What is your background?
I was a music composition major in college, and when I started visualizing music in ways that could only be created through CGI, I found myself at Cal Arts embarking on a dual masters in Music Composition and Experimental Animation. Jumping ahead, VFX has taken the lead role in my career, from CG artist to FX artist, to directing commercials, directing a 4-D theme park ride in China, to VFX supervising features and large scale episodics such as HBO’s WATCHMEN and Amazon’s UTOPIA.
How did you and FuseFX get involved on this show?
FuseFX CEO David Antenau had connected with me while I was finishing up WATCHMEN and after learning the vision of the company with Dave, Jim Rygeil and the core team at FuseFX, aligning made great sense. FuseFX had already been involved from the outset with the on-set supervision for UTOPIA, so I initially came on board as post VFX supervisor for the show while shooting in Chicago was approaching its final stages.
How was the collaboration with the Showrunners and the directors?
Coming onto the show close to the end of shooting, I didn’t cross paths with the director, but met a number of times with showrunner Gillian Flynn and producer Jessica Rhodes. We met for the VFX blocking sessions, where we creatively defined and confirmed together the vision for VFX shots across various episodes.
As a fan of Gillian’s work, it was inspiring to exchange with her and be entrusted to realize her vision for many of the more epic and climatic moments of the show. Inspiration is always wind in your own sails and for me this specifically translated into going very deep into the details of the world and beginning to source references for our VFX. My personal aim was for our visual effects to express some inspiration back in the direction of Gillian.
What were their expectations and approach for the visual effects?
Though we didn’t literally define expectations, I know we shared the same vision: the absolute highest standards of photorealistic integration of effectively expressive visual effects. A lot of things are required to realize that aim, but at the outset it was much about delving very deeply into the story and gaining a sensibility toward all the creative choices made to cumulatively render the tone and feel of the show. With that, a level of discernment can arise that aligns choices in good directions. For exceptional supporting VFX, seamless integration is half the target, while the other is a perception into how the VFX can express a nuanced quality that enhances the story’s highest aspirations.
With that said, Huey Park and Nick Fuentes come to mind, as UTOPIA’s post producing duo. From start to finish, it was a genuine pleasure to collaborate with these two gentlemen.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
Our UTOPIA VFX producer was Gary Romey, who played such an invaluable role in so many ways, (including his unfailing positivity and good vibes). I was initially quite taken aback at how fast and fluid his ability was to access literally any data point of the show. What I quickly learned was he’d long been using Fuse’s powerful in-house shot and database management software: “Nucleus.” Nucleus is the organizational template into which all FuseFX shows grow and evolve. From bidding to shot tracking, it’s at the heart of how the studio shares data and interfaces with individuals, teams, and departments with a show’s evolving content. Nucleus leaves us the space to focus on the creative, and for great synergies within the team to form. This was especially true for our VFX editor Tyler Base and coordinator Nicholas deGrazia, who facilitated our review screenings with expertise throughout the season.
What are the advantages to also being the 2nd Unit Director?
A scheduled “elements shoot day” calling for the lighting and shooting of specific missing components of shots across all episodes, meant we’d be integrating this additional content as VFX elements into existing footage. Most important was getting the exact angles and lighting we needed, especially given a series of “adventurous” hand held shots featuring a sprawling CG factory interior, into which we’d be integrating many live action factory workers. Given the overall needs of the shoot, I flew to Chicago and 2nd unit directed the elements shoot day, which ended up being one of my peak experiences for the entire season. Of course, pre-planning was key, and in working with executive producer Robin Sweet and the Chicago based production team, we established a solid plan. For this kind of shoot, it was essential for me to have live compositing from video playback, to align our live content with existing plates and previsuals. Our local on-set vfx sup. Mark Anderson, played a very helpful role in assisting with some of the local preparatory details. Come the morning of the shoot, I distributed the shoot schedule and plans I’d written up to production, and along with Mark, the second unit crew, and about 30 extras, we had a wonderfully effective and enjoyable day of shooting. Most importantly, we acquired everything we needed.
The series is really gore. How did you enhance this aspect?
