In 2014, Nordin Rahhali explained the work of Method Studios on the remake of ROBOCOP. He then worked on many films such as HERCULES, INTO THE STORM, SAN ANDREAS, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2.
What was your feeling to be back in the Harry Potter universe?
It was exciting to be asked to return to the Potter universe. To work on something that is loved and cherished by so many fans is a rare treat.
How was this new collaboration with director David Yates and with VFX Supervisors Christian Manz and Tim Burke?
We were fortunate enough to be involved on this film early and spend time with David, Tim and Chris on set in Leavesden, UK. This allowed us to work much closer with them to design new creatures and previs our sequences.
How did you use your experience of the first Fantastic Beasts for this new episode?
We’d been in this Harry Potter world before and collaborated with David, Tim and Christian. Having that historical knowledge made everything run a bit smoother this go around because we weren’t starting from scratch.
What was the sequences made by Method Studios?
We designed and created new CG fantastic beasts, 12 of which are featured in the film including the Kelpie, Augurey, Leucrocotta, and baby Nifflers; we also handled a complex underwater sequence inside Newt’s magical creature hospital where he tames the unpredictable Kelpie.
How did you work with the art department for the creatures?
The art department had done some preliminary concepts on some of our creatures, which we further explored by adding our creative input on the creatures as well as designed many from scratch.
Can you explain in detail about the various creatures inside this environment?
We generated 18 different creatures, and the majority of those were original designs, though they didn’t all make the final edit. Coming up with these creatures is one of the reasons this project was so fun; Tim and David trusted us so much with the design and animation process, and it was incredibly satisfying to help build out part of Harry Potter lore. In the end, 12 of the creatures we created were used in the film, most of them we concepted and built from scratch. We inherited Moon and Butterfly from the first film; the most prominent new creatures are the Kelpie, Augurey, Leucrocotta, and baby Nifflers, which are original designs put together by Method creature concept artists Jamie O’Hara and Carlos Huante. The Kelpie is an underwater creature that’s as large as a horse but with a streamlined body made of kelp, so imagine a horse’s head with a long dolphin type body with long strips of kelp that wade behind it while it swims. The Augurey is an Irish phoenix essentially, in this case one that’s old and past his prime. The Leucrocotta is a Scottish mythical beast that’s kind of a cross between a giant moose and a whale shark. The baby Nifflers were extension from big adult Niffler.
Can you tell us more about the cute baby Niffler?
The baby Nifflers were an in-house favorite as they add levity – and cuteness – to the film’s darker tone. On set they had these little bean bags and when they shot, we didn’t have a final design. The adult Niffler is made of flat feathers, but production wanted the babies to feel more downy, like how a baby chick has cute fuzzy feathers. The initial baby Niffler look was inspired by my daughter’s pet guinea pig, then our team developed four distinct variations with unique colors and feather patterns. There was a lot of tracking and making sure the shadow and lighting contact was correct as Newt and Bunty interact with them. Fortunately, they were only picking them up and putting them in the suitcase, which is pretty straightforward.
Let’s talk about the Kelpie. How did you design and create this beautiful creature?
The Kelpie in the film isn’t super different from the rough concept given to us from production. We redesigned the face though because as we started to make the Kelpie into a 3D model, some of the facial movements didn’t quite look right. We have a really amazing character artist and sculptor in house who started pulling out new ideas and we came up with a few iterations to show the client. We definitely took into account the fact that Eddie would be interacting with the Kelpie when we were designing him. Method’s Animation Supervisor, Stephen Clee, who also worked on OKJA, is an expert at achieving natural tactile interactions between human actors and photoreal CG characters so his insight was invaluable.
What kind of references and indications did you received for the Kelpie and his animation?
On set, Animation Supervisor Stephen Clee managed a team of up to five puppeteers moving in sync as one stand-in to give Eddie a physical reference. Some of the action was filmed dry-for-wet, and other portions were shot with him submerged with a respirator in a 20-foot deep tank. The underwater footage provided our artists with a real-world starting point for Newt’s wet hair and clothes, air bubbles, and buoyant physical movements; it was such a huge help to actually have him in the water.
