One of the most popular characters on TNT’s series Falling Skies is the alien military leader Cochise. Played by Doug Jones, the creature is realized on the show in a practical effects suit crafted by MastersFX, which also augments Jones’ performance via digital means. Opinions on the merits of practical vs. digital effects often waiver, but the MastersFX team have embraced both for the show and beyond, and has now launched a Digital Makeup Effects (dMFX) division that stems from that original Cochise work. We talk to some of MastersFX's key artists about their approach.

fxg: What is the overriding philosophy you’ve been following with the mixing of digital and practical make-up effects?

Todd Masters (president, MastersFX): The philosophy is the continuing pursuit that we’ve always been on which is to make better and more believable film characters. We’ve never really been just about making rubber faces - we’ve been trying to make cool characters no matter what the tool. So this was really a natural extension.

MastersFX's dMFX team:  Andre Bustanoby, Johnathan Banta, Cochise, Todd Masters (standing) and Chris Brown.
MastersFX's dMFX team: (from left) Andre Bustanoby, Johnathan Banta, Cochise, Todd Masters (standing) and Chris Brown.

Johnathan Banta (senior visual effects supervisor): It’s definitely an extension of make-up effects. It’s what we’ve been doing for a long time - we just haven’t called it anything of that sort. It’s been called digital make-up, it’s been called VFX, all over the place. The thing is, I do believe it is: make-up. We’re doing the exact same process - we’re just using digital bits as glue. The problem we have on the digital side is that we’re constantly having to re-create reality. We’re working on new shaders, new lighting models, new animation methods, new soft-surface simulations to try and emulate the real world.

The work you’re seeing at places like ILM and Weta is just brilliant, but it’s not always achievable on a budget. What we bring to this is not just a level of reality because we photograph as much as we humanly can. We also bring the facility that the digital tools give us to extend those performances as the actors intended them.

Johnathan Banta works on Cochise.
Johnathan Banta works on Cochise.

fxg: How did this approach for Falling Skies come about - you’ve been doing practical fx for a long time.

Todd Masters: We started on the Falling Skies project not too long after they had filmed the pilot in Toronto. We were presented the pilot in a room and at that time there were only digital aliens in it. After we watched the pilot, they said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ Some of our early comments - and we weren’t trying to be difficult - was that the monsters didn’t quite feel grounded. They didn’t quite feel entirely believable in the narrative of the show. So we had suggested seeing them less and possibly tweaking the design. Production said we’d like to have some practical creatures to work with the show and it was really up to us to find a bridge between the practical and digital work. At that point we were really approaching it as mainly a house that did rubber work - it wasn’t until season 3 that we really started integrating our CG process.

Andre Bustanoby (VFX supervisor): Just from a practical-only point of view, it also allowed a shooting efficiency on-set. Close-ups. Inserts. Interaction with actors. The characters touching other characters or a set. That’s all in-camera and if you shoot it correctly you can do take after take after take and you get that ‘physically there’ much faster and more efficiently for certain kinds of shots, than 100% digital shots. Not to mention the budget and the schedule.

By season 3 we also had a principal character, Cochise, who not only had to feel like he was there and be emotive and relatable. He had to act with other actors. It’s not always possible to act with a greenscreen a tennis ball. So could we mix the mediums in a way so that an actor can still perform the character and take that relatable, emotive, brilliant performance and extend it and have something that comes out the other end that’s an amalgam of both techniques. At the end of the day the audience just buys it. They’re not hung up on what the technique is - they don’t care. The character is helping the story get told.

Chris Brown (VFX producer): Andre makes a good point about the actors. What we really get from the on-set performance is not only the performance in front of the other cast members, but we also get a set of clues for us to work on the digital aspect of animating the actor’s eyes, mouth, breathing sac and all the other little features that we digitally enhance on the actual make-up. We use the actor’s performance to drive all of those things - in fact Johnathan has developed a very clever pipeline that is driven by the actor’s dialogue, primarily.

Doug Jones has make-up effects applied for Cochise.
Doug Jones has make-up effects applied for Cochise.

fxg: How does the pipeline work, Johnathan?

Johnathan Banta: So, we’re housed in with MastersFX - I don’t need to go and ask for a scan, or ask if they have the model. All we have to do is walk down to the shop floor. We’re mostly using photogrammetry these days to do our re-creations. With that geometry we’re able to start doing our 3D tracking. PhotoScan is the tool of choice for getting geometry, and we’re also using SynthEyes in conjunction with it. We’ve written some tools to help them talk and share cameras back and forth.

fxg: How do you then use the actor’s performance and voice to drive CG augmentation?

Johnathan Banta: A lot of people would look at that and say it’s just intensity (of the voice). But if you look and analyze an actor’s performance, especially when he’s inside a make-up appliance, he’s going to twist his head at certain times trying to get his performance across, but at the same time he’s ‘overacting’ almost, reaching further so that his performance comes through there - so his voice is one of his clues. There’s certain frequencies and tonalities between those that we go into an analysis of and we have an equation that finds as much of that information as possible and then start applying it to drive different parts of the rig.

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Filming another of Falling Skies' creations

Also, his head movements and other things contribute. It’s effectively a motion capture suit - just because it isn’t gray with little markers all over it, doesn’t change the fact that we’re capturing motion on set in realtime. A little wriggly bit here and there doesn’t show the make-up isn’t work - it’s telling me how his cheek is moving. You can take that information and re-target it.

fxg: Do you approach it as a 2D or more of a 3D problem?

Johnathan Banta: We like to work in image space as much as possible, but if we have to go into 3D or start 3D or eventually finish it off with an image - we’re agnostic about which package or methodology we’re doing it with. So we use PhotoScan, then ZBrush for sculpting and clean-up, Maya, MODO, Electric Image on occasion, After Effects plus the Adobe Creative Suite and NUKE.

fxg: Electric Image, really?

Johnathan Banta: It renders fast and it just works and does the job. In a pinch I might quickly need to do a projection map and Electric Image just pops its head up.

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Cochise in a final shot.

fxg: Where do you see this kind of work heading?

Todd Masters: A lot of people think we’re a make-up effects shop only - we’re actually really about coming up with a solution that works. All of us are very innovative and we’re constantly surprising each other with a new technique or new possibility - it’s really not about the box and software. Since we have a practical shop we can also quickly make elements and shoot them, in some cases faster than we’d be able to build them in a CG environment.

Johnathan Banta: And we’re even starting to change the language a little bit - instead of warp splines and 3D tracking, we’re starting to find ourselves using the exact same language as in the practical effects side on the digital side. So we’ll have virtual cable pulls or virtual bladder gags so we can communicate more directly with what we’re trying to accomplish.

Make-up effects near completion.
Make-up effects near completion.

fxg: Can you talk about other shows where you’re also implementing this hybrid approach?

Todd Masters: Well, season 5 of Falling Skies is about to start. Coming out on Netflix is the second season of Hemlock Grove. Our company spearheaded the make-up effects, but also we lead the charge on their werewolf transformation which is their flagship effect. This season starts off with quite exciting transformation. Last season they got an Emmy nomination for VFX, so it was a high bar to hit and we wanted to make sure we didn’t just meet it, we broke. It really uses both practical and digital elements that are composited together in a way that no one else can do. We’re also starting up on a feature of our own called Master Cleanse which shoots in July.

Below - check out what the team have been up to on Hemlock Grove:


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