SPACE FORCE: Chris White (VFX Supervisor) & Aidan Martin (Animation Supervisor) – Weta Digital

Chris White and Aidan Martin told us in detail about the work of Weta Digital work on THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY last year. They are back with a new Netflix series, SPACE FORCE.

// Chris White – VFX Supervisor

How was the collaboration with the various directors and VFX Supervisor Trent Smith?
The collaboration was excellent. We had frequent conference calls with Trent and Greg, so we were lucky to receive a quick turnaround on feedback. It was a collaborative, creative relationship where we were involved closely with the design process.

What was their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
They knew our history of working on chimps and primates, and they were looking to have the same quality in Marcus. We did this by leveraging our history of creating photoreal chimps to meet their expectations.

What are the sequences made by Weta Digital?
We worked on the interior of the capsule, the introduction of Marcus, and Marcus leaving to the airlock, and we provided the picture-in-picture facial inserts used in conjunction with the Zoic Studios space shots.

After The Umbrella Academy, Space Force is a new collaboration with Animation Supervisor Aidan Martin. What’s the most significant advantage of it?
The most significant advantage is that our team has worked together before and collaborates well. We can trust each other to consider all areas of expertise when evaluating the work. As Aidan designs animation, I’m aware that he is thinking about lighting and other considerations, and likewise, I think about Animation needs throughout my own processes.

Can you tell us more about the creation of the capsule environment?
We modeled the all CG environment, then worked through our iterations of augmenting lighting and texturing. We designed a minimal look so the audience could focus on Marcus.

Marcus then goes to space – how did you handle the lighting for this sequence?
We knew early on that most of our work needed to match Zoic’s shot lighting—facial P.I.P.’s needed the same direction of sunlight as the matching full-body shots. Complex shots such as the high-speed drill spin had to sync up, so Zoic provided us with their animation as a lighting guide for us to match to.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
The most challenging shot we worked on was Marcus waking up. We were working within the framing of a fixed security camera, therefore couldn’t use the camera for angles and composition. We had to compose Marcus to match the fixed camera.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Not really. This show was a pleasure to work on and had a fun, light-hearted mood throughout the production.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
There is a shot that has a P.I.P. of Marcus on the big screen. Here we get to see the interaction between General Mark R. Naird’s character (Steve Carrell) and Marcus. It’s also the largest onscreen view of Marcus from his helmet cam, where you get to see all the detail of his design.

What is your best memory on this show?
My favorite moment was when we began seeing the P.I.P.’s composited together. It was the first time he started to come to life as a character.

How long did you work on this show?
It ran over 25 weeks in the end.

What is the total VFX shot count?
31 shots across one episode.

What was the size of your team?
We had a big team if you consider everyone that contributed within the studio. We had over 100 crew work on the show at one stage or another, but around 30 people did the most significant amount of work. The core team was 15-20 people.

What is your next project?
The AVATAR sequels.

// Aidan Martin – Animation Supervisor

After The Umbrella Academy, Space Force is a new collaboration with VFX Supervisor Chris White. What’s the biggest advantage of it?
This is the third show Chris and I have worked together on featuring chimps. The familiarity of our existing processes means that our communication has streamlined making everything a lot easier when it comes to collaboration. An advantage for each new show together is that we are able to build on our the processes we developed on previous projects.

How did you use your Apes franchise and The Umbrella Academy experience for this new chimp character?
Our experience creating primates prepared us in a multitude of ways. To find the right look for Marcus, we drew on our extensive chimp and ape reference library, and as we’ve done in the past, we visited the troop of chimps at Wellington Zoo. Marcus is based on one of the troop members, named Alexis.

Can you tell us more about their rigging and animation?
Marcus’s bone structure is based off real-world anatomy—we created a skeleton covered with muscle and fat tissue, skin and fur layers and cloth costumes. All of these are set up and simulated by the Creatures department once the character rig has motion applied. We pre-vised the sequence in-house, based off initial storyboards from Greg. Once the client’s editorial team had figured out the length of shots, we were able to utilise our in-house motion capture stage using our lead animator Craig Young as our motion capture performer. Incidentally, Craig received his first performer credit on SPACE FORCE for the motion capture of Marcus – yay Craig!

Did you received specific indications and references for Marcus from the production?
We received reference from the production for inspiration. Our art director Gino Acevedo took these and went to work to develop the design for Marcus and his spacesuit, alongside Theodore’s spacesuit and the space shuttle’s interior look.

How does the zero-gravity aspect affect your animation work?
Zero gravity is definitely something that we’ve looked at in-depth. We used reference from the international space station and also YouTube videos from zero gravity flights. What we noticed was that in zero gravity people don’t go into slow motion, something that we see a lot of in tv production. The sense of weightlessness actually comes from the minimal amount of energy required to push yourself off things, hold yourself up and generally keep yourself stable. This can seem like slow motion, but it isn’t. We had to tread the line between what looks like slow motion versus what is deliberate movement. Normally we don’t want animation to look “floaty”, but in this case we wanted everything to look as floaty as possible.

What was the main challenges of the Marcus face shots
The Marcus face shots (or as we liked to call them, the “Iron Man Cam”) were challenging because we had to make sure the head movements and eye directions matched what Marcus’ body was doing. Shots outside the space station were shared with Zoic studios, so we made sure we were in sync with what they were doing, as production was happening simultaneously.

From a performance point of view, these shots were difficult because we were trying to get the emotional read on Marcus’ face. Since he’s not a highly advanced ape that can talk and encompass human emotions, we had to make sure he was able to communicate his emotions without using sign language or any real vocalisations. A lot of his emotion is read through his eyes.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
The most challenging shot is when Marcus wakes up in the cage and is signing and communicating with General Mark R. Naird (Steve Carrell). We went through many iterations of the sign language, making sure we were using correct American Sign Language (ASL). There were times that it didn’t necessarily hit the comedy beat so we took some liberties and changed some of the sign language to some more primitive gestures. Our goal was to ensure Marcus was communicating effectively and keeping it realistic, while hitting the comedy beats.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
The first shot that we pre-vised was Theodore playing fetch. After that was approved, one of our senior animators Edwina Ting did many beautiful passes. She added all sorts of flourish and extra life to Theodore – it looked incredible – but every time we sent a new version, Greg would reply that he liked the pre-vis. Eventually, at the very end, we just matched the pre-vis and Greg loved it.

A big thanks for your time.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Weta Digital: Dedicated page about SPAEC FORCE on Weta Digital website.
Netflix: You can watch SPACE FORCE on Netflix now.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020

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Vincent Frei

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

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