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

3D World - - CONTENTS -

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.”

Visu­al­is­ing Venom

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

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