From Mike Judge, the HBO’s brilliant hit show, Silicon Valley has been a huge hit with fans for both its humour and its accurate takedown of the real Silicon Valley. Bill Gates is quoted as saying “you should watch it because they dont make any more fun of us than we deserve”.  The show puts comedy first but it also goes to great lengths to get the tech it parodies as correct as possible.

In the last season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, the boys come across a robot named Fiona. The VFX were provided by Barnstorm VFX. The Burbank based company is a boutique effects house specializing in high quality digital effects, design, and production. Barnstorm VFX is a primary contributor to Silicon Valley and other shows such as Outlander, The Man in the High Castle and Strange Angel.

Initially the team explored making a life cast of the actual actress and doing the work even more in camera, but it became clear that approach would take too long on set and was not feasible. The team ended up with the idea of de-humanising a real actress and reversing her into looking like a robot via VFX. The actress, Suzanne Lenz, played the robot on set and was a big fan of the work Barnstorm did on her base performance, commenting online, “I couldn’t agree more! Honestly, Barnstorm VFX scared me with how good they are – I mean, have you ever seen your own face ripped off? Congrats to them on their work.” She added, “It was truly a delight to play a bald, creepy, but relentlessly positive robot this season!”

The Barnstorm team built VFX on top of an actress who simulated robotic head movements and facial expressions. The team then added to her performance, altering it so that it could pass as slightly better than real, contemporary, state of the art mechanical robots. As robots can simulate a variety of facial shapes, but lack the full expressiveness of a real person, the team needed to find the right balance of ‘fake’ and photoreal ‘artificial’. The skill was making the actress look robotic but not so much that she looked like bad VFX. While the task may sound simple, it was quite complex and required clever R&D to effectively back into the Uncanny Valley from the side of realism, while making sure it always looked as if the robot was 100% on set as a physical prop. This meant that although the actress delivered a beautiful performance, the Barnstorm team needed to remove many of the subtleties that read as human and add electronic circuitry.

For inside Fiona’s head, a CG solution was required. The actresses wore a prosthetic makeup that includes a bald cap, painted green, under a clear acrylic cap with wire connectors attached. This allowed the compositors to capture a baseline of real world specular reflections, which was invaluable in integrating the CG elements. Circular holes were cut into the plastic head cap that allowed for tracking markers to be photographed without contamination from specular reflections and refraction.

The Team also captured light probes, 360 degree HDRs photogrammetry and prop references in all environments during production. The team built a digital double for the actress’ head from photogrammetry for later use, layout and match move.

The artists tracked the camera and Fiona’s head in six axes of motion. Armed with the match move data and head model, the team were then able to accurately render digital head interiors, and project the plates onto proxy geometry. This was then re-rendered and composited.

To add to the robotic movement the team made subtle changes to the timing of Fiona’s head movements. Her blinks and her lip sync were each independently adjusted. This created the illusion of a mechanical set of eyes and jaw.

There were also numerous additional cosmetic touches. The team re-textured her skin to look more like latex rubber and digitally blended the seams between prosthetic appliances on the real actress. One interesting trick the team discovered was to remove the specular highlights from Fiona’s eyes, as well as most of the specular highlights and texture from her lips. The compositors froze her breathing between lines, making her seem completely still between movements.

Additionally the legs and arms of the real actress were removed and replaced with elements of the new robot puppet. Finally the lips were made to be slightly out of sync – as if the lips were not producing the sounds that the robot made and, to reinforce that, the team digitally removed actress Suzanne Lenz’s tongue.

In one of the final shots of Fiona, her face is pulled off. This as done with clever compositing between a partial state of disassembly and an actual removable latex face (although not accurately that of Fiona). The team splined warped the actress’ actual face element to match the defamation of the latex double. While the shot ended up being much harder than was initially planned, the team worked hard on the very different proportions between the robot prop and the real actress to sell the shot and the robot face reveal.

In total, the team did 70 Fiona shots over Season 5 of Silicon Valley. Almost half of them required full 3D match moves and the other half were primarily compositing solutions or clean up of the Fiona on-set makeup. At the end of the day, the VFX team love working on Silicon Valley, as the creative department work hard to make the show as accurate as they can whilst still focusing on the comedy. The team has worked on so many classic gags in the series since it started from the masturbating monkey with a robot arm, to the set extensions for the vast server rooms, and every other weird VFX-centric techno gags the show has so far come up with.

So convincing was the illusion, that fans immediately hit the discussion boards after the episodes aired debating if VFX had been used or not. With such attention to detail, it is easy to see why fans see the show as having a warm embrace of a geek humor and support the show so strongly.

Images copyright. Courtesy of HBO, and not Hooli. 

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