In 2021, Doi Atsushi explained the visual effects work for the Netflix series, Alice in Borderland. He is back today to tell us about the new challenges for the second season of this excellent series.

What was your feeling to be back in the universe of Alice in Borderland?

I finished Season 1 feeling like there was still so much more to be told. So, with Season 2, the storyline, VFX, volume, and difficulty level increased and I was glad that I was able to take on a new challenge.

How was the new collaboration with Director Shinsuke Sato?

It’s always an exciting and inspiring challenge with each work with Director Sato and I believe that not only the VFX team but everyone on the staff feels the same way.What the director wants is something that can be enjoyed, something that challenges to status quo and with Season 1 we brought everything up to world-class standards. Following Season 1, we were able to introduce new techniques and challenge ourselves all over again.

Did he wanted to change anything about the visual effects after the first season?

After Season 1 was over, Director Sato told me that for Season 2, he was thinking of turning Shibuya into a vegetated area. Originally, in the original story, the world of Imagine (aka Borderland) began to be covered with plants, but in Season 1, we did not show that much to focus more on Tokyo being uninhabited.The success of the CG representation of Shibuya in Season 1 led us to proceed with the theme of a vegetated Shibuya and Tokyo.

How did you organize the work of your VFX Producer?

We asked the VFX producer to assign each vendor, adjust schedules, manage budgets, divide and assign work to each shot, and so on. Since the number of shots exceeded 2,000 and the schedule was quite compressed, we asked the producer to coordinate so that all the shots could proceed without delay. In the end, we assigned work to 12 vendors in addition to Digital Frontier. I think the scheduling of the VFX producer and our team of production managers was the key to the success of this production.

How did you choose the various vendors?

The assumption was that we would be able to split up the sequence and have enough artists available to assign to the volume of each shot. The premise was whether or not we could secure the number of artists we could assign to the project. We then selected vendors based on their strengths, such as whether they could handle assets or animation. Although there were some vendors that we had to request on short notice as the delivery date approached, we were able to proceed with the project with little delay.We were able to proceed with the project with minimal delays and some vendors have continued to work with us since Season 1.

Can you tell us how you split the work amongst the vendors?

We have allocated the work to be done so that it can be divided by sequence for each game.

Below are the vendors assigned to each sequence.

Camera Tracking > Yannix
Roto > NetFX
CleanPlate > NetFX

ep01 Shibuya Sequence

Asset > Digital Frontier
Comp > Alphaliez, Digital Frontier, Studio GOONEYS, Marza Animation Planet

ep01 Car Chase?

Asset > Omnibus Japan, Digital Frontier
Comp > Omnibus Japan

ep02, ep03 Armband monitor of « Suutori”

Comp > Studio GOONEYS

ep03 « Suutori » container, huge monitor, set extension

Asset > Digital Frontier
Comp > Alphaliez

ep03, ep04 « Dokubo » set extension, monitor

Asset > Digital Frontier
Comp > Digital Frontier

ep04, ep05 Heiya’s Artificial Leg

Asset > Digital Frontier
Comp > Omnibus Japan

ep05 « Kamayude » Stadium Collapse

Asset > Digital Frontier
Comp > Kassen

ep05, ep06, ep07 Dots of Tokyo city in vegetation

Asset > Linda
Comp > Linda

ep06 « Tenbin”

Asset > Megalis
Comp > Megalis

ep07 « Target »

Asset > Marza Animation Planet
Animation > Marza Animation Planet
Comp > Marza Animation Planet

ep07 « Minomushi »

Asset > Marza Animation Planet
Animation > Marza Animation Planet
FX > Digital Frontier
Comp > Marza Animation Planet

ep07, ep08 Aerial view of Tokyo in vegetation

Asset > Giant Step
Comp > Giant Step

ep07, ep08 Shibuya sequence with vegetation

Asset > Digital Frontier
FX > Digital Frontier
Comp > Alphalieze, Digital Frontier, Studio GOONEYS, Kassen, Marza Animation Planet, NHK ART

ep08 « Croquet »

Asset > Digital Frontier
FX > Digital Frontier
Comp > Imagica EMS

ep08 Fireworks pointillism in a botanized Tokyo city

Asset > Giant Step
FX > Digital Frontier
Comp > Giant Step

ep08 Shibuya Scramble Crossing

Asset > Digital Frontier
Comp > NHK ART

ep08 Collapsed Shibuya

Asset > Digital Frontier
FX > Digital Frontier
Comp > Digital Frontier

ep08 Collapsed Shibuya (Aerial view)

Asset > Giant Step
FX > Giant Step
Comp > Giant Step

ep08 Heya’s Artificial Leg

Comp > Marza Animation Planet

All episode Airship Shots

Asset > Digital Frontier
FX > Digital Frontier
Comp > Digital Frontier

What was your approach about the environment work?

