effects phase, they used Ziva VFX to add soft body jiggle around the bottom of the lips and jowls.

What about creating the demon Usher?
One of our favorite characters was the small, rotund, quirky demon creature called Usher. He is a fully rigged CG character. Our team took a fully concepted image and adapted it to the performance and physicality of the actor. To get the weight of Usher’s rotund body, the rigging team — lead by Neil Roche — used Ziva VFX to run a soft body simulation on the fatty parts of the creature, which gave him a realistic jiggle. They then added a skin simulation using Ziva’s cloth solver to give an extra layer of wrinkling across Usher’s skin. Finally they used nCloth in Maya to simulate his sash and medals.

Was one more challenging/rewarding than the others?
Satan, because of his huge scale and the integrated effects.

Out of all of the effects, can you talk about your favorite?
The CG Bentley without a doubt! The digital Bentley featured in scenes showing the car tearing around London and the countryside at 90 miles per hour. Ultimately, Crowley drives through hell fire on the M25, it catches fire and burns continuously as he heads toward the site of Armageddon. The production located a real Bentley 3.5 Derby Coupe Thrupp & Maberly 1934, which we photo scanned and modeled in intricate detail. We introduced subtle imperfections to the body panels, ensuring the CG Bentley had the same handcrafted appearance as the real thing and would hold up in full-screen shots, including continuous transitions from the street through a window to the actors in an interior replica car.

In order to get the high speed required, we shot plates on location from multiple cameras, including on a motorbike to achieve the high-speed bursts. Later, production filled the car with smoke and our effects team added CG fire and burning textures to the exterior of our CG car, which intensified as he continued his journey.

You’ve talked about the tight post turnaround? How did you show the client shots for approval?
Given the volume and wide range of work required, we were working on a range of sequences concurrently to maximize the short post window — and align our teams when they were working on similar types of shot.

We had constant access to Neil and Douglas throughout the post period, which was crucial for approvals and feedback as we developed key assets and delivered key sequences. Neil and Douglas would visit Milk regularly for reviews toward delivery of the project.

What tools did you use for the VFX?
Amazon (AWS) for cloud rendering, Ziva for creature rigging, Maya, Nuke, Houdini for effects and Arnold for rendering.

What haven’t I asked that is important to touch on?
Our work on Soho, in which Michael Sheen’s Aziraphale bookshop is situated. Production designer Michael Ralph created a set based on Soho’s Berwick Street, comprising a two-block street exterior constructed up to the top of the first story, with the complete bookshop — inside and out — standing on the corner.

Four 20-x-20-foot mobile greenscreens helped our environment team complete the upper levels of the buildings and extend the road into the far distance. We photo scanned both the set and the original Berwick Street location, combining the reference to build digital assets capturing the district’s unique flavor for scenes during both day and nighttime.


Before and After: Soho

Mackinnon wanted crowds of people moving around constantly, so on shooting days crowds of extras thronged the main section of street and a steady stream of vehicles turned in from a junction part way down. Areas outside this central zone remained empty, enabling us to drop in digital people and traffic without having to do takeovers from live-action performers and cars. Milk had a 1,000-frame cycle of cars and people that it dropped into every scene. We kept the real cars always pulling in round the corner and devised it so there was always a bit of gridlock going on at the back.

And finally, we relished the opportunity to bring to life Neil Gaiman and Douglas Mackinnon’s awesome apocalyptic vision for Good Omens. It’s not often you get to create VFX in a comedy context. For example, the stuff inside the antichrist’s head: whatever he thinks of becomes reality. However, for a 12-year-old child, this means reality is rather offbeat.


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 

Behind the Title: Ntropic Flame artist Amanda Amalfi

NAME: Amanda Amalfi

COMPANY: Ntropic (@ntropic)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Ntropic is a content creator producing work for commercials, music videos and feature films as well as crafting experiential and interactive VR and AR media. We have offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City and London. Some of the services we provide include design, VFX, animation, color, editing, color grading and finishing.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Senior Flame Artist

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Being a senior Flame artist involves a variety of tasks that really span the duration of a project. From communicating with directors, agencies and production teams to helping plan out any visual effects that might be in a project (also being a VFX supervisor on set) to the actual post process of the job.

Amanda worked on this lipstick branding video for the makeup brand Morphe.

