VFX on TV: Rock monsters, pirate ships and a cyclops

We break down visual effects from the TV shows Atlantis, Constantine and Crossbones with work by Vine FX and Important Looking Pirates.

Synthesizing a cyclops


Amongst the expansive environments and many creatures produced by Vine FX for the second series of BBC’s Atlantis is the cyclops, who lives in a maze of caves. Vine visual effects supervisor Michael Illingworth, who oversaw the work with visual effects producer Clare Norman, describes how it was brought to life.

For Illingworth, an important component of completing the cyclops shots was to have on-set performance reference. “They hired an actor to play, and characterized the performance they wanted for the cyclops,” he says. “So we received an edit with this guy, carrying the club the way he wanted to, dressed in the way that we wanted the cyclops to look. They then edited the sequence using that particular performance. Then once they grabbed each particular shot on set they then asked the actor to step out and replicated the camera moves that they use for the actual performance when the stand-in was there. Then we started camera tracking and sort of blocking out the animation and putting that together as quickly as possible. So we then knew clearly what we were working on with rendering, lighting, and everything else.”

– Above: watch Vine’s breakdown of the cyclops.

Meanwhile a lookdev process for the cyclops was being carried out at Vine, overseen by CG supervisor Ivor Middleton. A sculpt was completed in ZBrush and Maya with cloth sims in nCloth, a muscle system built in Maya, hair grooming done with Yeti and final rendering in Arnold. Complex, layered textures were taken from photos of the actor’s skin, tattoos and surface grime. The base texture for the cyclops was skin, layered with sheen, specular, displacement maps and normal maps. Up to 50 different face shapes were orchestrated – despite the fact that the cyclops does not talk – to enable gross face movement along with grunts and roars.

Vine was an early adopter of the Arnold renderer, having used it successfully on Merlin. “Just out of the box it gave us lots of really good results,” says Illingworth. “This year as well the creatures are looking fantastic so we’ve done a full humanoid character which is the cyclops, using one of those skin shaders.”

Completing the visual effects of Atlantis – which aside from the cyclops include many creatures, environments and compositing duties – is a monumental task for Vine, with over 100 shots per episode. Luckily, notes Illingworth, the studio is set up in a unique way. “We operate a little bit like an in-house department, rather like the art department or the old costumers. We have our budget and we know roughly what we’re going to do throughout the year. And then we build the team accordingly. We know roughly how many shots we’re going to get, but because we don’t bid sequences, we’re very much the in-house department. We’re able to work very, very closely with the production department and I think it’s something that’s quite unique, and it does bring lots of benefits with it. For example, the early blocking stage for both of those cyclops sequences we suggested additional shots to the production, which I’m not sure that happens at other facilities, not any that I’ve ever worked at.”

Above: Cyclops turntable.

“We’ll try different things out and then we’ll go back and present them to the producers,” adds Illingworth. “Then we’ll get the edits changed accordingly. Likewise if we’re working on the sequence and for whatever reason just because the limitations of how quick these things get filmed we might get a shot that is taking us 3 to 4 days just to build. With the other shots we’re getting through a day per shot. We’ll go back to them and say, ‘Look, this is an absolute stinker. Can we hide the shot in it or can we extend the previous shot?’ They’re very open to that and I think that’s what allows us, for the budget, we’re able to get a fantastic amount of detail on screen.”

Constantine’s Coblynau

Concepts by ILP.
Concepts by ILP.

DC Comics’ Constantine is currently airing on NBC. The show’s second episode – ‘The Darkness Beneath’ – sees Constantine travel to a small mining community to face a spirit called the Coblynau. Important Looking Pirates was tasked with several shots of a digital Coblynau and its transformations.

Live action Coblynau performers in make-up were captured on set, with ILP creating both head replacements and shots of the creature’s emergence from underground and through rocks. The studio’s involvement was specifically requested by overall visual effects supervisor and associate producer Kevin Blank, who reached out to ILP to ‘spice up the sequences.’ “Regarding transformation and the appearance of the creatures,” explains ILP visual effects supervisor Niklas Jacobson, who oversaw the work with VFX producer Mans Bjorklund, “we went for a full CG solution in order to have great control of the transitions and not have to rely on a live action takeover. The Coblynaus can appear in many shapes like shadows but ultimately take physical form through a liquid transition into a more solid shape where their bodies and face are made of pieces of coal but they still have real clothes.”

– Above: watch ILP’s breakdown for the Coblynau work.

In a key sequence, the Coblynau is shown traveling underneath the surface of a mine, displacing rocks and powering up from the ground. ILP tackled these and similar views of the creature ‘unraveling’. “We started blocking the animation by animating our digital version of the Coblynau unraveling in a very unnatural motion,” says Jacobson. “We did not care too much about strange deformation since that was a part of the effect and we knew we were going to drape him with fluids and shade him as a dark blob for the early part of the transition.”

