how DNEG Does… creatures
Part 2 of 3D World’s special series on DNEG jumps into the studio’s renowned creature work
Part 2 of our special Double Negative insider explores the work of the studio’s creature team, on blockbuster hits from Ant-man and the Wasp to Deadpool 2
The robot Jaegers and massive Kaiju monsters in Pacific Rim: Uprising. Giant and small versions of Ant-man in Ant-man and the Wasp. The alienesque symbiotes in Venom. The crazy critters of Annihilation. Wade Wilson’s baby legs in Deadpool 2.
That’s only a small portion of the many incredible creatures and characters that visual effects studio DNEG has made for some of its recent projects, many of which are some of the biggest blockbusters of the year. In this second part of the insider series on the studio, 3D
World finds out more about where creature work sits in the DNEG pipeline, with highlights from Antman and the Wasp and Deadpool 2.
Features of the creatures team
It’s the job of the creature team at DNEG to take models made by the studio’s build department and construct a set of rigs around them. Animators give the model a primary performance, with muscle, skin, costume and hair rigs made by the creature team providing secondary movement and final output geometries.
Since so much of that work involves re-creating natural human and animal traits, “creature artists need to have an excellent understanding of anatomy, the behaviour of skin, fat and muscle under every condition,” says DNEG creature supervisor Adam Vanner, who oversaw the work on Deadpool
2. “They also need a creative eye to push the performance laid out by the animation team to the needs of each shot.”
Rigging becomes a key aspect of creatures, since it interacts with so many parts of the pipeline. “We need to make sure that there is excellent dialogue between rigging, animation and creature artists,” states Vanner. “We need to make hundreds of judgement calls along the way so reviewing the work and progress is key. For example, one of the hardest areas to tackle is raising the arms high above the head. If we know we never see this, we can spend more time on detailing the poses which we will see.”
Rigging and other creature-building aspects are generally handled in Maya and Houdini, but like many studios, DNEG has its own proprietary rigging setups (their modular rigging system is called Pinocchio, while their hairgrooming tool is called Furball).
“We also have toolkits for solving and learning pose networks, building complex cloth and muscle setups, sculpting and simulation,” adds Remi Cauzid, a DNEG creature supervisor on Antman and the Wasp. “In the last few
years we’ve started to use Ziva Dynamics which is a muscle and skin simulation system for Maya. As it’s commercially available it has the advantage that crew new to DNEG don’t need to learn a whole new system if they have already used it at a different studio.”
GOING BIG, AND GOING SMALL
For Ant-man and the Wasp, DNEG not only had the challenge of crafting several digital double models – each with cloth, hair and muscle sims – it also regularly had to make them grow both larger and smaller than human size. Simulations began in Maya using ncloth and nhair, with an in-house muscle system running on Maya nodes. “We went for simplicity as the challenge was in ‘scale differences’ – assets had to grow and shrink,” explains Cauzid. “So we went for a well-known tool we had the confidence in, that was versatile enough to give us a wide range of looks.”
“We knew Ant-man and the Wasp would scale from 0.01% of their sizes to about ten times bigger than a regular human,” continues Cauzid. “Gavin Thomas, our senior rigger on the show, did an amazing job providing downstream artists in creature FX (CFX) with stable data to run simulations. Then Dameon Oboyle, our CFX lead, and his team were able, in a first pass, to keep a consistent look for the simulations. No matter what the size, there had to be consistency to the fabrics. Then depending on the shot requirement, they were able to go for a ‘macro’ or ‘mega’ size look.”
The character Ghost was one in the film that did not need to be scaled, but instead had a unique phasing effect. Her costume worn on set was also regularly augmented or completely replaced in CG. “When you see her, she is a mix between plate and CG side to side to create her ‘ghost image’,” says Cauzid. “This was done thanks to a lot of collaboration between the body track, animation and composition departments. Body track was providing us with accurate versions of the real Ghost, so we could digitally enhance her. Animation was creating Ghost alternate performances and compositing was mixing all of the work to get the desired effect. While all of this was happening, the lighting, look-dev and simulation departments had no room for mistakes. The CG version had to look great: renders and simulations of the fabrics needed to match the reality perfectly.”
