What is your background?
I started out as a CG Generalist and have a background in compositing, lighting and FX. Those three disciplines also helped me become a strong look development artist as well. I’ve covered a lot of ground in what is considered a modern visual effects workflow and have gained insight into how the gears all turn in the machine, which in turn has really helped me as a VFX Supervisor.
Film wise, I’ve always wanted to work on movies. When I was young, I didn’t specifically want to be a visual effects artist, but I was always captivated by the imagination and creativity, and I was drawn to the filmmaking process in general. I sort of just found my way to visual effects because I wanted to be part of that creation and imagination process.
How was the collaboration with director Ridley Scott and VFX Supervisor Charley Henley?
I first met Charley when I flew up to Sydney with our Digital Production Manager Justin Porter. It was an initial meet and greet in May of 2016. We also met with Sona Pak who was the VFX Producer on the show. Charley briefed us on the sequence that Luma would be working on, which involved early conceptualization and design pitching. It was a great way to initially meet face to face because it was a meeting based on establishing a creative and collaborative relationship. Even though it was our first meeting, we were already bouncing ideas off each other just so that I could get a feel for the tone and initial ideas that he and Ridley may have discussed. From there we organised weekly Skype calls, cineSyncs and phone calls to maintain the momentum and stay on top of the ideas.
As the show progressed, Charley was really open to pitching ideas and we went through a lot of conceptualization style guides, concept paint overs and FX simulation tests. While there was certainly a brief that we were adhering to, he was always generally open to us pitching ideas and trying to layer in nuances from other inspirations to build upon the initial brief.
What was their approaches and expectations about the visual effects?
The practical photography was so well executed —including a lot of the lighting props and set designs, which were pre-planned and captured in camera. The mantra was that it should always be about realism first and aiding the story and dialogue. The setting was a very gritty and visceral aesthetic: it was not overly flashy or attention grabbing. Sometimes, we had to really reduce how apparent things were because the client wanted the visual effects to sink into the scene and be very subtle. In some cases, a viewer might not even see the work that had been executed.
To achieve this, we had to obey to the aesthetics of the photography. For example, in our floating lamps sequence we initially went for a lot of movement, texture and detail in the development of the lamp. This approach drew more attention to the lamps and being that they were only serving as light sources for the environment, it was important that we weren’t taking away from what was happening in the scene—so we toned it down with less intense textural detail. It was clear that Ridley had already made cohesive design choices leading up to the shoot that everyone was happy with, and it was more about our work complementing those choices versus overriding them.
What was your feeling to work on the Alien universe?
Being a huge sci-fi fan and fan of movies in general, I was incredibly proud and excited to be given the opportunity to work and supervise on ALIEN: COVENANT. It has such a rich universe and language of design and spans decades, which means it’s part of filmmaking history. I just feel lucky to be a part of that.
What are the sequences made by Luma Pictures?
Luma worked on three key sequences, which include the CyroPod Graphics Sequence, Floating Light Sequence and the Mote Stream Sequence.
How did you extend this set?
Our team extended the colony pod set to achieve depth and make the space feel like a never ending corridor. It was important that we conveyed the long and winding corridor as Walter walks through the interior. This required our team going in to key out the green screen backdrops and inserting repeating structures that snaked into the distance. In some cases we composited additional photography that was appropriately distanced from camera and in others we mapped photography onto set geometry to get the right parallax and perspective.
There are beautiful graphics on top of the CryoPod. How did you design and created these graphics?
We were initially provided with some graphics that were in early stages of progress for the show. It was Luma’s task to take that, build upon it, develop it and give it more context to what was happening in the sequence. We tweaked parameters and dials within the UI design to suit what we needed to convey in the story. For example, it was really important to convey heart rate, breath permeance, oxygen levels things that were really key to explaining what was happening to the occupants in the pod. There’s one instance where a fire breaks out within the pod, which called for called for different nuances in terms of health vitals. We made it clear enough for the viewer to understand that the inhabitant was in a state of danger.
Can you tell us more about their animation?
Once our concept designer had enough context and range to cover the storytelling aspects, we put it into after effects so that we could animate all the sliders, dials, heart rate graphs and EKG. We designed various styles of animation with varying speed. It was a raw take on sci-fi UI design and we avoided using curves to make it more angular. This was much more about function leading form rather than it being all about design. It served the purpose in a medical sense; the measurements were all based on real world medical readouts, so we really took the time to make sure that all the vitals had logic. Once we had the animation styles approved, we then timed it out for the sequence to ensure continuity with all the fluctuations as the vitals changed from shot to shot.
One of the character is burning inside his CryoPod. How did you handle the CG fire and the smoke?
