From green guys to smokey simulations

How that stunning nichevo’ya battle in Shadow and Bone was made.

The season 2 finale of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone series features a dramatic sandy showdown between several shadow monsters, or nichevo’ya, and some of the show’s key characters.

Bringing that fight between the smokey and particle-filled CG creations and on-set actors to life required extensive stuntvis and previs planning, and then on-set stunt choreography, plus an additional motion capture shoot, effects simulations and final visual effects work.

Here, befores & afters asked production visual effects supervisor Ante Dekovic to break down the approach to just this sequence in the series, from early planning to final shots.

b&a: These shadow monsters are such a complicated effect—I imagine that was a tough thing to achieve for multiple episodes and incarnations of them?

Ante Dekovic: Well, El Ranchito was the company that started with the nichevo’ya in season 1. By season 2, we now had so many of them, and then in this final episode in season 2, there’s like 4 or 5 on the screen. Mackevision (now Accenture Song VFX), and their visual effects supervisor Juri Stanossek, started working on them, and they also came to me with a really efficient way of motion capturing a performer for the shadow monsters. They built a rig that uses the motion capture data and then would run that through a simulation for all the smoke and particles.

In the end, Accenture Song VFX developed a rigging system in Houdini that used their motion captured data. They choreographed all the fights based on the production stunt previs and the live-action ‘green guys’ shoot that we provided to them, and then ran it through Houdini and rendered it. They also provided that same rig back to El Ranchito and to VAST for their shadow monster shots in other episodes.

Shadow and Bone. (L to R) Ben Barnes as The Darkling, Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in episode 208 of Shadow and Bone. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

b&a: How did that mocap shoot work?

Ante Dekovic: What Accenture Song VFX developed for shooting the mocap worked really well. They would pipe in the witness cams in that setup and we would do a Zoom call. One camera would be the witness cam, and the other one is to capture data. It was actually quite fun to direct the creatures in that way.

The beauty, too, was that Accenture Song VFX’s first version was a little bit better than a previs version. This means it was already something I could show to the showrunners to get a sign off on the shots. Usually, with a character with all that smoke simulation, it’s hard to give them something more than just gross animation without all the particles, but if you provide something that’s closer to the final look, it really helps.

b&a: What I really liked about the shadow monsters was–well, we have certainly seen creatures made up of smoke and particles before, but there was something very different about them here. What was different in your and Accenture Song VFX’s approach to them, do you think?

Ante Dekovic: I think in some other shows from the past, what you see is that those creatures are depicted as villains and all they do is attack. Here, the whole thing is that they’re not just creatures; they’re part of other characters. In fact, one thing we had to solve was that they wanted to reveal that they are actually solid in parts, which means they can be killed. But they didn’t want to give this away too early.

So, talking to the showrunners, we came up with the idea that you don’t actually see the solid part underneath. There’s always smoke, although we hint at it by reducing the particles a little. In episode 4, you have to pause and look at it to see that reveal.

The other thing we did was give them some form. There’s not quite a face, but there are little sockets for the eyes and mouth. It just gave it that ghostly shape, which also came from adding in shapes for the body and arms. I think it gave them more character than any smoke creature we know from the past.

Shadow and Bone. Patrick Gibson as Nikolai in episode 208 of Shadow and Bone. Cr. Dávid Lukács/Netflix © 2023

b&a: When you came to work out how scenes might be shot with these shadow monsters, I think you had green stunties on set. Did you go through some other considerations about, say, having cardboard cutouts on the end of poles or a bigger kind of stuffy to match their size?

Ante Dekovic: We were thinking about having cardboard cutouts, but since the characters are all about smoke, it becomes tricky. In the end, for the fight sequence, we had five guys in green suits, and we’d worked prior to that with the stunt team. They literally shot that whole thing on their phone and then edited that together.

When we looked at that edit, we did feel that it was going to be a challenge because a performer in the edit was six feet tall, but the creature needed to be 10 feet tall. Which meant we had to consider how we’d be wire rigging our actors on set, ie, making sure they’re rigged higher. So we’d keep giving them feedback, they’d re-shoot and re-edit. And just keep refining the scene that way.

b&a: It’s really interesting to hear how stuntvis became an important part of that, did that also become more traditional previs?

Ante Dekovic: Yes, we had NVIZ and The Third Floor delivering previs. We would previs it at the same time as the stunt team were doing their thing and then we literally would compare notes and then work with the showrunners and the directors to bring it all together.

b&a: When you were filming this scene on location, I was thinking one particularly challenging aspect of it may have been that it occurs in harsh sunlight, I mean, it’s not a dark and stormy setting which we might typically associate with shadow monsters.

Ante Dekovic: Oddly enough, I have to say, and again this speaks for Accenture Song VFX, how incredible their work was, they were not concerned about that at all. In fact, it actually meant we saw all the details because it was in full sunlight.

b&a: Where did you actually shoot this particular desert battle?

Ante Dekovic: There’s this amazing dune in Hungary. I mean, I’ve worked in quarries and dunes before but when we got there, I was like, ‘This is the Sahara!’. It turns out this is also where Dune was shooting, too. And it’s only a 25 minute drive from Budapest. An amazing place.

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