MEN IN BLACK – INTERNATIONAL: Alessandro Ongaro – VFX Supervisor – DNEG

In 2018, Alessandro Ongaro told us about the work of DNEG on ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. He explains today his work on MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL.

How did you and DNEG get involved in this show?
About a year ago Jerome Chen and Deven LeTendre (VFX Producer) approached DNEG to discuss our potential involvement with the project. We discussed creature work and the performance capture / AR tools at our disposal.

What did it feel like to be part of the MEN IN BLACK universe?
I grew up watching the MIB franchise, so the idea of being involved in a creature heavy project was really exciting.

How was the collaboration with director F. Gary Gray and VFX Supervisor Jerome Chen?
I briefly met with F. Gary Gray on my visit to set last September, but after that short encounter we exclusively worked with Jerome and Daniel Kramer (additional prod VFX Supervisor) throughout the duration of the post-production. It was a great collaboration since they are both open to new ideas, which allowed us to be very creative with our work.

What were their expectations and approach on the visual effects?
Everyone involved in the project wanted to push the quality, create cool looking effects and great character animation without going too cartoony or stylized. So we always started from reality and real-life references when possible and expanded from there.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
Janet Yale (DNEG VFX Producer) and I had just worked together on ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, so it was great to be working with her again. We knew from the beginning that due to the high shot count, complexity and tight timeframe, we needed to split the show across all our studios in order to hit the deadline in the most efficient way.

We had the main hub here in Vancouver with Animation Supervisor Carlos Rosas and CG Supervisor Fred Lillelund, a second team in our Montreal facility with DFX Supervisor Manolo Mantero and Animation Supervisor Nick Symons and a third team in Mumbai, led by DFX Supervisor Tim McGovern. Eventually we also added a fourth unit in London, supervised by DFX Supervisor Mattias Forsstrom. We really had a global crew on the show.

What are the sequences DNEG worked on?
DNEG worked on 19 sequences, NC (The Nightclub), NE (Nightclub Exterior), AN (Aftermath Nightclub) and all the London HQ sequences.

As always with the MEN IN BLACK movies, there are a ton of creatures. Can you elaborate in detail on their designs and their creations?
For our hero creatures (Vungus, Guy and Nerlene), production provided us with concepts done by Weta Workshop, which we enhanced/modified later on. Aaron Sims Creative provided us with concepts for a few BG Aliens for the London HQ and they also designed the Puppy Agent that M interacts with when she first arrives at the London HQ.

Our concept artists Stefano Dubey and Manuel Martin also designed a lot of BG creatures, some of which we built and used in the main HQ.

The BG Aliens were pretty straightforward assets since they didn’t require any facial animation, although the “collapsing” Puppy was a bit tricky due to the complex performance and required some initial R&D between Build, Rigging and Animation.

Vungus The Ugly, our main hero character, was quite a challenge due to the design changes it went through.

Michael Smith-Kennard, our Build Supervisor and his team did a really amazing job in turning around the finished character and all its blendshapes from the sculpt done by Jon Catapia to a shot-ready version in less than seven weeks, working tightly with Remi Cauzid our Creature Supervisor, Carlos and his animation team, and Filippo Forno our Lighting Supervisor.

Can you tell us more about their rigging and animation?
The rigging of our creatures was pretty standard, except for Vungus where we really had to push our Facial Pipeline. Vungus’ facial rig was based on about 300 unique blend shapes built by Daniel Axelsson, and eventually, once split, we ended up with about 1000 shapes in the facial rig. As mentioned before this process was really accelerated – in fact we had to start animating Vungus in shots while still refining the facial rig and making changes to the blend shapes based on animation feedback.

Gavin Thomas built Vungus’ animation facial rig. On top of the animation rig we had a simulation rig built by Etay Herz, which was run post-animation by our creature team with Lead Dameon O’Boyle in Vancouver and creature supervisor Aaron Fickling in Montreal.