The main theme of Season 2 was a vegetated Tokyo. First, I created an image board of a vegetated Shibuya scramble crossing and then decided on the final image of a vegetated city.

For example, the Supreme Court, the site of « Tenbin », was created based on drawings made by the Art Department.

For the exterior of the stadium after the collapse of the « Kamayude » venue, a rough collapse model was created based on a Lidar scan model of the actual stadium, and an image board was drawn and a CG model was created based on this model.

Can you elaborate about the vegetation that invades the city?

The world of Alice in borderland is limited to the 23 wards of Tokyo. Eventually, the area outside the 23 wards will be covered by mountains, but keeping with the storyline of Season 2, the series is divided into five levels to show the gradual progression of vegetation:

  • Level 1 is grass growing out of the ground
  • Level 5, the entire city is covered with plants, including buildings

This is shared with all departments, including the director. In Alice in borderland, time passes faster than in reality, so as the episodes progress, the city is covered with plants. The game is depicted as if the city is becoming more and more vegetated as the episodes progress.What is special is that the game venue is not covered with plants as the game venues are controlled by the game master.

Which location was the most complicated to create and why?

There were a lot of them! The scene that became quite a challenge from what we had originally envisioned is the game « Target » in EP07, where the player throws a glowing ball. During the shoot, we are actually holding and throwing the ball with LEDs in it and then replacing the ball with a CG ball and changing the ball’s trajectory and luminescence. If the ball’s trail was too long, it looked too slow, and if it was too short, it looked too far away from the image. To make the ball bounce off the wall, the trail needed to be long and to make the ball look fast, it needed to be short. In the end, by combining the two types of materials, we were able to achieve the look we had imagined. We found that the simpler the scene seemed, the more unexpected the pitfalls were.

This season we see much better the Zeppelins. Can you tell us more about them?

The airship was designed in reference to the Hindenburg and the Aeroscraft, a joint development of NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. The Hindenburg’s retro design was used to create an atmosphere of disaster and Aeroscraft was also used as a reference to make the giant playing cards hang and look transportable. The texture of the aircraft is reflected in the design to give it a huge and frightening appearance.

The playing card is made of tarpaulin, and there is a reason why it is divided into pieces. We thought that in a single piece, it would be susceptible to wind resistance, so we divided it into multiple pieces and a wind pathway, thereby creating a sense of reality.

As for the destruction of the airship, I started from the starting point of the explosion. We placed a bomb in the cockpit of the airship and used it as the detonation point. The cockpit explodes, the airship is damaged by the explosion, and the helium inside the airship ignites, causing the explosion.

The symbolic explosions are the airship falling to the ground.

Can you elaborates about your work on the long continuous shots?

Car chase sequences were not actually filmed in Tokyo, but in Nagoya and Toyama. We blocked off a 300-meter long road, placed cars, and debris on the ground. The action director created a video with miniature cars before the shoot and we created CG pre-visualization for some of the missing parts, and decided on the shooting method.

We decided on three patterns for the location shooting:

  • actors driving (car towed),
  • stuntmen driving,
  • and green-back studio shooting.

For the greenback portion of the shoot, we considered virtual production, but decided against it due to the reflection of LEDs on the windshield and the brightness of the sunlight, so we decided not to go for it this time.

The long shot, like the other shots, was shot with the road blocked off, but with a relatively large space between the cars in order to keep the CameraCar’s path clear. To compensate for this, CG cars were placed in places to make the shot more powerful. The car in which the cast is riding is driven safely. To make sure the cars the cast was in didn’t look like they were driving safely.

We added cars that would hit each other, made the camera pass right at the edge of the cars, and added machine-gun fragments in front of the camera, and so on, to make it look like the cast was driving safely.

How did you work with the SFX and stunts teams?

During the storyboard verification stage, we had detailed discussions to determine which parts would be done in CG. Director Sato has worked with this team many times before, so I think we had no problem working together.

Which death was the most complicate to enhance?

I think it is the death of Daimon, one of the female characters in the game in Episode 06. I needed to express that the sulfuric acid poured into the balance overflowed, and her body was covered with it and melted. Daimon’s melted corpse was created by the special effects team during the shoot and I used Photogrammetry to create a 3D mesh, which was then used to create the model, animation, and effects. During the shoot, we had her bathe in water and even nod her head. The water (sulfuric acid) was dyed red and blood in the CG to blend in with the CG at the transition point.

Can you explain in detail about the creation and animation of the fireworks?

