Prosthetics Emmy Win For “Game Of Thrones”

Barrie Gower (right) and Tristan Versluis apply makeup to the Night King for HBO's "Game of Thrones"

Barrie Gower (right) and Tristan Versluis apply makeup to the Night King for HBO’s “Game of Thrones”

HBO’s hit fantasy series Game of Thrones didn’t just take home an Emmy for its visual effects. As well as a host of other prizes, it also won the award for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup For A Series, Miniseries, Movie Or A Special. Other nominees in this category included: American Horror Story: Coven, Anna Nicole, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and The Normal Heart. The Game of Thrones makeup and prosthetics team was led by:

One of the key sequences featuring the award-winning prosthetics was an attack by a band of skeletal reanimated corpses known as “wights”. A seamless blend of practical and digital effects, the showstopping sequence features extensive prosthetics work by Gower and his team. Further examples of their work in the winning episode The Children include a three-eyed raven, as well as makeups for old age, injuries and burns. Barrie Gower had this to say about receiving the award:

“We feel highly honoured to be awarded the Emmy for best Prosthetic Makeup on Game of Thrones. We are delighted to be recognised for our crew’s hard work and passion. I see Game of Thrones as a bucket list for prosthetics. In any one season we can be asked to provide anything from old age makeups, creatures, likeness silicone heads and bodies to models for VFX lighting reference. We feel privileged to be a part of one of HBO’s flagship shows!”

Watch HBO’s behind the scenes video on the Game of Thrones season four finale – The Children:

“Game of Thrones” Wins VFX Emmy

Game of Thrones - visual effects by Rodeo FX

The prestigious Emmy Award for Outstanding Special and Visual Effects 2014 has been snapped up by the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. The show was up against some stiff competition in the form of Almost Human, Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The 100.

The episode singled out for glory was The Children, the tenth and final episode of Game of Thrones season four. Here’s the list of the credited VFX crew:

  • Joe Bauer, Lead Visual Effects Supervisor
  • Jörn Großhans, Visual Effects Supervisor
  • Steve Kullback, Lead Visual Effects Producer
  • Adam Chazen, Visual Effects Coordinator
  • Eric Carney, Visual Effects Previs Lead
  • Sabrina Gerhardt, Visual Effects Animation Producer
  • Matthew Rouleau, CG Supervisor
  • Thomas H. Schelesny, CG Sequence Supervisor
  • Robert Simon, Visual Effects Concept Designer

Rodeo FX delivered 150 shots throughout season four. In addition to creating the city of Meereen, their team generated the massive CG army that attacks it. They also designed a series of grandiose CG environments, created a zombie-horse, modelled and animated a cavalry of thousands of horsemen, simulated atmospheric effects, and contributed to a number of wolf sequences.

“There was such a contagious desire to perform and deliver beyond-stunning visual effects,” said Rodeo’s CG Supervisor Matthew Rouleau. “The artists really put all their talent and their heart into the work. This is why we now have this amazing statuette decorating our office!”

Watch the Rodeo FX Game of Thrones Season Four VFX breakdown reel:

A further 72 shots were delivered by Mackevision. Their team spent around six months creating crowd replications, full CG ships and water simulations, set extensions, and an elaborate, full-CG digital environment of the city of Braavos, seen for the first time this season.

“We’re extremely happy about this award”, said Mackevision’s Visual Effects Supervisor Jörn Großhans. “We have worked on very beautiful, highly complex and dramatic shots in this season. Receiving the Emmy Award is a great honor for everyone involved in creating the show’s VFX.”

Watch the Mackevision Game of Thrones Season Four VFX breakdown reel:

Other key contributors to the show include Scanline VFX and concept designer Robert Simon. Lead Visual Effects Supervisor for HBO is Game of Thrones veteran Joe Bauer.

Guardians of a Colourful Galaxy

The Novacorps Starblasters from Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Stanley Kubrick has a lot to answer for. Single-handedly, he took all the fun out of space travel. All the fun, and all the colour

Ever since the release of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, spaceships in the movies have been painted white. Or grey. Or black. Ooh, is that a hint of silver? It’s the NASA look, defined in the sixties by the Apollo missions with their black-and-white Saturn V rockets, and inherited in the eighties by the equally monochromatic Space Shuttle.

Dennis Muren prepares the Death Star for shooting at ILM

Dennis Muren concedes that grey does at least stand out well against a bluescreen

Even the Star Wars saga – with its riotous assembly of galactic cruisers and space jalopies – is hamstrung by a limited colour palette. The evil Empire has shares in a paint shop that specialises in shades of grey.

Same with the rebels. Luke flies as Red Five during the Battle of Yavin, but does that mean his X-Wing is decked out in gaudy crimson? Nope. There might be a red stripe or two under all that grime, but Luke’s interstellar hot rod is as colourless as the TIE fighters he’s up against. Sure, they pushed the pigment envelope with the prequel trilogy, but who remembers that, right?

Meanwhile, the list goes on. Pick any iconic spaceship of the last forty years, then consider the paint job. The Nostromo? Light grey. The Sulaco? Dark grey. Then there’s the Rodger Young from Starship Troopers, or the Battlestar Galactica, or the Prometheus

You get the picture.

The "Discovery" pod bay from "2001: A Space Odyssey"

“Which pod shall we take, Dave?” “I don’t know, Frank. How about the white one?”

Now everything has changed. Thanks to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, space travel just went Technicolor.

In Gunn’s film, the spaceships shine like mechanical insects, wasp-striped and butterfly-winged. Peter Quill’s Milano is a confection of vivid blue and orange. The Nova Corps Starblasters are angry yellow and black. As for the many worlds explored by these many-hued craft – they’re simply dazzling. Space itself – that traditionally black interstellar void – is drenched with more colour than an exploding paint factory.

I love the exuberant hues of Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only do they overturn years of space-going sterility, but they also hark back to the science fiction paperbacks I devoured as a teenager. My favourite authors were Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven, whose books boasted cover illustrations by Chris Foss and Peter Jones respectively.

Paperback SF

When my bookshelf collapsed, it did at least leave a colourful mess.

Foss specialises in giant, gaudy spaceships, each one perforated by about a billion tiny windows. His vehicles were huge and outlandish, bulging with unrestrained geometry and belching out entire fog banks of glowing exhaust gas. Jones’s artwork is just a riot, with one primary hue crashing against another as funky aliens fired unfathomable weapons into a collision of eccentric hardware.

Colour, colour, colour.

For years, that colour has been trapped on the covers of those battered old paperbacks. Now, at last, it’s beginning to find its way on to the silver screen. The first hint of this new trend came with James Cameron’s Avatar, whose alien world of Pandora was a rainbow brought to life. Yet, even in Cameron’s universe, the spaceships were still grey.

There was good reason for that. Thematically, the human technology in Avatar is cold and heartless, while the jungle inhabited by the native Na’vi – despite its many hazards – is warm and inviting. A perfect example of colour as subtext.

The Milano approaches Knowhere in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy"

The Milano approaches Knowhere in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians of the Galaxy is different. In Gunn’s film, vivid colours are packed into every corner of every frame. Colour is what this galaxy is all about. It’s no coincidence that, tucked away in the credits at the end of the movie, you’ll find a host of talented concept and matte artists whose portfolios are also bulging with science fiction paperback covers. Artists like Fred Gambino and – you guessed it – Chris Foss.

Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy"Are we finally witnessing the end of Kubrick’s legacy? Has James Gunn opened the flood gates of a reservoir filled not with water, but all the coloured paints you could ever wish to see? One thing’s for sure: with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 already on the starting blocks, we’re set to be dazzled for some time to come.