For the costume we relied on Maya nCloth, while the facial system was a combination of DNEG custom tools, nCloth and Ziva Dynamics. Things like jiggle, skin sliding, volume preservation and sticky lips where all added as a simulation pass.

For the Animation, we went old school and did everything with keyframes, starting with a rough bodytrack of the actors’ performances and then passed on to the animation team where Carlos Rosas, Nick Symons and the whole team did a stellar job.

Can you elaborate on the face animation work?
The Facial Animation for Vungus, Nerlene and Guy was all based on keyframes. We really had a great team on it and they really managed to deliver some great looking animation shots in a very tight schedule.

For Vungus in particular, the challenge was to try to convey Kayvan Novak’s on-set performance, which the filmmakers really loved, through a completely different facial morphology. There were expressions that the actor did on set that we couldn’t achieve due to Vungus’ design. The fact that Vungus has protruding eyes and a very large mouth was also a factor that limited us in the type of micro-expressions we could match.

In the end, I think it worked really well and our animators were able to characterize Vungus, giving him his own personality – and yet you could still perceive some of Kayvan’s subtleties coming through.

How did you create the various shaders and textures?
David Crabtree was our Lead Lookdev TD, and he personally worked on our hero creatures, working around the clock for Vungus and delivering some outstanding work in no time.

Our skin shader was just recently updated, so we were able to use our new path-traced subsurface scattering for our creatures, while our textures were hand-painted by Jon Catapia.

For the creatures we’ve also had micro squash and stretch implemented as an OSL shader in Clarisse, our lighting tool. This setup is driven by special attributes baked out from our facial rigs that get weighted in the shader.

At some point we’ve also tested blood flow, but it felt unnecessary with our aliens.

Which creature was the most complicated one to create and why?
Certainly Vungus, because it was a big hero creature with extreme close-ups, lip syncing, full body animation and simulation and not much time at hand!

Can you explain in detail the design and creation of the Twins?
The Twins were actually a really fun development task for everyone involved. We started from a brief Jerome gave me when I visited the set; in their true form they needed to be made of some sort of pure energy and to have the ability of transforming matter when touched. Also, when shot at, they had to decompose and recompose in an interesting way.

We were given some photographic references; things like melted glass, abstract sculptures and images of galaxies were all we had to get started.

I once again relied on our concept artists Stefano and Manuel who both came up with some really interesting ideas. Then, taking the best elements from the different concepts, we came up with this Nebula look when in true form with a sort of pulsating nervous system inside which we used to give them a human like form. This was very well received by Jerome and the team at Sony, so that was half the battle!

A beautiful FX element surrounded the Twins. Can you tell us more about it and how you created it?
Going from 2D to 3D for these types of magical effects is not an easy task since now you have to deal with aspects that with a painting you don’t have to worry about too much. How are we going from the human form to the true form, how are we going to deal with the fact they get hit by the guns’ tracers, and most importantly how can we make the effect art-directable?

Albert Szostkiewicz, our FX Supervisor and his team created the Twins Effects starting from our concept design. The effect was basically split in half, the nebula effects and the body treatment with the nervous system, the former developed by Chris Mangnall and the latter by Ivan Larinin.

Here’s a detailed description directly from Albert:
We decided to follow the galaxy look and feel. Galaxies are made of millions of planets, clustered together, surrounded by cosmic gas clouds. Following this logic, we generated millions of particles which represented planets and formed galaxies.

In order to achieve the color variation we are used to seeing from Hubble telescope imagery, we mapped the spacial attributes of our planets, like internal density and distance, to nearby planets and stars. In order to achieve filament like structures, we started with advecting our particles through the perlin noise space. We wanted to make sure that the structure and shape of our nebulae was controlled in an artist-friendly way. We created a setup where we could specify contained geometry that our particles had to follow. This allowed us to quickly design timing and final composition for each shot.