It involves client and team management (as you are often also the 2D lead on a project) and calls for a thorough working knowledge of the Flame itself, both in timeline management and that little thing called compositing. The compositing could cross multiple disciplines — greenscreen keying, 3D compositing, set extension and beauty cleanup to name a few. And it helps greatly to have a good eye for color and to be extremely detail-oriented.

WHAT MIGHT SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT YOUR ROLE?
How much it entails. Since this is usually a position that exists in a commercial house, we don’t have as many specialties as there would be in the film world.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
First is the artwork. I like that we get to work intimately with the client in the room to set looks. It’s often a very challenging position to be in — having to create something immediately — but the challenge is something that can be very fun and rewarding. Second, I enjoy being the overarching VFX eye on the project; being involved from the outset and seeing the project through to delivery.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
We’re often meeting tight deadlines, so the hours can be unpredictable. But the best work happens when the project team and clients are all in it together until the last minute.

WHAT IS YOUR MOST PRODUCTIVE TIME OF THE DAY?
The evening. I’ve never been a morning person so I generally like the time right before we leave for the day, when most of the office is wrapping up and it gets a bit quieter.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Probably a tactile art form. Sometimes I have the urge to create something that is tangible, not viewed through an electronic device — a painting or a ceramic vase, something like that.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I loved films that were animated and/or used 3D elements growing up and wanted to know how they were made. So I decided to go to a college that had a computer art program with connections in the industry and was able to get my first job as a Flame assistant in between my junior and senior years of college.

ANA Airlines

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
Most recently I worked on a campaign for ANA Airlines. It was a fun, creative challenge on set and in post production. Before that I worked on a very interesting project for Facebook’s F8 conference featuring its AR functionality and helped create a lipstick branding video for the makeup brand Morphe.

IS THERE A PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I worked on a spot for Vaseline that was a “through the ages” concept and we had to create looks that would read as from 1880s, 1900, 1940s, 1970s and present day, in locations that varied from the Arctic to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge to a boxing ring. To start we sent the digitally shot footage with our 3D and comps to a printing house and had it printed and re-digitized. This worked perfectly for the ’70s-era look. Then we did additional work to age it further to the other eras — though my favorite was the Arctic turn-of-the-century look.

NAME SOME TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
Flame… first and foremost. It really is the most inclusive software — I can grade, track, comp, paint and deliver all in one program. My monitors — the 4K Eizo and color-calibrated broadcast monitor, are also essential.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Mostly Instagram.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK? 
I generally have music on with clients, so I will put on some relaxing music. If I’m not with clients, I listen to podcasts. I love How Did This Get Made and Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Hiking and cooking are two great de-stressors for me. I love being in nature and working out and then going home and making a delicious meal.

NYC’s The-Artery expands to larger space in Chelsea

The-Artery has expanded and moved into a new 7,500-square-foot space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Founded by chief creative officer Vico Sharabani, The-Artery will use this extra space while providing visual effects, post supervision, offline editorial, live action and experience design and development across multiple platforms.

According to Sharabani, the new space is not only a response to the studio’s growth, but allows The-Artery to foster better collaboration and reinforce its relationships with clients and creative partners. “As a creative studio, we recognize how important it is for our artists, producers and clients to be working in a space that is comfortable and supportive of our creative process,” he says. “The extraordinary layout of this new space, the size, the lighting and even our location, allows us to provide our clients with key capabilities and plays an important part in promoting our mission moving forward.”

Recent The-Artery projects include 2018’s VR-enabled production for Mercedez-Benz, their work on Under Armour’s “Rush” campaign and Beyonce’s Coachella documentary, Homecoming.

They have also worked on feature films like Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation, Wes Anderson’s Oscar-winning Grand Budapest Hotel and the crime caper Ocean’s 8.

The-Artery’s new studio features a variety of software including Flame, Houdini, Cinema 4D, 3ds Max, Maya, the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of tools, Avid Media Composer, Shotgun for review and approval and more.

The-Artery features a veteran team of talented team of artists and creative collaborators, including a recent addition — editor and former Mad River Post owner Michael Elliot. “Whether they are agencies, commercial and film directors or studios, our clients always work directly with our creative directors and artists, collaborating closely throughout a project,” says Sharabani.