Read the definitive behind-the-scenes story of the visual effects of Guardians of the Galaxy in the October issue of Cinefex, available to pre-order now!

2001: A Space Odyssey photograph copyright © 1968, 2001 by Turner Entertainment Company. Star Wars photograph copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd. and courtesy of ILM. Guardians of the Galaxy photographs copyright © 2014 by Marvel Entertainment.

Guess The Cover – Cinefex 139

Cinefex 139 Lineup

If you follow our Facebook page, you’ll already know the lineup for the next issue of Cinefex. In case you missed the news, however, I’m here to tell you that our Fall edition – issue 139 – is a blockbuster package covering the visual effects of four of this year’s biggest movies: Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Given such a great selection of films, which one would you put on the cover? Make your guess below – it’s just for fun. All will be revealed soon …

Dream Landscapes – The Mountain

“The kinds of landscape I try to find in my films exist only in our dreams” – Werner Herzog

Throughout human history, the mountain has stood tall as a home of spirituality, as a challenge to physical endurance, or simply as a vision of breathtaking beauty.

It was on Mount Olympus that the gods of Greece decided the fates of mortals; Moses received the Ten Commandments on the peak of Mount Sinai; in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay captured the world’s imagination by becoming the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, whose Tibetan name Qomolangma carries meanings including “goddess” and “mother”.

Mountains stand tall in the history of cinema too: monumental examples of Werner Herzog’s idealised “dream landscape”, and guardians of a lethal realm in which spectacle and peril are balanced precariously over the abyss.

But consider the challenge of elevating an entire film crew – not to mention a cast of fragile actors – to the top of a remote and snowbound peak. Little wonder the art of visual effects has played such a large part in putting these high sierras on the screen.

"Black Narcissus" was shot at Pinewood Studios in England. Its spectacular Himalayan backdrops were provided by matte painter Walter Percy Day.

“Black Narcissus” was shot at Pinewood Studios in England. Its spectacular Himalayan backdrops were provided by matte painter Walter Percy Day.

Take Black Narcissus, the 1947 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, in which a group of nuns establishes a convent high in the Himalayas. Even as they struggle to adjust to the precipitous surroundings, their fellowship is torn apart by simmering sexual tensions and haunted by echoes of the past.

Much of the uneasy mood of Black Narcissus is created by the edgy performances – not least a tour de force turn by Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth. However, the film also relies heavily on its Himalayan setting to evoke an atmosphere of entrapment in isolation. In short, it’s the mountains that make the movie sing.

For all its Asian airs, Black Narcissus was shot entirely in England, mostly on sets built at Pinewood Studios. The expansive Himalayan vistas were conjured by an extraordinary series of matte paintings designed by art director Alfred Junge and executed by Walter Percy Day.

For more examples of Walter Percy Day’s amazing matte work on Black Narcissus, visit Peter Cook’s Matte Shot blog.

In 1982, Herzog himself made symbolic use of a mountain, not to evoke feelings of alienation, but to represent man’s hubris. In Fitzcarraldo, the title character (Klaus Kinski) drives a team of Amazonian natives to transport his steamship up and over a steep wooded slope, only to see the vessel plunge headlong downslope and into the river beyond. Unlike Powell and Pressburger, however, Herzog eschewed the use of special effects altogether and staged everything for real (although debate continues about several shots during the rapids sequence in which the good ship Molly Aida looks suspiciously like a miniature).

Matte artist Rocco Gioffre touches up a mountain painting for Renny Harlin's "Cliffhanger"

Matte artist Rocco Gioffre touches up a mountain painting for Renny Harlin’s “Cliffhanger”

Michele Moen touches up a massive “Cliffhanger” matte painting while matte camera operator Alan Harding prepares for a take.

Michele Moen touches up a massive “Cliffhanger” matte painting while matte camera operator Alan Harding prepares for a take.

Fitzcarraldo’s jungle peak is tiny compared to the Rocky Mountains, presented in all their vertiginous glory by Renny Harlin in his 1993 film Cliffhanger. In the film, mountain climber Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) is drawn into a race against time to recover $100 million stolen in a heist.

Once again, the spectacular scenery is the background against which the lead character faces ghosts from the past – in Walker’s case, the fateful day when he watched fellow rescue ranger Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) plunge to her death. And, while Stallone performed a number of climbing scenes on location in the Rockies, some of the film’s most spectacular sequences come courtesy of Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios.

To achieve dizzying pull-back shots showing Stallone ascending seemingly impossible cliffs, Boss employed their elevator rig: a vertically configured motion control camera cantilevered precipitously out from mountainsides in the Italian Dolomites. Footage from the rig was rear projected into matte paintings, with foreground miniatures used to add extra depth and scale.

Schloss Adler - the Austrian castle created in miniature at Borehamwood Studios for "Where EAgles Dare"

Schloss Adler – the Austrian castle created in miniature at Borehamwood Studios for “Where EAgles Dare”

As well as landscapes in which to search the soul, mountains are also obstacles to be surpassed, strongholds to be penetrated – perhaps even targets to be destroyed. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo’s band of adventurers are thwarted by cruel Caradhras, a malevolent alp represented by New Zealand locations, studio sets and the ever-reliable digital matte painting. In Where Eagles Dare, the imposing castle Schloss Adler was doubled by the Austrian Burg Hohenwerfen, but also re-created in miniature on the MGM backlot at Borehamwood. The old-school was honoured in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for which a mountain fortress was constructed in miniature by New Deal Studios … and then summarily blown up.


New Deal Studios created this one-sixth scale mountain fortress miniature for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”

Action aside, the movie mountain has ever been a place of the soul – a thesis supported by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), in which the title character (Ben Stiller) literally climbs a mountain to find not only the man he’s been searching for – Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) – but enlightenment.

Live action plates for Mitty’s vistas were shot in Iceland, with LOOK Effects and Hatch FX teaming up to create digital extensions, based on Himalayan photography provided by Alex Nice and laid out by matte artist Deak Ferrand.

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As well as being a classic “dream landscape”, the mountain is also the perfect metaphor for the filmmaking process … and within that the task of the visual effects artist. In every worthwhile creative endeavour, there is a mountain to climb. At its peak there may lie enlightenment, or exhaustion, or both.

But the peak is only the destination. In fiction, as in life, the real value of the mountain experience lies in the journey. The truth behind all imaginary landscapes – mountains included – is this: those sights which make us gasp in awe are won only by tremendous toil, undertaken one slow step at a time. The toil of the climber, yes. But also the toil of the artist who opens our eyes to scenes we might otherwise never experience.

“In a sense everything that is exists to climb. All evolution is a climbing towards a higher form. Climbing for life as it reaches towards the consciousness, towards the spirit. So we climb, and in climbing there is more than a metaphor; there is a means of discovery.” – Rob Parker, Explorer and Mountaineer

“Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life.” – Werner Herzog

“Cliffhanger” photographs copyright © 1993 by Carolco Pictures, Inc. Boss Film still photography by Virgil Morano. “Inception” photograph copyright © 2010 by Warner Bros. Pictures and courtesy of New Deal Studios. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” photographs copyright © 2013 by 20th Century Fox. 

Into The Storm – Visual Effects

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

They say it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Well, Warner Brothers are hoping that Into The Storm – their summer spectacular that’s just brimming with bad weather – blows audiences away. Directed by Steven Quale (director of Final Destination 5, and second unit director on Avatar), the film chronicles the battering taken by the fictional American town of Silverton as it’s overwhelmed by wave after wave of devastating tornadoes.

Townsfolk and stormchasers alike are pushed to the limit as they try to survive this torrent of twisters. As for the cyclones themselves, they appear on screen courtesy of a number of visual effects vendors, including Cinesite, Digital Domain, Hydraulx, Method Studios, MPC, and Scanline VFX.

