Working on ‘She-Hulk’ gave animators a rare chance to bring a fully CG photoreal female character to life

Wētā FX on the unique challenges of this superhero.

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo is a senior animation supervisor at Wētā FX, and he’s been responsible for helping to create Thanos on screen, along with a raft of other principally CG superheroes and characters.

Most of these, however, have been male. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law gave the team at Wētā FX the opportunity to craft a character who was not male, and was also not a caricature–She-Hulk had to be a living, breathing human-like but Hulk representation of Jennifer Walters, played by actor Tatiana Maslany.

In this continuation of befores & afters’ in-depth coverage of the visual effects of She-Hulk, we asked Kombo-Kintombo about the specific animation requirements of the central character.

‘The first thing is to acknowledge who she is’

b&a: What were your initial thoughts and conversations about the animation of She-Hulk, going into this?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: I wasn’t planning on working on this character at first, but Tatiana is incredibly charming and it was fun having someone who performs in a less restrained way for a CG character. Apart from the likes of Alita and Neytiri, for example, it is not very often as animators that we work on female lead CG characters, so that on its own made it a different experience.

b&a: I wanted to ask you about the workflow that you followed going from on-set capture and reference into initial animation. Tell me about the first things that Wētā FX do after that onset capture.

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: Well, there are two aspects to her animation: the physical and facial. The first thing was to acknowledge is who she is—physically, she is She-Hulk, not Tatiana. She is not five-feet-something or 50 kilos. So you have to go in there knowing that She-Hulk is going to be an interpretation of Tatiana. That was the first thing on the physicality side of things, we knew that we were going to have to adjust Tatiana’s performance or reduce the scale of movement just to sell the weight of She-Hulk.

From the body perspective, when we got the on-set capture, the conversation was ‘Is the model suitable for somebody this tall and this physically strong?’ From there, it was a big back and forth as comparing She-Hulk to Thanos, for instance, she had much more keyframe on top of the mocap. Part of that was because Thanos was really still as a character, whereas She-Hulk moves around and is very much alive. So for all those little movements, say throwing her arms around, we had to establish how far that should go for She-Hulk.

We then analyzed the data and treated the mocap capture data more like an initial blocking stage. On top of that, we added all of the keyframe elements to adjust the body to make the movements feel like they were coming from She-Hulk, not from Tatiana.

On the facial side, we tried to stay as close to Tatiana as we possibly could.

b&a: Yes, and what I also liked about She-Hulk was that so much of the acting in the CG character was subtle. She’s just sitting on a sofa or she’s at the bar.

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: And that’s why I insist on respecting and being faithful to what the actor did. We did a lot of analysis of what she did, how she did it, so that even if we didn’t have the data, we could still reproduce the movement of Tatiana as closely and as convincingly as possible. And then of course there is the moment when she is fighting. Same deal–we had to acknowledge Tatiana’s performance, but because She-Hulk is a superhero and on top of that, a Marvel superhero, we needed to take it a step further.

That’s where the conversation becomes, ‘Okay, Tatiana’s intention is this, but She-Hulk, for the size that she is and the motivation that she has, is not going to put her left foot first’, for example. That’s what a clumsy person like me would do. She-Hulk is a fighter, it’s in her genes, so she’s going to do that the right way. So now you bring martial arts experts into the conversation as they move more elegantly.

We still kept the intention of her facial acting, we kept the intention of when she’s looking left and right, but we made sure that the body posing that happened with that action was as appealing as it could be.

b&a: I think there were different types of capture apparatus used like Xsen suits or more optical mocap, or even faux-cap. How does that change the way you ingest and do motion editing?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: The main difference is how long the ingest takes. When you use optical, animators are happy. That’s what every motion editor wants. The optical capture comes out clean most of the time, although you still have some char-mapping to do on top of it. ‘Faux-cap’ is dependent on how busy the stage was, how complicated the motion was, but the witness cameras usually help a lot.

The inertial mocap was a little trickier to deal with, especially for moments where she was sitting down or lying down, or going from sitting to standing or vice versa. That was one of the areas where keyframe was heavily involved. You might keep one key out of six or eight just to make sure that you’re keeping with the timing of the original performance.

b&a: She-Hulk does lots of things, from just trivial things like going to work or hanging out at home or in bars, and then she also gets in superhero fights. I’m really curious about what you did in terms of working out the right poise and movement for her for the different behaviors She-Hulk had to exhibit.

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: Well, we stuck with the approach of ‘respecting the work that the actor put in.’ With Tatiana’s performance, I was trying to be faithful to it, but on a much larger scale. We couldn’t put all of She-Hulk’s bulk on Tatiana’s arms for her performance capture, for example, because she would have tired way too quickly, right? So we needed to do that for her on our CG character.

During the on-set performance, she threw her arms around, but maybe not as high as She-Hulk would have. She threw them around, but maybe not as far. So I think the best way to define that is to say we respected what Tatiana was doing as much as possible—the intention that she had in the shot.

Facial performance

b&a: What about facial animation, in terms of workflow, what was the general way that Tatiana’s face was captured on set?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: That was probably my favorite part on this show. It was all about, ‘How close to Tatiana should we make She-Hulk’?

Now, we didn’t originally go on down the route of trying to make She-Hulk pretty. Our goal was to make She-Hulk as close to Tatiana as possible . And, well she’s pretty, so She-Hulk comes like that too. But we were chasing the wrinkles and imperfections to emphasise the realism.

