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Behind the scenes on cinema's weirdest VFX

The robot Jaegers and massive Kaiju monsters in Pacific Rim: Uprising. Giant and small versions of Ant-Man in Ant-Man and the Wasp. The alienesque symbiotes in Venom. The crazy critters of Annihilation. Wade Wilson’s baby legs in Deadpool 2. 

That’s only a small portion of the many incredible creatures and characters that visual effects studio DNEG has made for some of its recent projects, many of which are some of the biggest 3D movies (opens in new tab) of the year. Here, we take a behind-the-scenes look at some of the weirdest effects DNEG brought into our cinemas. 

01. Giant pigeons

giant CG pigeons

One of many weird scale challenges DNEG took on for Ant-Man and the Wasp

For Ant-Man and the Wasp, DNEG faced a whole host of weird challenges, not least creating massive pigeons to feature in a miniature-scale car chase scene. “The giant pigeons shot was a tough one!” says DNEG (opens in new tab) creature supervisor Remi Cauzid. “We are not used to seeing pigeons that close up, so we had to make sure we used good references. Our build lead, Daniel Axelsson, went out chasing pigeons with his camera. This is basically what you have to do – look for references as much as you can, and do not make things up. 

“The ‘actions’ for this pigeon were limited, so we focused on the limited range of motion it has to perform, but made sure this was looking as good as possible. And communication was a key thing – assets with feathers, animation and complex shaders always involve more artists than usual.”

Our build lead went out chasing pigeons with his camera

Remi Cauzid, DNEG

Giant pigeons were just one of the sizing challenges the studio tackled for the movie. DNEG not only had the challenge of crafting several digital double models – each with cloth, hair and muscle sims – it also regularly had to make them grow both larger and smaller than human size. Simulations began in Maya using nCloth and nHair, with an in-house muscle system running on Maya nodes. 

“We went for simplicity as the challenge was in ‘scale differences’ – assets had to grow and shrink,” explains Cauzid. “So we went for a well-known tool we had the confidence in, which was versatile enough to give us a wide range of looks.”

02. Baby legs

baby legs in Deadpool 2 scene

Ever had to reimagine a famous actor with child-sized legs?

In Deadpool 2, Ryan Reynolds' Wade Wilson gets his legs ripped off by Juggernaut. Later, they grow back, which required DNEG’s creature team to craft a scene in which a full-grown Wilson appeared with baby legs.

For the scene, Reynolds was filmed wearing a tracking suit. “Ryan Reynolds was very involved throughout the production, and gave us regular feedback on ideas,” says DNEG creature supervisor Adam Vanner. The actor even used his phone to film himself delivering lines, which he sent to the DNEG artists when they requested more reference material.

“The approach was animation-driven, and we put lots of corrective blendshapes within the rig to add tendons and muscle groups to allow animation to see essentially the final result,” explains Vanner. “We did a final pass for self contact using nCloth and some small refinements. We also simulated his hoodie and shirt so that it fitted his small profile.”

03. Faces within faces

alien heads with human faces

Giving an alien symbiote expressions is no mean feat

DNEG’s art department was called upon to assist with visual problem solving for Ruben Fleischer’s Venom, the first in Sony’s Marvel Universe. The adaptation involves the alien comic-book character that begins in symbiote form, but which ultimately merges with journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). DNEG’s final visual effects work involved not only a humanoid, fully CG Venom, but also its amorphous amoeba-like symbiote form, and plenty of other incarnations of the creature and related symbiotes. 

It was very important that the eyes were the last thing you could see of Eddie before the face would be completely covered up

Paolo Giandoso, DNEG

The VFX studio’s art department took initial Venom character designs from production designer Oliver Scholl’s art department and continued working on them, especially on things like skin patterns and muscle proportions. DNEG concept artist Paolo Giandoso, in particular, painted several expressions for Venom to investigate how the character – whose face is full of fangs, drool and a large tongue – could display different emotions. 

“It was great fun, as I really was keen to introduce the grotesquely playful side Venom displays in the Lethal Protector comics. I was told later that Tom Hardy had the pictures printed and brought them home for studying the character.” 

Another part of the visual development process involved working out the mechanics of having the symbiote wrap around Eddie Brock’s head as Venom is revealed. This plays out as a signature VFX moment in the film and involved many concepts, iterations and explorations. “For me,” says Giandoso, “it was very important that the eyes were the last thing you could see of Eddie before the face would be completely covered up.” 

Read more about the VFX secrets behind Marvel's Venom character design (opens in new tab).

04. Ghost characters

Ghost character

Ghost's costume was regularly augmented or completely replaced

In Ant-Man and the Wasp, the character Ghost did not need to be scaled, but instead had a unique phasing effect. Her costume worn on set was also regularly augmented or completely replaced in CG.

“When you see her, she is a mix between plate and CG side to side to create her ‘ghost image’,” says Cauzid. “This was done thanks to a lot of collaboration between the body track, animation and composition departments. Body track was providing us with accurate versions of the real Ghost, so we could digitally enhance her."

Animation was creating Ghost alternate performances and compositing was mixing all of the work to get the desired effect. While all of this was happening, the lighting, look-dev and simulation departments had no room for mistakes. The CG version had to look great: renders and simulations of the fabrics needed to match the reality perfectly.

This article was originally published in 3D World (opens in new tab), the world's best-selling magazine for CG artists. Subscribe here (opens in new tab).

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3D World is the best-selling international magazine for 3D artists, covering the fields of animation, VFX, games, illustration and architecture.