Join me as we head into the storm with VFX supervisors Nordin Rahhali (Method), Simon Stanley-Clamp (Cinesite) and Erik Liles (Hydraulx) – together with Hydraulx VFX producer Eric Kohler – as they share some of their extreme weather experiences.

Method Studios

Method Studios delivered around 180 shots for the climactic tornado sequence in Into The Storm. Nordin Rahhali was Visual Effects Supervisor in Method’s Los Angeles office, with Simon Carr supervising a number of shots at the London office, and Bruce Woloshyn supervising additional work in Vancouver.

During the sequence, a mile-wide tornado descends upon the town. With a classification of F5 – the highest on the internationally-recognised Fujita scale – the deadly twister unleashes winds of over 200mph, demolishing an entire school even as the people who have been sheltering inside flee the doomed campus in a ragtag convoy of vehicles.

Watch a series of visual effects clips from Into the Storm:

While movie audiences may be familiar with the sight of giant twisters tearing up the screen, nevertheless the team at Method relished the prospect of generating a cyclone of their own. “Did the prospect of working on a film with a giant tornado destroying anything in its path excite me? Absolutely!” said Nordin Rahhali. “I remember watching Twister back in the day, and loving it, so this was a chance to work on a modern tornado film that had a different story to tell.”

To gain inspiration, the Method team referenced earlier disaster movies including Twister and The Day After Tomorrow. “We also looked at work we had done at Method in the past,” added Rahhali. “Doug Bloom, one of our CG supervisors, had previously worked on Beautiful Creatures, leading development on the tornado scene. Taking what we learned from that film, we were able to begin development on Into the Storm from a solid base. This was key in being able to deliver the show on such a short schedule.”

Even so, the majority of the reference used came from real-world footage. “YouTube and other sources were invaluable for researching real events,” Rahhali commented. “Pretty much everyone walks around with a camera phone these days, so it’s amazing what shows up online. The challenge was how to sift through it all and collect the really good stuff.”

Having assembled a collection of reference clips, Rahhali’s team categorised them on a sliding scale, according to their severity. Each shot for Into The Storm was assigned a position on that scale. As shots were finalised, they in turn became reference for subsequent shots. “But we always started from real world footage to base everything in reality,” Rahhali asserted.

Original plate photography

The motorcade flees the mile-wide tornado – original plate photography

Final composite

The motorcade flees the mile-wide tornado – final composite

The climactic tornado is so immense that it decimates not just stands of trees, but entire forests. Simulating the wind’s effects on such large areas of foliage proved a time-consuming challenge. “We developed a Houdini-based system that allowed us to work on the trees as lightweight skeletal wireframes,” explained Rahhali. “We ran simulations on those, then applied the resulting deformations to the full tree models as a post process. This allowed us to iterate simulations on vast numbers of trees relatively quickly, doing the heavy lifting only when the simulation looked promising.”

The tree models themselves were created using SpeedTree, and rendered in Mantra. “For distant trees, leaves were shaded as points, with actual geometry being used only when the leaves were large enough to be noticeable.”

As the cataclysmic winds tear into the school, the buildings are systematically torn apart. “We modelled much of the structural detail that the real school would have been built with,” commented Rahhali. “We used reference of smaller buildings being destroyed by extreme weather to give us an understanding of what features would be visible as it broke apart: the internal wooden frame, drywall, bricks, air ducts and so on. All these elements became pieces in a Houdini DOPs simulation.”

Watch extensive VFX breakdowns from Into The Storm by Method Studios:

The extensive storm sequence required Method to integrate their effects not only with ground-based footage (shot mostly using an Alexa) but also with aerial photography shot with a Red Epic. “The aerial shots gave us a unique viewpoint from which to show the scale of the tornado,” remarked Rahhali. “They also presented challenges we didn’t have with the ground shots: namely, we see much further into the scene, and have a much wider view of the storm. This made for more work in terms of environment reconstruction, digital matte paintings for the ground, CG forests and atmospherics and, of course, the tornado itself.”

When it came to the ground-based shots, the daylight plate photography had to be adjusted to conform to the overcast lighting conditions of the storm. “A number of shots had been done against a sunny, clear blue sky, with the actors in shade in the foreground, being hit with wind and rain machines,” Rahhali explained. “That posed a unique compositing challenge: we had to grade the background to match the required gloomy look. To achieve this, Compositing Supervisor Jeff Allen worked with artists to develop techniques using creative keys, roto, grades and paint projections.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

Method Studios provided visual effects for a sequence in which evacuees from a destroyed school shelter in a storm drain

Following their narrow escape from the school, the evacuees find their way blocked by a fallen power line. Unable to continue, they seek shelter in a partially-constructed storm drain, where they find themselves beneath in eye of the tornado. At the climax of this sequence – and making good on the promise of the film’s title – Method delivered a number of shots in which the audience is truly taken “into the storm”. “Director Steven Quale was very keen on the concept of a tornado within a tornado,” commented Rahhali. “Chris Sanchez, one of our seasoned concept artists, created illustrations to explore this idea.”

The sequence includes several fully-CG shots, with the camera first looking up into the eye of the tornado, and later rising with a vehicle as it is lifted high into the spinning vortex. “Compositing Lead Brian Delmonico helped develop the look beyond the original concept,” said Rahhali, “while CG Supervisor Blake Sweeney led the lighting team to create realistic water sheets coming off vehicles, and tied together all the objects – including cars, buses, construction equipment, a semi-truck, and large pieces of debris – with the highly art-directed lighting coming from within the tornado. The hard surface models were lit in Maya and rendered in V-Ray; atmospherics and particle FX for the sequence were created in Houdini and rendered in Mantra.”

Animation Supervisor Keith Roberts led the animation for the sequence. “Much of the energy of the storm, inside and out, was the result of layers and layers of animated debris – trees, cars, school buses,” Rahhali pointed out. “The camera was animated too – along with the vehicle it’s attached to – with lots of subtle secondary bumps and shakes, with everything choreographed to flow and feel believable. It was difficult work, but the end result was a very memorable shot.”

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The challenge of delivering FX-heavy, photoreal sequences was compounded by the tight time frame within which the work had to be completed. “We had about four months from award until we delivered final shots,” said Rahhali. “That included R&D and assets. A very aggressive schedule, to be sure. We shared some data with Hydraulx: models, skies, ground digital matte paintings, animated geometry representing the tornado and rendered layers of the tornado. They had a few shots in the middle of our sequence, so it was important to share as much as we could. With the right team of people, incredible results can be achieved in very little time.”

The stormy weather seen on the screen in Into The Storm was created in the aftermath of another storm: the recent collapse of long-established visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues.

“This show was particularly bittersweet for me,” reflected Rahhali. “Originally, Rhythm & Hues had the majority of work on the show. When they went bankrupt, that work was divided between us and other vendors. With the struggles of big studios like Rhythm & Hues and others, and the folding of many mid-sized studios, it’s been a rough few years. I had many personal friends at Rhythm & Hues, and it was a terrible blow to the whole industry when they went through bankruptcy.

“Because of their struggle, we had the opportunity to work on an exciting project. While it’s unfortunate the way it happened, I’m extremely proud of the work we did at Method, and of the entire team involved. The collaboration across our different offices was key in being able to deliver, and speaks to one of Method’s strengths in these challenging times.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

Method Studios delivered a number of fully-CG shots looking up into the eye of the tornado


Cinesite were tasked with completing work on a variety of sequences throughout the show. “We worked on twisters, building destruction, environment enhancement and clean up,” said Simon Stanley-Clamp, Visual Effects Supervisor at Cinesite. “These sequences had been started by another facility.”