On set, they put a dummy inside the chamber and actually lit it on fire inside this pod! Unfortunately the fire was not quite as visceral or as intense as Charley wanted it to be. Additionally, the plate photography of the fire was not combustive enough. We originally dabbled in experimenting with 2d elements, but because it was within the confines of a small chamber and because it had to react and collide with both the surfaces and the character’s body, we felt we had to move to a CG simulation of fire. Once that decision was made it opened up different possibilities, which allowed us to control the flames and get the look Charley was after.
Can you tell us more about the digi-double creation?
We mapped plate photography of James Franco’s face onto a digi-double and composited it with the live-action. We had good reference for lighting and how the flames could move within a small area, but being tied to a plate you are limited in that the performance of the dummy and flame movements are locked. So, while it has its advantages of being real, you don’t have the ability to art direct the fire based on any new performance cues. So, by moving to simulation, we also decided to move to a CG recreation of the body. We knew we could get away with a lot since we were covering the majority of his upper body and face with flames. We then match-moved and animated the character’s performance and digitally mapped Franco’s face onto geometry.
Can you explain in detail about the design and creation of the virus that came from the spores?
We developed particle simulations that were based off the murmuration of flocks of starlings. Our effects artist, Omar Meradi, had to define this behaviour and was able to establish a difference between “leader” and “follower” behavior. From there, we created 3D volumes that contained the cluster of spores. The spores begin to form into an aggressive shape and cluster together into a silhouette. We designed this silhouette internally to give it a story and concept. We knew the embodiment of the creature and what kind of characteristics we wanted it to have. Our concept artist, Nicolas Pierquin, designed a model taking cues from the classic Facehugger as well as underwater creatures which we lovingly called the Méduse.
How did you handle his animation especially when it takes a creature shape?
To emphasise that they were stronger as a group than just individually, we increased their goaling attributes to adhere more closely to the silhouette of the creature. It was really important that the underlying jellyfish like qualities of the creature’s movement played a part in how the spores flocked forward.
How did you manage the lighting and texture inside the ear?
We studied real world references of endoscopic photography and medical imaging of an ear canal. Something that became evident early on from studying the available references was that it was always shot with a shallow depth of field, with a spherical lens, a lot of distortion and with a light attached to the camera. The trick was we recreating a photoreal ear canal with a tiny camera inside, but avoiding the rather mundane documentary style seen. This CG ear canal needed to be cinematic. We initially did some tests with a spherical lense and the optical quality was so poor that it was almost detracting from the storypoint, and we needed to keep the focus on the spores entering in the ear canal and implanting into the skin.
So, it came down to finding the right balance of what people are used to seeing based from medical photography, while also making sure it fit within the dark tone of the Alien universe. Drawing inspiration from the snaking back lit halls of the Juggernaut from PROMETHEUS, we attempted to create that ‘alien’ environment by layering in more texture and sculpting with light the rippling, waxy inner walls of the canal.
The virus finally enter the skin. Can you tell us more about this part?
As the particles get drawn into the surface, they form into a spear tip to aid in the puncturing of the surface. With the piercing of the skin, the surface swells up into a boil as the spores coalesce into the familiar black goo from PROMETHEUS. We achieved the swollen boil with a combination of hand sculpted blend shapes and cloth simulation layered over the top.
Inside David’s place there are floating lights. Can you explain in detail about their creation?
The lights are the primary light source of the laboratory. The Director of Photography, David Wolski, set a really interesting mood and lit the set with suspended lanterns, so we had a lot to work with in respect to what was captured on camera. The elliptical lamps that we created were very much inspired by crystal salt lamps.
We initially designed a lamp made of caul fat membrane with a sheath wrapped around the lights. As we went on, we realised the lamps were calling too much attention to themselves, which detracted from the intensity of the dialogue. So we refrained from this initial concept and took some of the vein elements of the sheath and used that as an additional layer on top of the practical photography. As far as the lights themselves, we simulated orbs that move inside the lamp along with a swarm of motes that move around the light source.
What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge was designing the spores, which were essentially just one or two pixel dots on the screen, and making them move together without making them look like visual noise. Ridley and Charley were looking for subtlety in terms of integration of the spores. Later on when they cluster and form more of a creature group, they are certainly more in your face. But, to integrate the spores we just had to ensure that there was always a sense of soft rotation to the them since they were moving quite quickly and constantly moving in and out of light.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
The shot where you were looking out of the ear canal, mainly because we worked on it for a long time. You’re designing something that exists but has never been captured before, and so there was no similar reference for it. That and the references we studied of ear canals and boils were not for the faint-hearted!
What is your best memory on this show?
Well I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott, so this might not sound all that great to anyone else. We were submitting concepts for the silhouette of the spore cluster, and Ridley actually doodled a sketch of a profile that he was after. Charley passed it on to us during one of our meetings, which I thought was pretty cool.
How long have you worked on this show?
Approximately 10 months.
What is your VFX shots count?
What was the size of your team?
Just under 100.
What is your next project?
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Luma Pictures: Dedicated page about ALIEN: COVENANT on Luma Pictures website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017