Team of 20 artists employs Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya to create CG environments and effects, including period-era technology reminiscent of 1960s Russian and NASA space programs.
Hidden Figures recounts the story of three female African-American mathematicians who played an integral role John Glenn’s launch into space and return to Earth. Captured on 35mm film, the movie is largely live action, but features nuanced CG throughout. Visual effects boutique Crafty Apes delivered 328 VFX shots for the film, working out of its Atlanta facility, with founder Chris LeDoux at the helm, Mark LeDoux overseeing local artists, and Tim LeDoux guiding the final look out of the studio’s LA facility. Together, a 20-person team created CG elements reminiscent of 1960s Russian and NASA space programs; period era technology; and capsules, rockets, launch pads and the like, in addition to a host of VFX and environment work for CG shots.
Recreating historical assets in CG that couldn’t be achieved practically, and matching them to the film’s Kodachrome look was no simple feat. “One of the biggest challenges was getting our CG assets to blend in with the film. We didn’t want anything to scream ‘VFX Shot,’” said LeDoux. “So we adjusted our shots to fit more with the practical shots as the edit progressed. It took quite a few iterations for us to hone in on the perfect looks.”
Autodesk technology streamlined the process, making it easier for Crafty Apes to create photoreal CG elements for shots quickly and efficiently, from hard surface models to fog, space elements and more. “Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya were the backbone of our CG work on the film, helping us solve CG riddles from modeling through to the final render,” LeDoux explained. “We married old stock footage with our CG, making the reference material and Autodesk tools all we needed to bring our assets to life.”
“Autodesk tools save us a ton of time and money, because they just work. The reliability is undeniable, but the real shine is in the performance,” LeDoux continued. “3ds Max and Maya are tried, true, and the buttons don’t move much from version to version, so we never skip a beat. Not to mention, they are also so widely used in the industry, which made it easy to exchange assets between vendors.”
The majority of Crafty Apes’ work was done out of its Atlanta facility, but LeDoux also called in reinforcements. “We were working under a tight schedule, and the number of shots grew as the project progressed, so we had to scale to meet the deadline. Thankfully, we have a great network of talent to call on,” he said.
Crafty Apes enlisted the help of pro animator and generalist Dirk Valk to head up CG, and divvy out the workload between the in-house team and other vendors. Important Looking Pirates in Sweden was responsible for creating several hero CG assets. Anthony Vu assisted with asset creation while Rif Dagher brought his expertise in smoke, fire and fluids to the production. Other CG artists involved included Elliot Jobe, Brandon Young, and Andy Byrne.
Between all the different vendors and individuals involved, Crafty Apes was constantly receiving and managing assets and passes at all hours. The team completed all the comps in-house – with guidance from Director Theodore (Ted) Melfi, Editor Peter Teschner and 1st Assistant Director Craig Hayes, who were instrumental in shaping the emotional arc of every shot.
“The collaboration with Ted was fantastic; I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. He left us to our own devices, and once he saw what was possible, challenged us to push the limits even further; that’s apparent in the look of the film,” expressed Chris. “I’m proud of our work, but even more, the film itself. It’s the epitome of cultural consciousness, and a film I’m glad to tell my kids I worked on.”