For shots of Eddie riding the Kelpie, he was filmed riding this big buck puppet with reins, so we were somewhat tied to his animation and the puppet’s animation – where he was putting his hands and how he was interacting with the puppet. We needed our CG model to be flexible so it could be true to what Eddie was doing with the puppet. Sometimes we’d thin out or increase the amount of kelp to help blend the live action and CG elements. The two reins were basically rotomated to where Eddie’s hands were to make sure they were connecting properly. The CG Kelpie wasn’t an exactly replacement for the physical buck but rather a balancing act between animation and roto to make sure performance feels authentic.
How did you handle the animation of his kelp-like body?
The Kelpie had many long flowing pieces of kelp that were part of his character. Some pieces were larger and more akin to fins; we used these main fins to help drive him through the water. Others were more like normal pieces of kelp and dragged along with him through the water as he moves. It was a mix of keyframe animation and tech-animation simulations.
How did you manage the interaction between Newt and the Kelpie?
For shots when Newt is riding the Kelpie, we had a rough grey buck on set. Stephen was there to comment on Eddie’s interactions and how physical something could get; that was very helpful and translated well to our animation so the interactions felt more natural and real.
The puppeteering is never going to be the full guide for the animation because a lot of time animation evolves as you get into the shot. What we really focused on was trying to get weight and connection, and something that feels real, knowing that animation would have to loosely follow what was captured. We focused on really nailing where head was and kept that area as locked on as possible, then once we moved up and to the back of the head, we had more freedom because the loose kelp is more forgiving.
Can you tell us more about the creation of the underwater environment?
We created a vast underwater space for the Kelpie to live in. We referenced areas off of the California coast, as there are a lot of rocky areas with tide pools and kelp forests; this look lent itself perfectly for what we were trying to achieve with the Kelpie. We put the rocky tidepool-esque areas around the pillars that make up the interior architecture of Newt’s apartment. We also added little trails of bubbles off of many of the BG elements.
How did you handle the underwater lighting challenge?
We referenced many underwater shots of kelp forests to mimic the natural sway and “breathing” that the kelp have, as well as payed close attention to visibility by adding small particulate in the water, caustics from the main key light, and made sure that visibility wasn’t just an underwater fog, but that the way things diffused out in water was replicated in CG.
This sequence involves a massive amount of FX and simulations. Can you tell us more about that and especially the big final splash?
We broke it down into parts. There was the Kelpie breaching the surface, for which we referenced whales and Orcas. There was the crash back underwater where again we referenced underwater footage of divers; you see how many small bubbles get produced from a crash into the water, so we replicated that. Then once Newt resurfaces and is in control of the Kelpie, the great challenge was to make a full green screen set look photographic, with Eddie Redmayne riding a puppeteered green screen Kelpie. We needed to make a convincing water simulation around him, with appropriate splashes and interactions. We did this through extreme high resolution flip simulations in Houdini. These were the most challenging shots we had on the film from a technical perspective.
What was the main challenge on the show and how did you achieve it?
Well, challenges matured and changed over the show. The initial main challenge was how to design so many creatures, then once the designs were approved, it was how to build them all to make them believable. Once they were built it was how to give them all personalities through animation and rigging. But we broke the large challenges down into bite sized chunks, and took a huge difficulty and made it more manageable.
Which sequence or shot was the most complicated to create and why?
The Kelpie sequence was the most complicated, mainly for the reasons outlined in other questions, but also because it had the least amount of practical set to use. These shots were basically Eddie on a green screen stage, and with water being the main element missing, it was definitely a challenge.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I think Method’s creature work on this film was particularly special because these sequences show Newt in his element, doing what he loves most, which is caring for these magical creatures. It was fun to have that in mind as an anchor for our work, and really for the film as a whole.
What is your best memory on this show?
It was the trust David, Tim and Christian had in us from the very beginning, to be creative collaborators. Very few films that I’ve been involved with gave us such freedom to explore and create purely from imagination like we had on this show, and it was very fun to be part of that process. We have now added to the Potter lore, including creating baby Nifflers – one of which is based on my daughter’s guinea pig. It’s pretty special to be able to do that.
How long have you worked on this show?
Personally I was on this show for 14 months.
What’s the VFX shots count?
111 VFX shots.
What was the size of your team?
What is your next project?
Bidding, we will see what the new year brings!
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Method Studios: Dedicated page about FANTASTIC BEASTS – THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD on Method Studios website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2018