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Scaling the Visual Heights of ‘Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans’

Visual Effects Supervisor Greg Lev and Additional VFX Supervisor Brandon Tyra talk about the challenges and triumphs of working on the Annie Award-nominated concluding chapter of Guillermo del Toro’s epic ‘Tales of Arcadia’ franchise and reflect on the end of a five-year adventure. 

Beginning in 2016, DreamWorks Animation’s Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia, the brainchild of Academy Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, entertained audiences with three consecutive series of exciting, action-packed episodes. The franchise, which won five Annie Awards, eight Emmy Awards and three Kidscreen Awards, concluded in July 2021 with the 3DCG feature film Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans. It was also just nominated for an Annie for Best FX - TV/Media

While both a continuation of the 88-episode trilogy and – in terms of scale and visual ambition – and a significant departure from what went before, Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans pushed the technical envelope for all it was worth. The results, as we now know, were spectacular; getting there, unsurprisingly, wasn’t easy.

Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans was the most complex and difficult animation project that I’ve had the pleasure to work on so far,” says Additional Visual Effects Supervisor Brandon Tyra. “Guillermo made it clear at the beginning of production that he wanted this movie to be big and to push the limits of what we could achieve. So, compared to the rest of Tales Of Arcadia, the scale, scope, and the overall number of FX shots for Rise of the Titans was significantly larger.”

“Not only was it more challenging than Tales Of Arcadia,” adds VFX Supervisor Greg Lev. “It was by far the most FX-heavy film I've ever been involved with in my 20 years at DreamWorks. And the tricky part was that, while we wanted to up the quality level from the episodic series by a decent amount, we needed to make that jump without it looking like a completely different show. I am happy to say I think we nailed that part.”

The success of that transition, Lev observes, rests largely on their having ultimately devised a style that was an amalgamation of the different styles they had used throughout the three series. Asked for an example of how the FX production expanded upon work established earlier in the franchise, Tyra cited the magical effects.

“In the Tales of Arcadia trilogy, we established various types of magical effects for the wizard, troll, and alien characters,” he explains. “For each series, we tried to give each effect its own signature look.  For example, troll magic was more energy-based, wizard magic was smoke-based, and alien technology was light-based. In Rise of the Titans, the characters figure out a way to combine the magic and alien technology, which meant that we not only had to maintain the signature looks, but also create new FX that embraced the look of all three.”

Tyra adds that they also used this as an opportunity to update the quality of some of the FX, like Claire’s shadow portal effect. “In the series, it was a flat 2D distortion effect,” he elaborates, “but in Rise of the Titans we were able to make it more of a 3D smoke simulation that allowed for lighting and better integration into the environment.”

Apart from the necessity of creating new FX to satisfy story requirements and the enhancement of specific effects, Tyra emphasizes that the greater sophistication of the FX work was evident in virtually all aspects of the narrative.

“We looked at a lot of references and we had many conversations with our partner studios to develop these FX and discuss how the FX could help tell the story,” he recalls. “We focused on creating very natural-looking details within the simulations, and we also added a lot of atmospheric layers like dust, ash, and embers to many of the sequences. In addition to giving the shots greater depth, the chaotic movement of the particles also created a sense of tension and urgency. The FX really helped us to sell the scale of the destruction caused by the Titans and to reinforce the story idea that the world is coming to an end unless our heroes intervene.”

Lev adds, “We really focused on coming up with a new library of FX that was unique to each character. These drew from the existing look from the previous work, but stylized with a new attention to detail, and made more realistic looking by pulling out their three-dimensional qualities.”

In a film that both VFX supervisors concur was the most complex and FX-heavy production they ever worked on, does it even make sense to talk about which sequence was the most challenging? Apparently it does.

“The opening train sequence was the most challenging,” says Lev, “in that we had to have an incredible amount of effects in the tight space of a subway car, without having the FX take over from the read of the characters and the overall story.”

Tyra seconds the nomination. “The Metro City chase had various characters fighting within a small moving subway train, while battling with various types of complex magic. With so much happening, it was a challenge to make sure that we could see the characters and tell the story without allowing all the bright magical FX to become too distracting to the viewer.”

He continues: “If I had to pick a top three, the other two would be the Hong Kong harbor fight between Gun Robot and the Fire Titan, and the Ice Titan fight with the Earth Titan in the national park. The Hong Kong harbor fight was challenging because of the large-scale water simulations. We had characters as big as skyscrapers fighting in the ocean. We also had to make artistic choices with the water physics to make sure that the large, slow-moving water splashes weren’t covering too much of the action. The fight between the Ice and Earth titans was also challenging due to the numerous large-scale fluid, destruction, and vine/tree simulations.”

As for their favorite sequence, their opinions diverge.

“I most enjoy the fight sequence in the national park,” says Tyra. “It’s an exciting action sequence with tons of complex FX simulations, but it’s also a very emotional scene. I think it’s a great balance between FX action and moving character performances.”

For Lev, it’s the fight between Gun Robot and the Fire Titan in the harbor. “This sequence just came together brilliantly,” he remembers, “and it was always such a joy to see the quick, yet beautiful, progress that was made with each iteration.”

Inevitably, the last question concerned how they felt about the five-year adventure coming to an end.

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Tyra shares. “I was there from the very beginning, so it’s been amazing to see these characters grow from the first pilot episode of Trollhunters all the way to the cinematic Rise of the Titans finale. I’m lucky to have been able to work alongside and learn from this incredibly talented cast and crew.”

“It was definitely a highlight in my career to work on such a large scale project, bringing Guillermo’s vision to the screen with such a talented group of people,” Lev says. Then he adds reflectively, “I think it was the right time to wrap the story up, and I think we managed to do it in a very exciting and beautiful way.”

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Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.