2_Cinesite_VFX_Into_The_Storm_ 052__sh090

Among the sequences worked on by Cinesite was one in which the principle characters take shelter with a group of students in the school. “The lights go out,” explained Stanley-Clamp. “Paper, dust and debris blows along the corridors while the students cower, then – wham! The roof peels back and kids are sucked out of the building. This was a sequence of about ten shots, comprising many FX passes, roto and comp work.”

Reference material for the sequence included CCTV and security footage taken from inside sports halls, supermarkets and schools. “There was also the ubiquitous camera phone footage of destructive weather events,” Stanley-Clamp added. “We used this extensively, particularly for the scenes where we ripped the roof off the school, showing ceiling tiles gradually peeling back and so on. What struck me most about this real life material is the speed at which the devastation occurs: a sports hall can be demolished in frames. This actually doesn’t make for a good cinematic experience, so our shots give a longer glimpse at what being inside a building during a storm would be like.”

3_Cinesite_VFX_Into_The_Storm_ 053__sh050

Cinesite provided support on “Into The Storm” with visual effects including twisters, building destruction, environment enhancement and clean up.


Hydraulx was brought in by Visual Effects Producer Randy Starr late in the day, to pick up some additional VFX sequences for Into The Storm.

“We created the funnel tornados first seen in a sequence at a farmhouse, and in subsequent scenes. We also did the hailstorm sequence at the motel, the collapsing paper mill and CG rain,” said Hydraulx Visual Effects Supervisor Erik Liles and Visual Effects Producer Eric Kohler. “One of our most exciting sequences was the airport getting destroyed during the mile-wide tornado scene.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Hydraulx delivered visual effects showing an airport being ravaged by the mile-wide tornado that descends during the film’s climax

Like their counterparts at the other visual effects studios, the Hydraulx team used real-world stormchaser videos and images as inspiration: “We found so many great videos online, featuring all types of great tornado events and destruction. One of our favourite references was a video of 18-wheelers getting tossed through the air during a huge tornado in Texas. We used this as inspiration for the airport destruction scene.”

During the sequence, a gigantic tornado ploughs through a working airport, tossing 747s into the air like toys. The sheer scale of the action made for a considerable technical challenge, particularly when it came to CG dynamics and rendering.

The slideshow below shows the step-by-step layering of one of the final airport composites.

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“We decided to render everything on the airport tarmac in a single pass, from the tiny pieces of baggage to the 747s themselves,” Liles and Kohler explained. “This way we made sure the lighting was consistent, that there were proper reflections and shadows on the many objects interacting with one another, and that all the dynamics and debris reacted properly with each of the collision objects.

“On top of everything else happening in these shots, we also had to incorporate a mile-wide tornado element provided to us by Method, along with a dust cloud element we created. We had to ensure the dust cloud interacted properly with the tarmac objects, as well as maintaining the look of the big tornado being used by Method in surrounding sequences. In trying to keep within the reality of real world physics, we learned a lot about the realistic dynamics of tornado formation and funnel characteristics … and of course took some creative license to make things look cool.”

The slideshow below shows the step-by-step layering of a scene in which a funnel tornado tears into a barn.

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Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Visual effects breakdown of the farmhouse destruction scene

Hydraulx delivered around 150 shots in four months, although the complexity of the airport destruction sequence saw them working for three months on three shots alone. “We had a great time working with Steve Quale, Randy Starr, and all the other vendors involved.” Liles and Kohler concluded. “Together we made a great team, and the experience was fantastic.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Thanks to Ellen Pasternack, Rita Cahill, Melissa Knight, Helen Moody and Greg Strause. Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Method Studios. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. – U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda and © 2014 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited – All Other Territories. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credits: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, Method Studios and Hydraulx.

John Bruno Q&A – James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge


Visual effects supervisor John Bruno first met filmmaker James Cameron at the 1985 Tokyo Film Festival, where Cameron was screening Aliens and Bruno was promoting the visual effects of Poltergeist II. Bruno’s background – growing up in the ocean-side community of Monterey, California, combined with his experience in animation and the nuts and bolts of movie making – sparked a mutual appreciation that led to the filmmakers’ first professional collaboration, earning Bruno a ‘best visual effects’ Oscar – with Hoyt Yeatman, Dennis Muren and Dennis Skotak – for Cameron’s 1989 underwater science fiction tale, The Abyss.

'The Abyss' in Cinefex 39.

“The Abyss” covered in Cinefex 39.

Work on The Abyss involved many practical underwater dives, including Bruno’s first dive in a submersible off Grand Cayman exploring the 850-foot-deep wreck of the cargo ship Kirk Pride, which provided valuable reference for fictional scenarios. After filming, Cameron continued to invite Bruno on recreational dives until out of the blue Cameron proposed another submarine excursion, swearing Bruno to secrecy, diving on the wreck of the RMS Titanic. The footage wound up in the opening scenes of Cameron’s 1997 box office champion. “I dove with famed underwater photographer Al Giddings twice to the Titanic,” John Bruno recalled. “We had lunch on the bridge in front of the Titanic’s bronze telemotor – I had a cold hotdog, a bread roll, and a piece of broccoli; and it was best lunch I ever had! We were in the lighting sub, Mir 2, lighting the Titanic as Jim filmed from in Mir 1. So, I am in the movie Titanic, inside a submarine.”

"Ghosts of the Abyss" 2001

Bill Paxton, ‘Mir’ submersible pilot Genya Cherniev and John Bruno, “Ghosts of the Abyss” 2001 © Walden Media / Buena Vista Pictures.

In 2001, Bruno returned to the Titanic site as a producer on Cameron’s 3D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, using a pair of small, custom-engineered remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to explore deep inside the wreck. Cameron continued to record his dives, including the 2002 Discovery Channel documentary investigating a sunken World War II battleship, in Expedition: Bismarck. A few years later, while Cameron was prepping his space epic, Avatar, Bruno learned that work was underway on a classified new submersible, a futuristic one-man vessel designed to venture into the deepest place on earth, the ‘Challenger Deep’ in the New Britain Trench, a volcanic cleft in the ocean off Papua New Guinea.


‘Deepsea Challenger’.

The sub, which resembled a vertical torpedo painted ‘Kawasaki racing-green,’ gave its name to Cameron’s latest documentary, sponsored by National Geographic and Rolex, released in special venue theatres as James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D. Bruno shared director credit on the film with Andrew Wight and Ray Quint. Wight initiated filming, but then tragically died with documentary filmmaker Mike deGruy in a helicopter accident. Bruno flew out at short notice to record the expedition that went on make history March 26, 2012, when Cameron touched down on the seabed, seven miles beneath the ocean surface. Quint directed historical reenactment scenes and oversaw Australian-based postproduction, working with Melbourne visual effects house Iloura.

John Bruno and friends on location in Pomio, Papua New Guinea

John Bruno and friends on location in Pomio, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

John Bruno described to Cinefex his experience capturing 1,200 hours of footage — which film editor Jane Moran honed to a gripping 90-minute documentary — chronicling Cameron’s latest aquatic odyssey, and exploring his filmmaking colleague’s unique spirit of adventure.


What’s it like to direct Jim Cameron?

Jim and I have a 25-plus-year history of working together. When he asked me to direct this project I thought, well, I have knowledge of deep-ocean submersible diving, and had insight where to take the backstory. And I wasn’t intimidated to ask questions, because we know each other so well. For example, when the expedition was underway, I was struck by an idea for something I wanted to talk to Jim about on camera. I knocked on his cabin door and said, ‘Jim, there is something I’d like you to do.’ He replied, ‘Well, you’re the director. Tell me what you need and I’ll do it.’ After that, I just got on with the job.

