In 2015, Paul Franklin talked to us about DNEG’s work on INTERSTELLAR. He then worked on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION, THE ONES BELOW, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, BLADE RUNNER 2049 (as Visual Effects Creative Director) and FIRST MAN (as Visual Effects Consultant).
How did you and DNEG get involved on this show?
Sony approached DNEG and myself in the spring of 2017. I read the script and met with Ruben Fleischer – what struck me was the chance to make a comic book movie with a difference, where the character is not so clear cut as in a lot of the other movies that are out there. Ruben wanted the film to be exciting and engaging, but he also wanted it to have an edge, that marked it out from the rest of the field.
What was your feeling to work on such an iconic character?
Over the course of my career I have been lucky enough to work on a number of iconic characters – my focus is always the story as it’s important not to let yourself get overwhelmed by the provenance of the character. But I always keep in mind that the characters mean so much to fans out there who are heavily invested in them, so whilst it’s important to serve the needs of the audience as a whole, it’s also key to make sure that you respect the fans whenever you can!
How was the collaboration with director Ruben Fleischer?
Ruben was great. VENOM was the first time that he had worked on a movie with so much VFX and where VFX was essential to the story telling, but Ruben was clear from the outset as to what kind of movie he wanted to make and the story that he wanted to put on the screen. He referenced a lot of the current crop of superhero films, but also talked about classics like John Carpenter’s THE THING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which became a bit of a touchstone for me as it’s a film that I grew up with in my teens during the 1980s. Ruben was never overly-prescriptive – he pointed us in the right direction and we got on with realising the VFX for the film.
What was his expectations and approaches about the visual effects?
Ruben was clear that he wanted VENOM as a movie to be able to hold its head up with all the other comic book films that are out there, but he also was keen that we shouldn’t just imitate what’s out there. He was keen that Venom on the screen should be as unique a presence as he is in the comic books.
How did you organize the work with VFX Supervisor Sheena Duggal and your VFX Producer?
Sheena came on board for a few during prep to shoot the San Francisco aerial sequences and also to help start the prep for the extensive second unit action shoots. Sheena then rejoined the show when we started post in the spring of 2018 – the main VFX work was carried out at DNEG’s main office in London which is where I am usually based so I went back to the UK to work with the team on a day to day basis whilst Sheena focused on maintaining VFX’s relationship with editorial in LA, working with Ruben and the editors on a daily basis. We also had a small in-house team of compositors handling 2D-only work in LA so Sheena looked after those guys as well. Later on we had a previs team set up in the LA post production office and Sheena worked with them as well. Mark Soper, our VFX producer was based in LA for post, dealing with the day to day running of the show and working with Sony. I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between London and LA making sure that everything was working well between the two sites.
How did you split the work among the DNEG offices?
DNEG London served as the hub for the show with work also being carried out in Mumbai and Vancouver. Sequences and even shots were shared across the sites with regular daily reviews carried out both offline and live via cineSync and a DNEG proprietary tool called Clip which forms the heart of the playback/review system. All the sites are linked on a common network/database so shots and data could be transferred between the sites allowing us to move work about efficiently. All the work is tracked via a proprietary DNEG database called Ivy which is managed through Shotgun and a proprietary suite of viewing/management tools. Each site could run shots from end to end, but sometimes it made sense to put the work in specific sites where the expertise was concentrated, so for instance, the majority of creature animation was in London, but we also had animation teams in Mumbai handling tentacles and a separate animation team in Vancouver working on standalone scenes.
Can you tell us more about the previz and postviz work?
During prep previz was split primarily between DNEG’s in-house team who handled the apartment tentacle fight and the bike chase. The Third Floor in Los Angeles and – to a lesser extent – in London looked after a number of other standalone scenes but their main work was the epic fight between Venom and Riot at the rocket base. All previs was sent over to Atlanta where the production was based and I worked with the VFX editorial team to put the sequences together. As the Venom/Riot fight developed we extended it with animatics that came out of DNEG’s art department which defined the look and scope of the extraordinary “merge fight” where the symbiotes blend together.
How did you work with the art department for the design of Venom?
The character design for Venom was initially worked on by Legacy Studio. Their designs were then taken by DNEG’s art department who continued the process before handing off to the DNEG animation and creature teams who finalised the design.
Can you explain in detail about his creation?
We spent a lot of time looking at the way that different artists had approached the character over the years. It soon became apparent that each artist had a unique take on the character and that graphic stylisations were used to show Venom’s amorphous abilities, something that we wouldn’t have the luxury of doing. However, we needed to honour the intention of the artists and speak to the characteristics that the fans were hoping to see in our interpretation. We devised an approach underpinned by a relatively traditional character animation rig which allowed us to block out the scenes in a fairly standard way, but which was then enhanced through the use of a complex creature FX process – at its most minimal, the FX created the strands of goo around Venom’s mouth and the rippling edges of his eyes, but at its most extreme it produced tentacles, shields and lattices of goo that extended the character’s abilities.
How does his dark and reflective skins affects your work?
In the comics Venom is usually rendered as a silhouette with limited highlights to define his body shape – there’s no real indication as to what Venom’s surface texture actually is and certainly no consistency across the few images that do give a sense of what his surface might actually be. We decided to go with a very slick wet surface, but rather than make it super smooth we wanted to hint at the complex biology within the character so we devised a complex multi-layered look with areas of varying wetness and viscosity, this helped us to avoid him looking like he was wrapped in foil or vinyl. We realised pretty quickly that we would have to light him primarily through reflection rather than direct illumination to avoid him “graying out” and going low-contrast. The primary reflections in the live action scenes came from the HDRI maps captured on set, but we generally found that they made him look like he was in the middle of sports arena with floodlights all around him so we had to dial them back quite a bit and then add subtle reflection cards to bring out features such as his jawline or to get a read on the wrinkling of his forehead as he changed expression. We found that every shot was a bespoke setup as even slight changes in his position would greatly affect the way that his surface reflections read.