Turning Beastboy into a bat and a tiger

(Just don’t ask where Beastboy’s clothes go).

One of the superpower-ed characters from the third season of the DC Universe HBO Max series Titans is Beastboy, who is able to transform into a green tiger, as well as a bat. Folks VFX was behind this work, and here visual effects supervisors Gunnar Hansen and Brodie McNeill tell befores & afters how the character transformations were achieved.

b&a: Gunnar, Beastboy seems to be able to transform into a few different creatures. What did you know you’d have to do early on for him?

Gunnar Hansen: Well, it’s kind of funny, the writers really kept the transformations close to their chest for a while, until we realized that Beastboy was going to not only be a tiger but also be a bat. There were a lot of discussions about him changing into other creatures. In one of the episodes, he is doing research on the net about different types of creatures he could become. It was kind of a teaser for what he would possibly do, but in the end he ended up becoming just the two different animals.

b&a: He starts off as green in the shots. To many people, that might seem like a simple effect or even a make-up effects, but how was it done?

Gunnar Hansen: All the green was done in post. It was an ongoing discussion that we had, how green to make him. When he does become angry at some point, he does do the green thing a little bit like the Hulk. But we wanted to avoid anything that looked like a green paint-over, and that’s always difficult. Similarly, we’re not used to seeing a green tiger, so there was a lot of R&D going into that to make sure that the color turned out right. I mean, green is his signature color, but we had to consider, how far were we going to go to make sure the fans understand that this is Gar, this is his color.

Brodie McNeill: We were also looking at the comic reference where he was almost glowing green, often. And so we had to think, how does that translate into our more realistic, darker tone world that we’re living in, in the show? We ended up pulling back on a lot of the overly green stuff. Our conversations were always, how ‘Hulk’ do we want to go in this situation?

b&a: Is it more than just rotoscoping him out and adding green? Is there more of a 3D match move, to do that green takeover?

Brodie McNeill: For most of the times when he’s just a human turning green, it’s rotoscoping and then finding the right tone of green to go to. But the more that we worked on it, the more we realized that if you just globally go green, it flattens things. You lose a lot of the extra detail. So when it comes down to it, we were using things like smart vectors in Nuke, in order to just isolate parts of the face, ensure that we were changing tones in some areas more than others. Because the straight hue shift over, it never quite blends correctly. We’d also sometimes adjust facial features in 2D. That was mainly done through the KeenTools plugin in Nuke, which was really, really helpful in a lot of respects.

b&a: Let’s turn to the tiger work. A detailed furry creature like that can be quite adventurous in a TV series. Gunnar, what was some of the design elements that needed to go into that tiger?

Gunnar Hansen: Folks VFX already has a legacy of doing creatures, and we’ve had some realistic animals from the get-go on the show. So at the moment that we heard that we were going to be working on Titans, some of the talent here in Montreal just jumped on it and started doing tests. They were very enthusiastic about it. And since we had done Wolf and some other type animal creatures, we had already had some of the tools available to do some creature work.

Our first test was a tiger in the jungle leaping off a tree and onto the ground and sitting. We also did a turntable of a tiger, and we showed this to production early on, before the shoot. They were literally stunned. It was quite a giant leap forward for them. Meanwhile, the crew was very hard at work, making sure the muscle and skin and fur all worked in concert. There were also tests of a tiger running through mud, and we also did a test of one tiger attacking another, and rolling over.

So, we went into the show with production having a great deal of confidence in our ability to do the tiger. From that, I think they wrote a couple of other scenes into it. I think everybody gets very fearful about something as complex as this, and taking over the budget of a show of this nature. But I think it kind of upped the level of confidence for them to go, ‘OK, let’s write in another tiger sequence here.’

b&a: What were some of the major challenges from FOLKS’ point of view, in terms of fur for this tiger?

Brodie McNeill: The groom came together pretty quickly and pretty naturally. The main things that we had to tweak were green levels. There’s a very specific level of green you have to hit on the tiger, how much of his body turns green and also how much we wanted to deviate from the previous tiger–the tiger in the earlier seasons was done by another vendor and we had made changes to the structure of it and how muscular it was.

Another challenge was that the plates were often dark. There would be those orangey street lights affecting the fur. The first passes came out and we were always looking at something that was yellow! It was, ‘Hey, here’s a yellow tiger.’ I remember our first version we put up. We decided to go with, first, exactly what it would do in that lighting. And the feedback was, ‘Guys, the tiger needs to be green.’ So we figured out what the bar of not green enough was.

b&a: What were some of the on-set filming approaches for the tiger? Was this a show that you could have any kind of stand-in or stuffy or anything like that?

Gunnar Hansen: Well, it’s funny, because it was a moving target. We were trying to find a stuffy that was the correct scale. It was impossible. I think we scoured the web for almost four days, trying to find something. And there was stuffy out there, but it was almost $4,000 to get a full scale tiger that had any kind of usefulness as a reference.

What we ended up using was a cub-size one that would be good for the fur. But we had a pretty good idea of how large the tiger was and the camera moves weren’t that challenging at the beginning. Then when we got to the scene where Gar leaps out past the cops and then gets hit with a tranquillizer dart and then leaps onto a desk and climbs up and jumps over, I went to the props department and I said, ‘Build me a tiger. Here’s the dimensions.’ And we had a gray cutout, which I basically puppeteered through the frame to show where the scale was, so the camera operators would know how big this thing was.