When you joined the production, after the helicopter accident, did you have to hit the ground running?

John Bruno interviews James Cameron

John Bruno interviews James Cameron prior to a ‘Deepsea Challenger’ test dive.

On the flight to Australia, I started to break down the script. I listed the key people involved. I had to learn everything about them and the Deepsea Challenger submersible in the next 72 hours. I had a breakdown of the 3D cameras, backup equipment and the key members of the camera crew. I needed to know where the safe zones were for filming aboard ship. Launch control officer David ‘DW’ Wotherspoon and my director of photography Jules O’Loughlin became my closest friends and allies because shooting at sea on an open-decked ship is difficult and dangerous.

On board the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

On board the ‘Mermaid Sapphire’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

Our surface vessel, the Mermaid Sapphire, was a deep-ocean pipeline survey ship. There were cranes and winches with steel cable running everywhere. It’s an industrial platform. During a sub launch, deck hands and crewmen would be straining to control the Deepsea Challenger with ropes that crisscrossed the deck and guided it over the railing and into the sea.  If a rope snapped, or the sub started swinging loose, we would have a ‘situation’ and camera operator looking through an eyepiece would not be watching his surroundings — his job is to follow the action – so we had to be self-aware, and look out for each other.

On board the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ is winched above the deck. Photo: John Bruno.

When we were out over the New Britain Trench, Jim set a record for the single deepest dive of a manned submersible – 8,000 meters, or 27,000-feet. On board the Mermaid Sapphire, we had a satellite feed to the outside world. We could post updates on the Internet and receive information. We were getting feedback about the dive. One Tweet in particular bugged the hell out of me. It said something to the effect that this was just ‘a rich Hollywood guy doing a stunt.’ That made me angry. I told Jim I wanted to change the entire line of questioning in my upcoming interviews and find people who knew him as an explorer going back 20 years.

You mean, like animatronic designer Walt Conti, who built the weight-release system on the Deepsea Challenger?

'Deepsea Challenger' is lowered into the ocean

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ begins its descent into the New Britain Trench. Photo: John Bruno.

Exactly. Walt Conti and animatronic designer Ty Boyce both worked with us on The Abyss. On camera, I asked Walt to compare Jim then and now, and he recalled how the conversation always turned to diving. It was the same with other members of the crew, the discussions would always turn to going out on some sea adventure. That led to us to incorporate footage from the making of The Abyss, the making of Titanic, the 16,000-foot dives to the Bismarck and we tied that into this documentary. Before Deepsea Challenger, Jim had organized seven deep-ocean expeditions and logged 77 submersible dives. This was no stunt. Jim made that very clear in the opening of the film, when he explained how the Deepsea Challenger was designed as a real scientific platform.

The sub is a unique-looking vehicle. Jim discusses the vertical orientation in the film; was there a reason he had it painted Kawasaki racing green?

Bruno with the 'Deepsea Challenger'

Bruno with the ‘Deepsea Challenger’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

He just thought it looked good. It was easy to see. It was either that, or white or yellow, and green was good. I really liked the design, where they had clear Lexan panels on the sides so you could see the lights of the batteries were all working. It also gave a really cool ‘sci-fi’ visual to the whole thing. It looked like a spaceship. The vertical orientation came from something we always talked about when we were SCUBA diving. Generally, divers are taught to equalize their ears as they go down, slowly, carefully and cautiously. When you dive with the James boys, if you’re going down 50 feet, you want to get to that depth as quickly as possible so you have more time at the bottom. It’s a theory that perpetuated itself, I believe, into the Deepsea Challenger design. But it makes sense. The Mir subs took two and a half hours to get down to the Titanic, at 12,500 feet. That gave us six hours bottom time, and then it took two and a half hours to get back up. The Challenger rocketed to the bottom, three times deeper than Titanic, in two and a half hours, and returned in 90 minutes — that’s three or four times as fast. The expedition journalist, Dr. Joe MacInnis, described it as ‘a gravity rocket.’

How did you fit cameras in the sub?

Cameron pilots the 'Deepsea Challenger'

Cameron emerges from a successful dive.

The pilot rode inside a 48-inch diameter sphere. It was very tight quarters. Jim and the submersible co-designer and pilot Ron Allum each dove in the sub. They had a test sphere they used to try to fit everything inside the vehicle — life support systems, recording drives, instrumentation. There was a 5K RED Epic camera mounted inside the view port. Jim had a monitor to view that image, and when he wanted to look out, he could move that camera out of the way. There was a small 3D camera mounted in a fixed position in front of him in the sub, and that camera documented his every word on the dive.

On the exterior of the sub, there were two specially built cameras designed by Jim’s engineers to withstand full ocean depth. One was mounted to the end of a six-foot boom arm, which he could pan and tilt in any direction. And the other was mounted on the manipulator arm, and was set up for macro imaging of animals and rocks.

There was also a robotic submersible ‘Lander’ following the dive. Did you use that for additional photography?

The Lander

The Lander scientific platform. Photo: John Bruno.

Our science department ran two robotic Landers. Marine engineer Kevin Hardy, formerly of the Scripps Research Institute, built those. One Lander had a 3D HD camera.

Also, on the Mermaid Sapphire, we had a very large, very yellow ROV called the Quasar, which we fitted with our own deep-ocean 3D camera and lights. On the 4,000-foot dive, Quasar got some great shots of the sub moving and working on the bottom. The Quasar was also there as a potential rescue vehicle. The plan was, if there was a malfunction on Jim’s sub and he was within its reach, Donny Cameron (no relation) who operated the Quasar, could attempt to grab the Deepsea Challenger and pull Jim back to the surface. That ROV turned out to be a much better camera platform than we imagined.

Jim’s inspiration for this expedition, as depicted in the movie, began in 1960 with the submariners Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard on the bathyscape Trieste, which made the first descent into the Mariana Trench. How did you bring that to life in the documentary?

In the script, Jim referenced the fact that he was influenced by that dive when he was a young boy. It’s what got him interested in deep-sea exploration. In fact, he brought Don Walsh on board as an advisor, and suggested it would be nice to juxtapose the Deepsea Challenger dive with the dive of the Trieste.

Russian submariner Anatoly Sagalevitch, John Bruno and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh with reference model of the Walsh's 1960 sub 'Trieste'

Russian submariner Anatoly Sagalevitch, John Bruno and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh with reference model of the Walsh’s 1960 bathyscape ‘Trieste’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

After the main shoot, when I got back to Melbourne, I located period footage of the Trieste dive on-line. It was newsreel footage and filmed interviews done in 1960. They were black and white and not very high quality. Rolex was kind enough to ship us a museum display model of the Trieste submersible to study, and Don Walsh referred us to the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington D.C., where the Trieste is on permanent display. I initially thought we could film our re-enactors in the actual sub, but our research showed us that the sub had been modified since 1960, it was quite cramped inside, and it had also been painted a completely different color.

We decided if we were going to do this we’d have to build set pieces to re-tell portions of the Trieste story. I scripted and storyboarded the sequence; Ray Quint then took over in postproduction and directed and edited those scenes. To create exterior underwater shots of the 1960 dive, the Trieste descending into the abyss and returning, Iloura, a Melbourne visual effects house, built a stunning 3D replica of the Trieste as it appeared in 1960. They created some beautiful shots of the Trieste as it descended to the bottom, and then landed and returned.

There were some other interesting reenactments of Jim as a boy sitting in a cardboard box submarine. How accurate were they?

Cameron greets Don Walsh on the deck of the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

Cameron greets Don Walsh on the deck of the ‘Mermaid Sapphire’. Photo: John Bruno.

