Last year, Jonathan Weber explained the work of RISE on the third season of Westworld. Then he worked on WandaVision and Reminiscence. Today he talks about his new collaboration with HBO on the Lovecraft Country series.
How did you and RISE get involved on this show?
In 2020 we jumped on the HBO train for the first time. It was “Westworld – Season Three”, which I also supervised, and it seems that our work was very much appreciated. While finishing the last bits and pieces of it, we’re asked to directly continue the great working relationship with HBO and take on some shots for Lovecraft.
How was the collaboration with VFX Supervisor Kevin Blank?
It was an absolute pleasure working with Kevin and his Crew on the series. He understood that the time frame for the project was tight and that our creatively challenging sequences needed precise feedback. We had multiple, regular cineSync calls per week where we had a very lively exchange of creative ideas. It helped tremendously having him guiding us the right direction designing these worlds from scratch.
What was his expectations and approach about the visual effects?
The space traveling of Hippolyta (the main character of our sequence) brings her to extremely different and odd worlds. The idea was that there is the biggest possible difference in look and feel between each world, letting the viewer just quickly dip into one and already head off to the next location in time and space.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
Our VFX Producer Katrin Arndt handled crew, scheduling and budget and I had the pleasure of focusing on the images and the methodology. We already collaborated a few times, so it did not take long to set up everything, which was, considering the tight schedule of the show, immensely important.
How did you split the work amongst the RISE offices?
The tasks were split between RISE Berlin and RISE Munich and some additional match move help from RISE Cologne. Munich was focusing on the sequence inside the Prison ship, modelling and designing of the assets and the FX work. Berlin dealt mainly with the Planet surface shots, the matte-painting part and the supervision and coordination. In general, this becomes less and less a severe clean cut rather than smooth collaboration between offices, so it gets pretty tricky to correctly spot out the exact split between the offices.
Also, with COVID of course there is plenty of WFH going on. Big praise to the IT guys making all of that working so seamlessly!
What are the sequences made by RISE?
Our main character Hippolyta is traveling through space and lands on a dark, mysterious planet with the strange name, Planet Earth 504. While wondering where she is, two robots appear and take her to the Prison ship. Inside the Ship Hippolyta is being confronted by Beyond C´est, a 10-feet tall robot lady with a huge afro.
The next sequence takes place on Planet Nelus, a vivid and colourful world, just after the Spaceship has landed. Hippolyta and George get out of the aircraft and encounter three small aliens, Nelusians, who hand over gifts to them. Both Sequences take place in Episode 7 of Lovecraft.
And in addition to that RISE also contributed some smaller, individual shots for Episode 9 and 10.
How did you work with Kevin Blank and the art department to design your sequences?
There was a beautiful art department collection of all the sets already, but because of the sheer mass of different worlds and locations of the show, some of them with only one image. It was great to get the discussion going, but there was still a lot of freedom of where to land in the end. We continued with setting up mood boards based on the artwork and the first discussions, setting the tone and colour range for the worlds.
Furthermore, we went through many retro sci-fi comics discussing these with Kevin and then starting with concept art on our side, which we did on a first rough 3D render to make sure we were in the right scale and perspective.
Especially for Nelus it was fun to play around with the bubble gum look of the world, running the plates through some seriously heavy colour treatments and adding all sorts of breathing plants based on weird alien designs.
Can you elaborate about the woman arrival on the planet?
Planet 504 is the exact contrast of Planet Nelus. It is gloomy, quiet and very monochrome and full of misty smoke elements with crystals laying around. We found some great references of incredibly unique dark sand beaches somewhere in Island. A very surreal location. And this is what we were going for. Except the far distant horizon we decided to set the all the environments up in 3D, because many of the camera moves were not yet finally decided on when we started with the sequence and it was crucial that we would be flexible when the changes came in late.
As soon as Hippolyta looks up we see the Prison spaceship hovering over the planet surface. This asset already had a very elaborated concept of a gigantic face-like structure with big lights.
How did you enhance her massive afro hair?
After some quick size and shape wedges for the afro we started investing some research time for the setup of the afro. We ended up with a combination of classical hair tools (grooming, guide curves) and more unconventional methods for the frizzy hairs using our own deformers to be able to solve the iteration loops a bit quicker. We had three different curliness and frizziness levels to choose from depending on the distance of camera and angle.
How did you create the spaceship?
Spaceship Woody is based on the Hero Car of the series, a 1948 Packard Station Sedan. This car has a very characteristic chubby-cheeked design with a big chrome grill going over the whole front of the car and very unusual wooden side panels. It was requested to implement these into the spaceship design making sure the viewer can identify the spaceship as a retro-futuristic version of this car. In the end we even added the hood ornament and a classical steering wheel. We had a blast tweaking the design of the little blobby spaceship to the very last moment before hitting the render button.
Can you explain in detail about the design and creation of the cute aliens?
When we started working on the design of the Nelusians, they existed only in one smaller artwork image of the aliens holding the gifts. But that image was loved by everyone already. The little guys had so much personality. The tricky part for us was making sure to keep the characteristics of the artwork while ensuring the 3D model operates smoothly when animated. One of the problems were the extremely short arms of the artwork. The Nelusians simply could not perform the task of handing over a gift with their little arm stumps. So we tested a little until we found the right balance of arm length and thickness without changing their character too much.
For the skin textures we researched many frog images, looking at a wide range of vibrant textures. But going further into the amphibian direction did also not work, because once they got too slimy, they lost all their cuteness instantly. Another important element was their walk cycle. We had to test and check out many different speed and weight wedges until we found the right feel for the correct Nelusian waddle.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
The short time frame for the whole show added some pressure, but that was nicely absorbed by the extraordinary team working on the show.
What is your favourite shot or sequence?
You’ve got to love the little Nelusians waddle into frame presenting their gifts to the foreign travellers.
How long have you worked on this show?
Two and a half months for the main part of the shots.
What is the VFX shots count?
50 shots. This does not sound like a lot, but considering these worlds needed to be created from square one just for a few shots and off to the next one, they were enough.
What was the size of your team?
What is your next project?
I slipped directly into Marvel’s WandaVision that kept me terribly busy and is also the reason why this interview is a little late.
A big thanks for your time.
// Lovecraft Country – VFX Breakdown – RISE
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021