Main Image: Vico Sharabani (far right) and team in their new space.

FXhome, Vegas Creative Software partner on Vegas Post

HitFilm creator FXhome has partnered with Vegas Creative Software to launch a new suite of editing, VFX, compositing and imaging tools for video pros, editors and VFX artists called Vegas Post.

Vegas Post will combine the editing tools of Vegas Pro with FXhome’s expertise in compositing and visual effects to offer an array of features and capabilities.

FXhome is developing customized effects and compositing tools specifically for Vegas Post. The new software suite will also integrate a custom-developed version of FXhome’s new non-destructive RAW image compositor that will enable video editors to work with still-image and graphical content and incorporate it directly into their final productions. All tools will work together seamlessly in an integrated, end-to-end workflow to accelerate and streamline the post production process for artists.

The new software suite is ideally suited for video pros in post facilities of all sizes and requirements — from individual artists to large post studios, broadcasters and small/medium enterprise installations. It will be available in the third quarter, with pricing to be announced.

Meanwhile, FXhome has teamed up with Filmstro, which offers a royalty-free music library, to provide HitFilm users with access to the entire Filmstro music library for 12 months. With Filmstro available directly from the FXhome store, HitFilm users can use Filmstro soundtracks on unlimited projects and get access to weekly new music updates.

Offering more than just a royalty-free music library, Filmstro has developed a user interface that gives artists flexibility and control over selected music tracks for use in their HitFilm projects. HitFilm users can control the momentum, depth and power of any Filmstro track, using sliders to perfectly match any sequence in a HitFilm project. Users can also craft soundtracks to perfectly fit images by using a keyframe graph editor within Filmstro. Moving sliders automatically create keyframes for each element and can be edited at any point.

Filmstro offers over 60 albums’ worth of music with weekly music releases. All tracks are searchable using keywords, film and video genre, musical style, instrumental palette or mood. All Filmstro music is licensed for usage worldwide and in perpetuity. The Filmstro dynamic royalty-free music library is available now on the FXhome Store for $249 and can be purchased here.

Checking In: Glassworks’ Duncan Malcolm, Flame Award winner

Back in April, during an event at NAB, Autodesk presented its 2019 Flame Award to Duncan Malcolm. This Flame artist and director of 2D at Glassworks VFX in London is being celebrated for his 20-plus years of artistic achievements.

Malcolm has been working in production and post for 33 years. At Glassworks, he works closely with the studio’s CG artists to seamlessly blend CG photoreal assets and real-world environments for high-end commercial clients. Alongside his work in commercials, Malcolm has worked closely with the creators of the television series Black Mirror on look development and compositing for the award-winning Netflix series, including the critically acclaimed Bandersnatch interactive episode.

Duncan Malcolm

Let’s find out more about Malcolm’s beginnings, and the path that led him to Glassworks. And you can check out his showreel here.

You have a rich history in this industry. How did you get started working in VFX?
I started straight out of school at 15 years old at TVP, a small production company in Scotland that made corporate films and crewed for visiting broadcast companies. It was very small so I got involved in everything — camera work, location sound, sound design, edit and even made the VHS dubs, 8mm cine film transfers and designed the tape covers. So I learned a lot by getting on and doing it. It was before the Internet was prevalent, so you couldn’t just Google it back then; it really was trial and error.

TVP are still based in Aberdeen and still doing incredible work with a tiny crew. I often tell people in London about their feature film Sawney Bean, which they self-funded and made with a complete crew of five in their “spare time” and for all that, is completely inspirational.

I then became an offline and online editor at Picardy Television, which was at the time the biggest and most creative edit house in Scotland. It was there that I started using Quantel’s Editbox. I was focused on the offline  but also started to incorporate more sophisticated VFX into the online work. Around 1998 I made quite an abrupt move to London, I think as a reaction to my dad’s death. Back then the London industry didn’t really accept that one person could be good at more than one part of the filmmaking process, so I decided to focus on the VFX string on my bow.

I freelanced through Soho Editors as an Editbox artist in London and Denmark until I was offered the creative director/lead compositor position at Saatchi’s in-house company, Triangle. This is where I first met the Flame, and together we spent many a long day and night together making commercials and music videos.