The creature team’s characters are right there on the screen, but of course it takes weeks and sometimes months to produce them. Getting to the end involves a lot of trial and error. The team has several ways of reviewing work and putting creatures through their paces to ensure the final shots will look correct.
“NO MATTER WHAT THE SIZE, THERE HAD TO BE CONSISTENCY TO THE FABRICS” Cauzid, creature supervisor, DNEG
“At the beginning of Ant-man
and the Wasp,” says Cauzid, “we used generic lighting – it gave us a good variety of situations on standard turntables. We also tested motion and cloth simulations using a standard ‘dance’ to go through extreme positions (stretch, twist and bend).”
“Once the assets were approved,” the creature supervisor adds, “we had a setup to test for stability and compatibility. While we had to go closer and closer to the CG version of Ant-man and the Wasp in the shots, the assets were rendered again and again in the same setup. This allowed us to make sure the look matched the previous version using the new ‘upres’ maps or models.”
THE DEETS ON DEADPOOL 2
A diverse array of creature challenges met DNEG on Deadpool
2. One of the main tasks was to produce digital doubles and costume cloth simulations for Wade Wilson as Deadpool himself and his X-force team members that matched exactly to the live-action performers. These came into play, in particular, for a parachute jump scene that ends horribly for many of the X-force team.
“At DNEG we always try to make sure our setups for hero characters and props can be seen very close up, because even if this is not initially required the needs of a shot can change during production,” says Vanner. “For costume, especially Deadpool’s suit and the parachutes, the biggest challenge is to get fine wrinkles. With this in mind, we simulate all but the microscopic wrinkles that never change.
“We rig a layered approach in ncloth via our proprietary tool Cloth Rig Builder, so we start with a low-resolution simulation. Because it’s low resolution, we can turn everything up to the max, high collision and substeps, so it’s very stable. We then add on one or two layers with extra mesh subdivisions. We normally constrain or input attract the highresolution layer, often called the ‘wrinkle layer’, to the base layer. As the collisions are already solved in the base layer we can often disable collisions. One key trick is that we
turn the compression resistance down in the base layer and then high in the wrinkle layer. This forces compressing cloth to turn into wrinkles. The result is cloth you can get very, very close to, yet is fast to simulate.” For hair simulations in Deadpool 2, DNEG used a heavily modified nHair setup that allows artists to see the simulation driving the studio’s Furball hair system within the rig. “Setting the rigs up is very automated,” notes Vanner, “so we actually simulated the Peter character’s moustache when he was skydiving, just because we could – it was one checkbox, so why not!”
Sometimes DNEG’S creature work is not for whole digital assets, but just portions of them. Such was the case for the character Cable’s arm in Deadpool 2. The arm consists of numerous overlapping cables that directly segue into real skin. Says Vanner: “Our rigging lead, Steven Bills, did a great job of managing the complexities of the setup. A lot went into planning where each cable would be attached and where it would slide when under compression. We had imagined it would be a very taxing task with a lot of corrections needed in shot, but he did such a good job that the rig pretty much always worked from animation with minimal tweaking needed by creature or shot-sculpt artists.”
Indeed, the importance of collaboration between the creature team and others at DNEG cannot be understated, according to Vanner. For example, he says, “the rigging team is right next door to animation to help this key partnership work as best as can be. It’s essentially a service industry and rigs need to work for animators, so riggers and animators get to know each other and socialise a lot together.”
The creature team also collaborates significantly in terms of animation and CFX. “As a creature supervisor,” states Vanner, “I often sit in on animation dailies – this is where Eric Bates, the animation supervisor on Deadpool
2, reviews his team’s work. It helps smooth the path for change as I can highlight issues before they get to CFX.”
“In return,” says Vanner, “Eric sat in on creature dailies and would see and shape the progress of the work we were doing on his team’s work – his input was invaluable. Catching problems early by keeping communication flowing, and keep socialising, are probably the most important pieces of advice I can give to anyone working in a team.”