Back in 2019, Russell Earl explained the ILM work made on Avengers: Endgame. He then worked on Space Jam: A New Legacy and Free Guy.

How was the collaboration with Director Judd Apatow?

Working with Judd was a dream experience for us all. We talked a lot about what would be the funniest gags, and everything and everyone played into that to help tell Judd’s story. This approach allowed us to do things we don’t often do on a big budget VFX movie. After all, “Cliff Beasts” is a multi-billion dollar franchise 🙂

What was his approach in regards to the VFX and especially the dinosaurs?

He wanted to do something that felt real, but absurd at the same time, and of course fun. We wanted to capture the spirit–sometimes absurdity–of big budget franchises.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?

Originally all the work was going to be done in house at Industrial Light & Magic, with Karen Kelly as our ILM producer. The shot count grew in post production and that prompted the need to bring on additional vendors to complete the work. We came up with logical ways to split the work up with Greg Baxter, The Bubble’s VFX producer, and the Netflix team. They took on the task of finding other appropriate vendors. ILM did all the creature and environment work in the film, including the climbing sequence. 

Director/Writer Judd Apatow. Cr. Laura Radford/Netflix © 2021

Tell us how AR played a part in this film.

We posed our dinosaurs in AR to better help Judd and the team in visualizing them as shots were being framed up while shooting.

Can you elaborate about the design and the creation of the dinosaurs?

The Cliff Beasts for The Bubble were designed with two things in mind: realism and comedy. They needed to have the physicality and complexity of a realistic dinosaur–complete with muscles, scales, and saliva–but they also needed to be funny. For their design, we strove to strike a balance between those two worlds, grounding their look in reality, while also exaggerating features and proportions to give them a slightly comedic feel. 

Can you tell us more about their rigging and animation?

Our animation supervisor, Shawn Kelly, led the animation team. The rig at the core of our Cliff Beasts is pretty similar to a typical dinosaur rig, but the wings, in particular, needed more of a custom setup. One of the more technically challenging aspects of the Cliff Beasts’ locomotion was satisfying Judd’s idea that they should fly like giant hummingbirds. This was partly to give them a creepy, insect-like feel, but also because it’s just funny to see something the size of a T-Rex flying with hummingbird wings!

That said, it was a real puzzle to find just the right wing speed that lived in the tiny sliver of space between “realistic” and “completely ridiculous.” It was an exciting challenge as well, to find a flap speed and blur level that kept the wings at a still-visible blur, while still feeling fast enough to hold the giant creature in the air. Our pipeline was set up to work with dense sub-frame data to calculate and achieve the finished look.

The baby cliff beast had its own needs, both in design and movement. It needed to look a lot cuter than its terrifying parents, and it also had to be able to dance! The animators were inspired by references of dancers, and we even captured a performance on our motion capture stage to riff off of in the actual shots.

In the end, we tried to strike a balance between realism and the absurd, keeping their movements grounded in reality and feeling as physical as possible, while layering in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) anthropomorphic mannerisms to portray thought process, attitude, and even emotion.

How did you help the actors and crew to visualize the dinosaurs on set?

Our on-set supervisor, Simone Coco, had an Apple iPad on set to pose the dinos in AR, and that could be used to help the actors to visualize, as well as the rest of the crew. 

How did you create their skins and shaders?

For the creatures, we looked at different types of lizards for types of scales, and the trickiest part was the wings. We tried several kinds, and ended up with a hybrid bat / pterodactyl wing. It was a bit silly in the design because this type of dinosaur was never meant to have wings, so we had to merge it onto this body, and give it the hummingbird style of motion, which was tricky to get the blur and motion right in Pixar’s RenderMan. Texturing was done in ZBrush, and then we rendered with one of our physically-based shaders. 

Can you discuss the creation of the environments?

The environments were created in Autodesk 3ds Max, led by Shane Roberts and Johan Thorngren. Judd gave us a lot of creative freedom here, and his main concern was always making it feel real. We took liberties with the “post-global warming” Mt. Everest, so as to make it still feel relatable. Each sequence required a different look. For the cliff climbing, Judd really wanted to reference Free Solo, so we worked to find an altitude that felt scary high, but also felt like it could live in our world. We had a basecamp setup and then of course our final battle. The world was created in 3D and we had deep background, mid background, and foreground elements that we could adjust per shot if needed. We also had the stormy skies / clouds and lightning FX. 

Which location was the most complicated to create?

Each location had its own unique challenges. The practical set was relatively small and it could be re-dressed. It had a forest area for where we first meet the dinosaurs, a small basecamp area, and there was an area for the peak used in the big end battle.

The final battle involved many FX elements. Can you tell us more about that, and especially the fire?

One interesting thing about the flamethrowers, is that they were actually real! SFX built them so they could be hooked up via hoses to fuel tanks, and then operated. For obvious safety reasons, we never actually captured any of the flamethrowers on film and all fire is CG simulated. We are fortunate to have really talented VFX artists at ILM and we set about doing our own fire simulations. Our FX lead, Raul Essig, led the charge and created a sim that then could be adjusted per shot to taste.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?

The end battle was the most complex in terms of scale. We had cliff beasts, our big mountain environment, flamethrowers, and explosions.

What is your best memory on this show?

The show was a lot of fun for us, but my best memories were the dailies with our crew. It’s rare for a film like this to come along that has lots of challenging work but at the same time doesn’t take itself too seriously. We laughed a lot and had so much fun with it.

How long did you work on the show?

Just about 10 months.

What’s the VFX shots count?

In the end, ILM handled just under 200 shots.

What is your next project?

After The Bubble, I wrapped on The Batman, and I have another exciting project on the way (that we can’t talk about just yet)! 

A big thanks for your time.

// The Bubble – Trailer

ILM: Dedicated page about The Bubble on ILM website.
Netflix: You can now watch The Bubble on Netflix now.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2022


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