When the twins were regenerating, they were sucking back their cosmic matter that had left their bodies due to the wounds. This was achieved in our nebula solver by creating custom-divergence fields that were motivating surrounding velocities to point back to the wounds.

Calculating proper light distribution and detailed shadows on these huge datasets would have been nearly impossible, even for very powerful machines in our render farm. In order to tackle this issue, we created our own lighting calculations, which we passed to the renderer to rasterize the image.

A lot of the final look was achieved in the compositing phase, using the different passes rendered by the FX team. Jennifer Meire, our Vancouver compositing supervisor, and her team were heavily involved in the lookdev from early on.

Can you elaborate on the MIB HQ?
Except for the LH sequence, which is when M (Tessa Thompson) first arrives at the London HQ, and the HE sequence when H (Chris Hemsworth) makes his majestic entrance, most of the work done was CG set extension and holograms integration… and these were a lot of shots.

For the HQ, we built the set extension based on the original concepts done by Charles Wood and his art department, using original blue prints and CAD data used to build the practical set, and we designed some elements of our own to fill missing gaps. We also extended HighT’s (Liam Neeson) office, which is the red globe overseeing the main floor. Most of the practical set was covering the main lobby up to about 10 feet, so our extension was mostly up and in the hallways.

How did you populate it with creatures and holograms?
For the creatures we see in the LH sequence, we did that in stages since we didn’t have the full set of aliens available all at the same time. We basically built up the shots while we were going, blocking the animations and adjusting the different creatures’ positions and performances based on the newly introduced aliens. This was mostly true for the establishing shots.

We had the hero moment when M ran into the furry alien-puppy, which collapses as soon as she touches him – that was a fun beat – and the animators really had a lot of fun animating the mini-puppies that scattered around the floor. There are some really cool animations you can only see if you watch the scene over and over (which of course we did!)

For the holograms we worked closely with Simon Carr and his team at Territory Studio. We actually started early on for the main floor graphics since that was needed for the very first trailer, so we did that here at DNEG using some early Adobe Illustrator files we received from production. We used Maya to create geometry from the Illustrator files, which were then published in our lighting templates. Francesco Dell’Anna, one of our Compositing Leads here in Vancouver, was responsible for the treatment, which we basically re-used as a basic template for all the holograms we did for the film.

For everything else we received assets from Territory Studio, in most cases we only used their elements and rebuilt the 3D holograms at DNEG but for some more complicated holograms, like the one in HighT’s office, Territory very kindly delivered us rendered passes of their 3D setups, which allowed us to only focus on the compositing phase.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging one?
I think it was the Nightclub sequence with Vungus, due to the very tight deadline and intrinsic complexity when it comes to character animation – but the whole team nailed it like pros!

Is there something specific that gave you some really short nights?
The whole project was pretty challenging but I had an amazing team spread around the world, so I knew we were going to get there without too many nerve-wracking moments.

One thing that was a bit overwhelming was the fact that I was personally reviewing the work from four different time zones, so my days started really early and at times going pretty late at night.

What is your favourite shot or sequence?
The Nightclub sequence with Vungus was one of my favourites along with the Nightclub Exterior with the Twins Nebula, the destructions, the Environment work (built by our Env/Generalist team majestically led by Gianluca Pizzaia) and the guns effects (big kudos to Stu Bruzek, one of our comp leads, and his 2D gun tracer setup in Nuke!)

What is your best memory on this show?
I have a lot of great memories from the show, starting from the super talented and amazing group of people I was working with and knowing Jerome, Daniel and the whole team at Sony were very happy with our work.

How long have you worked on this show?
About 8 months.

What’s the VFX shot count?
We worked on 578 shots plus a few others omitted.

What was the size of your team?
It was big! Between all sites and at its peak we had 400 people working on it.

A big thanks for your time.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
DNEG: Dedicated page about MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL on DNEG website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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