The making of Werewolf by Night’s Man-Thing.
A stand-out creature featured in Michael Giacchino’s Werewolf by Night is Man-Thing, aka Ted. Brought to life on set via practical effects work from KNB EFX Group, and performed by actor Carey Jones, visual effects and animation studio JAMM took these foundations and generated a complete CG Man-Thing as the final performance.
The creature, a complex being covered in elements of the Earth such as roots, mushrooms, grass and even flowers, is seen both chatting by campfire and later in much more destructive form.
Here, befores & afters catches up with JAMM visual effects supervisor Andy Boyd, who worked closely with Marvel Studios visual effects supervisor Joe Farrell on Man-Thing, to discuss the crafting of this key character, including the intricate procedural Houdini scattering and simulation work involved, handled by Boyd himself.
b&a: Man-Thing, of course, would end up being a CG character, but what seems to be really cool is they definitely had something on-set. How did things start with design and any early CG sculpts or work that would inform both JAMM’s work and the practical build?
Andy Boyd: Marvel has their own concept team in-house. They did some rough sketches and then they were passed on to KNB EFX Group, which made the practical Man-Thing suit.
Interestingly, when we were first approached about the show, we were originally going to just replace only small parts of Man-Thing. The director was very, very big on going in-camera and practical. In fact, he really embraced that look. For example, the werewolf was a guy in a suit. They wanted Man-Thing to be the same thing, an in-camera practical effect.
As they started building the practical Man-Thing, we began to realize the practical creature was not going to be able to be used all the time and more close-ups and over the shoulders type shots. Whatever we did had to look close enough where it would intercut and not feel like a completely different creature.
My starting point, then, was to look at what KNB had done, and replicate that. Like the mushrooms on the sides of his shoulders. That was in the original build. The little stump on his back was in their actual model.
b&a: How did you take that further?
Andy Boyd: That was the starting point. Then we did a ZBrush sculpt of him. Then everything we put on him I did in Houdini procedurally. I just went to town having fun. I wanted to get some more mushrooms on there and some dandelions. I wanted to really jazz him up and see how far you could push the amount of detail that this dude could have on him, but keep it cohesive.
I added little bushes, and the mushrooms, and some flowers. I created a procedural system for growing roots around his body where I could just brush where I wanted roots and they would procedurally grow. Some things I really liked but when I put them on, it would clash with other things. It was almost like designing a garden!
I put a flower just on the side of his chest because I thought it’d be quite funny that he’s this dangerous guy that can melt someone alive by squeezing their head but before you die you would see this cute flower.
He had so much stuff on him it was crazy. There were millions of polygons. He had little grassroots and fur and little mossy bits, dangling roots with thorns on. It was amazing.
b&a: I thought the extraneous stuff on him and the CFX work was brilliant, especially because it seemed to also match his wrinkly skin, which seemed challenging enough. How challenging was that wrinkly skin?
Andy Boyd: It wasn’t too bad. It was a sculpt. For the actual movement of all the little wrinkles, we actually rigged it all. We rigged it because our head of animation, Stew Burris, he’s so specific. We set up a whole tentacle simulation system but then Stew would look at it and he’d say, ‘Guys, it just looks like a sim, you have to let me animate it…’.
So, he would animate everything, all the movement, the jiggle, the little nodules that move, any closing or compressing of stuff, he animated everything with cluster deformers.
b&a: What were some of the main tools you did end up using?
Andy Boyd: We modeled in ZBrush and rigged in Maya and animated in Maya, then he would publish an Alembic for me that I would take into Houdini and do everything else. Iin Houdini we had a full FX system set up for the trunk. On some of those end shots that are just so long where he’s just sitting there, some of that movement is just simulated movement so that an animator didn’t have to animate 1000 frames of the trunk moving around.
But all the hero shots, Stew wouldn’t let us run it. He hand-animated all the secondary motion, all the simulated movement. Of course, all the fire effects and the people melting are Houdini.
b&a: I want to say, Andy, you might be one of the only VFX supes around that actually jumps on the box and does stuff in Houdini. I can’t really think of anyone else, although I could be wrong.
Andy Boyd: Yeah. I can’t help myself, I just love it so much. Shows like this don’t come around often and so when given the opportunity I’m absolutely going to jump and do the work with the team.
b&a: In terms of the animation, were they able to get somewhere of a performance on set, and did you essentially try and match that?
Andy Boyd: On set there were two ways they got references. One was, we called affectionately “man on a stick.” It was the top half of a bust of Man-Thing from KNB. We used that as a lighting reference and rolled it through some of the sets.
For performance reference, we had Carey Jones in an oversized suit with tracking markers who did the performance. He wore a big foam suit that was the proportions of Man-Thing, and we filmed a take with him in it so that we’d always have a reference. Where it’d be easy to replace him we just kept him in. In fact, a lot of the shots that we used, he was in there and we stuck ours on top and cleaned him out. That way the eyelines were correct and the depth of field or the camera focus was all just there in camera.
b&a: An interesting aspect of the show, of course, is that it’s black and white. Did that impact the approach to the work at all?
Andy Boyd: We did the whole thing in color. We reviewed in color and delivered in color, too.They did a special black and white grade at the end. We had to provide a ton of mattes for them for grading, since in some of those shots the color came through, such as red. I think what is quite cool is that they printed it back to film and then scanned it again to really give it that extra film quality. At first, I was disappointed that it was going to be black and white but when I saw the final result, I absolutely loved it.