How dneg does… Visual development
DNEG shares the secrets behind its art department in this 3D World insider’s guide to the multi-award winning VFX studio
The first instalment in a brand-new insider’s guide to one of the major players in the world of VFX. This issue, we take an inside look at the studio’s art department, and its role in Venom and Infinity War
After two decades in the visual effects industry, DNEG is now definitively one of the major players in the world of VFX. The studio has multiple locations worldwide, and employs thousands of artists who work on the biggest films and television shows.
In the first of a series of DNEG insider guides in which 3D World will go deep into the studio’s various production teams, we start with the art department.
DNEG’S 20-year history has seen it become more and more of a key collaborator on VFX projects, and a large part of that begins with the studio’s art department. It’s here where concepts, designs, previs and continued character and environment explorations take place during the visual effects process, as they did on recent productions Venom and Avengers: Infinity War.
Visual development in VFX
Readers will no doubt be aware of the existence of art departments on large feature films and television shows. These are typically overseen by a production designer and art director and include a freelance team of concept artists, illustrators and other designers, who will then often disband once production on the project has taken place.
While this kind of art department tends to be responsible for all the required elements necessary to shoot the live-action footage, such as sets, environments, vehicles, mood pieces and colour keys, a visual effects art department can have different priorities and roles.
“The VFX art department will create all those concepts that are pertinent to the characters, creatures, environment and effects that the visual effects house has been tasked to add to the live footage,” outlines DNEG concept
artist Paolo Giandoso, whose most recent project was Venom.
“We usually assist the other departments of DNEG with visual problem solving,” adds Giandoso. “The in-house VFX supervisors come to us with questions that require a visual answer, like, ‘How will this spell look?’, ‘How will this character transform?’ and so on. We provide a set of quick options for the VFX supervisor and the director to consider. This helps the production departments to avoid getting stuck in lengthy rounds of iterations as they can have an approved ‘blueprint’ to base their works on.”
DNEG’S art department was called upon to assist with visual problem solving for Ruben Fleischer’s Venom, the first in Sony’s Marvel Universe. The adaptation involves the alien comic-book character that begins in symbiote form, but which ultimately merges with journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). DNEG’S final visual effects work involved not only a humanoid, fully CG Venom, but also its amorphous amoeba-like symbiote form, and plenty of other incarnations of the creature and related symbiotes.
The VFX studio’s art department took initial Venom character designs from production designer Oliver Scholl’s art department and continued working on them, especially on things like skin patterns and muscle proportions. Giandoso, in particular, painted several expressions for Venom to investigate how the character – whose face is full of fangs, drool and a large tongue – could display different emotions. “It was great fun, as I really was keen to
Another part of the visual development process involved working out the mechanics of having the symbiote wrap around Eddie Brock’s head as Venom is revealed. This plays out as a signature VFX moment in the film and involved many concepts, iterations and explorations. “For me,” says Giandoso, “it was very important that the eyes were the last thing you could see of Eddie before the face would be completely covered up.”
Another symbiote, Riot (Riz Ahmed), was completely designed by DNEG. “Our art department developed its core aspects and its
“To represent Riot’s fragmented psyche I wanted him to look like a distorted and exaggerated version of Venom, with a shape language that would look more animalistic and tortured, as if its mirror image had been shattered.”
A significant challenge for DNEG’S art department also proved to be an intense final fight between Venom and Riot. The two symbiotes end up clashing in dramatic fashion, with their liquidy bodies even merging together and also exposing Hardy and Ahmed mid-fight.
Giandoso was assigned to concept the symbiote fight, which he did so through several illustrations. “It is my belief that when the element of time is key to a sequence, one picture is not enough,” he says. “You simply cannot squeeze into a single frame the element of movement without making the image too crammed or making it look too bland.
“For cases like these, I developed a style of ‘ani-concept’ that allowed me to quickly do visual problem-solving for any sort of element that evolves through time, such as transformation sequences, magic and fight scenes.”
The result was that Giandoso crafted a series of 158 images displaying the whole sequence. Although this might sound similar to storyboarding and previs, the concept artist notes that the process focused on “answering visually a specific question, and it needed to be not only visually clear but also visually appealing, as I was trying to pitch ideas to the studio and the director.
