Markus Degen began his career in visual effects in the early 2000s. He is one of the founders of RISE. As a VFX Supervisor, he took care of the effects of films like IRON MAN 3, BORGIA, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and JIM BUTTON AND LUKE THE ENGINE DRIVER.
What is your background?
I studied at the University for Applied Arts Vienna, started as a VFX Artist in Berlin where I met my future partners in crime to found RISE with six years later.
How did you and RISE get involved on this show?
We got a phone call if we are keen on some creature work and ‘Hell, yeah!’ we shouted.
What was you feeling to be part of the Hellboy universe?
Since the movie was planned as rated R, the freedom of following even the most gory idea made it a lot of fun. There was no holding back.
How was the collaboration with director Neil Marshall and VFX Supervisor Steve Begg?
Our connection and cineSyncs were directly with Steve and he is just awesome. I had the feeling we can read each others minds, like someone you grew up with together. The communication was very smooth since we were speaking each other’s language, English. But it was the same creatively.
What was their approaches and expectations about the visual effects?
They did some very cool concepts and gave us full freedom to explore from there. And in all modesty, they were already very happy with our first proposal. From there it was mainly ‘go on’ and ‘take to final’.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
Katrin Arndt is part of our senior staff and stays calm, no matter how challenging schedules or work might be. She managed together with the project production team in the Berlin and Munich offices to organize the 300 shots between two facilities on a tough schedule, all while smiling. It’s great to have someone so experienced on board in order for me to focus on the creative aspects.
How did you split your work between the RISE offices?
Usually you split by narrative sequences, so that facilities can focus on their respective package. With HELLBOY, we decided not to do it the usual way, we needed to be faster because of a super tight schedule. We took an extra effort in a super efficient splitting by tasks and by grouping set light positions and camera angles and geographic directions to streamline the shots.
What are the sequences made by RISE?
All Lady Hatton and Broom creature shots, King Arthurs Thomb, the birth of Hellbeast, most of the St.Pauls Cathedral shots including the headless Blood Queen and also the Blood Queen phenomenon in the corridor.
Hellboy is getting in full mode Hell in the final fight. Can you explain in detail about the creation of his flaming crowd and sword?
Andreas Giessen // For the flaming crown and sword we built a robust Houdini asset which could be easily distributed in the shots and tweaked by other FX Artist.
How was simulated their interactive light on-set?
The sword had LED lights in the blade and there was a LED cube attached with wires, above Hellboy’s head. The light had not the full intensity necessary but was strong in the red spectrum, so we could push it using the red channel.
How did you handle the fire animation?
Andreas Giessen // As the look was already defined in the fire asset, the artists just had to tweak predefined sliders to adjust flame height, shape, wind and so on.
Can you tell us more about the growing horns?
You can not imagine how many internal versions we created before we showed them. We were a bit stuck until we found a time lapse video of a growing crystal. That was the reference and perfect direction to take. We built a Houdini setup procedurally growing time-laps crystals, so to say.
The character Alice has the power to materialize the dead through her mouth. How did you design and create this effect?
We looked at tons of videos of animals giving birth. Picked the coolest parts, mixed it with a feeling of Giger’s ALIEN and were delighted when we had the results. The creatures are key frame animated by hand and then there is a ton of secondary tissue and fluid sims on top.
How did you handle the rigging and animation of the bodies?
Andreas Giessen // The Rigging was done in Maya and a quite challenging task, because the long tail should behave like a big muscle pushing the ectoplasm. On top we added some procedural animation created in Houdini to have a more organic feeling.
Can you tell us more about the shaders and textures work?
Andreas Giessen // The textures were created in Mari on several 8k UDIMs and the shading was done in Houdini with the textures coming from Mari and additional procedural work.
Can you go into detail about the Character FX used for the ectoplasm creatures?
Andreas Giessen // This was one of the most complex tasks. We started with a pre release of Houdini’s new soft body solver Vellum because of it’s improved performance. We simulated the guts of the creatures based on the animation coming from Maya, then a slime layer on top and all of it wrapped up in skin with another fluid layer. These layers gave us the organic and morbid feeling we were looking for. Additionally the stress factor of the skin simulation was driving the shading. So on areas were it was very stretched it automatically got less blurry and a different refraction index.
Can you elaborates about the face animations work?
Andreas Giessen // For the faces we used a facial performance capture workflow to generate a 3D mesh which we used for relighting, texturing and simulating fluids over the face.
Can you elaborates about the long shots of the Blood Queen head going to the lava?
Andreas Giessen // The Blood Queen still talks after beheaded, that’s why we facial captured Milla Jovovich and added CG hair floating while falling down to hell. Since the shot was full cg we could relight the face starting in St.Pauls environment and ending in the lave light surrounding. The hair, lava and smoke were simulated in Houdini.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the St Paul Cathedral?
We received the finished model with textures from Mr.X. The challenge was to create an efficient render setup to get over 200 set extension shots done in about 40 working days. So we developed a setup to bake some lighting situations into the textures with complete indirect lighting. Just the reflection and additional shot lights were rendered « live ». This workflow gave us the flexibility to reduce the render time dramatically and react to changes immediately.
How did you manage the lighting challenges?
As usual, on set lights were moved between shots. So we sorted all material by shooting time and created a lightmap timeline. This way could create six base light sets. With all additional per shot lights and special lights for the thunder flashlights we ended up with over 100 lights per shot in comp. In combination with the baking workflow we could keep everything very fast and lightweight.
Can you tell us more about the destruction of the Cathedral?
Andreas Giessen // All destruction simulations were made in Houdini and probably the trickiest one was the shot with the opening the ground. It had to follow a very exact timing, so we used different constraint techniques and moving colliders to archive it. The dust simulation were clustered pyro containers which could be simulated in parallel to get the needed detail.
Which sequence or shot was the most complicated to create and why?
For sure the creatures of Lady Hatton and Broom. First, the creation of an absolute realistic talking CG face is a huge challenge itself, as we all know from uncanny valley examples in even bigger movies. We got performance plates of the actors filmed with a six camera array, that made the task way easier. Attaching a rotten human body under it and a slimy tail full of pumping liquids to that is the cherry on the top.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Whiskey? Honestly the schedule was so tight that I was dreaming about some risks and literally came up with ideas and solutions in my dreams.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
The Lady Hatton and Broom creatures.
What is your best memory on this show?
Sounds weird but I really liked the cineSyncs with Steve. The feeling and quality of the communication with your client is a big factor of motivation and influence on the whole show, and with Steve we didn’t have to extensively explain each other the image one of us is imagining in his head. We immediately got it and went for it.
How long have you worked on this show?
5 months in total. We had 5 months for a package of 90 shots and got awarded additional 200+ shot package a little more than two months before deadline.
What’s the VFX shots count?
Exactly 299 of our shots are in the movie.
What was the size of your team?
What is your next project?
Our production arm RISE PICTURES produces a SciFi movie with Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim and it gets really interesting when you have the possibility to decide things with a vfx background. For example instead of a classic previs, we decided for a three week virtual shoot in Unity. We were treating this virtual shoot absolutely like a photographic shoot, with the actual DOP, editor, set supervisor, continuity and of course director being present ‘on set’.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, T2 and David Fincher.
A big thanks for your time.
HELLBOY – VFX BREAKDOWN – RISE
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
RISE: Dedicated page about HELLBOY on RISE website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019