The Strain – Visual Effects

by Graham Edwards

"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.

The-Strain-VFX-Stinger

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.

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