Again, that came from Jim’s script and comments he made when I interviewed him. When I discussed opening the film with that story, Jim was initially a little embarrassed about including those scenes. But, to me, the story was about what inspired Jim to want to become an explorer, what drove him to get to this point, and I felt this would help show Jim’s motivation. Jim said that would have to be my decision; so we did it.

Charlie Arneson, our expedition logistics supervisor, contacted Jim’s family, and they provided us with pictures as reference. In Melbourne, producer Brett Popplewell and Ray Quint cast a young boy that looked remarkably like Jim did back in the day, and they found some clothes that matched what Jim was wearing in the photos. Ray directed those scenes, and they turned out to be a nice way to open and close the movie.

The film also enumerates the harsh realities of Jim’s dive, especially the many terrible ways to die in the event of a malfunction at great depth. How did you broach the issue with Jim and his wife, Suzy Amis, about what you would do if things went wrong?

The 'Quasar' camera platform

The ‘Quasar’ camera platform. Photo: John Bruno.

It was tricky; especially after the tragedy of losing Andrew and Mike on Day One of the expedition. But on the way to the airport I was with Jim and Suzy and I had to ask that question, ‘Have you guys ever discussed something happening?’ Jim looked at me and said, ‘No.’ I looked at Suzy and said, ‘Seriously? You guys have never discussed it?’ Suzy told me, ‘No, it has never come up. I trust him. He’s a really smart guy. He showed me all the safety systems and how the backup systems work. Nothing’s going to happen. He knows what he’s doing.’ Suzy was a really strong woman. I couldn’t crack her. I could see why they were together.

Out on the ship, I asked Jim again, this time on camera, ‘People look up to you. You’re financially secure, successful, you made two of the highest-grossing films of all time; you’re married to a beautiful woman, and have five kids. Why are you doing this?’

He replied, ‘I wanted to set an example for my children.’ That’s when I realized the underlying theme of this movie. It’s about character and moral courage. It’s about setting examples. That’s what Jim was trying to pass on to his kids. And so I told him, no matter what happened, I was going to accurately document this dive, even if it turned out to be a forensic document of what went wrong. Luckily, that turned out not to be the case.

The 'Deepsea Challenger' crew celebrates the record-breaking dive

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ crew celebrates Cameron’s record-breaking dive. Photo: John Bruno.

It’s a fascinating journey, and I won’t spoil Jim’s final summation, but I did find it quite moving where he reflected on what inspired him — was that a theme that he always had in mind, or did that slowly evolve as you discovered the film?

Jim is always talking about inspiring kids – his own, and the next generation of explorers. His wife Suzy has this wonderful progressive ‘green’ school, the MUSE School, which she co-founded with her sister, and Jim talks there often, giving inspiration to children. We need scientists now. Kids now want to make a million dollars in one day on the Internet; but Jim is interested in inspiring a sense of adventure. Get up, get outside, go somewhere, do something magnificent and adventurous. Explore.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D opens in select theatres August 8.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D © 2014 Deepsea Challenge, National Geographic, photography by Mark Thiessen. All rights reserved. All other imagery © John Bruno, unless otherwise credited. Thanks to John Bruno, James Cameron, Richard Edlund, Graham Edwards.

The Strain – Visual Effects

"The Strain" - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Vampires! Just when you think you’ve seen every bloodsucker under the sun (or should that be the moon?) someone sharpens the teeth of the old myth and serves up something new. In the case of The Strain – the new 13-part series currently airing on Sunday nights on FX – that someone is Guillermo del Toro.

Based on the novels by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, The Strain tells a story of escalating horror as an ancient evil arrives in New York City, spreading a vampiric virus that threatens not only the metropolis, but the entire human race.

Lead vendor for the visual effects of The Strain is Mr. X Inc., whose recent feature work includes Noah, Pompeii, Robocop and Pacific Rim. Our exclusive Q&A features contributions from Stacey Dodge (VFX Producer), Craig Calvert (CG Supervisor for pilot episode Night Zero) and Trey Harrell (CG Supervisor), as they reveal the challenges of delivering huge numbers of shots, of feature film quality, within the time and budget constraints of a television production.

Flight 753 brings the vampire virus to New York City

When did you first get involved with The Strain?

In December of 2012, we got a call from our long-time friend and client Miles Dale who said that Guillermo del Toro might be bringing an exciting new TV show to town and we should pitch on it in the new year if we were interested. We read the trilogy of books over the Christmas holiday, met with Guillermo in January, and shot a post-apocalyptic live-action pitch sequence in the lobby of Mr. X in February of 2013.

We hired an art department, camera crew and makeup FX artists for the shoot, and cast Jason Edwardh – one of our lead Animators – in the role of our vampire. While prepping for the live-action shoot, we were busy modelling a full head and neck asset for Jason, as well as the CG “Stinger” asset, based on concept art from Guillermo. After the shoot we modelled and matchmoved Jason’s head, neck and torso and animated the Stinger to launch out at the camera per Guillermo’s brief to us.

In May 2013 we were confirmed as the lead vendor on The Strain, and so we’ve been heavily involved with the show since pre-production. Because so many of the sequences rely heavily on VFX, we were there from the planning stage forward to ensure we would be able to work with the photographed elements in a timely and cost-effective manner. Television schedules are so extremely tight there is little room for error. Our team at Mr. X consists of about 45 artists and production personnel, with four or five people on set.

Did the visual direction come directly from Guillermo del Toro?

Yes. A lot of the creature work in The Strain is so original that we took most of our inspiration from Guillermo and his concept work. However, we did look at a lot of YouTube videos of horsehair worms – this was the main reference Guillermo gave us for the parasitic blood worms in the show. We also studied the novels and comic books closely to get as familiar as possible with the world. When you can’t check your work against real-world logic, you have to make sure you have a world with a set of its own rules to reference constantly, otherwise the work runs the risk of becoming inconsistent.

The Strain features a large number of practical effects, including makeup, prosthetics and animatronics, supervised by Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom. How closely did you work with them?

Very closely, right from the moment we came on board the project. We kept in constant contact with them during prep for each episode and would crash each other’s meetings so we’d be 100% in the loop with what was going on, and to make sure not a moment was wasted on doubling up on the creature work. There are some moments that aren’t achievable practically, and some you can’t achieve digitally, but there is a muddy grey area in the middle where a shot can go either way. More often than not, those moments ended up being a combination of both.

The visual effects team at Mr. X Inc. worked closely with the makeup effects crew, maximising integration between departments

The visual effects team at Mr. X Inc. worked closely with the makeup effects crew, maximising integration between departments

What are the stand-out CG characters you’ve created for the show?

Our full-CG Master shots are quite an achievement in our books. There are several full-frame hero moments of the Master moving in a way that is not possible for an actor to perform – that’s when we bring out our full-CG Master to do the job. Everyone from Assets to Animation, Lighting, and Comp has done a remarkable job bringing him to life and integrating him into the practical photography. We’re also quite happy with our other 3D heroes: the CG heart, worms, and of course the countless Stingers!

Tell us more about the Master.

The Master was a fantastic character to build in 3D. He’s an eight-foot-tall, 500-pound, towering behemoth of horrific imagery, with a wildly frayed and ever changing cloak. He’s almost two characters in one: the main body of the being inside, and the writhing, tentacled mass of stained fabric and braided rope that covers him.

For the head and humanoid form, the primary foundation of the model came from scan data. We were fortunate that there was an incredibly detailed full-scale model of the Master’s head being used as a makeup template, which was available to scan long before the actor was dressed and in costume. This let us get a jump on the build before the full body was available.