Borderland begins with the fireworks Chota sees in Season 1, but the final fireworks have a different meaning than these. It was a celebration of the end of all the games so the fireworks were colorful and vibrant and fireworks were set off countless times.

The fireworks were shot off all over the 23 wards of Tokyo and I tried to express the depth of the fireworks by making smoke from the fireworks shine through. I have heard that it is difficult to express the deep blue color of actual fireworks.

As a firework reference, I used the most famous Nagaoka fireworks in Japan. I used the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival, the most famous firework festival in Japan, as a reference. Japanese fireworks have the meaning of repose of souls, and I believe that these fireworks also express our feelings for the players who died in Borderland.

How did you handle the elephants creation and animations?

In laying out the elephants, as symmetry between the two, Alice and Usagi,we started with two elephants, a male and a female elephant.

At the request of the director, the size of the elephants was adjusted to make them look mysterious and fantastic. If we had followed the director’s storyboard, the elephants would have been twice the size of the actual elephants, which would have looked too large. If we had placed them in a realistic size, they would have looked too small, so we ultimately settled on a size in between. For the animation, we first decided to use reference videos from YouTube to determine the base movement.

Then, blocking, animatics, and animation were done. At first, we proposed a motion of a male and a female playing harmoniously together, however, this was too much in terms of direction.

We decided to restrain the movement and make the elephants look mysterious as they stand in the steam of the hot spring. The male elephant bathing with his snout in the collapsed stadium was a beautiful sight. The sparkling splashes of water are beautiful and mysterious and really emphasizes this beautiful scene.

Can you elaborates about the design and the creation of the massive final destructions?

Regarding the fall of the meteorite, I asked a specialist at the Chiba Institute of Technology what he thought the scale of the collapse would be in keeping with the staging of this film. We needed a setting where the meteorite looked like fireworks and the Shibuya scramble was outside the crater’s range.

  • If it was a rock, it would be destroyed in the atmosphere
  • if it was an iron meteorite, it would remain until it fell
  • If it is an iron meteorite, it will remain until it falls
  • If it is blown up in the air, it will be destroyed by hot air explosions

The molten material on the surface of an iron meteorite would appear as fire sparks. A 30-meter iron meteorite explodes at an angle of incidence of 20 km/s 45 degrees, 500 meters above the ground,1 km horizontal distance damage occurs, it was summarized.

Based on this, we determined the center of the meteorite explosion, the area of damage, and the damage.

The aerial explosion occurred over Yoyogi Park, and the Shibuya scramble crossing, no buildings collapsed, but windows were broken, billboards fell, window frames and the steel frames of buildings were destroyed. The sonic shock wave precedes the explosion and is followed by smoke and other debris.

Did you want to reveal to us any other invisible effects?

As in Season 1, the world of Borderland, no one exists except for the players, and the lights outside of the game room are turned off. So, it was necessary to check every frame of the cityscape shot in detail and I had to turn off all the lights around the game venue.

If all the lights around the game venue were turned off, it would be pitch black and there would be no depth to the scene. We had to consider the area to be turned off, with an emphasis on the appearance of the area.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?

The challenge in this season was how to create a 400-shot, vegetated Shibuya Scramble Crossing.

Originally, in Season 1, we tried to create the Shibuya Scramble Crossing in Unreal Engine, but the machine specs at the time were low and the Unreal Engine ray tracing was not stable. So we limited it to only a part of the intersection (a few swaying trees). In Season 2, we decided to create all the CG of the Shibuya scramble crossing in Unreal Engine. We only had about two and a half months to actually composite but were able to iterate on the shaking of the foliage, lighting modifications, etc. in a very short period of time, and the rendering costs were reduced tremendously. So I think we made the right choice.

Shibuya, which was not vegetated, was created using Maya’s Vray, and after it was vegetated, it was further developed using Unreal Engine.

What is your best memory on this show?

When we were filming the « Checkmate » game a typhoon hit the area. Furthermore, the game was shot at a thermal power plant that was still in operation, so we needed to make sure there was no disruption.

How long have you worked on this show?

Location hunting started in December 2020 and in 2021, based on the locations and storyboards, we started meetings with staff from all departments to finalize location selection, start pre-visualization, image board creation, etc. Filming took place from July to December 2021, Editing was fixed in April 2021 and we worked on VFX until September 2022.

What is your next project?

It’s still under lock and key but I am currently working on another film project for Netflix – more on that soon! Additionally, I am currently working as a CG director, assisting with compositing for other productions.

A big thanks for your time.

Digital Frontier: Dedicated page about Alice in Borderland – Season 2 on Digital Frontier website.
Studio GOONEYS: Dedicated page about Alice in Borderland on Studio GOONEYS website.
Netflix: You can watch now Alice in Borderland on Netflix.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2023


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