Back in 2020, Wayne England told us about the work of FuseFX on the series, Utopia. Today he talks about his work on the Marvel Studios series, Loki.
How did you and FuseFX get involved on this show?
We were introduced to the show by way of Luke McDonald (one of Loki’s additional VFX Supervisors) who’d previously worked with FuseFX on the show The Orville. In February of 2020, FuseFX was invited by Marvel to execute proof-of-concept tests for how the time theater’s holographic projection technology might manifest. With our testing well received, we were officially awarded several sequences of shots, about 10 weeks later in May.
How was this new collaboration Overall VFX Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw?
I was extremely appreciative of Dan’s overall approach. Early on it became clear there was a very high level of precision in play, in the ways he efficiently addressed the details in question. He always shared information with a distinctly grounded and relaxed demeanor, while consistently conveying positive, subtle forms of encouragement. Cumulatively, these qualities in a sense “defined the space” for our collaborative process and not surprisingly, I found myself always looking forward to our exchanges. This is all said of course, without even mentioning his tenure as Marvel’s VFX Supervisor for both Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War. It’s been an honor to collaborate with Dan.
What were his expectations and approach about the visual effects?
Expectations of quality were not explicitly discussed. It was more that the context of expectations were already very clear. We were mindful that the transition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to television could also be categorized as a transition to the format of “the episodic feature”. With that in mind, it was a definitive point of focus for us to achieve high levels of cinematic quality in our work, albeit within the time constraints of a shorter schedule. This was equally relevant in our discerning and manifesting the stories’ most idealized expressions of the TVA’s underlying technology.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
For Loki VFX Producer Kevin Hollon or myself to speak of organization at FuseFX, it’s a conversation that must refer to the in-house database management software tool, Nucleus. From bidding to shot tracking, to component pipeline and versioning tools, Nucleus is at the heart of how the studio shares data and interfaces individuals, teams and departments with a show’s evolving content. From IO through editorial, to artist allocations and schedule, Nucleus is the unifying hub that allows our focus to be more freely centered upon the art itself.
What are the sequences made by FuseFX?
Our Loki VFX factored in many sequences and played a role in each of season one’s six episodes. Our featured work includes: 3D particle systems development (time theater sequences, pruning FX, Lamentis meteors and dust effects). 3D/2D development (time doors, time collars, time projector, Lamentis) and 2D comp development (time turner effect, time sticks, Loki magic and Sylvie enchantment effects), plus many other unique 2D effects. Digital set extensions and associated clean up, also factored large in our workload, particularly so for Lamentis.
All of the Marvel VFX vendors for Loki operated as a unified team, and we shared VFX systems in varying stages of development. The 3D particle system files we developed for the time theater and pruning effect assets were shared with other vendors to integrate into their sequences of shots. We also received early development time door files and a cached meteor simulation to use as starting points for further development.
Can you explain in detail about the design and creation of the time doors?
Early in the production schedule, we received a Nuke file and some associated renderings from a collaborating studio vendor, representing early stage development of the fundamental time door concepts applied. That said, our internal time door development went through a meticulously detailed and creative evolution, with nuanced, refractive-volumetric depth cues, subtle surface texturing, specific edge-motion highlights, time turner-like echoings forward and backwards for characters and objects at the time door’s threshold. The scene’s interactive reflection and lighting effects associated with the dramatic (chromatic aberration enhanced) opening and closing of the time doors, and the residual energy edge-effects from the volumes of characters passing through the threshold, are just two features of the time door that made their integration into our scenes look so compellingly dynamic and beautiful.
The time doors illustrate the collaborative process Marvel established between VFX vendors. During the time doors development, Marvel requested that approved time door advancements would be uploaded to the project’s (5th Kind hosted) database, from which those aspects of time door development would be shared with the other studios, to reference and integrate.
Can you elaborate about the design and creation for the holographic time-stage sculpture?
We were introduced to the concept of the time stage theater with a suggestion to look into the phenomenon of murmuration. Studying in detail the contexts of starlings in flight and schools of fish, while also assessing the concept design of the holographic projection device (beneath the space of the holographic volume), our lead particle FX artist, Ashkan Azarmi, began evolving the 3D particle system within Houdini. To realize the desired smoothly propagating motions of volumetric murmuration, combined with the complex motions associated with volumetric target shapes, he went as far as coding the properties of quaternion mathematics into the system, to maintain smooth progressive rotations and displacements through the complex motions. The task also included defining the time stage theater hologram’s appearance with its particulate, transparent and refractive-reflective qualities, coupled with its ability to self-illuminate for projected image representations. 3D scans of the projection device and time theater allowed for precise 3D reflections of the hologram upon the device below and the surrounding environment. In the hands of our compositing team, the deep array of many specially defined 3D rendered (AOV) component elements, provided the necessary layered attributes for our artists to realize beautiful levels of cinematic quality. For instance, we added falloff to the size and brightness of the component edge regions of the hologram, where subtle levels of chromatic aberration were applied, which helped enhance the apparent properties of holographic projection.
What kind of references and influences did you receive?
Going deep into understanding the Time Variance Authority world at large was important in helping to conceive the implied underlying, unified world of the TVA’s technology. In addition to the obvious factoring in of the lineages to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, careful early study of the shots (and every visual) received, with special attention to production design, helped orient sensibilities. Another significant influence was the emphasis on conversations shared with Marvel to unfold conceptual understandings together in real time discussion. The concept art we received from Marvel of the Lamentis environment, the time stage projector and renderings of early time door development were also influential.
