Studio creates new and even more amazing superhero powers, as well as a photoreal green tiger and CG environments like the Amazons' island of Themyscira, for the HBO Max series, recently renewed for Season 4.
Folks VFX has shared with AWN some of their work on Season 3 of HBO Max’s DC superhero series, Titans, recently renewed by the streamer for a fourth season. The series follows young heroes from across the DC Universe as they come of age and find where they belong.
Highlights of the studio’s third season visual effects work, led by VFX supervisors Gunnar Hansen and Brodie McNeill, include Beast Boy’s incarnation as a green tiger, creating different superhero powers, and CG environments such as the Amazons’ island of Themyscira and Starfire’s home planet Tamaran.
Hansen spent a full year on the project, handling all the on-set VFX as well as working with McNeill through the end of post. He notes, “We began with the scripts and did read throughs with the department heads to discuss all the creative possibilities with our limited time and budget. Then, we would go through this process three times before the shoot to nail down a plan for the VFX and methodologies for prep, shoot and post.”
The Folks team expanded and contracted throughout the year; the company’s centralized network made sharing work between studio locations incredibly easy. According to McNeill, “We relied almost entirely on our core Toronto team, with an average of 30 or so artists consistently involved. As larger episodes like Episode 9 and Episode 13 came in, we relied on support from our Montreal and Bogotá offices to help us keep up with the expanded shot counts.”
Explaining their divide and conquer supervising strategy, McNeill explains, “With a show as large as this one, Gunnar and I survived by separating out responsibilities. He was on-set for the entire production and was the one who took on what would typically be the client-side VFX supervisor role. He was instrumental in planning every aspect of how the visual effects would be covered on-set, and was in all the creative discussions on the various effects we needed to achieve. To stay on the same page, the two of us kept up a near-constant conversation regarding creative briefs and shot approaches. From that, I would manage the artists on the studio side, ensuring everyone was working and progressing through the various briefs so that Gunnar could focus on the production.”
Because of his background in compositing, McNeill also found himself highly involved with 2D look development on some of the key VFX, like Nightwing’s escrima effects, Starfire’s base hair, eyes and skin glow, and Kory’s blue orb in the finale.
One of the team’s most significant efforts was the creation of a photorealistic green tiger. Folks has been using early pandemic downtime to build up its already strong creature team through a series of tests. According to McNeill, “Knowing Titans was in our future, we put extra focus and time into building a tiger asset. In fact, before Titans had officially moved back into production around September 2020, we had already put together some extensive animation, groom and rendering tests for the asset. We continued that work as production ramped back up and we were able to share what we’d come up with early in the process.”
One unexpected challenge was finding the right level of green. “Our initial look development found a very nice, subtle balance between the natural whites of a tiger’s fur, with a subtle tint of green where it would normally be orange,” the VFX supervisor continues. “Our perfect balance was shattered the first time we put it into lighting and found that the subtle green hues we’d worked so hard on were quickly overridden by the orange-hued streetlights that dominated the shot. From that point we ensured that the green sections of the tiger’s groom could be selected and controlled via Cryptomatte so that we could lock in that perfect ‘green, but not too green’ look on a per shot basis.”
One of the more “fun” aspects of the work was turning Toronto and Hamilton into the menacing world of Gotham. “The biggest challenge was the black and white underworld for Episode 9,” Hansen says. “We had to add fog to most of the shots, and create a full CG bridge based on a 100-foot set-piece, which we had to have come apart and crumble.”
“Themyscira, island of the Amazons, was redesigned and seen briefly in that same episode and was inspired by both modern and ancient architecture with symmetry and temple details to suggest a place of both spirit and peace,” he continues. “We also get a glimpse of Starfire’s home planet, which we knocked out quite quickly based on some of the original comic art that we updated to establish a sense of conflict on the planet.”
When it came time to create various superhero powers for Season 3, Folks started with a creative assessment of the VFX from the first two seasons, working from there to push the look and feel to a higher level of realism and detail. “We had some new challenges, such as Blackfire’s costume upgrade and Beastboy’s bat transformation,” Hansen shares. “The writers and showrunner were quite specific on their vision to keep everything close to canon, but we had great brainstorming sessions on some of the new effects. The Lazarus pit was a huge challenge as we were dealing with the limitations of what we could do with water on-set with the actors. In the end, the team came up with a gelatinous evil goo effect that was all CG.”
McNeill, noting that on Season 3, so many parts of the show had already been set in stone in previous seasons, says, “We already knew what Kory’s powers looked like, we’d seen Raven do her particular style of magic, we’d seen Gar’s tiger form and even something that was relatively new, like Nightwing’s Escrima sticks, which already had a visual language associated with them. For all these core effects, our mandate became recreating them and improving them where necessary without significantly changing the look.”
“The tiger, of course, was our first priority and the thing we were most motivated to put our spin on,” he adds.
Assessing his team’s entire effort, McNeill concludes that their biggest challenge was handling the breadth of unique effects needed throughout the season. “We have multiple superpowered characters, each with a unique power that requires creative look development,” he says. “Part of the fun of a show like this is seeing those characters use their powers in interesting and unique ways. Kory, for instance, has her base power set, which in itself is already complex. Her eyes, skin glow, and hair energy are all difficult compositing effects. Add to that her fire blasts, shield, and fiery orb effects, which were all achieved through our immensely talented FX department. She also exhibits a new power set, teased in early episodes and put into practice in the final two, which required new look development. Altogether, that single character and all the iterations of her power had over a dozen permutations that all needed to look spectacular.”
“Each episode brought in at least a single new and unique effect, with others, like episode 9’s underworld or episode 13’s climactic storm sequence bringing in even more,” he adds. “Keeping up with each unique effect and giving them the time and development necessary was probably the biggest challenge we faced.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.