The VFX superheroes making super-powers for ‘Project Power’

Different Framestore artists weigh-in on their contributions to the Netflix show.

We all know it takes many artists to deliver visual effects for a big film or television show. Which is why I wanted to get multiple perspectives from the team at Framestore for how they realized the visual effects for Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Project Power, which recently premiered on Netflix.

Here, artists from different areas of the studio—CG, FX, compositing and more—discuss their particular challenges on a range of super-power shots in the film.

Man on Fire

Jimmy Leung, lead FX TD

Project Power was the film that had the most fire shots during my time at Framestore. In the very beginning, we were trying to match the reference of a stuntman with low temperature fire. Once we got a similar behaviour, we started to change it a bit so that it was more stylized for both the movie and storytelling. We also got some layers such as the boiling skin and boiling water from his skin that you might not be clearly visible in the movie, but really helped to make it look realistic.

A big challenge was keeping elements consistent across all of the shots. We had a variety of elements such as fire, smoke, steam, embers and ash. Keeping the balance and continuity for these elements across quite a long sequence was an important task to make sure we maintained the storytelling. A generic set up was made and then used by all artists so we could assert that we were producing consistent data across all of the shots. It goes without saying that we had a very good team to help get the job done. We also tried to match the sims pixel values to the plate fire which is easier to expose down the shot and have the fire act in a natural way.

For our primary sim, we cleared all heat that might have gotten trapped inside of the collider during the simulation so we didn’t get any artifacts. It was tricky to maintain fire in front of a fast moving character, so we included another local space simulation with global forces applied to it. This allowed Houdini to solve our fire simulations much easier against a more static object which was then moved back to world space.

Jane Sun, FX technical director

The sequence includes a few types of fire: the fire on the character’s body, the fire surrounding the environment, the fire/explosion where Newt overdoses and explodes in the bathtub. For the fire on Newt’s body, we divided it into different parts of the body, so we didn’t need to sim everything when we had feedback. We had head fire, facefire, body fire and LED fire. The LED fire was to cover the actual LED lights the film crew attached to the actor, in order to light the character realistically. So we had this extra element where we paint over where the LED lights are located to make sure there’s fire on the area to match the light. We also had fire for the ash coming from Newt’s body to add more details. We then had fires for the environment, wall fire, sofa fire and fire for the ceiling fan.

The challenge we had for these elements was that, more often than not, there is real fire in the plate, and we needed to match them so our CG fire didn’t look fake. Another challenge we had was consistency, since there are many connecting shots that all have fire so there needed to be a good continuation. Sometimes, they don’t match properly, and we would add extra fire elements to cover the non matching part as to not need to re-sim the other part which had already been approved. We also had some technical issues with the render time, as sometimes the fire was very close to the camera and there might be too many fire elements as well, so it took quite a while to render.

We worked closely with lighting to figure out a way to save render time by combining different fires and reducing the LOD used as volume light. It significantly helped reduce render time, with very satisfying results. We had a very good setup overall, and because of the division of the multiple elements, sometimes we would even work on each other’s shots when some were too busy. It was a great team and we had an awesome Lead and a wonderful supervisor. It was a super fun project to work on!

Camo Guy

Jeremie Ducrocq, compositor

One of the important concepts on Project Power was to keep the imagery grounded in reality. The overall VFX supervisor Ivan Moran did an amazing job finding real life references and interpreting them within the context of human superpowers.

For our Camo Guy, the main reference was the cuttlefish. Cuttlefishes have the ability to alter their skin and change color and pattern like a chameleon, which can occur within a couple of seconds. Those couple of seconds create a delay in the background he is assimilating when moving, which makes him camouflage rather than become invisible. On set, the actor was only wearing a mini short, so we could get a perfect reference on how the light was reacting with his skin and use those shadows in final compositing.

The first step was to rebuild all the background to be able to remove the actor when he is camouflaged. Our paint team here at Framestore did an amazing job as the work was sometimes extremely complex, with multiple people needed for the full reconstruction. Simultaneously, all the shots were bodytracked so we could replace the whole body and have full control on the moving pattern when the character was running around.

We decided to use a hybrid approach to mix the background patterns and the light interaction with the environment on Camo Guy’s body. All the shots were lit to match the source plate as close as possible, and we were rendering the digi double with a normal skin shader. On top of that, we were outputting a lot of utility passes the Comp team could use to project the background onto the character with different patterns and mix it with the skin shader, while still preserving all the muscle stimulation from the CG character.