We had a Medusa scan of all the different poses to start with, which gave us starting blocks. In a real life situation, smiles are a lot more complex than one basic shape, so we focused on being able to identify those different smiles and learn the facial elasticity from those different smiles. It was about trying to understand Tatiana’s facial features so we could translate and transfer them to She-Hulk as closely as possible, so that She-Hulk is a version of Tatiana. She’s not just a full CG character.

b&a: I’m really curious about capturing that essence but also capitalizing on Wētā FX’s tools that seem to evolve every show for facial, for the workflow for facial animation. Tell me about whether any further development that needed to happen or how you capitalized on the already great tools that Wētā has.

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: So we indeed used our DLS server, the one that we used on Gemini Man and on Alita, as a starting point. When we train the brain that helps us understand or read facial, the tech evolves and the tiniest details are easier to catch, so the tools help a lot—but the skill of the animators in our facial team is truly amazing.

We put a lot of effort in the eyes for instance. We might build our eye model based on Tatiana, but when we move the eye, it sometimes doesn’t react like her real eye, because the tools can only do so much. The analysis that you make as to why something forms one way or another is as important, if not more important, than what the tools can give you because it gives you all the ‘noise’ there. The fidelity of the shape, what makes Tatiana’s eye, Tatiana’s eye—that is us analyzing it and saying to the facial modeler, ‘Oh by the way, when she goes “there” the crease of her upper lid falls down. Why? Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, but we can see that. Eight times out of 10 that thing is there, so we need to have that too.’

b&a: It’s clear that the keyframe work is meticulous and amazing, and yes, animators often tell me that they can’t explain why a character looks correct in this frame and then not in that frame. It seems to be all about finding out the reason why, having a conversation about it and trying some options. Is that what you had to do quite a lot of in this film?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: Exactly. There are often two sets of mistakes, if I can put it that way. The first mistake for photo-real characters is to try to make them beautiful instead of real. You can easily fall into that because you think that the shape of the lips is going to be better if they are like this or that. The second problem is the limitation of 3D and not being aware of it, where all of a sudden the shape of your character is unappealing. But because it’s the real thing, you say, well it has to remain like this, and that’s where you know you can’t leave everything to your tools.

That is a big part of the work as animation supervisor, that old concept of appeal as a principle of animation. Tatiana might look absolutely fantastic in one shot, but when you put She-Hulk in that position, because She-Hulk doesn’t have the definition of the sternocleidomastoid as strong as Tatiana does, all of a sudden the shape looks slightly wrong. So you just rotate the head a little bit to try to find that appeal that Tatiana had in her pose.

I guess what I’m saying is that we tried to find the right balance between what we had by default and what we had to change to make things feel appealing. That was a big part of our conversations on this show, particularly for She-Hulk.

Working on female CG characters

b&a: It is certainly true that Wētā FX has done a bunch of female CG characters, like you mentioned with Alita and Neytiri. But it’s also probably true that many visual effects artists have not necessarily had a lot of experience with central female CG human-ish characters. I honestly think it’s a real challenge to get the right feminine qualities to deal with things like walking in heels or wearing certain clothing that male characters don’t need to wear. What extra challenges did that throw at your team that you might not have had to deal with before?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: It was another reason why working on She-Hulk was great, that curiosity that you need as an artist, she brought that out of us. It’s not a male character, which I would normally know how they would move, it’s a female character, so the challenge was to be able to analyze and again find the right balance between how far we could push the hips before it becomes a supermodel walk instead of a natural human being walk, say.

She-Hulk also needed to sell confidence, but when does confidence become arrogance? We spent a lot of time in that little window, talking with VFX supervisors Janelle Croshaw Ralla, Shannon Justison and Dadi Einarsson about this.

The posing was also a big conversation, in terms of being able to create a convincing walking character, so we had Edwina Ting (Animation Supervisor) and Kate Venables (Motion Capture Performer) go down to our stage so we could capture walk cycles. We used those walk cycles to analyze our work and see how close we were with the interpretation of what Tatiana was doing. There was a lot of analysis and comparison between the walks that we had of her and the walks that we did ourselves here in the facility.

b&a: I think it’s fascinating because it’s a really good step forward with normality. Of course, we should have more of these kinds of female characters, but then it’s also a challenge because it’s actually relatively new to do that in photoreal ways. Someone will maybe tell me that Pixar and Disney and DreamWorks have got years of dealing with female characters, but to me it seems different, those are perhaps more stylized.

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: You are absolutely right. If you look at She-Hulk, even compared to all the other female characters that we have done, there is no question. She is a full human character. Marvel didn’t even make her a caricature of anything. Even the Hulk is a little bit of a caricature, right? He has a smaller nose, he has a massive jaw, so when you look at this as an audience, regardless of how realistic it is, something pops in your head saying this thing is not real because nobody is like this—it is easier to accept errors or less convincing facial expressions. You can accept that from characters like that, but when you look at She-Hulk, there is no part of her face that is a caricature. She is like anybody that could be on the street.

So the challenge is to get the audience to see her and go, ‘Oh, this is just make-up, there is a real person behind it’. There really was nowhere to hide—she doesn’t have big eyes, she doesn’t have a feline look. She has every feature that we do.

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