Led by VFX supervisor Hamish Schumacher, the Vancouver studio designs and produces three digital monsters, known as Toadies, bringing frighteningly-good fun to Netflix’s new film, based on the Joe Ballarini’s book series.
Naturally, a first-time babysitter wants to be in control and secure in the knowledge that their charge is safe. But in Netflix's A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting, things don't go as babysitter Kelly (Tamara Smart) had hoped. In this fun, spooky movie, directed by Rachel Talalay (Riverdale, Supergirl) and adapted by Joe Ballarini (from his children’s' book series), Kelly and her ward, Jacob (Ian Ho), are not only kidnapped, but their abductor happens to be the subject of Kelly's worst nightmares -- the boogeyman, or Grand Guignol (Tom Felton) as he's known in the world of the movie. Soon, the fight is on as the kidnapped strike back after joining forces with a secret society of babysitters dedicated to protecting kids from monsters, led by the experienced monster fighting babysitter, Liz (Oona Laurence). Meanwhile, Guignol enlists the help of his monster accomplices (all-CG characters entirely created by Method Studios, Vancouver). These characters, called the Toadies, are monstrous-looking but diminutive guys who try in their uniquely haphazard way to aid Guignol.
Babysitters is designed to be scary fun for the whole family, so these three Toadies, though their appearance is somewhat monstrous, are actually not outright terrifying. Rosco stands at roughly three-and-a-half feet tall and he still towers over Snaggletooth and Jimmy.
VFX Supervisor Robert Stadd returned to Method Vancouver and their supervisor, Hamish Schumacher, after a successful collaboration on Meryl Streep/Gary Oldman movie, Laundromat. Method worked closely on Babysitters with Stadd and Talalay creating the Toadie characters as well as the mysterious Shadow Monster, and they executed virtually all Babysitters' VFX.
The project took just over a year, as Method handled every facet of bringing the animated characters to life, from lookdev through to delivery. The company touched 273 shots overall, making efficient use of constantly-scaling teams of artists and compositors – a group that peaked at 140 during the busiest times.
Schumacher not only supervised all Method's VFX work, but also served as second unit coordinator during principal photography -- all of which took place in Vancouver’s River District and lower mainland area of Vancouver.
The VFX supervisor describes the Toadies as Grand Guignol's "muscle." "They're slimy creatures,” he continues, “that look a little bit crazy. One has a lopsided eye. They're not very bright and they're often actually very silly within the scenes. They bring a lot of comic relief to the movie."
These fully realized characters, each with its own unique personality, started with Method's lookdev work created in close cooperation with Stadd and Talalay. "Rachel had very clear on what wanted to do and our very talented concept artist, Peter Shay, designed all three initially to get them in front of the studio,” Schumacher recalls. “He did many iterations -- five or more. Once the VFX supervisor and director and the rest were happy, then we would do animatics to start to come up with how they move."
As Shay created renderings of the characters and backgrounds in Photoshop, Schumacher’s teams brought them into Maya for animation and Nuke for compositing; they "painted" each of these characters realistically onto a background plate of a park bench to demonstrate their movement on the ground and in a realistic environment.
Next, it was up to the animators to collaborate with Stadd and Talalay on enhancing and fine-tuning each character’s range of movement. "All of the Toadies have short and small legs," Schumacher notes. So this must, of course, be reflected in their musculature and the movement of skin and fat. As with any CG character, especially one who will interact with live humans in a real world, questions arose about the extent to which their movements would be dictated by pure physics, by pure imagination removed from real physical properties, or by a hybrid.
The Toadies, Schumacher says, fall into the hybrid category. "They run a lot faster than they should for their size," he elaborates. "We added some other-worldly physics to them in an awkward fashion."
A particular challenge for Rosco and Snaggle is that they have big stomachs, almost like beer bellies, so once their primary movement was approved, the supervisor shares, "There were some tricky aspects to the animation where you're getting all that secondary movement in the body when they're walking and running."
