Mixing practical and digital to create the hybrid creatures in ‘Sweet Tooth’: an excerpt from befores & afters magazine.
The latest issue of befores & afters magazine largely features creatures in the digital realm. However, there is often a practical/digital hybrid kind of creature work that exists in visual effects, one where an on-set puppet or animatronic is made and puppeteered with the intention of it being augmented digitally or replaced completely.
Such is the case with the Netflix series Sweet Tooth created by Jim Mickle, especially for the show’s hybrids (humans with animal characteristics) in season two. Here, depending on the creature design, the particular character was brought to life either as a human performance or via a puppeteered performance, with digital enhancement a key part of the effects solution.
The most prominent of these characters is Bobby, a half-groundhog/half-human, who was a practical Fractured FX creation, puppeteered by up to four on-set performers, and then also augmented digitally–including via rod and puppeteer paint-outs–and crafted in CG by Zoic Studios.
In this interview, Sweet Tooth’s production visual effects supervisor Matthew JD Bramante and Zoic visual effects supervisor Rob Price detail the creature VFX involved for Bobby, in particular. We also delve into the other hybrids including Peter (crocodile), Earl (elephant) and Junior (owl).
Breaking down Bobby
b&a: What did Bobby involve on set in terms of puppeteering?
Matthew Bramante (production visual effects supervisor): There was a practical puppet where the head, arms and legs were rod puppeteered, which took about four people to do on set. The face itself is an animatronic. The puppet was built at Fractured FX in LA, then sent to New Zealand. The puppeteering team was led by Grant Lehmann, and the principal puppeteer for Bobby was Paul Lewis.
In fact, we had three Bobbys. We had our main picture Bobby which was the animatronic that had eye articulation, mouth articulation and ear articulation, to a point. It could give a sense of when he’s speaking. But when he’s doing anything that’s more elaborate, that has to go into the digital world. The eyes could only do about a half a blink and they could only look in certain directions, so a lot of that stuff had to be manipulated digitally.
Then we also had our second tier Bobby who was very realistic looking. He was sometimes just a stand-in. If he had to be out in the rain, which was a scene from season two, the animatronic definitely couldn’t hold up to being out in the rain since a lot of it was foam rubber that soaks up water right next to the servos. Actually, that night, we did have the animatronic Bobby out there for a couple of shots and he started smoking at one point.
Then we had our stunt Bobby. He was literally meant for things like being thrown across a room or people running into him. There was a whole lot less of a finish to him, but it worked so well for stunt work.
b&a: How did you work out what shots would involve the puppet and what might be CG, and what might be a combo?
Matthew Bramante: We would start breaking down the scripts and I would sit with the directors and we would go into any one of the Bobby scenes and we would start talking about, well, how do you want to shoot this? We would get very specific about the angles that we were going to use Bobby for, and we’d try to board them if we could.
In the end, there were different tiers. There’s the fully practical Bobby I mentioned, which we would use for behind the head and over the shoulder shots. If we were wide enough, paint-outs of the puppeteers and rods would work. But he would also sometimes require either 2D or 3D muzzle augmentation, and replacement of the eyes. The big benefit was having Fractured FX’s puppet to see what he really looked like in the environment. That literally was our thing to match to lighting-wise.
b&a: On set, knowing that you would be doing a CG Bobby or augmented parts of him, what things did you do in terms of on-set surveying or data and light capture?
Matthew Bramante: Every set, every location got Lidar scanned. When it was a scene with Bobby, it was a lot of photographing Bobby in-situ, then taking him out, getting clean plates, doing 360s, trying to do as close to photogrammetry as we could. However, he’s a furry character, so you’re not going to get that much out of a photogrammetry scan. We had a couple of scans early on that were done before the hair was punched. But the highest quality scan that we got was after the hair punch, so there was a lot of hand-done digital work to build him up by Zoic.
Rob Price: In terms of building Bobby digitally, we started with a furless puppet scan in CG and then we had to groom it and also recreate all the clothing. We used all the reference we could take. One of the unique things with Bobby was, just being a practical puppet, his hair was never the same scene to scene. The same with his clothing. So there was a lot of scene-by-scene assessment of what he should look like. We’d have to re-groom his hair or re-sim his clothes to make sure he matched the practical puppet from shot to shot.
Read the article in full by grabbing issue #13 of befores & afters magazine.