“I found out that directors react well to this style because drawings are better suited at showing emotions than previs and they complement it very well. In the case of Venom I was able to make the symbiotes stretch and morph in ways that 3D previs could not achieve, and my concepts were directly pasted in the previs as cards. I love this sort of interaction.”
infinity War: more Character
For Avengers: Infinity War, DNEG came on board principally for some action sequences involving the
Black Order characters Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive, who are fully CG in the film. Taking production concepts overseen by production designer Charlie Wood, and also work done by Framestore, DNEG furthered character designs, particularly for Proxima Midnight.
Having an in-house group that could continue the character design process and produce several iterations, as well as feed into the final visual effects pipeline, was a key benefit. It was also beneficial because, as with many film projects, the designs evolved throughout the course of the making of the movie.
DNEG started with some maquettes made by production. Corvus Glaive would stay close to this design, but Proxima changed significantly. “Even though the primary shapes from the maquette mostly remained as they were, we ended up making her a lot more feminine, both in her facial features as well as the overall physique,” explains DNEG creature lead Stefan Mayr.
“The other drastic change,” notes Mayr, “was less in terms of shapes but in material quality. The suit was initially very clean and unused. Proxima is a tough warrior, who fought many battles, and thus her costume needed to reflect this past of hers. We ended up introducing quite a lot of damage and surface imperfections to the leather as well as metal parts.”
Artists went through a number of iterations, too, on Proxima’s metal armour. It was initially very clean, polished silver and the initial thinking was that this was too much of a contrast to the worn leather partitions. So some damage was added to the metal. At a later design stage, a worn-off, dull paint layer was introduced onto the metal which went in a complete opposite direction in terms of surface texture then the maquette initially represented.
DNEG had also been working from a real-world actor reference, but fairly late in the design process, Carrie Coon was instead cast as the voice of Proxima and as the visual guide. “Thus,” says Mayr, “we implemented facial features specific to her without going away from the pre-approved version
too much. This turned out to be surprisingly challenging, since Proxima was not supposed to be an exact copy of the actress, but only share a certain likeness. However, with half the face covered in black paint, much of the added likeness disappeared quickly, especially since the ‘make-up’ covered the eyes area, which most of the time is a greatly relevant aspect to give a character her/his specific personality.”
Another design element that required tweaking was Proxima Midnight’s horns. The initial look had these growing from beside the eyes, starting at the cheek bones. But, notes Mayr, it had a heavy impact on the overall shape of the head and also made it more challenging to achieve the desired likeness to Coon. “Due to these factors we decided to instead focus on the lower half of the face, and get the jawline, nose, mouth and teeth to match the real model more closely.”
part of the process
Artists in DNEG’S art department can be involved right up until delivery on a given project, and they regularly collaborate with the other departments within the studio. These departments – including creatures, animation, environments, destruction and compositing – will be the focus of future ‘How DNEG does’ pieces.
There’s another side to a visual effects art department, too. DNEG’S group and other studios with dedicated VFX art departments are also often engaged in work on movie pitches, where they might carry out early visual development to help with greenlighting a project. Projects like those are often top-secret.
Inside DNEG’S art department, a bevy of tools are used by artists in the visual development process. These include traditional pen and pencil, all the way through to Photoshop, Zbrush, Keyshot, Maya and Modo. All those tools were in high use for Venom and Infinity War, and on other films where DNEG’S art department was called into action, such as Pacific Rim: Uprising, Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Coming soon, look out for their work in the upcoming projects Wonder Woman 1984 and The Kid Who Would Be King.
top left: in this dneg concept, eddie Brock faces off against ‘Wraith Venom’, which is the way the symbiote appears when it partially detaches from eddie’s body to speak with him face to face above left: artists explored ways of having the face ‘zip’ up, but with no regular uniformity above middle: Venom makes a giant leap in this dneg art department concept
inside dneg’s Great portland street offices in london
the dneg studio in Vancouver, which opened in 2014. other locations include london, mumbai, los angeles, Chennai, montreal, hyderabad, Chandigarh and Goa
proxima midnight, a fully CG character in avengers: infinity War, takes on Captain america
the character Corvus Glaive battles Vision. Corvus was also fully CG in the final film, but performed by an actor in a capture suit during the shoot