I felt I had some good perspective for the gore shots with my background as a fluids FX specialist. Along with some experience supervising a couple of other recent shows with gore themes, I knew what was important was to strike a balance between hyperrealism and “theatrical effect.” Not surprisingly, realism took the more supporting role with the blood FX amounts, sizes, and distances traveled, most often enhanced for desired dramatic effect. We made creative use of both our 2-D blood elements content library and 3-D fluids simulations for very specific actions.
A side note to share with gore FX: When crafting a shot with lighting and compositional balance, you’re going to recognize some of the gore shots you’re working on, as ironically beautiful. We’re deeply wired to recognize beauty in fluid dynamics and are highly sensitive to its realism (give or take a few million years of evolution). This is also to acknowledge just how impactful a gore shot is when well-executed, and how inversely impactful it is when it’s not quite hitting the mark.
Can you elaborate about your work on the missing eye of Wilson?
There was a good amount of research identifying realistic types of interior eye socket structures suitable for our purposes. On top of that, we needed to factor swelling associated with the eyeball having been just ripped out with a spoon no less. Research also confirmed how the muscle memory of an eyelid stays in place after an eyeball has been freshly removed. Combining key aspects from three specific image references, our initial, fully illuminated 3-D renderings were actually incredible in their detailed realism. It seemed everyone who saw the renders made an unintended noise at first glance! The first sequence to integrate into was the bunker room, and though we didn’t see as much detail given the relatively low light and LUT, the dimensionality and realism still translated well with subtle highlights and shadowing. All in all there were just under 80 eye socket shots, and we split these up into close range 3-D hero renderings and a 2.5-D solution, which drew upon an array of rendered perspectives of the 3-D eye socket. From this “library” of renderings and associated AOVs, our comp team could very effectively derive the correct perspective and appearance for the medium to far distance eye socket shots.
How did you enhance the various environments?
For the variety of set extensions, each was a variant of CG, matte painting, and compositing, with the most extended sequences being the warehouse storage collapse and the “hot zone” (tent village). Each of these sequences had both wide angles and nearby extensions, requiring high degrees of visual detail and simulated motion. For the warehouse collapse, that level of detail was highest due to close ups of CG storage boxes being ripped open and glass vials pouring out, prior to the larger simulated collapse of all shelves and boxes. For the tent village, variations on cloth simulations for tent fabric matched live action tent cloth dynamics. In wider shots we saw over 150 tents and associated details of the pandemic emergency makeshift hospital.
Which location was the most complicated to extend?
For me personally it was the sprawling, detailed interior of the “Simpro” factory, in part because of the variety and number of live action elements to shoot and integrate into the CG set extension. Another aspect was that a significant part of the layout and plausible functionality of the factory floor (where extras were engaging in various activities), needed to be very specifically defined. This became a component of my pre-shoot responsibility and planning. The CG build of course also needed to look 100% photorealistic and required a good deal of detailed specification beyond the sketchup renderings that had been provided to us.
Can you tell us more about the FX work, especially the fire?
We had several instances of fire across the episodes, but what stands out are the simulations of the farm house’s explosion and its burning aftermath. We were fortunate to have Wayne Hollingsworth as our FX supervisor, who made sure we arrived at extremely impressive simulations that were very close expansions upon the pyrotechnic themes established in camera from special effects. More specifically, a practical fireball did explode out of one of the front windows of the farm house, which had a lot of excellent qualities to draw from, including a dynamic rolling action as it rose and transitioned into smoke. We realized our aim in replicating the realism within those generalized dynamics, but increased the size of the fireball to expand out of both the lower windows. We did the same with the simulated fire FX rising from all windows in matching the dynamics of the one with practically lit windows.
How did you create and animate the crowd?
Some of the “hot zone” (tent city) shots involved well over 100 hazmat clad digi doubles. For all the day and night time shots they were lit and positioned by our 3-D team, while they were set in motion using our Xsens motion capture solution, which provided us the ability to capture all the performance variations and unique interactions we needed. This was a very seamless process in large part thanks to David Bloomenfeld, the head of 3-D and in so many ways is responsible for the effectiveness and efficiency of FuseFX’s CG pipeline.
What was your approach for the clones?
