Riffing on The Rip for ‘The Irregulars’

When you’re presented with a VFX problem to solve, how do you solve it?

Visual effects practitioners are often given a particular scenario to bring to life. They might only have words on a script page, or an idea from a director, or the earliest beginnings of concept art. From there, the VFX team must flesh out how this scenario can be further planned out, filmed in live-action if necessary and then completed with final visual effects.

That’s exactly what The Irregulars visual effects supervisor Richard Briscoe and his team had to do to depict ‘The Rip’ in the show—a tear between the natural world and the supernatural world. What would it look like? How could scenes in which The Rip featured be filmed with actors ‘interacting’ with it? And what kind of supernatural energy effects would be seen in these scenes?

befores & afters asked Briscoe how he, and crew members from DNEG and UPP, came up with the solutions to visual effects challenges presented by The Rip.

b&a: What were the earliest things you looked at for working out what The Rip needed to be?

Richard Briscoe: I suppose the initial idea, it’s in the word ‘Rip’, as it’s named or referred to in the script. It’s a rift, it’s a tear. It’s a gash in our space/time, if you like, without getting too esoteric about it. And there was some concept work, some of which was done before I’d even come on board, which was an interesting kind of kickoff point.

But of course, I’m looking at (that and script mentions), going, ‘This thing needs to move. It needs to have a personality and a character and exude aggression and threat.’ So we needed to quickly look at what qualities of movement we can give it that you can’t just do reflect in a concept painting.

Another theme running through the scripts was that while this is evil energy, negative energy, negative in the sense of bad, but also negative in the sense of inverted color, it needs to have, I’m hesitant to say organic, but it has to have a tactile, naturalistic quality to it. It can’t feel like sort of what I, hopefully not too disparagingly, would call ‘Harry Potter’. It can’t have too many magical sparkles. It’s not magic in that sense. It’s a supernatural power or energy, showing itself in a visual sense.

This ‘negative’ motif gave us the palette as the blues and the cyans and the dirty greens. We didn’t want to go into the reds and oranges, because that’s too much of a visual association to notions of hell. I tried to say, ‘Well, can we look at sort of dirty greens?’ They wanted to mainly keep with the blues and cyans. But then, how do you work with blues and cyans, and yet not let it feel aquatic or watery, and also not let it feel too electrical?

b&a: What kind of inspiration did you start looking to at this stage?

Richard Briscoe: When you’re looking at ideas for movement or texture or scale, I’ll usually look at nature. We talked about, well, this is a tear that expands. It’s eroding its way out into our world. It’s gradually swallowing parts of our world. So, what gives us a sense of erosion or decay? If it’s erosion or spreading or tearing, is it like rips or like decay or rot? Decay and rot had those kinds of insidious, repellent qualities we wanted.

We started looking at time-lapse photography of mould or bubbling mud, or the old kind of stock footage thing, of celluloid when it gets caught in the projector and it starts bubbling and blistering and melting. We looked at steel wool. I don’t know if you’ve ever set that on fire, but you just get these thousands of tiny little embers chasing along each individual filaments.

We thought, let’s use these kinds of qualities as a way of it eroding its’ way into our world, i.e. spreading, and then we’ll use the language of it being a tear as the way, when there’s a bigger, catastrophic moment, where suddenly it gets much bigger. And then we just played with it on and on and on and on, trying to build up a language for how it spreads, how fast it spreads, the sense that it’s not just exponentially spreading continuously, that there’s points where it has to pause, or it even contracts back if it’s losing energy, or it expands suddenly when there’s a big release.

It has a story arc, almost a character arc. When we first see it, it’s at a certain size. It gets bigger through being energised by The Linen Man. As he leaves, relinquishing control, It then kind of changes in aspect ratio, changing shape and behaviour in preparation for when Alice is about to come through. And then when she actually comes through, that’s the kind of catastrophic tipping point, where it gets much bigger.

But, interestingly, all through that, you’ve got the classic filmic thing, of, you’re trying to keep it growing. You’re trying to keep the threat, but yet if you keep it growing at the pace you might see it grow in a particular shot, it will be the size of the room before you finish the scene! So you have to not be seen to rewind as it were, but have to constantly play or cheat with how big has it got.

Plus the idea that once Alice has come through and you have this kind of, let’s call it a family reunion. You have this moment where Alice is reunited with the daughters and then accosting Sherlock and Watson. And you can’t take away from one of the key emotional moments and relationship pay-offs in the season. So you have to keep it there, present in the background as an overbearing, looming, active threat, but you have to dial it down, in those moments so it’s not distracting.

So, we made this decision that when she comes through, it’s a catastrophic, very dramatic sudden and aggressive expansion, and then it almost pauses and rebuilds itself and consolidates once she’s emerged. And only then reacts and gets aggressive again, once Jessie goes to confront it.

b&a: When you were filming scenes with characters, either looking at The Rip or interacting with it, what was there on the set? What did they interact with? What kind of lighting did you have?

Richard Briscoe: The conceit throughout the season was that it’s a very bright thing. It gives off an enormous amount of light. Blue light was scripted as being seen down tunnels long before actually seeing it – which again was one of our problems. How do you make it completely bright and feel bright, but without burning it out to lose losing all the textural detail?

