The rising popularity of the superhero movie has brought consistent work and fresh new challenges to VFX studios. When Marvel needed some last-minute help constructing alien environments for Thor: Ragnarok, they approached London-based Double Negative – already well-known for their work on Inception and Interstellar, as well as a previous Thor movie, trusting them to get the job done well and on time. We spoke with Double Negative’s VFX Supervisor Stuart Lashley, their DFX Supervisor Artemis Oikonomopoulou, and their VFX Producer Jenny Basen about their work on the film, from the challenges they faced to the solutions they improvised.
Stuart: We came on board very late in the overall production schedule. A lot of work had already been done, from creative designs to concept testing, so there was already an established creative direction, both in terms of looks and concepts that had been approved by the director and producer, and looks and concepts that had been rejected. So we had all of this material on hand, and a lot of direction from the film’s VFX supervisor, Jake Morrison, and the director, Taika Waititi.
Our work consisted of two large sequences in the film: the Sakaar wasteland, which is a massive, trash-filled expanse, a place that’s just supposed to look totally inhospitable, and a second sequence in Valkyrie’s apartment, which overlooks the industrial city of Sakaar and was shot on a blue screen, with the actors in the foreground and the city behind them.
So we had these two massive, dynamics environments, sprinkled with smaller animations – moving people and vehicles – and environmental effects to lend them credibility. We knew what the worlds needed to look like, we knew what the clients wanted and what their creative goal was, but there were still some big creative questions left unanswered. There were some effects pieces left undone, and then they wanted this big wormhole to be a huge component of both our sequences, and the overall look and design of that was still a big creative question. But that said, a lot of the worlds, and a lot of the vehicles and elements within those worlds, had already been designed and built to some degree. We had a lot of these building blocks already in place.
The real challenge was our tight deadline: we had trailer deadlines and preview screening deadlines coming up almost immediately after joining the project, so it became a matter of putting our heads together and figuring out how to manage this workload – and this huge amount of data – as efficiently as possible.
Shotgun To The Rescue
Jenny: We were using Shotgun 7.0.42 to keep track of our workflow. All of our daily tasks would appear in Shotgun, and then we’d structure those into playlists and pull those into our editing software. We would also use it for task tracking, to schedule the work our artists needed to do on a day-to-day basis, and for keeping up with the client’s input on any given asset or shot. Finally, there’s version tracking, tracking the status of a particular version of an asset for a particular department – who’s reviewed it? has it gone out to the clients yet? – which is incredibly useful. All of these notes would be entered into and tracked on Shotgun.
We had approximately 350 artists on the show, so knowing what 350 artists were producing and knowing the status of your 200 shots spread amongst those 350 artists, across multiple locations, would just be impossible without the help of a tool like Shotgun.
From a production standpoint, Shotgun gives you incredible visibility. You can see what’s going on from a producer’s perspective, and that’s no small thing when you consider that we were working on approximately 200 shots and coordinating across multiple locations. You just can’t usually turn around and ask the person next to you how their work is going, and if you’re working across different time zones, you can’t necessarily call them either, so it’s great to have Shotgun, this window into what’s being done and on what kind of schedule.
We even use Shotgun internally and communicate in Shotgun terms. It makes things a million times easier when you’re managing reviews. Production will just chuck things into a playlist before handing it off to an editor, and they’re able to run the session, or look into the history of the shots, and have it all be transparent and easily visible. We had approximately 350 artists on the show, so knowing what 350 artists were producing and knowing the status of your 200 shots spread amongst those 350 artists, across multiple locations, would just be impossible without the help of a tool like Shotgun.
Artemis: And speaking from an artist’s point of view, it’s great because you’ve got access to all the information about your shot in one page, from frame ranges, versions, notes and camera info, as well as what work has previously been done on the shot.
Working In Maya
Artemis: From my point of view, Maya is just the ultimate all-around tool. It’s so useful and versatile, whether you’re doing modeling or animation or effects or lighting. At Double Negative, we primarily use Maya 16 for modeling and rigging. We’ve developed our own internal hierarchical caching in Maya, as well as our own technical tools and approaches. So, for example, when we had to do the layout for Sakaar, this fictional city in Thor, we had all the tools in place all ready to do construction, set up a building, or move things around.
And then, of course, you have to have Maya open in the background at all times, because at some point you’re going to want to check your model or design, and it’s so useful for that.
We also appreciate that it’s been around for so long. Almost everyone has a certain base knowledge of Maya, with their own solutions to various problems or design challenges.
Stuart: We also appreciate that it’s been around for so long. Almost everyone has a certain base knowledge of Maya, with their own solutions to various problems or design challenges. If you do encounter some unforeseen challenge, it’s never a problem to find someone with the right experience and knowledge in Maya to take that on. I think that’s one main reason why it’s an industry standard.
Artemis: I started using Maya in 1998, in university, and I’m still using it now, twenty years later, so I’d say it’s pretty clearly here to stay.
DigiDoubles, Live Action & Animation
Stuart: There were a few specific moments in our work where we needed to use DigiDoubles. That’s usually because we needed the character model to be very quick – quicker than a human could move – or because we were playing with scale in an extreme way. That being said, most of our DigiDouble work on this feature was pretty standard, from a technical perspective.
Artemis: One thing I’ll say, though, is that when you’re using DigiDoubles, getting the skin and muscle design right is hugely important, because that’s the first thing people tend to notice in human animations. If that doesn’t look right, or if it’s even a bit off, your audience knows right away, and it can kill your scene.
I think a big part of the success of something like that comes down to simple planning. You have to know what the end goal of the shot is, what the components of that shot are, what the creature is and what it’s going to be doing, and how will the live actors interact with it?