I think my first big lead Flame job was Craig David’s Walking Away for Max and Dania. Apart from a few relatively simple commercials I hadn’t truly put the toolset to the test by then. It was quite frankly my personal VFX version of a baptism by fire. I barely left the room for weeks but felt more inspired (and tired) by the end.

Flame became my best VFX friend and my work grew in complexity. Eventually I was offered a position by Joce Capper and Bill McNamara at Rushes and spent quite a few years there working on a fair mixture of commercials and music videos.

How did you find your way to Glassworks?
Around 14 years ago, Hector Macleod offered me a Flame operator position at Glassworks. I jumped at that chance, and since then we have been building on Glassworks’ reputation for seamless VFX and innovative techniques. It’s been fun times, but also very interesting to watch the growth of our industry and the changes in expectations in projects. Even more interesting to me is that, even though on large projects we still effectively specialize, the industry in London and worldwide is much more accepting of the multi-skilled approach to filmmaking. Finally, the world is beginning to embrace the principles I first learned 33 years ago at TVP.

For the Bandersnatch episode of Black Mirror, how did your creative process on this episode differ from other TV projects, and did you use Flame any differently as a result?
I should mention that Bandersnatch has been nominated for a few BAFTAs (best single drama, best editing and best special, visual and graphic effect) so everyone involved are massively excited about that.

I really like working with House of Tomorrow on the Black Mirror films, but I especially loved working on Bandersnatch with producer Russell McLean and director David Slade. It really felt like we were involved in something fresh and new. Nobody knew for sure how the audience was going to watch and engage with such a complex story told in the interactive format. This made it impossible to make any of the normal assumptions. For VFX the goal was the same as normal: to realize director David Slade’s vision and, in the process, make every shot as engaging as possible. But the fact that it didn’t play out in a single linear timeline meant that every single decision had to be considered from this new point of view.

When did you get involved in the project?
I was involved in the very early stages of Bandersnatch, helping with ideas for the viewer’s interactive choice points. These tests were more basic editorial and content tests. I shot our head of production Duncan Buxton acting out parts of the script and cut decision-point sequences to illustrate ways the choices could work. I used Flame as an offline, basic online and audio editing tool for these. Almost every stage in the VFX planning went through some look developed in Flame.

For the environmental work we used traditional matte painting techniques and some clever CG techniques in places, but on a lot of it, I used the Flame to build and paint concept layouts. The pre-shoot the Trellick concept work in fact carried through to the final shots. The moment the mirror cracks was completely built in Flame using some pictures of west London vandalism I came across by accident on the way back from a Bandersnatch preproduction meeting.

The “through the mirror” sequences were shot with 3x-synced ARRI 65 cameras and the footage was unwrapped and used to re-project onto a 3D Stefan [the show’s young programmer] to make his reflection whilst he emerged from the mirror. The VFX requirements on this section of the shoot schedule were quite significant, so on set we had to be confident of the technique used and very quick to react to changes. Since rebuilding his reflection would take many weeks, I built versions of all the shots in Flame. These were used by editor Tony Kearns to find a pace for the sequence, and this fed into our CG artists who were building the reflection.

There were all sorts of Flame tools used to look-develop and finish this show. It really was my complete VFX supervisor companion throughout.

Can you talk about your Mr-benn.com initiative and how that came about?
Mr-benn.com is an art site I set up to exhibit and sell some of what I refer to as ‘the other art” created by people who work in the film and television industry. A portion from every sale is donated to plasticpollutioncoalition.org. It raises awareness about and fights plastic pollution, which is something worth standing behind.

I talked with so many friends and colleagues, talented in their own work fields, who had such an Insatiable appetite for creating that even after the grueling schedules of film projects had beaten them, they still had more to create and show. Their “other” is an amazing mixture of photography, found art, land art, fractals, infrared photography and digital design. It all could be — and often is — exhibited separately on generic art sites without much importance put on the creators’ cinematic achievements. Mr-benn is about the achievement in both their day jobs their “other art” together. It’s starting to get talked about; I hope people like what they see and help support a good cause.

How has your use of Flame changed or evolved over the past 20 years? Are there any particular features that have been added that make your job easier?
Flame has changed greatly since I started with it. I think the addition of the timeline was a particular game-changer, and it’s difficult to remember what it was like without 16-bit float capabilities. On terms of recent changes, the color management has made color workflow much easier. To be fair, every update makes something a little easier.