With correctly shot plates in hand for the twin clones inside the hot zone tents, it was a relatively direct process of combining the plates in comp. With some alignment adjustments and roto clean up, our compositing supervisor Heather McAuliff applied the precise refinements needed for all aspects of the plates to work in unison.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Episode 8’s climactic collapse of the warehouse qualifies as the most challenging sequence. Fundamentally this was due to the warehouse’s huge scale, the close up CG interactive shots with the live action hero’s, and the extreme degrees of precision required for simulation timings and close up realism, in addition to close up and wide angle shading and lighting requirements to match perfectly with all remaining live action components of the shots. The event itself involved a forklift impaling one of the shelving units in a specific way so as to trigger a domino effect, sequentially causing the collapse of every shelving system in the entire warehouse. The key was how we represented the specific causal sequence of physical events for each shelf system that moved into action. This was fundamentally a two step process: first establishing essential motion and timings in animation, then passing those motions to FX for integrating the simulation of physics collisions and deformations. In animation, we needed to see the weight of one shelving system pulling upon the structural integrity of the next, unhinging specific horizontal support beams, triggering the weight of the entire shelf to drop down and lean inward, then from the redistribution of weight, pull upon the next in row shelf system for the pattern to repeat. Once we had realized this specific sequence in motion in context with the timing of live action events, it was passed on to FX for simulation testing. With some back and forth refinements, we were able to arrive at a system in Houdini that enabled advanced degrees of creative control. The degree of realism our team was able to achieve with both closeup integrations with Rain Wilson’s character and the sequential collapse of the entire warehouse in the wide shots is quite exceptional.
Is there something specific that gave you some really short nights?
For this question, happy to simply say “no.”
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
It’s a toss of a coin between the warehouse collapse and the Simpro interior factory sequences. The warehouse collapse, because of the effectiveness of the specific approach we applied for the resulting collapse to feel so natural, and the extremely high-level execution and artistry of our CG, FX, and Comp teams. That said, I was most personally attached to the Simpro interior factory shots in large part because of the shoot day in Chicago and directing the live action elements to integrate, plus the layers of my involvement in the composition, functioning appearance, and realism of the factory.
What is your best memory on this show?
I could say a few things but the truth is, it was the day-to-day experience with the people involved in this project. We had a good process and a great team collectively.
For example, our comp supervisor Heather McAuliff and CG supervisor Christian Gonzales showed up each day with such high levels of professionalism and enthusiasm.
As a group, it felt like we were always reaching for our best in the quality of our experience together, in addition to realizing a next-level quality in our work. If as a team, we can enrich each other in the process, the work has a better chance of being more inspired. We did learn that Gillian was actually blown away with our work (especially the warehouse destruction sequence). For me that translated as inspiration shared. Go Team!
How long were you on this show?
I first engaged UTOPIA in September 2019. FuseFX wrapped the final finishing touches to season one in July this year.
What’s the VFX shots count?
The FuseFX shot count (the bulk of the larger/significant VFX shots of the season): 345
What was the size of your team?
4 matte painting
3 vfx editors
3 vfx coordinators
What is your next project?
I’m currently involved in VFX supervising parts of a Marvel/Disney+ project as well as VFX supervising a Netflix feature film. I’m also enjoying soaking up UE4 (and Niagara) on the side.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
As a boy living in Hertfordshire, England, my father took my brother and me to see a cinematic rerun of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. As an 8-year-old, I felt utterly transported into a future world. The same was also true (yet so much more) when I saw STAR WARS. Coming out of the theatre, I literally had the sensation I’d just been to another galaxy and was absolutely thrilled. Foundationally, these two films were all about the sensation and experience of being transported – and I can say these early films rooted in me a fascination and love for the power and possibilities of cinematic immersion.
The remaining two films deepened my love for the art and power of cinematic story, and both hail from the historic 1999 year of films. Of course, the original masterpiece: THE MATRIX. Everything about this work of cinematic art was visionary, including the profound levels of philosophical symbolism of awakening into actual real questions, leading to unlimited human possibility. Spectacular! The other masterpiece: AMERICAN BEAUTY – another story of awakening and transcendence in championing a fearless sense of wonder in Ricky Fitts, and with that, imbuing within him intelligence enough to see the profoundly beautiful in everyday things, including his filmed plastic bag blowing in the wind. Inspired!
A big thanks for your time.
UTOPIA – VFX BREAKDOWN – FUSEFX
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
FuseFX: Official website of FuseFX.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020