The big advantage of that choice was to be able to control what the Camo guy was mimicking in Nuke, without having to run expensive CG renders every time. The speed of pattern change was dependent on the level of agitation of the character. It was very important to be able to control it and have direct feedback of the result and a quick turnaround to look at the character in the context of the sequence. This project was very special as Framestore was involved very early in the process. Looking forward to what will come next and why not keep pushing the Project Power world!

Frank gets shot

Kevin Sears, CG supervisor

From the beginning, the Frank Bullet shot was pitched to Framestore as a big spectacle moment in the story. It was a great opportunity to have VFX directly support the narrative and reveal Frank’s power.

In the turnover for the scan, we discussed for 2 hours the importance of supporting and not replacing the amazing detail in photography that was filmed with a Phantom camera at 900 fps. A witness camera unfortunately wasn’t high speed, but it provided a look at the several takes the actor did using an air pressure jet to create the incredible wobbling details around the eye and cheeks in less than 1 second. The scope of the work focused on adding a bullet impact within the same epicenter of the air blast and changing the timing of the hair being affected, which was not appearing motivated by the impact on the face.

This required matchmoving Joseph Gordon-Levitt and first building a high res digital double. We started with a photogrammetry scan and also sourced images from the film “50/50” (where he shaved his head) to capture the true shape of his skull. Using concepts from production, we began adding layers of hardened skin as blendshapes to stage the subtle strengthening of the skin during the moments of impact. As it progressed, the nature of the ripples evolved across the face from a very fluid movement into a slowed and stiff wake and ultimately melted back into the original face. We timed all of the blendshapes with a lot of finesse in maps that overlapped and rode on top of a fluid sim that we projected on the face from the POV of the bullet.

Each ripple wave had unique timing to hook up to the scan ripples and reduced their speed and amplitude in each subsequent repetition. Concurrently, we needed to enhance the deforming areas on the face that we never wanted to replace, with a similar series of skin texture maps based on those hardening looks. This required a dedicated artist to sculpt nearly 150 frames to match those shapes for treatment in compositing. The hair on Joseph Gordon-Levitt is completely digital throughout the shot, with a big part of the challenge to match the look closely to the actor while allowing it to move correctly once massive forces would be applied to it in slow motion. The bullet was squashed with a blendshape done by the animation team. The gun muzzle flash was naturally digital and driven by high speed reference that the FX team literally frame-matched to get the unique smoke curling back toward the barrel. Additional sweat and spit sims were added by FX as well. Finally it was rendered in 4k with Freak, Framestore’s renderer. I’m incredibly proud of all the departments at Framestore that came together to enhance this amazing character power!

Frozen Girl

Kevin Sears, CG supervisor

In the story, this character has a tragic death as a gun battle rages outside and she freezes everything inside a glass structure to sub zero temperatures. It was infamous in the halls at Framestore and drew the attention of many employees curious at the scope of work required in the client brief. This was all captured in one continuous take and over two minutes in length, with only minor retime sections to put focus on foreground and background action.

Our philosophy was to embrace the performances on set and not replace the actress as a full CG digi double. This grounded the action in something that wasn’t artificially constructed and we kept much of her face, costume and hair on Frozen Girl from the original scan. This meant that our Tracking department had an enormous challenge to tightly capture body and face movement. Rigging and Modelling teams managed face blend shapes that were dialed in with matchmove artists useful especially in efforts on the final death crawl section. BodyTracking lasted for several months with references using GoPro witness cameras that allowed matchmove even on sections off camera when she was only reflecting into the windows.

On set it was constantly flashing over 90 light sources, each with a different hue and exposure per frame, over 3,500 frames. We set up a Lighting system that sampled the witness camera reference to drive the lighting timing via Nuke, which got about 60% of the way, the rest was accomplished by tweaking with the final bodytrack to match the Frozen Girl digi double. That process took about two months of keying a dynamic light rig by hand.

We also matched little imperfections on set. For example, we tracked the action when plexiglass warps and shifts out of the icebox and used that geo so that FX would react to every hit on the structure. Major shifts on the glass drove the ice sheet collapsing and regrowing as the entire structure is covered in ice by the end of the frame range. Timing of the ice elements were augmented with Textures that included directionality of the generations in ice growth. This was coupled with various stages of frost shaders and refraction passes that allowed further advancements of ice accumulation over background action in Compositing.