What other tools are in your arsenal?
I have the demo of almost every type of 3D and 2D package on my laptop, but I haven’t made enough time to master any of them apart from Flame, a little Nuke and Photoshop. I do rely on my Canon DSLR a lot, and I grade stills with Lightroom.

Was there a particular film that motivated you to work in VFX?
Not one in particular. There have been some that along the way have impressed me. I’m thinking District 9 as I type, but there have been a few with a similar effect on me.

What inspires your work?
I take an interest in a lot of everyday things, what the world looks and moves like. Not enough to be an expert in anything, but enough to understand (on a basic level) how it could be recreated. I’m certainly not very clever, just interested enough to spend proper time to find solutions.

The other part is that I seem to have is a gene that makes me feel really bad if I let people down. So I keep going until a problem shot is better, or I hit an immovable delivery date. I’d have done okay in any service industry really.

Any tips for young people starting out?
I see a direct link between exceptional creativity in VFX work to how deeply curious people are in the real world, with all of its incredible qualities. A good place to start is getting interested in what the real world actually looks like through a real lens. Take your own pictures, as it makes you understand relationship between lens and objects.

Start your own projects, and make sure they’re ambitious. Work out how to make them amazing. Then show these as an example of what you can do. Don’t show roto for rotos sake. Once you get a job, don’t get complacent and think you’ve made it. The next step in a career isn’t automatic. It only happens with added effort.

Sydney’s Fin creates CG robot for Netflix film I Am Mother

Fin Design + Effects, an Australian-based post production house with studios in Melbourne and Sydney, brings its VFX and visual storytelling expertise to the upcoming Netflix film I Am Mother. Directed by Grant Sputore, the post-apocalyptic film stars Hilary Swank, Rose Byrne and Clara Rugaard.

In I Am Mother, a teenage girl (Rugaard) is raised underground by the robot “Mother” (voiced by Byrne), designed to repopulate the earth following an extinction event. But their unique bond is threatened when an inexplicable stranger (Swank) arrives with alarming news.

Working closely with the director, Fin Design’s Sydney office built a CG version of the AI robot Mother to be used interchangeably with the practical robot suit built by New Zealand’s Weta Workshop. Fin was involved from the early stages of the process to help develop the look of Mother, completing extensive design work and testing, which then fed back into the practical suit.

In total, Fin produced over 220 VFX shots, including the creation of a menacing droid army as well as general enhancements to the environments and bunker where this post-apocalyptic story takes place.

According to Fin Australia’s managing director, Chris Spry, “Grant was keen on creating an homage of sorts to old-school science-fiction films and embracing practical filmmaking techniques, so we worked with him to formulate the best approach that would still achieve the wow factor — seamlessly combining CG and practical effects. We created an exact CG copy of the suit, visualizing high-action moments such as running, or big stunt scenes that the suit couldn’t perform in real life, which ultimately accounted for around 80 shots.”

Director Sputore on working with Fin: “They offer suggestions and bust expectations. In particular, they delivered visual effects magic with our CG Mother, one minute having her thunder down bunker corridors and in the next moment speed-folding intricate origami creations. For the most part, the robot at the center of our film was achieved practically. But in those handful of moments where a practical solution wasn’t possible, it was paramount that the audience was not be bumped from the film by a sudden transition to a VFX version of one of our central characters. In the end, even I can’t tell which shots of Mother are CG and which are practical, and, crucially, neither can the audience.”

To create the CG replica, the Fin team paid meticulous attention to detail, ensuring the material, shaders and textures perfectly matched photographs and laser scans of the practical suit. The real challenge, however, was in interpreting the nuances of the movements.

“Precision was key,” explains VFX supervisor Jonathan Dearing. “There are many shots cutting rapidly between the real suit and CG suit, so any inconsistencies would be under a spotlight. It wasn’t just about creating a perfect CG replica but also interpreting the limitations of the suit. CG can actually depict a more seamless movement, but to make it truly identical, we needed to mimic the body language and nuances of the actor in the suit [Luke Hawker]. We did a character study of Luke and rigged it to build a CG version of the suit that could mimic him precisely.”