It can be a real challenge for the camera operator to figure out where to go and how fast to move. We did a basic timing for how we felt he would leap out. And with the camera operators, I had them do it slower so that we could throw away frames rather than actually have to add frames, which would’ve been a bit messy.

It’s very hard for humans to anticipate how fast this thing’s going to move in three dimensional space. I remember when we did the shot of him going up the wall, I felt he had been filmed too closely, but it ended up working out really nicely. It felt like the camera was chasing the tiger, but he gets out of the way just in time. We adjusted our animation to have him slip down the wall and we added claw marks into the concrete.

b&a: There’s kind of a clever way that they do the transitions, hidden behind something. There’s never human to tiger transition, is there?

Brodie McNeill: Well, here’s the thing. You know that if Gar changed into a tiger in front of our eyes, we would have to explain what happens to his clothes.

b&a: Oh right!

Brodie McNeill: And, yes, he takes them off sometimes, but our general tiger transform is just some subtle shifts to his eyes and to his teeth, just to preface the change, and then it happens behind somebody or off-camera.

Gunnar Hansen: We always end up piling his clothes where he was. We just make sure that’s in the shot. At one point we have Rachel come with his clothes, nicely folded to give to him after the fight. And then, as far as when he comes back from being a bat, well, there’s artistic license there.

Brodie McNeill: The amount of conversation that went into what happens to his clothes, was substantial. I’ll just say that.

b&a: Let’s talk about the bat, because that obviously does have a transition. As a human-sized bat head, what was the build process there?

Gunnar Hansen: Well, I’ll tell you quite honestly, when I read the script, I was terrified of this idea of Gar shrinking, because we’ve seen that in a Warner Bros cartoon –

Brodie McNeill: – you literally sent those to me, the day that we heard about this.

Gunnar Hansen: So, that was a huge challenge, getting him from human size to bat size, and doing it in a hideous sort of way. They were going for a real horror look rather than something that looked pleasant, that he’s turning into this small furry creature. Greg Walker, our showrunner, was saying he really wanted it to be reminiscent of The Fly, where we’re feeling the bone’s breaking under his skin.

And this would be the first time we actually see a full-on transformation, so that was really exciting for everybody, but also nerve wracking. Our director, Carol Banker, was also very nervous about how we were going to do this, getting from Gar to a bat. I worked with Carol and the storyboard artists. We talked about having a large bat wing sweeping in front of the camera, and then we went to an over shot, but that was changed in the edit. Brodie came up with this great idea of having a flock of bats obscure the frame, so we have time for Gar to fall out of frame and come back as a bat-sized bat.

b&a: Did that mean you didn’t really need to deal with a 3D build for human bat face?

Brodie McNeill: Well, we started off with the digi-double of the Gar actor, and then we created, based off of the size and the scale of that, the endpoint of the bat face. And in this situation, through our concept art, we showed a number of stages and everybody gravitated towards the middle stage, where he wasn’t ‘ultra batty’, but he was definitely transforming. We ended up building to a much more bat-like face. Ultimately, we landed on our 100% bat or 0% human, and then developed with blend shapes to get from one to the other.

From that point, it was a question of getting the rotomation and match move onto Gar in a way that made sense. And, taking into account his hands, too, which needed to go through a bit of a change as well.

Plus there was the groom growth too, since all that hair had to grow into the right levels of patchiness. We were also thinking, on a television show budget, how do you get the actor’s hair to shrink in a realistic way, when it’s just a 2D element? We weren’t in the position to build a groom out for it or do anything for his actual hair, so it was a lot of sleight of hand, but it ended up working pretty well.

Gunnar Hansen: Shout out to Ryan’s performance on that, it really helped enhance what we were doing. The thing that made him look really hideous, was the fact that he just has these amber balls for eyes, which is something that was described in the script. I said, “’Oh, this is going to be fun. This is really going to make it look really gnarly.’

b&a: Tell me also about the animation of the hero bat and then any bat flocks?

Brodie McNeill: We did a surprising number of the bats. There was a number of build up shots to the big bat scenes, where we had groups of about 20. We had this wonderful animator, Eric Lin, it was his first show. We got him straight out of school, which was amazing. He came in, finaling shots, within the first two of weeks of his tenure with us. And it was just fantastic to see. He was doing basically hero level anim for the first groupings of the bats, until we got to a point where we had to figure out how do bats pick up a human being and fly them to another location?

So we started with a bunch of hero bats, in a circling behaviour. Then we juiced that up with an FX pass that took a number of canned bat behaviors, and populated that across the scenes. The second that we had to have them latch onto a character and start pulling them up, that’s where we got into the FX territory. I mean, there was so much fur in those things.

Gunnar Hansen: There’s one scene in the Batcave where we are introducing the connection between Gar and the bats, and that was one of those scenes where we really got excited with where the bats were going. He reaches out to nothing on the set, and then we ended up having this bat come towards his hand and flutter in front of him. I think that was one of those shots where the animation was brilliant on the first pass. So we were really excited that, it was, ‘OK, we’ve got this bat thing sorted out’.

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