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Freefolk Goes Back to School with ‘Fate: The Winx Saga’ VFX

The visual effects studio creates 334 shots for Season 2 of Brian Young and Netflix’s coming-of-age fantasy adventure about teenage fairies learning to master their powers while navigating love, rivalries, and a flock of bug-like Scrapers at their magical boarding school.

Like all teenagers, even fairies suffer through their own trials and tribulations while attending a boarding school in the Netflix fantasy adventure series, Fate: The Winx Saga, Created by Brian Young (The Vampire Diaries), the show follows the coming-of-age journey of six fairies attending Alfea, a magical boarding school in the Otherworld where they must learn to master their powers while navigating love, rivalries, and the monsters that threaten their very existence.

Bringing the magical elements to life was Visual Effects Supervisor David Houghton, who assembled a team of digital conjurers that included artists at Freefolk; the VFX studio worked for over a year to produce 334 shots for the seven-episode second season. Noting the fantasy adaptation was the heaviest visual effects project yet for the London-based company, VFX Supervisor Steven Murgatroyd says, “I guess the variety of the Houdini work was the thing that surprised me. We had everything from fire, ice, and water to magical barriers, portals, and arrows, along with vines, writhing muscles, and the flocking of Scrapers.”  

Murgatroyd early on established a shorthand with Houghton. “I’ve known Dave for years and we’d recently worked on Cursed together, so it was really easy to chat through things and get a good understanding of what was required,” states the VFX supe. “Lots of the effects, like eye flares, the barrier, and Blooms wings of fire had all been seen before and for these he simply asked for them to be ‘like Season 1 but better.’”  Part of the work involved making natural elements feel ethereal.  “If you’re creating something that clearly isn’t real like Bloom’s face freezing or vines that move like snakes, then investing a lot of time in look development is essential,” Murgatroyd says. “After that, aspects like the lighting and comping have to be 100 percent spot on to have any chance of it being convincing.” 

As expected, a unique spin was desired for a staple of the fantasy genre. “For the portal,” remarks Murgatroyd, “we did a fair amount of 2D conception before a design was liked but once into 3D, we got there on the first try.”  However, one holdover was the protective magical barrier surrounding Alfea College.  The VFX supe adds, “For this, we had to take what was done in Season 1, try to figure out what was going on with the setups and then improve on it whilst still keeping it recognizable.” 

Murgatroyd goes on to share that budgeting was difficult for the one shot of mangrove-like tree roots adorning the ceiling of the banquet hall.  “We looked at quite a few design options before we got one that had the right wow factor and was achievable for the money and time available,” he says.  “The banquet ceiling was the biggest environment for us on Fate: The Winx Saga.  We built the structure and a large proportion of the roots in Maya, then handed over to Houdini to populate with branches and leaves.

Extensive research was conducted for the look and movement of the Scraper, which is a bug-like creature from the Realm of Darkness that feeds upon the magic of fairies. According to Murgatroyd, “It had to have a certain level of translucency and the anglerfish was most liked of all the creatures we looked at. Although it has a long body and lots of legs, the Scraper had to move quickly and be able to leap at its victims [it did a lot of leaping], so for this we looked at an array of predators, real and imagined, from snakes to carnivorous caterpillars to aliens.” A practical puppet was constructed to get proper on-set interaction. “It [the puppet] was a pain to remove at times but helped with the performance from the cast,” Murgatroyd describes. “For shots like the one where it wraps itself around Musa’s arms, accurate tracking and alignment of the arm was crucial and the scattering of leaves in the Episode 206 corridor shot of mass Scrapers was a subtle but nice touch.” 

When it came to creative and technical challenges, the Scraper was viewed as the most significant. “Before we were even awarded the Scraper, we had to convince Brian Young that we were equal to the task,” explains Murgatroyd.  “For this we created a little three-shot trailer-like edit with a ceiling full of Scrapers, one dropping to the floor and then launching at the camera. This was obviously well-received and with a greenlight we started testing immediately afterwards. Our lead animator was set to work putting the Scraper through its paces: running, jumping, leaping, coiling, and swimming [which we hadn’t anticipated]. By the time we came to blocking out scenes, all the animators were well-versed in the Scrapers capabilities and limitations.” 

Getting sign-off on the look and behavior of the Scraper was a significant task.  “The skin had to be wet but not slimy and it had to be black but also translucent, with a slight pearlescence,” Murgatroyd reveals. “Presenting in the traditional turntable fashion wasn’t helpful as we never see it in anything other than low light, so we had to get it into scenes even at the look development stage. The general note on appearance was for it to be ‘scary but not grotesque.’ Once we got past the initial sculpt and look development [of which there were two – we switched between them depending on how hero they were in shot], the rigging was quite tricky and took a number of iterations to facilitate all the diverse movement required. After that, one of the challenges was the sheer volume and variety of shots. One scene in Episode 203 had 34 Scraper shots in it.”

“Many shots had their own unique complexities, but I think getting the procedural Scrapers to blend in with the hero Scrapers, of which there were many, and getting that feeling like a cohesive writhing mass, was probably the most complex,” states Murgatroyd.  “The shot of a Scraper stuck to Sebastian’s back, feeding him fresh powers, would also be up there in terms of intricacy.” Rendering the Scraper was hard because of its subsurface, translucent, and iridescence properties.  “The thing I found to be the most testing was controlling the atmosphere in the Scraper tank.  We had to match the appearance of a practical effect that was used in a few shots, which was relatively simple but then we had to have the scraper swimming through this stuff, appearing and disappearing. Getting the right displacement meant the collisions were dispersing the smoke/gas far too much, making the tank look empty, so to maintain the density we had to combine a couple of sims. There was a lot of trial and error with this, but the final result was effective.” 

Regarding the scene where Musa encounters a Scraper in the basement, Murgatroyd shares, “To get the right sort of tension and sense of jeopardy, all the shots are really short in this sequence. But the Scraper moving quickly required lots to be crammed into this limited screen time; that was tricky for the animators. It was also really, really dark, so the lighting had to become a little creative or all that cramming would have gone to waste.” 

Murgatroyd concludes by saying how the CG creature was responsible for a memorable moment in the series. “The corridor full of Scrapers in Episode 206 is by far my favorite shot because it just looks so impressive. But I also rather like the Musa basement sequence because the Scraper feels properly scary in it.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.