Fin finessed its robust automation pipeline for this project. Built to ensure greater efficiency, the system allows animators to push their work through lighting and comp at the click of a button. For example, if a shot didn’t have a specific light rig made for it, animators could automatically apply a generic light rig that suits the whole film. This tightly controlled system meant that Fin could have one lighter and one animator working on 200 shots without compromising on quality.

The studio used Autodesk Maya, Side Effects Houdini, Foundry Nuke and Redshift on this project.

I Am Mother premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is set to stream on Netflix on June 7.

Behind the Title: MPC creative director Rupert Cresswell

This Brit is living in New York while working on spots, directing and playing dodgeball.

NAME: Rupert Cresswell

COMPANY: MPC

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
MPC has been one of the global leaders in VFX for nearly 50 years, with industry-leading facilities in London, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Bangalore, New York, Montréal, Shanghai, Amsterdam and Paris. Well-known for adding visuals for advertising, film and entertainment industries, some of our most famous projects include blockbuster movies such as The Jungle Book, The Martian, the Harry Potter franchise, the X-Men movies and the upcoming The Lion King, not to mention famous advertising campaigns for brands such as Samsung, BMW, Hennessy and Apple. I am based in New York.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Creative Director (and Director)

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Lots of things, depending on the project. I am repped by MPC to direct commercials, so my work often mixes live action with some form of visual effects or animation. I’m constantly pitching for jobs; if I am successful, I direct the subsequent shoot, then oversee a team of artists at MPC through the post process until delivery.

VeChain 

When I’m not directing, I work as a creative director, leading teams on animation and design projects within MPC. It’s mostly about zeroing in on a client’s needs and offering a creative solution. I critique large teams of artists’ work — sometimes up to 60 artists across our global network — ensuring a consistent creative vision. At MPC we are expected to keep the highest standards of work and make original contributions to the industry. It’s my job to make sure we do.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I feel like the lines between agency, production company and VFX studio can be blurred these days. In my job, I’m often called on for a wide range of disciplines such as writing the creative, directing actors, and even designing large-scale print and OOH (out of the home) advertising campaigns.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
There’s always a purity to the concepts at the pitch stage, which I tend to get really enthusiastic about, but the best bit is to get to travel to shoot. I’ve been super-lucky to film in some awesome places like the south of France, Montreal, Cape Town and the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Additionally, the industry is full of funny, cool, creative characters, and if you can take a beat to remind yourself of that, it’s always a blast working with them. The usual things can bother you, like stress and long hours; also, no one likes it when ideas with great potential get compromised. But more often than not, I’m thankful for what I get to do.

WHAT IS YOUR MOST PRODUCTIVE TIME OF THE DAY?
There’s a sweet spot in the morning after I’ve had some caffeine and before I get hungry for lunch — that’s when the heavy lifting happens.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I always knew I wanted to go to art school but never really knew what to do after that. It took years to figure out how to turn my interests into a career. There’s a lot to be said for stubbornly refusing to do something less interesting.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I finished a big campaign for Timberland, which was a great experience. I worked directly with the client, first on the creative, then I directed the shoot in Montreal. I then I oversaw the post and the print campaign, which seemed to go up everywhere I went in the city. It was a huge technical and creative challenge, but great to be involved from the very start to the very end of the process.

I also worked on one of the first brand campaigns for the blockchain currency, VeChain. That was a huge VFX undertaking and lots of fun — we created a love letter to some classic sci-fi films like Star Wars and Blade Runner, which turned out pretty sweet.

In complete contrast, my most favorite recent experience was to work on the branding for the cult Hulu comedy Pen15. The show is so funny, it was a bit of a dream project. It was refreshing to go from such a large technical endeavor as Timberland with a big VFX team to working almost solo, and mostly just illustrating. There was something really cathartic about it. The job required me to spend most of the day doodling childish pictures — I got a real kick out of the puzzled faces around the office wondering if I’d had some kind of breakdown.

Pen15

WHAT OTHER PROJECTS STAND OUT?
Some of my stuff won glittery awards, but I am super-proud that I made a short film, called Charlie Cloudhead, that got picked up by many festivals. I always wanted to try writing and directing narrative work, and I wanted something that could showcase more of my live-action direction.