The Master erupts from the hold of Regis Air International Flight 753

The Master erupts from the hold of Regis Air International Flight 753

We choose to do a detailed photosurvey of that model under reasonably flat light, and then, using AgiSoft’s Photoscan, we solved for the geometry. The results were extremely good, with a baked-in set of reference textures taken straight from the photos. All the gory details of that head were captured in one swoop, including the branching vein patterns and folding tissue of the sack-like “wattle” on his neck. From there, it was all about cleaning and retopologizing the mesh, building up the shaders and textures, and prepping for rigging. Within two days we had a beautiful looking 3D re-creation, ready for the team and Guillermo to see.

The main body cyberscan was done on the first day of shooting with the Master character. As the cloak is so large, we did multiple scans of Robert Maillet in full costume, both with the cloak and without. That way, we had photosurvey and cyberscan data of all costume details normally covered by the fabric. Our lead character artist, Atilla Ceylan, then built the mesh and re-created all the details, shaders, and subtleties missed by the scan data. He and the team tackled multiple types of layered fabrics, stain patterns of blood and vampire juices, ornamentation and jewellery, and the photoreal re-creation of the Master’s face.

For several weeks, we had the Master’s costume on a stand in-house, looming tall over the artists. It was unnerving, but an invaluable resource. We could easily walk up to it to check which way a rope was meant to twist, how the layers of fabric sat against each other, or how the light reacted to the costume as it moved. The riggers would often come in to feel its weight and check where the stitching lines were. That kind of reference is always the best thing you can have when trying to create something fantastical.

And what about all those worms?

When Guillermo first began discussions about the parasitic vampire worms – which feature prominently throughout the series – he recommended we search for videos of horsehair worms for reference: he loved the unnatural way the worm moved, rolling about without emotion or purpose. In the end, our team came upon a specific video of a horsehair worm and an unfortunate praying mantis. That video was a touchstone reference throughout although, instead of re-creating the simplistic forms of the horsehair worm itself, we were given a lot of creative freedom to pitch a more unique design.

Mr. X Inc. referenced horsehair worms in their development of the malevolent nematodes seen in "The Strain"

Mr. X Inc. referenced horsehair worms in their development of the malevolent nematodes seen in “The Strain”

We gathered masses of reference on worms, microscopic imagery of various parasites, and microstructures present in nature. Keeping the physical features of invasive burrowing parasites in mind we began the sculpting process. Quick ZBrush sculpts were knocked out and refined as we circled around various design elements. Guillermo was very open to our ideas, and guided the style development until we’d reached a final look. The dangling barbs, rear facing hooks, extendable proboscis and translucent organ forms were all driven from that combination of physical plausibility and artistic guidance. It was super gross, but really fun.

Particularly challenging was the shader development for such a small creature with so much visible internal detail. Light plays in and through its tissues at all times, greatly changing the apparent look depending on the environment and available light. We kept tuning the shaders throughout the series, sometimes branching the asset into “close-up worm” looks and “distant worm” looks, allowing for faster render times and greater control.


Rigging the creature was a challenge. Using first-draft rigs, we had the animators explore movement styles and speed, and vary the length of the worm. We tried different amounts of aggression and twisting movement styles. The results were interesting, but never quite as compelling as the horsehair reference we started with. Eventually we circled back on ourselves and used the horsehair worm as a true motion template. Guillermo was simply in love with how it felt, and wanted that same alien feeling.

Using that initial rig during the development process was cumbersome and error-prone, so the riggers broke everything down and defined a toolset that would allow the animators to move the wriggling worm with more freedom. We created scripts that allowed us to draw curve shapes and snap the main worm rig into alignment; viewport tension maps to see where we were pulling the geometry too far; and a limiter to keep the worm inside an acceptable range of length stretching.

Multiple levels of control were built into the rig so we could drive the worm along a spline like a snake, but still maintain the freedom to twist it into arbitrary shapes at any point. Often the worms were burrowing into some unfortunate soul, so we created an FK (forward kinematics) setup that allowed us to lock one portion of the worm’s position to the hole, and maintain the freedom to pass it through and curl about on either side. Thus the animators were able to more quickly address animation notes and keep the movement style consistent.

How many visual effects shots have you delivered for the show?

At the time of writing, our current shot count is over 950. Our biggest shot was a full-CG 1,300-frame shot in outer space during a solar eclipse. It was a daunting task – when it was first turned over, Guillermo reminded us that a good friend of his had just made a space movie and wanted to know if our shot could look as convincing. So we embarked on our task to create a shot that looked as close as possible to those in Gravity, on a TV schedule and budget!

Have you drawn any lessons from working on The Strain?

That time is often the greatest resource. There never seems to be enough of it. Each episode has its own set of challenges, and when we’re at the spotting stage for each one, we think, “How are we going to get through all of this in such a short amount of time?” But there’s no time to even have that conversation, so we forge ahead and solve problems before they materialize. We’re very proud of the sheer volume of shots we managed to deliver at feature-level quality without a lot of time or resources.

An infected heart from "The Strain"

Special thanks to Thomas Ruffner and Bronwyn Handling. Images copyright © 2014 FX Networks, LLC All Rights Reserved.

The Strain – Creature and Makeup Effects

The Strain - a shocking discovery on Flight 754

The horror genre is replete with monsters of all kinds, but few are more enduring than the vampire. The latest incarnation of this bloodsucking beast can currently be seen prowling TV screens on Sunday nights, in FX’s new 13-part series The Strain.

The Strain is based on the best-selling series of novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Del Toro is behind the show too: in addition to serving as Executive Producer, he co-wrote and directed the pilot episode. So what’s the show all about? Here’s the official word from FX:

The Strain is a high concept thriller that tells the story of Dr Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the head of the Center for Disease Control, Canary Team, in New York City. He and his team are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism. As the strain spreads, Eph, his team, and an assembly of everyday New Yorkers, wage war for the fate of humanity itself.

Not surprisingly, The Strain boasts a wide range of creature and makeup effects. Responsible for these were co-supervisors Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom. Newburn and Sansom also created a number of special props, and a range of sculpted pieces for use on set as stand-ins or lighting reference, as well as models of the creatures to be scanned and digitised for VFX purposes.

Starting Up “The Strain”


“The Strain” co-creator Guillermo del Toro hired Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom to supervise the creature and makeup effects for the modern-day vampire show.

Before The Strain, Newburn and Sansom were working on Pacific Rim, for which they and their crew created most of the practical creature effects. Both had also worked on previous del Toro films for other companies, but the blockbuster monster-fest was their first as independent contractors.

“As Pacific Rim was wrapping up, Guillermo told us, ‘I’ll see you guys toward the end of the year,’” said Newburn. “Of course, we hear this all the time in this line of work. But he was true to his word and we were contacted around November 2012 about The Strain. We met over dinner in early January 2013. Being familiar with the scope of the story, and the amount of potential work involved, we went in thinking we would be acting as local support for one of the large L.A. shops. Instead, Guillermo offered us the whole project. That was a surprise to both of us, but a great opportunity at the same time.”

“It meant a lot more preliminary work,” said Sansom. “We had to find a suitable studio space to accommodate the build, assemble a larger crew, and try to break down and budget the entire series based on just a few outlined details. We began doing breakdowns and schedules in March 2013, our actual prep began in April, and we went to camera in September. That is an unheard of amount of prep time for a TV show, especially these days. But Guillermo wanted to prep The Strain as if it were a large feature film.”

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Guillermo del Toro’s artistic vision for The Strain was clear from the outset. Concept art by Guy Davis fleshed out the ideas, while Simon Lee established a rough direction for the design of the vampire overlord known as the Master (played by Robert Maillet). It then fell to Newburn and Sansom to develop the concepts into practical makeups and props.

“Guillermo is always thinking, so there was an ongoing evolution to the look of all the makeup elements,” said Newburn. “At the same time, he’s been very trusting with us and quite open to fleshing out new ideas and possibilities as they presented themselves.”

