Nobody really knew when we were shooting what the final effect would look like.
WARNNG: Graphic content.
There are several shocking sequences in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, but perhaps none are quite so powerful as the dramatic skin tearing moments in episodes 5 and 8—one occurring during a sex scene—which directly highlight the racial themes at the center of the show.
The shots are deliberately gruesome; showcasing the shedding of thick chunks of a white skinned character to reveal a black skinned character beneath or the metamorphosis of another character. The shots are also often full-frame, with a oner during the sex scene being an 82 second rotating camera, complete with the skin tearing effect in full view.
To help make all this possible, visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank entrusted the sequences to Important Looking Pirates (ILPVFX), overseen by visual effects supervisor Pietro Ponti. befores & afters asked Ponti how his team pulled this complicated work off and here he runs down the mix of live-action shooting, makeup effects prosthetics, animation, matchmove and tracking, FX sims and meticulous compositing.
What should this ‘look’ like?
After reviewing production storyboards spearheaded by Blank, Ponti and the team at ILPVFX constructed previs animation of the shedding effect (something that would help during the live-action shoot stage). There was also an effort to find reference of what the the skin tearing would look like, a task that ultimately proved a tough one to undertake.
“One thing that struck me is how little literal reference I could find of this actually happening,” recounts Ponti. “We had great concept art from our own Martin Bergquist, that gave us a great idea of what the skin flaps could look like, but it was the motion component and how someone would emerge from it all, that was elusive for us. There was this makeup effects gag in Poltergeist, the one where he’s tearing himself up in front of a mirror, but that goes to the bone. There’s not another person underneath.”
Ponti also points to medical reference, including where people had hurt themselves. Still, most of that reference included significant amounts of blood that tended to cover the skin or wounds. “Conversely, when people are in surgery and they’re being operated on, the bodies have been cleaned, and it almost looks fake, having these flaps of skin hanging there.”
“We realized quite soon, however, that you wanted these skin pieces to be quite meaty, to be more than just the skin,” says Ponti. “One of the references that showrunner Misha Green pointed us towards at the beginning was The Fly. She loved the quality of that kind of chard, bumpy, disgusting skin. For Misha, as long as it looked realistic, for her, it was more about the timing of the reveal of what was underneath.”
Shooting the scenes
On set in Atlanta for the shedding scenes, the actors would mime the actions of ripping and tearing at their skin, and of it ‘falling’ off. To aid in this part of the shoot, prosthetic skin pieces were made to be grabbed hold of and torn away.
“If you have something to interact with, then it is going to work better,” notes Ponti. “The makeup effects team, led by Carey Jones, did an amazing job of creating these prosthetics. At one point, Hillary (Jamie Neumann) is tearing on her shoulder. She had a patch that was painted white skin over her real skin that had been painted black. They put a lot of blood inside it and she would just tear it away. It gave her something to actually tear at, and the camera operator something to look at.”
Ponti adds that, “Nobody really knew at that stage when we were shooting what the final, final effect would look like. We had our concepts that helped us until then, but it was really exciting when we saw what actually came out of prosthetics. It was really quite inspiring to drive the rest of the work.”
The art of simulating shedding skin
Based on the previs, and what had been shot on set, ILPVFX further developed the look and feel of the tearing, peeling and falling skin pieces and blood. FX supervisor Federica Foresti worked with her team to develop the different setups required to achieve the effect. This would be simulated atop the real actors from the plate, although a large amount of morphing was done between the digi-doubles of the characters and the real actors to make shots work.
The first decision in relation to the skin, says Ponti, was, “How much do we rig this, and how much do we simulate? Quite early on, we decided, ‘Let’s go for full simulation because we want to get it to look as nice as possible.’ And so the rig only really dealt with the blend shaping of the actresses from one to another. And then apart from previs, which had simple rigged animated pieces, the skin was all achieved in FX.”
To get the right kind of jiggly skin tearing, a soft bodies approach in Houdini was undertaken, with these bodies connected by a network of constraints that would react to the actor’s performance from the day of shooting and via extra keyframing of digi-double body parts. The soft bodies approach worked much like cloth simulation.
“We needed to have an easy way of doing quick iterations,” explains Ponti. “We’d have the tear and then we would extrude the cloth afterwards and try and make it work. One problem was that you would lose a lot of the meaty sense of the simulation. When we went full soft bodies, the thickness was also computed during the simulation.”
“To have the Ruby character coming out of the Hillary character was a challenge in itself to make it believable,” continues Ponti. “If you think about it, even if it’s you coming out of yourself, if you had two centimetres of thick meat, then you yourself are going to need to be scaled in to allow that to exist at the beginning. So, we had these tricks where the stuffed flopped away and the blend shape that would replace the other person was not giving away the fact that we had the collision mesh shrunk inwards.”
Blood simulations were also part of the complicated FX task, with blood sometimes being a ‘trailing’ effect and sometimes much more of a squirting look. In the end, ILPVFX’s artists had to approach just about every skin shedding shot with a bespoke set-up. “There was a lot of manual labor that went into it,” says Ponti.
Bringing it altogether
To composite the live action elements, digi-doubles, FX sims and also a range of virtual backgrounds, ILPVFX worked in Nuke. “Our compositors, led by compositing supervisor Viktor Andersson, became masters of Nuke Smart Vectors,” discusses Ponti. “All the reddening of skin, veiny details, and sometimes even adjusting FX over it, was part of comp.”
Ponti notes, too, that so much of the final result was made possible thanks to precision camera matchmoves and body tracking, performed by Yannix, with animation going in and refining this further when necessary with the digi-doubles. “Quite often we actually kept a lot of the plate and that was something I was really fighting for,” says Ponti. “The body tracking in that case had to work really well to allow us to retain the plate as much as I wanted.”
That also required digi-doubles that matched ILP’s live action actors as perfectly as possible. “Our lighting and look dev team, led by light supervisor Johan Gabrielsson, did an amazing job that often made me guess which one was the plate and which one was the live action.”
Praising his team for the intensive visual effects work, Ponti also calls out the support of Blank in helping to realize the shots from concept to final. “He just had this amazing support and trust. With Kevin’s help, I could say, ‘Okay, this is the place that we need to go. Let’s shoot them like that and then we’ve got exactly what we need.’”
“It was just a massive job,” Ponti elaborates. “That oner shot in episode 8, with the sex scene. Between 48 fps and two elements, it was more than 3,000 frames! I mean, that body track went around for more than a month. It was a bit nuts, but it was so great to do.”
All images copyright 2020 HBO. Courtesy Important Looking Pirates.
Get bonus and early VFX content via a befores & afters Patreon membership