ILP then ran the animation through Houdini for a rigid body collision sim involving the digital rocks. “We excluded parts of the collision geometry like the arms to avoid exploding stones due to fast moving geometry in the animation,” notes Jacobson. “Finally we ran the liquid simulation in Houdini for our character. The meshes of liquid and stones were exported as V-ray proxies and were all rendered together with the main character in Maya using V-ray 3.0. All the elements including versions of renders of our character with different sets of shaders and smoke elements was then assembled and composited in NUKE.”

See a digital face replacement breakdown.

In another sequence, the Coblynau emerges from black water that is quickly filling up inside a vehicle. Interestingly, the shots were not originally intended to be completed with VFX. “The water became very foamy during photography and not as black and cool as the intention was,” relates Jacobson. “This lead to a set of interesting challenges. We were lacking material such as clean plates and HDRIs and other set data that you would ordinary get for a VFX sequence. We believed we would be able to pull it off by replacing the foam with digital water and still be a more cost effective solution than having to re-shoot the sequence.”

With that approach in mind, ILP tracked the shots and created match moves of the car and characters that were interacting with the water. “We simulated new water in Houdini and exported it to Maya,” explains Jacobson. “We did lighting and shading in Maya and we projected the live action plates of the car and actors onto our match move to get some nice reflections into our digital water. Some extensive compositing and clean painting was done in order to tie it all together.”

Bug fest

ILP lent their services also to the episode ‘A Feast of Friends’ featuring swarms of bugs. “The swarming effect was for most shots done with a custom Maya particle rig that allowed us to easily control shape, path, speed and noise of the particles,” outlines Jacobson. “We would playblast little colored spheres for Kevin, which he would give feedback on. Once the animation was blocked and approved we switched the particles to V-Ray proxies containing high-res animation cycles.”

– Above: See ILP’s breakdown for A Feast of Friends.

“On top of that we added hand animated ‘hero’ bugs in the shots where we felt it was needed. All the close-up shots or single to a couple of bugs shots were fully hand animated. This was then all rendered using V-Ray’s standard lights and materials, utilizing HDRI’s shot on set. In some cases we also did camera projections of the environment in order to get the right bounce and reflections on our bugs.”

Pirates and the sea


NBC’s Crossbones told the story of pirate Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach in 1729. For the show, which featured British Navy and pirate ships in and around the island of Santa Compana, overall visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank again looked to Important Looking Pirates for key sequences. ILP’s VFX supe Niklas Jacobson discusses the shots.

During filming, two physical ships were available for principal photography – that meant ILP had to fill out scenes with other craft and also match their digital ships and environments to the practically-filmed elements. The studio would ultimately complete over 100 visual effects shots across six episodes, producing five hero ships with cloth simulation, water sims, and digital crew members.

To start the process, ILP animated a 500 frames cycle of these ships and scenes that enabled them to block out a previs with proxy ships. “Once approved,” says Jacobson, “we switched the proxy ships to our high res versions with all animation and within a few days of work we had a decent first version of a full CG shot rendered and composited. Of course we had hero shots that needed custom animations and unique simulations but our cycles probably covered 85-90% of the shots.”

– Above: watch how ILP made pirate ships and digital oceans.

ILP’s high resolution ships were modeled from reference photographs of the picture ships, as well as art department concepts. “To top that off, we have the Vasa Museum close to our office in Stockholm,” notes Jacobson. “We went there with the crew to study and take pictures of the Vasa ship, which sunk in 1628, then was brought to the surface in 1961 and has since been restored. I believe that the Vasa ship is the best preserved ship from that time period in the world.”

For ocean-going shots, ILP began with a flat waves setup. “We made a nice looking default ocean surface in Houdini that worked for most shots,” explains Jacobson. “Once we had a tracked/animated camera we brought it into Houdini to create the water for the shot. We had 3 LOD levels based on distance from camera, we only created water in the camera frustum. This was exported back to Maya with UV’s as a V-Ray proxy object. We shaded the water with a V-Ray shader with some additional textures for calmer and more windy areas and normal maps to increase details where we needed.”

Larger waves were simulated in Naiad and Houdini on a per-shot basis. Says Jacobson: “We used a HOT deformer to create the main shape of the ocean, then we simulated a patch of water where we needed the interaction from the ship. We also did additional white water spray and atmospheric simulations in Houdini which we rendered with our proprietary volumetric and particles renderer Tempest.”

In one particular scene, the Reaver pirate ship sails alongside the Petrel – a British ship – and a cannon shoot-out ensues. “We made a full CG shot with boats filled with digital crew that needed to cut seamless between two live action shots,” details Jacobson. “The challenge was capturing the look of the scene but also acting of the crew on board without pulling the audience out of the story. This is not an ‘effects shot’ but rather a great example of virtual cinematography. It could very well have been shot on set, but it was during editing that production discovered that a shot like this would really tie the sequence nicely together.”

1 thought on “VFX on TV: Rock monsters, pirate ships and a cyclops”

Comments are closed.