The Coffin

The Master's Coffin

Central to the plot of The Strain – and one of its key iconic props – is the giant coffin in which the Master arrives on American soil. The coffin was sculpted during the early days of pre-production by Newburn, Sansom, Adrian Burnett and Chris Bridges, while del Toro was still in L.A. finishing Pacific Rim.

“We took the Guy Davis art, scaled it up and went to it, so that piece is very much unchanged from the original concept – Guillermo had us make only very small tweaks to a couple of details,” Sansom commented.

Graham Chivers, Adrian Burnett and Marc Dixon (front to back) prepare the mould for the nine foot-long Master's coffin.

Graham Chivers, Adrian Burnett and Marc Dixon (front to back) prepare the mould for the nine foot-long Master’s coffin.

The Master's coffin - detail“The coffin was the largest single thing we produced: nine feet long, four feet wide and three feet tall. Every square inch was covered in ornate carvings, and the entire thing was sculpturally aged to look like rotting wood. It was sculpted in Chavant NSP clay, moulded, and then run in fibreglass for durability. We made one with a steel framework which allowed the doors to be opened, and another as a ‘lightweight’ version.”

Autopsy Suit

In a shocking scene near the end of the pilot episode, a morgue full of corpses is reanimated by the vampire virus. Newburn and Sansom created a range of prosthetic and make-up effects for this sequence, including a full-body “autopsy suit” worn by performer Javier Botet, who played the grotesque title character in the del Toro-produced Mama. Botet has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder which means his body is unusually thin and flexible.

All is not seems in the morgue ...

Actor Javier Botet wore a full-body “autopsy suit” for his role as a reanimated vampire.

“Guillermo wanted a dead passenger from the plane to be in the morgue, mid-autopsy,” Newburn explained. “He wanted this person to not just sit up, but actually get up and attack Dr. Bennett (Jeffrey Smith). This type of thing has been done many times before using a slant board gag, but Javier’s narrow girth allowed us to add an entire open chest cavity which, in profile, didn’t look built up.

“The problem was that, as we bulked up Javier’s torso, the rest of his body looked disproportionate. So we ended up creating a full head-to-toe naked body suit. There’s one great shot in profile where I think most people will assume there was CG augmentation. But there was none.”

The starting point for the autopsy suit was a full silicone body cast of Botet. Based on this, a full-body suit of an “average guy” (complete with slight pot belly) was sculpted in Chavant.

Steve Koch sculpts the autopsy suit over a body cast of Botet

Steve Koch sculpts the autopsy suit over a body cast of Botet.

Steve Newburn, Melissa Nicholl, Liz Rowe, Jay Graham, Jeff Derushie (left to right) work on the full-body autopsy suit.

Steve Newburn, Melissa Nicholl, Liz Rowe, Jay Graham, Jeff Derushie (left to right) work on the full-body autopsy suit.

Javier Botet wearing the autopsy suit“Steve Koch did a beautiful job with that sculpture,” remarked Newburn. “A mould was taken in epoxy, which generally creates a much tighter seam when running than polyester-based fibreglass. The suit was then run in foam latex and made to be zipperless. Javier would climb into it through the chest opening. He was wearing a harness which we built to support all of the internal silicone organs and guts; these would go on afterwards. The final step was blending the prosthetic with Javier’s own skin just below the chin, and at the wrist and ankle.”

Dissection Scene

Episode 4 of The Strain opens with a scene in which the body of Captain Doyle Redfern (Jonathan Potts), pilot of the airliner that brought the virus to New York, is dissected, revealing a grotesque “Stinger” – the fleshy organ by which the virus is spread.

“Guillermo wanted to be able to cut into Redfern’s skin, open the chest cavity, push around some organs, and then finally remove the Stinger,” explained Sansom. “He was very specific about what details he wanted, and what needed to be seen for later discussion by the characters performing the dissection.”


The unfortunate Captain Redfern is revealed to be host to a vampire “Stinger”.

“We started by bringing in Jonathan for both a head and full body cast. The plaster replica of his body was cleaned up, while his head was re-sculpted in clay and attached to the body. We took a mould from that assembled piece, and used it to create the final silicone skin for the body.

“The head and torso were made hollow, while the limbs were solid silicone around a fully poseable armature. We fitted the torso cavity with a kind of resettable plug; it contained everything that would be seen once the skin was cut open. We had a section of ribs and sternum that could be removed, as well as the newly transformed internal organs that could be poked and prodded and generally moved around.


The completed Stinger prop was six feet long.

“The Stinger itself is removed from outside the body – pulled from the mouth – but is clearly visible within the open torso cavity as well.  The oesophagus was made clear and connected the throat to the covered abdomen, which contained the remainder of the six foot-long Stinger. We filled the abdomen with plenty of vampire blood and slime, to help move the Stinger along and out of the mouth. It was a lot of work and preparation for a short scene, but the result was very satisfying.”

Animatronic Master

Despite the usual constraints of time and budget associated with a TV production, Newburn and Sansom created several effects they consider ambitious for the medium. One was the Botet autopsy suit; another was an elaborate animatronic of the Master.

“We built a waist-up, motion-controlled, full-functioned animatronic of the Master,” said Newburn. “The motion control element was necessary in order to keep the number of on-set puppeteers down to two, at the request of the production. We had the option of pre-recording the performance and hitting play through the computer, performing live via radio control, or using a combination of the two. Bud McGrew was the lead animatronics technician for that, primarily building with Jurgen Heimann.”

VFX With Mr. X

In addition to creating practical effects, Newburn and Sansom worked closely with visual effects providers Mr. X Inc.

“Initially, Guillermo wanted to do as many of the effects as possible in-camera,” said Newburn. “But we always knew the Stingers would be primarily CG. However, we did build two animatronic stingers which were used in a couple of shots, although primarily as lighting reference for the VFX team.

An animatronic version of the Stinger emerges from the mouth of Emma, one of the first victims discovered on Flight 753

Newburn and Sansom built two animatronic Stingers, used primarily as reference for the visual effects team at Mr. X Inc.

“Ultimately, because of the volume of work and the fact that we were working in the TV world, we ended up with far more VFX involvement. We knew from the start that would probably be the case, so we worked closely to provide sculpted and finished models of nearly everything creature-related for the Mr. X Inc. team to scan and photograph for their models and digital doubles.”

“Also, there were a number of things that were “questionable” in terms of what we could get away with showing,” added Sansom. “Because of this, our stuff was sometimes downplayed and sometimes overdone, knowing that it could always be tweaked or enhanced later. This allowed the final concept for certain effects to be locked down at a later date. All in all, it was a happy collaboration, and I think we ended up finding the best end result for everything under the circumstances.”

Actor Andrew Divoff poses beside his sculpted likeness

Actor Andrew Divoff poses beside his sculpted likeness

Vampire Reflections

By the end of the season, Newburn, Sansom and their team had created around 600-700 vampire makeups, as well as numerous other gags and effects. Despite del Toro’s desire to raise the bar as much as possible, Newburn and Sansom found themselves resorting to tried-and-true techniques in many instances, due to the nature of television.

“While it was nice to have that feature film prep time,” Sansom reflected, “we knew it wouldn’t last. Before we knew it, the episodes were getting more ambitious, larger in scale, and closer together. By the end though, we did have a nice steady routine – we knew what to focus on, and what not to dwell on. Plus, now that we’ve worked out the bugs on our more extensive make-ups, it will be easier to translate the same techniques on a larger scale.”

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Thanks to Thomas Ruffner, Dominic Pagone and John Lavet. Images copyright © 2014 FX Networks, LLC All Rights Reserved.