It was an unusually personal film, which I still feel a little awkward about, but I am really proud that I put in the effort to make it. It was amazing to work with two fantastic actors (Paul Higgins and Daisy Haggard), and I’m still humbled by all the hard work a big team of people put in just for some kooky little idea that I dreamed up.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
The idea of no phone and no Internet gives me anxiety. Add to the horror by taking away AC during a New York summer and I’d be a weeping mess.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
I’m pretty much addicted to scrolling through Instagram, but I’m lazy at posting stuff. Maybe it’ll become Myspace 2.0 and we’ll all laugh at all those folks with thousands of followers. Until then, it’s very useful for seeing inspiring new work out there.

I’m also a Brit living abroad in the US, so I’m rather masochistically glued to any news of the whole Brexit thing going down.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
I do. Music is incredibly influential. Most of the time when I’m working on a project, it will be inspired by a song. It helps me create a mood for the film and I’ll listen to it repeatedly while I’m working on script or walking around thinking about it. For example, my short film was inspired by a song by Cate Le Bon.

My taste is pretty random to be honest. Recently I’ve been re-visiting Missy Elliott and checking out Rosalia, John Maus and the new Karen O stuff. I’m also a bit obsessed with an artist from Mali called Oumou Sangaré. I was introduced to her by a late-night Lyft driver recently, and she’s been helping set the mood for this Q&A right now.

I should add, I work in an open-plan studio and access to the Bluetooth speaker takes a certain restraint and responsibility to prevent arguments — I’m not necessarily the right guy for that. I usually try and turn the place into Horse Meat Disco.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I recently joined a dodgeball league. I had no idea how to play at first, and I’m actually very bad at it. I’m treating it as a personal challenge — learning to embrace being a laughable failure. I’m sure it’ll do me good.

Fox Sports promotes US women’s World Cup team with VFX-heavy spots

Santa Monica creative studio Jamm worked with Wieden+Kennedy New York on the Fox Sports campaign “All Eyes on US.” Directed by Joseph Kahn out of Supply & Demand, the four spots celebrate the US Women’s soccer team as it gears up for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in June.

The newest 60-second spot All Eyes on US, features tens of thousands of screaming fans thanks to Jamm’s CG crowd work. On set, Jamm brainstormed with Kahn on how to achieve the immersive effect he was looking for. Much of the on-the-ground footage was shot using wide-angle lenses, which posed a unique set of challenges by revealing the entire environment as well as the close-up action. With pacing, Jamm achieved the sense of the game occurring in realtime, as the tempo of the camera keeps in step with the team moving the ball downfield.

The 30-second spot Goliath features the first CG crowd shot by the Jamm team, who successfully filled the soccer stadium with a roaring crowd. In Goliath, the entire US women’s soccer team runs toward the camera in slow motion. Captured locked off but digitally manipulated via a 3D camera to create a dolly zoom technique replicating real-life parallax, the altered perspective translates the unsettling feeling of being an opponent as the team literally runs straight into the camera.

On set, Jamm got an initial Lidar scan of the stadium as a base. From there, they used that scan along with reference photos taken on set to build a CG stadium that included accurate seating. They extended the stadium where there were gaps as well to make it a full 360 stadium. The stadium seating tools tie in with Jamm’s in-house crowd system (based on Side Effects Houdini) and allowed them to easily direct the performance of the crowd in every shot.

The Warrior focuses on Megan Rapinoe standing on the field in the rain, with a roaring crowd behind her. Whereas CG crowd simulation is typically captured with fast-moving cameras, the stadium crowd remains locked in the background of this sequence. Jamm implemented motion work and elements like confetti to make the large group of characters appear lively without detracting from Rapinoe in the foreground. Because the live-action scenes were shot in the rain, Jamm used water graphing to seamlessly blend the real-world footage and the CG crowd work.

The Finisher centers on Alex Morgan, who earned the nickname because “she’s the last thing they’ll see before it’s too late.”  The team ran down the field at a slow motion pace, while the cameraman rigged with a steady cam sprinted backwards through the goal. Then the footage was sped up by 600%, providing a realtime quality, as Morgan kicks a perfect strike to the back of the net.

Jamm used Autodesk Flame for compositing the crowds and CG ball, camera projections to rebuild and clean up certain parts of the environment, refining the skies and adding in stadium branding. They also used Foundry Nuke and Houdini for 3D.

The edit was via FinalCut and editor Spencer Campbell. The color grade was by Technicolor’s Tom Poole.