Framestore completed a series of key art frames with our FX Visual Concept team that established the milestone moments along with Comp to set the mood of each progression on Frozen Girl. The dry ice sims poured off her exposed skin areas and we ran options to get the weight and density correct with the dynamic lighting. Internal cracks were generated as geometry inside the ice skin layers in key areas and timed creatively to create the sense that the shell on the skin was breaking and freezing back together. The concept of the final ice mask on the face began with a graphic thumbnail storyboard in black and white that depicted a giant ice spike growing out of a death scream. That set the tone for the level of horror and I think the FX team had a fun time adding in all the embellishments.

Thomas Martin, lighting lead

Frozen Girl was the most complex and difficult sequence and lighting scenario I have ever worked on. There were roughly 90 lights inside the tube as well as outside set lights. For the 90 tube lights, each one had a different hue and exposure, each frame over 3 500 frames. We set up a system that sampled the reference footage to drive the lighting via Nuke. Which got about 60% of the way, the rest was going frame by frame and hand keying each section and individual light to match the actress to our digi double. It was about 2 months of keying by hand.The rendering side was a mix of 2D distortion passes as well as 3D ice, particles and volume renders. As well as plate projection to recreate the refraction of the ice on the walls. It was incredibly satisfying to see the final result.

Biggie

Alicia Etourneau, FX technical director

I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work on Biggie’s growing tumor effect. It was an interesting challenge, and a great collaboration between departments.

At first, the FX team was only supposed to create the veins and tumors system. The Creature FX department would then use it to stretch the skin on top of it. We quickly realized that in order to avoid penetrations between the veins and the skin, we had to considerably subdivide the mesh. The more detailed the veins, the more subdivisions the mesh had to have, which greatly impacted render time. To avoid this situation, we decided to handle the skin deformation directly instead of using a dynamic simulation.

VFX supervisor Joao Sita led us for the artistic aspects of the shape, size and rhythm of tumors emerging to add dynamics to the scene. We drew the veins, based on anatomical references, on top of the original skin. Then, we animated the growth of the veins and the tumors. The final step was to deform the skin so it overlayed the excrescences.

The difficulty was to avoid penetrations as Biggie was moving quickly. We also collaborated a lot with Lookdev to provide them with elements they needed for the creation of the wonderful skin shader, as well as CFX, to adjust tumor positions and allow them to highlight Biggie’s cloth tearing.

Art’s shockwave

Keith Acheson, lead FX TD

The Art sequence which we ended up coining “Power 2.0” here at Framestore (because it was the second most massive sequence we worked on for the film), was an exciting challenge and a bit daunting at the beginning. The idea was to show a high frequency wave-like force that emanates from Art. This force is so intense that it literally transitions the surrounding rain through several states of matter – liquid to gas to plasma.

The VFX supervisor wanted to show the effect happening at a macro level on individual falling raindrops before pulling out to wider shots and showing the extent of the damage. We ended up working in 2 teams to make things a little more bite-sized. The first team worked on the effect at a macro level showing the droplets transitioning through their atomic states. The second team worked on the wide shots showing the plasma flying outwards from Art like coronal mass ejections.

For the raindrop transitions there were a couple of big key shots. One shot showing the water rising from the puddles around Art’s feet as the energy is building, and another shot with the camera pulling away from Art as the droplets begin their transitions with the camera finally macro focusing on one hero drop that explodes into plasma. We used Flip Fluids in Houdini to tackle a lot of the puddle and droplet performance.

When the liquid transitions to gas/steam we handed the performance to the Pyro solver in Houdini and simply added a lot of temperature at the end when the droplets turned to plasma. It was a lot of fun to work on the transitions because it required an interplay between particle, fluid, and smoke solvers at the same time. We also played with a lot of different forces to push and pull the droplets around as they oscillate.

For the wider shots the look was different but similar methods were utilized. The VFX supervisor wanted the feeling of the plasma to be like coronal ejections on the surface of the sun. These ejections have a very liquid-like performance but also share some characteristics of gas. It was tough work coming up with something that didn’t look like an explosion, but shared a fire and liquid-like performance. In the end, the team did a great job and ended up using a mix of particles, fluid, and smoke solvers to achieve the look. Many thanks to the look-dev, lighting, and comp departments who also played a huge role in getting all of the effects to sing!

Get bonus VFX material by becoming a befores & afters Patreon member