CG supervisor Bryant Reif and his team created ‘The Shortcut,’ an entirely CGI transatlantic ocean liner modeled after the Queen Mary, along with digital people, oceans, docks, wakes and waves, for Season 2 of the series, now streaming on Disney+.
The Disney+ series The Mysterious Benedict Society follows a group of gifted orphans who go off on a secret mission for an eccentric, mysterious benefactor. Starring Tony Hale; Kristen Schaal; MaameYaa Boafo; Ryan Hurst; Gia Sandhu; Mystic Inschol; Seth Carr; Emmy DeOliveira; and Marta Kessler, Season 2 began streaming this past October.
The show, which takes place in a fictional European town during the 1950-60s, demands visual effects that accurately resemble the style and feel of the era. For Season 2, FuseFX CG supervisor Bryant Reif was tasked with creating this ambiance and ensuring even the smallest details depicted the story's period.
The assignment proved challenging, especially the creation of The Shortcut - a transatlantic ocean liner meant to be one of the fastest ships of its day. The entirely CGI ship was designed after The Queen Mary, now moored in Long Beach, California, which was used for all live-action shots.
According to Reif, it is one of the few ships from the era still in relatively good shape and suitable for filming. “So that was our starting point,” he notes. “We needed to model and texture the Queen Mary in order to match the live-action footage. Next, we adjusted our model so that it became ‘The Shortcut,’ which has unique design elements that make it distinct from the Queen Mary.”
The CG department then added digital assets, such as people, ocean, docks, waves, and wakes. All shots featuring a wide-angle view of the ocean liner were 100% CGI. The Queen Mary was only used for close-ups, but Reif adds, “…we still needed to remove the still water visible in the background and replace it with our digital ocean waves to make it look like The Shortcut was zooming across the Atlantic Ocean.”
Using reference material, along with the CG supervisor’s own personal photos, the team started by building the Queen Mary's basic structure.
“We had plenty of reference photos to work from, but I also had a bunch of personal photographs taken of the Queen Mary on my many visits,” Reif shares. “This was great because, due to COVID, the Queen Mary was closed to the public, and we weren't allowed to go back on the ship and shoot any specific reference.”
After studying the footage shot on location, the team set out to match the look and feel of the "Green Zephyr" branding and set dressings added on the day of the shoot.
“We couldn't match it exactly, though, since the Queen Mary is nearly 90 years old and much of the real ship had an old and worn-out look, while The Shortcut is meant to be brand new,” says Reif. “So, we made sure that our model reflected that. Next, we ran everything through our crowd pipeline so that we could populate the promenade decks with digital people milling about.”
Reif explains that much of Season 2 takes place in and around Lisbon, Portugal. Because filming mainly occurred in Los Angeles, the team needed to add 1960s-era European elements and remove any modern American ones. This was done with extensive matte painting and by adding CG vehicles and crowds to exterior shots.
“A lot of time was spent researching Portuguese architecture and fashion from the 1950-60s to make sure that the CG people who walked down the streets in the background had the appropriate attire and that the cars on the street existed in that place and time,” he shared. “I wish I could say that we spent a week in Lisbon gathering all this research in person, but we mostly worked off old photos and articles.”
The show also featured a luxury passenger dirigible called "The Inverness." Because Disney had no specific design concept, the team used their creative freedom to come up with a unique idea.
“We drew inspiration from 1930s-era British airships for the basic look and shape,” continues the CG supervisor. “From there, we added an expansive first-class cabin and other luxurious details. We were trying to get away from the stark and industrial look that most airships had at the time and try for a more refined and elegant look, which is something you might expect to see in a commercial airline.”
Challenges on any project abound, but according to Reif, a major was recreating the Atlantic Ocean for all the shots featuring the CGI ocean liner.
“Not so much the ocean itself but rather the interaction between the boat and the water,” he details. “We needed to develop extensive fluid simulations in order to generate ocean waves and the wake from the ship. What made this especially challenging was that some of our full CG shots were designed so that the camera hovered just inches above the waves before pulling out high and wide to reveal The Shortcut in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”
The result was a massive change of scale which took over 90 terabytes of data to simulate the shots' fluid interactions.
The next big challenge was schedule; with the most complex VFX shots taking place in the first three episodes of the series, it took multiple teams of artists working concurrently to meet their deadlines.
“The Mysterious Benedict Society was a tremendously fun show to work on,” says Reif. “It was fascinating to dive deep into the design aesthetics of the 1950s-60s Europe and then apply that to our designs. It is not often that you get the opportunity to work on a show that has such a quirky and distinctive style that blurs the line between fantasy and reality. The artists at FuseFX did a tremendous job, and Disney was a fantastic client to work with. I can't wait for Season 3.”