Stuart: At the end of the day, the goal is believability, a photorealistic scene, and when you’re working in the comic book world, that very often involves a blending of live action and animation. That’s been attempted hundreds, even thousands of times, in various movies and for many years now, with varying degrees of success. There’s no one thing that goes wrong every time; there are many things that could, potentially, go wrong. There are so many stages – from the design and conception of the shots all the way to the final stages of rendering, modeling, and compositing animation – that need to work, that need to be done correctly, in order to achieve the right illusion and convince an audience that the live action actors and the animated effects those actors are interacting with exist in the same world.
I think a big part of the success of something like that comes down to simple planning. You have to know what the end goal of the shot is, what the components of that shot are, what the creature is and what it’s going to be doing, and how will the live actors interact with it? These are the critical details that will sell your shot down the line, when the audience is watching, but you have to be able to plan for them at every step, from pre-production to the actual shoot, and in post-production. That’s how you get a successful integration of live action and CG.
Artemis: Yes, I agree. You really have to plan out those initial plates and scans, make sure your lighting is always where it needs to be, and find those little, intricate details that can transform your CG from something that obviously looks too crisp, too computer-generated, into something the audience can recognize as real. That’s our job, basically: to make it look perfect.
Our challenge on this project was coming on board very late and having to basically think on our feet from day one.
Stuart: Every new project brings new challenges, and a certain amount of innovation has to occur, whether that’s having to create a new effect that hasn’t been done before, or manage your time or your budget. I think, in this case, the work wasn’t anything we hadn’t done before; there weren’t any new effects that needed special conceptualizing from the ground up.
Our challenge on this project was coming on board very late and having to basically think on our feet from day one. It’s never easy to pick up where someone else left off because everyone has different ways of doing things – their own tools, their own systems. The extremely short turnaround on this project meant that we had to take in these assets and models– hundreds of buildings – and incorporate them into our pipeline. We had to do manage everything as efficiently as possible because there was no time to do things from the ground up.
Artemis: This project was one massive lesson in the importance of planning, and having a smooth pipeline. All the work we put in at the beginning, incorporating all of the data and arranging it according to our needs, really paid off for us down the line, in terms of time saved, and enabled us to get the job done on time.
Stuart: The most obvious industry trend we see is just a continual pushing of the envelope. The creators want more and more realism, the audiences have higher and higher standards. Movies really need to continue to push the creative and technical boundaries in order to impress audiences.
More specifically, I think there’s an increasing desire to see a connection between visual effects and the actors. Audiences don’t necessarily want to see more explosions, bigger explosions, bigger shots; they’re more impressed by a fight between a man and a photorealistic CG bear. That’s a development I really like, personally, because it means the visual effects are increasingly being used to support or enhance the story. Expect to see more movies blurring the lines between visual effects and live action.
[A] big trend, that will hit in the coming years, is virtual reality, and how that will impact on film or the movie-going experience.
Artemis: I think another big trend, that will hit in the coming years, is virtual reality, and how that will impact on film or the movie-going experience. Just a few years back, the big technology was 3D, and that definitely changed a lot of stuff for us, as creators. In the same way, we might see VR rides or attractions, offered as supplements to the movie – or maybe there will be a virtual reality sequence built into a movie, something that will offer the audience a level of interaction they haven’t had before. All of this might happen in the next few years.
Advice To Those Entering VFX
Stuart: I’m not sure things have changed all that much, even since I was a student. I still think it’s largely a case of demonstrating a real enthusiasm for the work. Look at the movies you’re interested in, and try to replicate that work in your own projects, or find something that interests you and – no matter how limited your resources are – try to present your own work. Love and enthusiasm shine through, even in smaller projects or sketches done on a home computer, and people respond to that.
You’ll get knocked back maybe nine times out of ten, but you only need that one chance to show someone the potential in your work.
There are obviously a lot more avenues for education in the industry now than there were 15 years ago. There are so many more institutes and resources for learning the technical side of the trade. There’s no shortage of ways for you to build your knowledge, and it doesn’t matter if you consider yourself more creative or artistic, or if you’re more into physics or science, there’s probably an avenue for you into the industry, because we need people with all kinds of backgrounds, with excellence across disciplines. The work we do is fundamentally creative, but it requires artistry and technical knowledge and mathematical prowess and computer programming skill – all these different things.
But at the end of the day, you still have to get out there and present your work. You’ll get knocked back maybe nine times out of ten, but you only need that one chance to show someone the potential in your work.
Jenny: I think the big one for me is passion. You’ll meet people who have been in this industry for 10, 15, 20, even 25 years, but they don’t lose their passion for the work. I think that if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, about the work and about what you’re learning or what you’re contributing, then people will respond to that. Most skills can be taught, but I think passion really connects people in this industry. There are students who do this work part-time or older people who take it on as a hobby, and that won’t cut it. Stay passionate about what you’re doing, and express that passion, and people will receive you well.
Artemis: I agree with that, but I’d also add: don’t be precious about your work. You’re working with a team, and that sometimes mean making compromises or subordinating your own creativity to a higher purpose. There are some shows that you work on where you’re given a lot of creative control, and other shows where things are much more tightly controlled, and people have certain expectations of you. So, like Stuart said, don’t be afraid to show your work, but don’t be precious about it either, because your director or your studio head or your immediate supervisor will have the ultimate say.
Watch the Trailer for "Thor: Ragnarok"
Thank you, Stuart, Artemis, Jenny and the team at Double Negative for sharing your story with us. Congratulations on a job well done!