So the logic is that when they walk into the chamber, it’s the only source of light. It’s illuminating the room or chamber. Of course, in reality, on the set we have sky panels overhead etc. to light the room, but it plays as the only source of directional light. It’s a turbulent light, it’s a moving light, but it’s a light source.

That meant for shots where you’re not looking at it, but you’re looking at its’ light falling on them, or you’re looking at them profile, we had a hole in the back of the set which we could put lights behind and shine through into the set. There we had a big array of lights on an effectively circular rig. We could basically do somewhat random and variable speed chase patterns, with these: to give the illumination an adjustable fluctuation in hue and brightness, just to keep it alive and sell the different stages or levels of agitation

When we shot facing it, we basically kept the hole, but we put a screen in front of it, which was a placeholder for the Rip. It gave camera and actors something to work with, and it also gave us something to key against, something to extract them against. Now, because it’s a source of light, a blue or green screen wasn’t really going to work. We couldn’t light through such a screen. So we very quickly just went, ‘We’ll do a white screen. We’ll do luma keys,’ which worked well in the end. We did some camera tests for exposure levels and brightness levels, to determine a ‘sweet spot’ where we could get a decent key from that screen and work that way.

Obviously, when it gets very big in story terms, we didn’t have anything in that size, as a screen, but we had enough in general to hold the cast against it, when we needed to, to isolate them. When they’re close enough to interact with it, we would, where we could, keep that in frame, but dressed further away. So, they weren’t actually physically touching it, but to the camera,we would still get them visually framed against it.

And then we used one of those laser lights, the DIY-type device, where we just put a vertical line up that you would see on the actor’s arm, where that plane of The Rip should be. Sometimes as the edit evolved, we might change how deeply immersed they were, but at least that line gave us a kind of plane, our read on where it should be. We also, of course, had profile witness cameras. And we’d done a pretty deep photogrammetry of the entire set. As long as any part of the set was in view, we could also use that to work out where they were.

The other thing we’d done was quite a lot of previs with Nviz on those scenes, partly because it was a technically complex thing to shoot, With rigging time involved to consider in seeing this screen or not – we had to shoot all shots this way one day and all shots that way another day. So we had to plot it out quite carefully , especially with limited shoot time and extra new unfamiliar covid protocols impacting shooting practice. With a lot of crane work and careful framing parameters, I deliberately involved camera operator and chief grip pin the conversation towards the end of the previs development

We used the Ncam system to do a live overlay of simple loop animations of our Rip look-dev up to that point on set, too. It helped Camera and Director a great deal with framing decisions and It also meant those rushes of this crude composite overlay could go straight into editorial. Which meant They had something to cut with straight away that at least had a Rip in there.

b&a: Which VFX studios were involved in the final VFX work?

Richard Briscoe: DNEG and UPP. All the scenes with The Linen Man, when it’s in its somewhat smaller, more volatile state, were UPP. And then there’s a convenient break in storyline where we go away and join the cast doing other things. Then when we come back and Alice is about to come through, that onward was DNEG. We also had Goodbye Kansas in the early days, doing a lot of the initial crucial look development work.

This splitting of the work was really a logistical decision; spreading the load and throughput more than anything. We were expecting and planning for many (and complex sim-heavy) shots with a very challenging timeframe to deliver.

b&a: I really liked the dissolve effect that happens because of the Rip, where Alice is dissolving. Tell me about the stages of work there in terms of what was filmed live action, doing any kind of takeover and then the actual effects simulations.

Richard Briscoe: Essentially, we stood the actor there. It was decided in conversation beforehand that she wasn’t particularly going to do any kind of action as if she’s being pulled apart. She’s looking at her daughter, she’s saying goodbye to her daughter. It’s the maintained eye contact that’s emotionally key. And she’s just being pulled apart, pulled in.

We shot a version where she kind of broke eye contact and stepped forward as if to walk back through. But we decided not to use that. We built a moderately detailed kind of digi-double of the actress, but only enough to give us a decent kind of proxy external skin and give us a volume of for her.

Again, we also had witness cameras here, and we had turntable photography of her, but she doesn’t really move much in the shot. So it didn’t need to be that detailed, but it just gave us enough that we could then use some of the same language of swirling, turbulent particles and tendrils and so on, that we show the Rip as containing or being made up of and we set that within her volume to bring out some of that patterning, so it would not just play as a surface treatment on the skin, but within or beyond it.

The idea we were trying to get away from is not that this stuff just appears on her skin, because that started looking a bit robotic or sort of ‘Terminator’. It was all about, instead, that she was gradually, becoming translucent and what we’re actually seeing is inner change, of her whole interior volume glowing through the skin. Over a couple of shots, we up the ante and start allowing those particles and swirls to actually escape her form and tear, stretch & erode her. It was one of those things where you’re bouncing between trying to make it feel somewhat beautiful and poetic, because it’s Alice saying goodbye to her daughter. It’s also Alice having been determined to stay, accepting that she has to go back. So there’s a resignation. There’s a kind of compliance. So there’s a kind of beauty to it.

But at the same time, this is evil energy, this is dark, powerful, supernatural forces or powerful something or other, literally tearing her apart, dissolving her, returning or reclaiming her – and which, if left unchecked, will still destroy the mortal world.

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