Tim Miller’s animation and VFX studio bridged the gap between live-action and CG using V-Ray's Light Selects and Physical Camera Exposure controls to realize the famed director's aesthetic on his first computer-animated film, part of 'Love, Death + Robots' Volume 3 now streaming on Netflix.
Award-winning filmmaker David Fincher brought his signature aesthetic, with its characteristic low-key lighting and dark palettes, to his inaugural contribution in the most recent season of Netflix’s anthology Love, Death + Robots, which he executive produces alongside Tim Miller. Fincher directed Bad Travelling, his first completely computer-animated film, a thriller about a dishonest crew sailing alien seas and a monster who strikes a murderous deal with the ship's captain.
The project led Fincher to Miller's animation and VFX firm, Blur Studio, which used V-Ray for 3ds Max's lighting tools to help capture the darkness the filmmaker is known for.
"David Fincher read the original short story that inspired Bad Travelling 15 years ago, and I guess the idea never really left his mind," said Blur Studio Co-CG supervisor Jean-Baptiste Cambier. "Even though Bad Travelling was his first animation project, we quickly understood that Fincher was naturally curious, always looking to find new ways to explore his craft. However, there were definitely new things for him to learn about working with animation as a medium. Unlike live action, animation does not often leave much room for on-set happy accidents or instinctive decisions –everything is thought about, planned, and calculated."
The Blur team leveraged V-Ray's Light Selects, and Physical Camera Exposure controls to bridge the gap between live-action and CG. By rendering sequences at an early stage, they achieved more intuitive results with shots that didn't look overworked. The team also built a proprietary tool for Nuke called Light Rig, which allowed them to treat V-Ray's Light Selects as a cinematographer would on set. The exposure of each individual light could be controlled interactively, without re-rendering, ensuring that the environment, characters, and fluid sims could be lit on the fly in real-time.
Lighting Like Fincher
Blur's lookdev process began early with lighting work, then refining each sequence's aesthetic before creating the assets.
"Fincher is keenly aware of the practicality of different textures, surfaces, and materials, and the physics of how they react to light in the real world," noted Blur compositing supervisor Nitant Ashok Karnik. "His eye for color is insanely precise. For example, when we were establishing lighting for the ship's cargo hold, Fincher specified that he only wanted oil lanterns and moonlight –specifically 1,800K and 4,000K respectively. And of course, they were all spot-on in look and feel."
Fincher was very intentional about how the audience should feel during key scenes. For instance, the sunset in the story had to look ugly with greenish hues reminiscent of Se7en. Meanwhile, the ship where the film takes place had to feel disgusting, with a dark cargo hold below deck that would feel hellish and dank – the kind of place the story's crustacean monster would be found.
"We worked hard to make these characters feel like they were in a horrible, wretched place and to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as the characters looked," added Karnik. "We also played with lighting on the characters. For the antihero, Torrin, our art director, had the idea of using a 50/50 lighting style, where only half his face was lit. Conceptually, we thought this lighting mirrored how morally gray his behavior was. You can see this transition from the beginning of the short, where the light wraps across Torrin's face, to the end where he's murdered his entire crew, and his face is half-lit."
Creating a realistic seascape was key to ensuring the final animation felt immersive. To do this, the Blur Studio team used V-Ray's infinite VRayPlane to define the horizon lines throughout each sequence.
"Everything in Bad Travelling happens on a boat at sea," said Cambier. "This represents a relatively contained space, so we knew that our representation of parallax and scale was key to making the final render look realistic."
After defining the horizon lines, the team had to create an illusion of constant swaying from the ocean's waves, which had to be checked in animation previews. There were several options to accomplish this, including swaying the whole boat and its contents or moving everything in the boat, giving the illusion of swaying.
"The choice was quickly made to sway all that is around the boat, as it would have been a nightmare to animate everything happening on the deck," added Cambier. "Using the VRayPlane was essential for this too. It allowed us to do some simple coding to include and snap that infinite ocean in all our renders, from animation to lighting all the way to the final comp."
Delivering in Record Time
With just six months to deliver 386 shots, the Blur Studio team completed Bad Travelling on schedule by optimizing their workflow.
"Chaos have been our partners in crime for a very long time," Cambier continued. "Even David Fincher's relationship with V-Ray goes way back: his video for Only by Nine Inch Nails (created with Digital Domain) was the first time V-Ray's photorealistic ray tracing was used in a commercial project."
He added, "For a studio like Blur, each new version of V-Ray has a shorter render time, which is really a game changer. We can either decide to render our shows faster, therefore allowing us to move faster between projects, or we can decide to push our quality by turning on features like shutter imperfections, caustics, or textures in fog. Either way, we have more power to keep a show within its original scope and schedule, giving artists time to find a healthy work/life balance without making any sacrifices on the quality of our final render."
To read an in-depth interview with the Blur Studio team, check out the Chaos blog.