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Interview: Talking ‘Titans’ With Folks VFX Supervisors Gunnar Hansen and Brodie McNeill

The team at Folks VFX did some incredible work on the popular HBO Max show, Titans, this season. Their work includes Beastboy’s incarnation into a green tiger – one so life-like that it’s unrecognizable as an effect. Other key VFX elements included creating the powers of the superheroes, other-worldly environments such as the planet Tamaran and the island of Themyscira, and Superboy’s super-speed events. We spoke with Folks VFX Supervisors Gunnar Hansen and Brodie McNeill about how they brought the effects in Titans to life.

At what point in development did Folks VFX get involved with Titans and how much time was spent working on Season 3?

Brodie:

Folks got involved with Season 3 right at the very beginning. That was back in the days leading up to the pandemic, before we all knew how much everything would change. We all know what happened next, that long period where no one quite knew what the future was going to look like.  But as soon as production started to ramp back up around the world, as covid protocols began getting adopted and we could see a way forward, Titans production started ramping back up and so did we.  

Things really started to take off back in late September to early October of 2020. We started asset builds on our Tiger first, nailing the look and movement. Knowing we needed a photo-real Tiger in episode one gave us a lot to move forward on as we waited on confirmation of the rest of the effects. Most of October through December was spent with Gunnar on set and our in-house team building and R&D’ing asset and FX tasks we knew were coming. Our first real turnover came in mid-December. From that point our team was fully engaged all the way through to the final air date.

Before diving into the specifics, can you give us a brief overview of Folks’ work on Titans?

Brodie:

The beautiful thing about our work on Titans is that Folks was a trusted creative partner through the entire production. Usually production will bring on an independent VFX Supervisor that will contract work out to vendors like Folks, but in this case we were brought on in that role. Gunnar Hansen was the key figure here, working with the production from the moment scripts were available and crafting key VFX moments in pre-production and on set. From there, Gunnar, the team and myself would collaborate to make everything work and look as good as possible.

This was really exciting because we got to touch just about every single effect on the show, from green tigers, to fiery effects, demon magic, collapsing bridges and everything in between. Our first order of business was recreating and adding our own flare to the effects that were employed in previous seasons. The very first thing we started was our build on the Tiger asset, which we knew had to be perfect, ready for the first episode, and also be green. Then we got onto recreations of Starfire’s fire powers, solutions for Nightwing’s escrima sticks and, once they were confirmed, Raven’s power set.

From that point forward, the scripts unlocked quite a few interesting challenges including the Tamaranean landscape briefly glimpsed in one of Starfire’s visions, Gotham and Batcave set extensions, and the Lazarus pit effect. 

Tell us about Starfire’s fiery entrance in Episode 1?

Gunnar: 

The shoot for Starfire’s entrance was a simple wire gag that lowered her to the ground. From there it was all Anna’s performance. Since we were still in the design process for her FX, we did no special lighting gags or on-set enhancements. All the work was done digitally once we received the footage.

Generally speaking, I opted to only use green/blue screens as a last resort in order to minimize setups and keep the crew on schedule, which was rather tight. I also minimized lighting gags during performance due to not being able to retime the baked-in lighting on the actors if we had to. I opted to do separate passes if the intensity of the light from a fire effect or explosion would overtake the set. 

Brodie:

We knew that Starfire’s entrance needed to be a big, visually arresting moment. She’s a fantastic character with one of the more striking power sets in the show. From the earliest drafts she was descending in a sphere of fire and it took some time to find a look and shape that worked. We went through a number of iterations before landing on the force field-like sphere of fire. Our FX Lead, Oleg Memukhin, was instrumental in crafting every aspect of Starfire’s fiery force field and blasts. He showed near infinite patience as we explored ideas on shape of the effect and more rocket-like stabilizing fire plumes from her hands and feet, before we landed on our final look.  

Hair, eye and skin effects for Starfire were handled in comp. Coming from a compositing background, some of my earliest tests on the show revolved around creating a graceful application of her green eye effect and methods for making the subsurface energy elements she shows when she’s using her powers. It’s a difficult effect to achieve in any case and that difficulty is compounded by the need to balance the visibility of the effect without taking anything away from Anna Diop’s performance. In VFX, our work always needs to be in aid of the story being told and finding that balance of not overriding the story with visuals is a key part of that.