Internal explorations for sourced references also factored significantly. As an example, beyond discussions shared for the pruning effect, insights and reference explorations led to internal references of the Helix nebula and other dynamic interstellar phenomena, representative of the propagation of powerful currents of force, leaving residual, vibrantly colored, transformed states of energy in its wake.
Can you tell us more about the pruning effect?
We were invited to initiate development for the appearance and motion of the pruning or deletion effect. With select stills from the plate-source files of Mobius’s pruning used as a template, we evolved a series of concept art explorations. Based on conversations shared with Marvel, with some unique insights that followed and associated references explored, we arrived at the Marvel-approved look, signaling the next phase of development: motion. Lead Houdini artist Seung Kim evolved the volumetric motion dynamics, primarily rooted within a volumetric propagation map that passed through and over a 3D scanned digital replica of Mobius’s posed expression. Many layered component (AOV) elements were shared with comp, for look refinements and final appearances. An additional detail we integrated were the extended lines of force emanating from the time stick, which we rotated to stay aligned with the energy’s advancing position. Mobius’s pruning was seen within 4 cuts including wide and close-ups.
How did you handle the challenge of the characters moving forward and backwards in time?
The distributable system we evolved for the time turner effect, applied in our case to all instances within the time stage theater and TVA hallway, was superbly evolved by our DFX supervisor Kevin Yuille. The effect drew from the source-plates of the actor’s performances from shot start position, to shot end position. By visually removing the performance layer of frames and re-exposing only specifically selected moments of the performance, through a refining process, the fundamental timing of the effect was realized. Applied to the selected moments with highly nuanced precision, echoes, blurs, chromatic aberration, transparency falloffs and distortion effects, all contributed to the cumulative appearance of a spatially dynamic and highly realistic effect.
Can you elaborate about the design and creation of the Lamentis planet?
Our Lamentis work was rooted in all VFX enhancements seen from within the Lamentis tent interior and from inside the cabin in which Loki and Sylvie took refuge. Starting with their initial landing in the tent through the time door, we developed all set extension matte painting and clean up for both interior environments, plus character cleanup and enhancement integrations. For what was visible through the windows of the tent and the cabin, we developed a 3D set extension of the surrounding quarried cliffs, with nuanced atmospheric lighting and (later applied in comp) depth of field integrations. A component of the cliffs drew upon a scanned model of the at-location quarry, where some of the practical filming for Lamentis was shot.
Where were the scenes filmed for Lamentis?
The practical components of Lamentis were filmed at location in a rock quarry near Loganville, Georgia. Shooting in general took place within the regions of Atlanta, Georgia, with stage shooting centered at Pinewood Studios, (now Trilith Studios), in Fayetteville.
How did you create the various asteroids that impact the planet?
Our specific asteroid-related work includes all meteors and impact explosions, as seen through the windows of the cabin in which Loki and Sylvie took shelter. For the large exterior meteors, we used a shared cached simulation from another studio collaborator. We also ran additional meteor particle-based simulations with similar themed debris actions to achieve the necessary dynamics for specific shots. 3D particle simulations were also the solution for the interior penetrating meteor that enters the tent between Loki and Sylvie. Cutting to close up, our meteor simulation impacts and explodes small rocks and dust, revealing a small crater, with the smoldering meteor at its center. For the two above-mentioned shots, comp was key for the interactive lighting from the meteor streak on Loki and Sylvie, plus clean up, look development, and final approvals.
Can you tell us more about the FX and atmospheric work?
We crafted subtle interior 3D atmosphere dynamics within the cabin, in the form of dust simulations. Simulated in Houdini, this work occurred relative to Loki and Sylvie’s entry into the cabin (dust wafting in from outside) and also when a nearby large meteor shook the cabin, releasing dust from above. Following Sylvie leaving the cabin, Loki appears to dynamically pass through one of the hanging dust plumes, for which we simulated the fluid dynamic wake caused by his motion.
Which shot or sequence was the most challenging?
The most complex challenge was the comprehensive range of functionality we were tasked with, including the time stage sculpture particle system.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
There were moments in the project where both impassioned commitment and project demands drew upon extended hours. But glad to say nothing extreme.
What is your favorite shot or sequence
There is a unique moment: a wide shot within the exquisitely production designed setting of the time theater, when a time door suddenly appears, refracting the murmuration of the time-stage beyond. Their combined presence and motion illuminates light and reflections into the environment to a next level order of beauty. Loki is ushered through the time door threshold, deeper into his archetypal journey of facing his shadow, while Mobius looks on. It seems very much like stunningly beautiful, deeply storied, high cinematic art.
What is your best memory on this show?
The journey. Day to day, working alongside fellow Loki teammates. I have a huge appreciation for our collaborative process, how we showed up together, and our perseverance and commitment. Two special mentions of appreciation to FuseFX VFX Producer Kevin Hollon and DFX Supervisor, Kevin Yuille.
How long have you worked on this show?
We worked on sequences of shots starting May 2020 and although slowed by the influence of Covid, we were consistently engaged through May 2021.
What’s the VFX shots count?
Approximately 235 to 240 shots.
What was the size of your team?
- 16 Nuke compositing artists
- 7 Houdini FX artists
- 4 CG artists
- 2 Matte painters
- 3 Tracking artists 2 VFX editors
- 2 VFX coordinators
What is your next project?
An exciting new HBO project, through FuseFX.
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Dan Deleeuw: My interview of Overall VFX Supervisor Dan Deleeuw.
Disney+: You can now watch Loki on Disney+
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021