It's already been a big year in visual effects on television - we continue our VFX in TV series looking at incredible effects work in The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Black Sails.


Meet Grodd

Grodd and The Flash battle it out.
Grodd and The Flash battle it out.

When The CW series The Flash began airing last year, we spoke to Encore Hollywood visual effects supervisor Armen Kevorkian about how his team had brought the titular character’s super-speed to life. As the series has continued, so has the breadth of effects work, including the addition of Grodd, a mutated - and telepathic - gorilla. The character ultimately faces off against The Flash in the sewers and subway below Central City.

“I knew if we planned it correctly we could do Grodd justice with the time and resources we had,” says Kevorkian. “The biggest pressure really was that movies such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes nailed it, so we knew what people would compare it to. But the reaction was great from the fans. And also it’s a comic character we were bringing to life so it had a different personality to it.”

CG models.
CG models.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Unlike the recent Planet of the Apes films, Grodd was realized without any on-set performance capture. “It was more just me acting like an ape in a room with our animation team,” notes Kevorkian. “On set we did have someone on stilts to be able to frame our camera, but it wasn’t necessarily anybody acting.”

The character was designed based on multiple gorilla reference, including footage showing an ape walking on just two feet. “What’s interesting,” says Kevorkian, “is that while you’re watching this real gorilla on two feet, it just doesn’t look right, even though it’s real. So we have to modify it to make it more pleasing. And because he wasn’t going to have the armor like he is in the comic books, he was going to be more like a gorilla that had mutated to this larger size. We gave him some scaring and wear and tear to add to his back story that he had been in the sewers the whole time after the accident in Central City.”

Visual effects artists built Grodd from the ‘ground up’, starting with a skeletal structure, adding a muscle system and then skin and fur, which relied on Ornatrix in 3ds Max. “We did a lot of research looking at real gorilla hair,” explains Kevorkian. “It needed to be varied, so on the top of the head it’s shorter hair, but then on his cheeks it’s almost side-burns and longer fur on his face. Then on his arm it’s longer fur there.”

The sheen on Grodd’s fur was helped by the on-set lighting for the creature’s scenes, says Kevorkian. “It was lit very dramatically to be able to bring him in and out of light - it really helps sell the CG character. It really grounds it into the shot. On top of that we added environmental elements and a little haze in the sewer system.”

In a final confrontation with The Flash, Grodd jumps out in front a subway car, only to be hit by the train - a completely CG shot. “It started with just a sketch on a white board in my office of how that shot would work out and then we did previs,” recounts Kevorkian. “Because the whole thing was CG, we had complete control of camera, so I thought let’s make it as dramatic as possible. I wanted him to be backlit by the subway light, but I also wanted to start on him so it was a nice 90 degree counter as he jumps towards us in slow motion and you eventually backlight him as the subway hits him.”


Digital agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

Cocoon VFX by FuseFX.
Cocoon VFX by Fus eFX.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also just wrapped its second season, with visual effects once again helmed by Mark Kolpack (who we spoke to at the beginning of season 1). This latest season featured 1920 shots, with FuseFX again doing the heavy lifting and supported by other VFX studios including CoSA, Greenhaus GFX, Pixomondo and Synaptic.

Kolpack says that major strides were made in delivering the VFX for Agents this season in many areas, including the digital double work. That was particularly apparent in the May vs May fight in ‘Face My Enemy’ when Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) battles Agent 33 who has taken on her opponent’s voice and appearance with some S.H.I.E.L.D. technology. Carefully choreographed stunt work, combined with head and fully digital face replacement by FuseFX - enabled via Light Stage scans - made the sequence possible.

May vs May.
May vs May.

“To shoot the sequence, we had Ming-Na’s stunt double, Sammy, wearing tracking markers,” explains Kolpack. “We had one shot that started off in a hallway. It starts off as an over the shoulder of Sammy, and then Steadicams around and reveals Sammy on the other side, which had to be Ming-Na. Through the move it became a full face replacement - the hair was a wig and matched hers - and then we eventually transition to match the final position in one move.” Ming-Na was scanned using the Light Stage and then her facial performance re-created by FuseFX. “The texture maps that came out of the Light Stage were unbelievably incredible,” says Kolpack.

Another area of visual effects that continued to be enhanced during the show were the vehicles, especially the Quinjet which itself went through some iterations based on versions that also appeared in the Marvel movies. “We got the Quinjet 1.0 from ILM,” says Kolpack. “It was a Maya file and Fuse is 3ds Max, so we converted it all. Then we had to bring in Quinjet 2.0 seen in Winter Soldier. It was also an ILM asset, but we heard that Scanline had converted it to Max. So we got their model and used that.”

VFX by FuseFX.
VFX by Fuse FX.