Much of this work, he adds, was "more freeform" than building procedures to perfectly replicate the physical world, and came from good, old fashioned trial and error, with animators making their human-like, but not-quite-human, bodies behave in ways that looked and felt "right" to the animators and the filmmakers.
Once the modelers got into actual shot production, they proceeded to create skeletons for each of the Toadies, not actually to affect the movement of the characters but to accommodate several comical moments where the audience is presented with an X-ray view a Toadies' bones.
As the characters developed, the animators would put them through full sets of calisthenics -- posing, jumping, crawling, and moving around in all the ways the characters would be called on. Meanwhile, the Method rigging team built face shapes for each of the Toadies, moving facial muscles all around to enable their speaking, making a wide array of expressions, and coordinating eye and brow movements, since those are areas where the majority of their emotions are expressed. The odd creatures also have unique, saggy tissue inside their mouths, where their tongue joins the throat. "We knew we would have moments where the viewer is right there inside one of these Toadies' mouths, so we had to get the details and movement worked out very well," Schumacher recalls.
Lighting and rendering was all accomplished in Pixar's RenderMan for Katana. Tweak Software's RV was also employed for playback of shots so artists could see how they were developing.
"Early on," says Schumacher, "Robert gave us examples of where these attributes should end up. A lot of images he showed us involved jellyfish as a reference. It's a fleshy look and when you get a little light behind them, some of that will bleed on through. So we went down that route.
"Once we got into shot production," he continues, "it wasn't looking as good as we'd hoped within the lighting of the overall scene, so we added more of a realistic skin tone and took out a bit of that subsurface component to them that had given them that jellyfish quality. When we were done, they weren't actually translucent, but they did have the appearance of some kind of thick jelly-like an amphibian. Basically, we ended up giving them something of the look of a chubby toad."
The lookdev process started long before commencement of the principal photography. By the time the shoot began, Stadd had made Method’s look the basis of a real-world silicon Toadie created by Vancouver-based practical character effects company, Amazing Ape Productions (www.Amazingape.ca). "Snaggletooth is really the hero Toadie and this company created a real-sized stuffy that we could use on set," Schumacher explains. "It had all the hair coming out and the eyes were correct. It was great as a lighting reference for our teams at Method to see how cinematographer Gregory Middleton's lighting would interact with these Toadies. Sometimes, they would actually have him in a scene as they shot it and we'd then paint him out later. It was very helpful to have because it allowed the actors something to reference and it helped set eyelines."
The work was going full-force at the start of 2020, when COVID-19 descended on the world, affecting everything. "You can't dismiss the effect [the pandemic had]," Schumacher says. "I like to see the artists when I'm supervising. I like to see what they're doing. Artists sharing a common space talk to one another, to their lead, to the supervisor. It was harder for animators work together with COVID," Schumacher acknowledges, adding that Method was efficient and able to morph into a virtual company wherever health and safety or government regulations required it.
"Artists and I would get on Zoom calls and look at shots together so I could give notes," he recalls of the process. "When 90-odd people are working from home, you have to ensure notes are passed on in the right fashion and make sure people are hitting the right mark. But we adapted and ultimately, I'm very happy with the results."
Animators frequently used their iPhones to act out scenes to form the basis of the Toadies' movements, especially their unique expressions. "Every now and then, we'd get an animation play blast on Shotgun and it would have a picture-in-picture of an animator acting out a scene. It was a fun way to reference and discuss the moves they would be creating."
Stadd himself also contributed performance ideas, Schumacher recalls. "A highlight for me was working with Robert on ideas about expressing the Toadies' personalities. He has a great sense of humor. The three Toadie characters each have their own personalities and traits, and Robert took part in that. Before the pandemic hit, he was based just four blocks away from Method in his production office. So, he would come down to our theatre and do some expressions that we would capture on an iPhone; we used a lot of the expressions as a reference for our animation and we all had a lot of fun whenever he came in and did that."