Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick is currently airing on Cinemax and follows the work of revolutionary surgeon Dr. John W. Thackery (Clive Owen) at the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York during the early 1900s. In one episode, Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin) visits Thackery to seek an operation on her syphilis-infected nose. Shots of Ferrin with the affected nose cavity were realized with the help of visual effects by Phosphene - we find out how they accomplished the work.

- The team behind The Knick discuss the plight of character of Abigail Alford.

fxg: How was Ferrin filmed on set? Did you make use of any tracking markers or other on-set surveying?

John Bair (visual effects supervisor): Ferrin was wearing a partial prosthetic which was designed to help blend her real skin into the CG nose wound. However, as we began creating the effect, we realized that the prosthetic added too much volume to the base of the nose, so we quickly switched to an all CG replacement for the entire nose area including a portion of her checks and upper lip area. Ferrin had an array of tracking markers applied to her face, these helped not only with tracking the basic skeletal movement of her head, but also with tracking the subtle flexing of her expressive facial muscles that subtly moved parts of her nose.

fxg: What was the CG approach?

John Bair: A cast was made of Ferrin's face, and from this, a terrifically detailed sculpture was made of her face with the scarred and missing nose. After taking a comprehensive photo survey of the sculpture, we used Agisoft PhotoScan to create a basic CG model for Abigail's face. We then brought this model into our tracked shots from the show to see how it held up proportionally in every angle on Ferrin. We made many modifications to the structure of the model until it was working fluidly with all of Ferrin's movements via a fairly complex facial animation rig. At that point we began to make the CG model production ready by adding finer detail to the mesh, texturing the dry and wet tissue areas, and matching the scene lighting.


fxg: What were some of the challenges of animating the nose movements?

Vance Miller (CG supervisor): At first you think of the nose as not having much motion compared to the mouth or the eyes but in reality it is affected by both of these areas as well as the cheeks so we had to construct much more of an overall face rig than we had originally intended. We ended up building controls for the lower eye areas, the cheeks, the upper lip, and the jaw.

In addition to this, the depth of field was so shallow on some of the shots that the tracking marks were blurred beyond the point of being useful so we had to try to match motion based on other features of the skin that were in focus.

The biggest challenge was matching the small movements and twitches that seemed to be a blend of several different muscles. Some of the motions were so small and isolated that we had to use some specialized morph targets to nudge the skin in one direction or the other.

fxg: Can you discuss the compositing approach - where did the blends work/not work? How did you work with interactions from instruments, shadows etc?

Aaron Raff (lead digital artist): Vance Miller's renders out of V-Ray had most of the realistic skin properties that sell the final product. Working alongside compositors Thomas Panayioutou and Tommy Smith, my primary compositing task was finding the right balance in flesh-tones, redness, and wetness to characterize the wound as healing-yet-slightly-irritated. In successive versions, we moved from having a reddish edge to the hole to an almost consistent skin-tone all the way into the hole, lightening up slightly around the edge to convey translucency in the skin flaps. We also ended up playing down the 'wetness,' reducing those juicy spec highlights to just a few points, then revealing many more flashes of specularity when Thackery shines his exam light into Abigail's nasal cavity.


During the scene, Dr. Thackery moves around Abigail as he examines her, creating variation in the light and shadow on Abigail's face. To maintain the realism during these moments, I used the multi-pass render from a single lighting set-up in V-Ray and keyframed between a handful of looks. This approach ultimately gave us more control than trying to match the changing light in 3D.

The challenge with these shots is that the camera stays tight on the actress's face, at 4K resolution, for a series of long takes. The blending of the CG had to perfect since any viewer would have ample time to spot the seams. A 4K closeup of someone's face really resolves every pore and follicle, so, even after 3D artist Kim Lee hand-tracked the actress' facial movement, I ended up using several small warps to lock on to minute facial movements and twitches.

Some shots in the sequence featured Abigail's unique nose-less profile, backlit by the windowed wall of the exam room. Tackling these profile shots, Thomas and Tommy used the backlighting to emphasize the subsurface scattering in the CG skin, also taking care to match the rim light that subtly changed as Thackery moved around the room.

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