The zaniest character from ‘MIB: International’ lives in a beard

Meet Bassam, and the VFX team behind it.

We all know that any Men in Black film is going to include a couple of ‘out-there’ characters, but the reveal of Bassam was – for me – one of the highlights from the series.

The alien creature from Men in Black: International forms the beard of a human-looking character, played by Kayvan Novak, before ‘jumping off’ to help Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and Agent M (Tessa Thompson) with their mission.

The VFX studio behind Bassam was Method Studios, and here visual effects supervisor Seth Hill runs down how the creature was made, and what it took to go from beard to walking/talking alien.

The beard: The actor was filmed with a prosthetic beard attached, which helped drive some of the cast shadows on his neck and torso and made the final integration a lot easier. The actor was filmed without the prosthetic for the scene when Bassam jumps off of him, then we digitally brought in the jawbones and chin to make room for the creature to live.

Matchmoving to the actor: The hardest bits are always the non-bony sections of the face – cheeks and lips get tricky. The creature covered a good section of his face, so that made some of the tracking easier since we could use pieces of beard to help blend in and create a locked track. But really any face track will always take time and precise effort.

Designing Bassam: We used the actor’s prosthetic beard as a solid base to match toward; this way, we had light and texture reference in the same plate. The tricky part was getting a creature with a CG version of a human’s beard on their back to twist around and still look interesting. In some of our first tests he looked a little more like he was just struck by lightning.

If the back stretched too much or his belly twisted too far, he’d quickly turn into something like a toilet scrubber.

Ultimately, we used a combination of rig control on the actual poly geometry of the creature, being gentle enough to not deform more in any one area, and doing clever sim work; that way, we relaxed the beard back down and prevented it from going too crazy once the base animation was complete. With sim, the key was actually playing it a lot more rigid than what you’d often want to make hair at that scale.

For a beard (especially a living beard), it really helped pull in the physics of it so that as the creature moved in an exaggerated fashion, the beard felt believable.

Animating the creature: When the creature first appears and is talking to the two heroes, [production VFX supervisor] Jerome Chen suggested that we play him up a little drunk to make the sequence more fun. This opened up a lot of creative ways to loosen up a creature otherwise firmly planted to the face of his host. It was a smart idea that allowed out animators to play up action from the creature. But because he has a simulated beard on his back, we always had to be careful not to push certain parts of his anatomy too far. If the back stretched too much or his belly twisted too far, he’d quickly turn into something like a toilet scrubber.

Interaction: When the actors in the scene are playing up interaction with a creature that isn’t there as well as they did for this film, it helps make the presence of any creature so much more authentic. The actor playing the host for Bassam was great at playing up his eyeline and movement, and the motions he had with his head were slightly exaggerated and perfect for adding a little springiness back and forth with Bassam’s long torso.

Since this was also a conversation sequence, as four characters stand around and talk, incorporating little side expressions and reactions to all the other dialogue helps keep Bassam’s acting grounded and believable. When it came to getting them to sit in the same world though, lighting just had to match the plate light as close as possible. When any creature is on top of a filmed actor’s face, there is little room to cheat a light; if it’s not precise, they won’t ever be in the same world.

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