Leading visualization company provides crucial virtual production support that helped the Netflix mystery thriller’s creative team remotely view work, brainstorm, and make creative decisions shot by shot during the pandemic.
Leading visualization company NVIZ has shared with AWN details of their work on Netflix’s mystery thriller, The Irregulars. Set in Victorian London, The Irregulars follows a gang of troubled street teens as they solve crimes for the sinister Doctor Watson and the elusive Sherlock Holmes. The series also has supernatural overtones, as one gang member, Jessie (Darci Shaw) has strange powers she doesn’t yet understand. One of the series’ three directors, Joss Agnew (Poldark, Deep State), who helmed episodes 3, 4, 7, and 8, worked closely with NVIZ, whose team was tapped for various stages of production, including previs, virtual production, and VFX.
A key previs sequence for NVIZ was the “Rip” effect in Episode 8, directed by Agnew. In this pivotal scene a mystical character, the Linen Man, who has been meeting with Jessie, opens a tear in space and time. Through it, Holmes is seeking the mother of his children, who is stuck in another dimension. The large pulsating rip is opened inside a dark cave and illuminates the environment with the emanating electric blue light. In the storyline, the rip grows, causing the cave to be further bathed in the changing blue light as the scene progresses. It was important to previs this sequence carefully, in order to fully understand and plan the lighting on set, and the effects that were based around it.
In addition to the original requirements on previs, the process played an important role in the meticulous planning brought to bear on the shoot. It was the early days of COVID-19 and the production was just getting into work on the previs when the pandemic took hold. “The set was shut down immediately, and it was unknown when live shooting would be allowed again,” head of visualization Janek Lender recalls. “But it was vital to carefully plan the set build and return to shooting for when it was possible.”
According to Agnew, “We were delighted to be able to work with NVIZ on The Irregulars during 2020 when the pandemic forced us all to find a new way of working. With CGI-heavy finale scenes left to shoot and complete the series, NVIZ made it possible, due to the necessities of COVID, for us all to work remotely. None of us expected it to work as smoothly as it did so thanks to the team for making the online previs sessions fly!”
The live remote sessions were very animated, with the director, DOP Nick Dance, VFX supervisor, and producer, Becky Roberts, all dialing in on conferencing software to lay out the sets and start filling in the boards with previs shots. When required, the production designer and later, the camera crew and grips also contributed. Lender drove the camera (normally this would be run by the director or DOP themselves with an iPad for a virtual camera session) and broadcast his screen, which ran Unreal in Editor mode. The filmmakers talked amongst themselves while viewing, discussing the animation, brainstorming ideas, and making creative decisions shot by shot.
Despite the pressure caused by the pandemic, NVIZ was able to get this new pipeline up and running extremely quickly. “All of our previs pipeline was moving into the real-time world anyway,” Lender notes, “and we knew we could offer this kind of service. But this was the first time where it was the only way to create the previs, so that added an edge to it!” Scheduling was carefully worked out - animators, working remotely, would send the animations to Lender, who would ingest them into the live scenes, create shots and sequences from them, and then use those scenes in the live sessions. The production team was pleased with how well it worked. Even in the constrained schedule in the run up to returning to live shooting, they made time to run the sessions most days and go through the boards.
Ultimately, the sessions informed not just the VFX shots, but every aspect of the shoot. This was also useful logistically, to keep times on set to a minimum, calculate the minimum number of crew members or actors needed for each sequence, and crucially, where they were all going to be on set. The previs was used successfully on set via NCam, which was run by NVIZ’s virtual camera operator, Eduardo Schmidek. In fact, because of the ease with which the director and DOP were able to manually drive the cameras in the real-time engine, they didn’t just use it for VFX shots, but for drama as well. By employing it as a tool for a board for board, shot for shot development tool, the director was able to go into action, every time, with a clear plan of what he wanted to capture, making the previs the blueprint for the shoot.
“Innovations that NVIZ brought to bear were vital in formulating the artist blocking, general coverage, key ‘hero’ shots, approximating the amount of CGI we were going to need to budget for, and getting an overall feel for pace and rhythm of the scenes,” Agnew said. “Their level of detail, including set extension and character’s movements (and faces!) allowed us to discover how we could best get the scenes to play.”
The NVIZ team was also tasked with completing set extensions for several sequences taking place in Louisiana swamp, manufacturing the background itself from a set of 4K plates that had to be stitched together to create a 360-degree moving cyclorama. The Foundry’s CaraVR was used to create three sets, one for each camera angle, of two 16K plates to be used as background. Each angle was manufactured from a set of around 18 4K plates. Due to the nature of the environment shot, which contained a lot of vegetation and Spanish moss, additional cleanup work had to be carried out where CaraVR couldn’t resolve the issues. These background elements were later used to extend around 80 shots taking place in the swamp.
The same sequence called for a swarm of moths as a means of transport for Jessie. The team created a moth model that was textured, animated, and implemented using a simulation of a swarm coalescing around her, and dispersing away from her in an explosion of movement, when changing the location to the swamp. Another major sequence called for a substantial addition of fog to a night-time street scene. The team used a combination of grading, and fog and mist elements, in order to create the desired effect, taking care to lessen the amount as the sequence progressed, in order to mimic the effect of the fog dispersing as time passes, and adjusting the visibility of elements moving into and away from the camera.
“NVIZ gave us all the options and material we needed and were absolute key players in assisting the subsequent shoot, one of the first running COVID protocols, successful, efficient but still including the vital creative elements of exploration and play,” Agnew shares.
“The NVIZ team was delighted to work closely with the production on The Irregulars,” Lender concludes. “Like many productions in early 2020, progress had been hindered by the onset of COVID-19 and the many implications for live filming. It was gratifying to support the production moving forward, with the help of our virtual camera system, to carefully plan the shoots in a safe and efficient manner.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.