Additionally, Starfire’s effects are so dependent on plate detail and lighting conditions, meaning that every application of them requires a lot of artistic interpretation. For Starfire’s entrance, one of our lead compositors, Michelle Shoukralla, did a beautiful job of balancing all of the bright fiery elements, while preserving Anna’s Diop’s performance. 

How did you create the FX for Superboy and his super-speed events?

Gunnar: 

We had fun doing these events. For the sequences when he builds and continually tests a device to deactivate a bomb against a countdown, Brodie and I discussed doing a relatively simple test at the office. Brodie set up a camera and did roughly five minutes of action, which he then took and did a variety of speed ramps in comp, isolating the body and matting the head and shoulders. 

On set, I had Josh (Conner/Superboy) act naturally doing his dialogue, then we immediately shot him doing a number of motions to mimic building the device, for three to four minutes. In post, we isolated his hands and arms, and blended into his normal head performance, and we composited smoke and sparks from the soldering.

For his super-speed running in and out of shot, we literally just had Josh run out of frame, and added practical wind. For his landing, he ran and did a quick energetic jump-burst on contact. In post, we then just blurred and rotoscoped the few frames of his flight in and out. We also added some blowing dust and occasional set-piece interaction.

Brodie:

Outside of the Tiger, Conner’s super-speed effects were some of the first tests we ran.  

Our traditional character-whooshing in and out of frame were pretty straightforward, in those cases it’s all about finding the right mix of motion blur, the correct action frames to land on as he moves, and finally that extra bit of real world atmosphere reacting to his passing.  

Our testing was crucial for those scenes where Conner was static and building the deactivator element. Keeping a real-time performance with his head, while his arms move at superspeed was a tricky balance to maintain.  

Beast Boy’s incarnation as the green tiger was impressive as well, how did Folks bring this tiger to life?

Gunnar: 

Folks already had a solid team of creature builders, and were enthusiastic about doing a hyperreal tiger. Long before shoot began, they were at work testing the motion with muscle and skin on a new tiger model, and did a very convincing shot with the tiger running and attacking, as well as tests with environments such as mud, and various lighting tests for the fur. The biggest challenge, oddly, was nailing the right level of green: too green, and it looked quite fake, and often the tiger was in dark surroundings, so it was a delicate balance.

On set, we had the props department create a grey foam 2-D cutout of the tiger at the correct scale, and placed it in the shot for reference. We had LiDAR of the GCPD set for accurate set interaction, as well as the standard HDRI and chrome/grey ball references.

Brodie:

Folks has always had a strong creature team and has always been interested in expanding our repertoire. To that end, we’d already been using early pandemic downtime to build up creature tests. 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.  

Our early work really paid off. The Titans production team loved the work. Having it come so early in the process did a lot to ensure a level of trust in our ability to meet and exceed their expectations and was just a great win overall. 

Do you each have an episode that stands out in your mind – either as your favorite or most challenging to work on?

Gunnar: 

Having so many characters and varied locations gave us a unique challenge on set for every episode. Episode 9: “Souls” was challenging to shoot, as we had to create a “limbo” type underworld. We shot in the dead of winter, and the weather often worked against us with bright sunshine and freezing wind, so fog needed to be added to every shot to keep it consistently eerie. On set, we had a massive 110-foot bridge built, which needed to come apart in post. Taylor, our on-set wrangler, scanned and photographed the whole thing and it was rebuilt in CG.

We also had to create Themyscira, feature Raven’s powers, design the pain waves for the ghouls, and feature Donna’s lasso. It all came together in glorious black-and-white. 

Brodie:

I think the biggest challenge we faced on this show was simply the breadth of unique effects that occurred throughout the show. We have multiple superpowered characters, each of which has a unique power that requires creative look development. 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 onto 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 a new set of look development. All together, that single character and all the iterations of her power had over a dozen permutations that all needed to look spectacular.    

I’d say 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. Keeping up with each unique effect and giving each of them the time and development necessary was probably the biggest challenge we faced.

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Written by Betty Ginette

Oscar Sunday is my personal Super Bowl.

I cover behind the camera artisans, and love to hear about filmmaking magic behind the scenes.

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