‘It’s a strange world when you’re animating a goat’s tongue for previs’

The scene of Ralph Fiennes using goats to help climb a mountain in ‘The King’s Man’ was worked out first by stunts and previs.

After crash-landing by parachute on the side of a mountain, Ralph Fiennes’ character, The Duke of Oxford, in Matthew Vaughn’s The King’s Man, makes his way up the vertical cliff edge. At one point, he even relies on some mountain goats, who get rather close to the Duke, as stepping stones in order to ascend.

The final visual effects for the sequence were crafted by Framestore, overseen by that studio’s visual effects supervisor Chris Lawrence, and of course also by production visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton. But to shoot the live action elements and provide a template for VFX, Vaughn and Bickerton looked to supervising stunt coordinator Brad Allan (who sadly passed away in 2021) and visualization studio NVIZ (led by supervisors Janek Lender and Hugh Macdonald) to imagine the shots first from both a creative and technical point of view, and by undertaking an extensive virtual production approach.

Ultimately, Allan’s team and NVIZ would partake in a unique collaboration of stuntvis and previs that would then inform the filmmakers both on the dynamics of the scene, the technical process for filming it (including to inform the real wire work stunts), and then provide for a ‘placeholder’ in the film’s edit while post production was underway. NVIZ, in particular, ingested motion captured stunt performers into its previs, and utilized the studio’s virtual camera system called ARENA and game engine previs techniques for the work.

This techvis shows the goats that NVIZ delivered for the viz.

The thinking behind this approach

“What Brad Allan wanted to do was design a sequence which was as close to possible as what was going to be on screen,” explains Janek Lender, head of visualisation at NVIZ.

“So he brought us into stunts and he got us to motion capture and use virtual cameras with the stunt team in order to design the sequence. But it was very, very much a stunt-driven thing where he wanted to see his stunt rehearsals on the side of a mountain.”

Oftentimes, the stunt team will do their own stuntvis for a sequence, then the previs team will come along and craft sometimes fully CG previs that may well differ from the stuntvis. To be clear, there was a stuntvis scene and there was a previs scene, which would continually be refined with more detail as it became apparent. The idea here, though, was to marry the two much more seamlessly so that what was ‘shot’ during the stunt and previs phase made its way all the way to the stunts and wire work of the actual shoot–“We’re bringing it all together in the same place and just making one visualization,” says Lender.

Another aspect of doing all this work upfront was simply to ensure it could be done, and would fit into the movie. “What’s quite nice about Matthew Vaughn is that it generally seems that once he likes something, he really likes to implement it exactly,” outlines Eolan Power, a real-time supervisor at NVIZ who on The King’s Man as an environment artist. “There was a lot of discussion about what happens when the character goes over the side and how to make it work. And then there were all those goats!”

Previs frame.

A virtual approach

Since Fiennes’ character would be hanging off the cliff, doing some leaps, and eventually stepping over some goats, the final ‘viz’–which would be 3D–required a CG character. Over rehearsals and a stunt/previs shoot, that process began as motion captured stunt performers, who used Xsens and Perception Neuron suits, climbing over wooden sets.

“We actually used three kinds of tracking for this,” adds Power, “because when they’re leaving the ground the inertia suits aren’t so good, so we used a HTC Vive tracker on his hip just to get him to be tracked properly.”

Allan’s team was keen to shoot motion capture ‘live’, that is, be able to see the resulting performance against the digital environment. For that side of things, NVIS had crafted a mountainous landscape based on reference and photogrammetry of a real mountain area.

“We had a full 360 environment,” notes Power. “That was the first work we were doing with Angus while he was showing Matthew Vaughn what it felt like to do a helicopter shot out of that and across the valley, and then we just kept working on it. There’s so much you can do in terms of world-building in Unreal Engine, things like snow and icicles, even moving grass.”

The virtual stunt performance, via mocap, and the virtual environment, made their way into NVIZ’s virtual camera system, called ARENA. It uses a HTC Vive tracking system, Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and a tablet (although it can be adapted to any kind of camera or screen) to enable an operator–in this case, ​​action designer, Yung Lee–to craft real-time camera moves and angles in a virtual space, right there at the shooting space. In that way it was a very deliberate mix of virtual production and physical ‘stunt’ production on the film for this sequence.

“This was actually the first time we’d ever used ARENA properly in a location, right here in the stunt rehearsal with stunts, and with motion capture,” states Lender. “It was kind of a tough ask, but the virtual camera stood up to the test. You can do so much with it. You can give it handheld feel. You can lock it to make it a dolly. You can give it constraints, you can scale it so that you can be on a Technocrane.”

The final previs was informed by stuntvis, stunt rehearsals and an virtual production approach.

Goats, in previs

Another part of the previs involved…goats. During the stunt side of the performance, the performer would interact only with blue pads. NVIZ ultimately added into their previs a selection of CG goats, including for the moment the Duke uses them to jump up the mountain side.

“We had all these stunt guys doing that with what would be the equivalent of goats but with handhelds. When you’re watching it, it just doesn’t tell you they’re stupid or not until you actually see it actually animated.”

“We used a basic plastic looking goat,” continues Power. “And then they said it wasn’t furry enough, so I had to make fur! There’s this old PS2 method of making a second shell with geo that’s got holes in it. I did that to make fur. He looked alright. But then, the goat had a tongue and everything! It had to wake up Ralph Fiennes.”

“Yeah, it’s a strange world when you’re animating a goat’s tongue for previs,” adds Lender. “The goat got more and more involved the more that we worked.”

A techvis frame from NVIZ’s work on ‘The King’s Man’.

The ultimate delivery

The previs that NVIZ provided to production for the shoot was refined amongst the stunt team and production editorial. Assets and layout and cameras, and the actual previs footage, were handed over by NVIZ to several departments, such as the art department to help them work out how much set to build and where to place the platforms for the the backs of the goats (which would eventually be CG Framestore creatures).

Similarly, the previs, and a ‘techvis’ version, were given to the wire and cameras team at Stuntflying who orchestrated meticulous wire work for the final shoot. They needed to build these wire set-ups to the right specs, which were spelled out in the techvis. The previs also went to Framestore.

“All these departments took the cameras that we used in our virtual production shoot, our virtual cameras, and all this other information and decisions about the scene” advises Lender. “So, what was great was that the rehearsal went all the way through to visualization, to the shoot, and all the way through to post. It’s a great process.”

An important part of the viz was helping to establish the environment.

Thank you to Christopher M. Anthony, who was involved in the stunts and rigging with Stuntflying on the film, for suggesting that I write this article.

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