The mid-season finale of season 2 incorporated some of Kolpack’s favorite effects work, that involving the Obelisk and Skye (Chloe Bennet) and Raina (Ruth Negga) being covered by cocoons - who are then revealed to be inhumans after they emerge.

“Raina’s make-up for her transformation wasn’t done yet,” says Kolpack, “so she was shot with tracking markers on her face and we were only going to be hinting at what she metamorphizes into in that episode. Once the makeup test was done I ended up scanning that with my Structure Sensor just to get an idea - then with my 5D Mark II I did shots all around and we extrapolated a 3D model from that as well.”

VFX by FuseFX.
VFX by Fuse FX.

“The next biggest thing was trying to define what the effect of turning people into the stone was going to look like,” adds Kolpack. “For the covering, I did a matte painting concept but the very first few tests meant that the girls didn’t look right. We wanted to add creases and folds and fluids. So for an idea, I basically painted over the mirror-man from Snow White and the Huntsman. There was a great fabric thing that draped over the human form. I used that as the base layer.”

When Skye breaks out of the cocoon, Kolpack helped orchestrate a Phantom 2K slow-mo shoot at 600 fps. “The reason for this was that I wanted to do speed ramps of coming out of the cocoon to show the birth of Skye’s real character - Daisy Johnson aka Quake. We had a lot of challenges getting the performance absolutely right, having the wind hit her at the right time and Chloe pushing her shoulders back. We filmed it a few times and I said, ‘Well, the magic hasn’t happened yet…everyone here will know when it does.’ We did it again and her hair blew her the right way and the shoulders went back at the right time - ‘And that’s the magic’. Fuse FX added in the debris and all the digital make-up.”


Make sail

Digital Domain's VFX for Black Sails.
Digital Domain's VFX for Black Sails.

Traditionally known for film and commercial work, Digital Domain had its first foray into episodic television recently with the second series of Black Sails. Visual effects for the Starz TV show, which explores the world of pirates in the early 1700s, are overseen by Erik Henry, who enlisted Digital Domain to help with ship-at-sea scenes, coastal attacks and numerous invisible environment augmentations.

“We did about 60 shots for season 2,” explains Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Aladino Debert, “and many of them are essentially invisible. We had a lot of fun with the crazy destruction shots and water and ship shots too. We went into the project with our expectations floating but very quickly we realized that Erik Henry and Starz, they really look at this as one hour movies. They don’t think of it as television or episodic.”

Watch Digital Domain's Black Sails breakdown.

Coming on relatively late in production, Digital Domain capitalized on already made ship and house assets, as well as assets for digital doubles that featured in the shots. The trickiest aspects of the shots, then, became water. “It was the hardest thing we had done in years,” states Debert. “Our last big water show was Pirates 3, so we had to re-vamp our water pipeline for this show.”

To solve the water shots, the studio had a hybrid effort underway to deal with ocean surfaces and also interaction for things such as boat wakes - all done in Houdini. That effects sim software was also used to handle rigid body sims for shots where ships or houses are destroyed. “We blew up the houses very traditionally,” says Debert. “We built the models and then in Houdini we broke them up into a myriad of pieces and we applied dynamic forces to blow them up - they collide with each other, hit the floor. We have tools to create dust clouds based on the trajectory of different pieces.”

VFX by Digital Domain.
VFX by Digital Domain.

Scenes were completed using Digital Domain’s Maya / V-Ray pipeline, although of course many elements were realized using Houdini and Mantra. In order to deal with the dual rendering pipeline, Debert orchestrated a method for splitting above water shots as V-Ray renders, and below water or water interaction shots in Mantra.

“Let’s say you want to render calm water with the ship in the water reflecting in the water,” outlines Debert. “The ship itself is rendered with Maya and V-Ray but the water is rendered in Mantra. We’d render the ship first and then grab those frames, re-project it into the geometry and render that as a reflection element on the water rendered in Houdini.”

VFX by Digital Domain.
VFX by Digital Domain.

“On the shots in which the water was a bit crazier,” adds Debert, “it becomes more complicated. We would render the water first. For the water geometry, a lot of the displacement gets generated at render time, so you can’t export that as geo and bring it into Maya. So we’d render the water with proper displacement and matte objects for the ship. Once the matte objects and render pass of the water was ready, we’d bring that into Maya and use it as essentially an occlusion object and a reflection bounce object onto the ship that was rendered in V-Ray. And once that was done we’d bring it back into Houdini to do reflections in the water. So we had to go back and forth in some shots. “

Compositing was handled in NUKE, and involved combining Digital Domain’s rendered CG elements with live action as well as library elements for things like smoke and haze. “We’d treat it as a very heavy 3D comp,” notes Debert. “Some of the shots just called for a heap of mayhem which let us add in flames and smoke and dust - the more the merrier. Erik Henry loved that!”


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