With two seasons of NBC’s Grimm now behind them, Portland, Oregon-based HIVE-FX has explored all sorts of ways to turn people into monsters. From the start, the creatures they’ve created as one of the shows’ preferred VFX vendors have always been scary. Now, thanks to a new pipeline they created between Maxon’s Cinema 4D, Autodesk’s Maya and Adobe’s After Effects, those fairy tale-inspired monsters are even more frightening, and in a more cinematic way, too.
“We used to do an overall blending from human to creature, creating a cross-dissolving effect,” says Guy Cappiccie, HIVE-FX’s shot supervisor and lead creative for Grimm, explaining the innovative approach to creature morphing that landed them a coveted vendor spot on the series. “But now we’re blending and moving displacement based on shapes to help break up the characters’ transitions in a more organic way.” The result is slower more realistically detailed morph from ordinary-looking human to monster. (See some creature morphs from the show here: http://hive-fx.com)HIVE-FX specializes in doing VFX shots for the series that involve morphs, creatures, animals and hair. That might sound strange to those who don’t know the show, which is based on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and centers around Portland homicide detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli).
As one of the last living Grimm, the detective inherited his family’s ability to see the monsters that pose as humans for what they really are—horrible takes on goats, bears, lions, wolves, goblins, snakes and more. Once they are identified by Burkhardt, the undercover creatures morph from their human likenesses into their menacing selves and back again.
Refining the Process
When HIVE-FX started work on season one of Grimm, only a handful of people on the creative team had experience with character animation, including Jim Clark, the company’s president. Most of the monsters they created for the show began as concept art that the team turned into 3D characters after ongoing discussions with the director and line producer and others.
But things have changed over time as NBC has gotten to know the team’s work and Cappiccie has not only composited the finishing touches on characters, he has built a pipeline that enables HIVE-FX to create things they could only dream of not long ago. “We still go over some concepts, but we’re getting more control over the process,” says lead compositer James Chick. “Sometimes, they’ll just tell us the character style they want, like another Hexenbiest (a witch-like monster), and then we can just go for it. We’ve also been able to come up with some characters from start to finish, which has been really rewarding.”
But devising a pipeline that works has not been easy. Most creatures begin as photos of the actors taken from every angle. Next, the photos are used to create 3D replicas of their heads using tracking points as a reference. Pixologic’s ZBrush is used for 3D sculpting, and models are rigged and animated in Maya. Cinema 4D is used for hair, surfacing, lighting and rendering.
Though Clark had long been working in C4D and knew he wanted it to use it for creature making, HIVE-FX didn’t know many artists who knew the software and they weren’t aware of anyone using it to create creatures for a series in the past. Undaunted, they hired Maya artists and taught them how to do specific things like use C4D’s Hair module.
To help smooth the path between Maya and C4D, HIVE-FX hired German software developer Thomas Otto (at2-software.com) to design a custom plug-in that takes the deformer mesh out of Maya and on a per-point bases, caches it into a single file, allowing the point cache tags to be read inside Cinema 4D so camera and point positions can be matched perfectly. The Foundry’s MARI for 3D digital painting and Autodesk’s Mudbox for surfacing. After Effects is used for compositing, and tracking is done with Imagineer Systems’ Mocha and Andersson Technologies SynthEyes.
With a few exceptions, the three preferred vendors who create characters for the series tend to work on a specific set of monsters to ensure character continuity. HIVE-FX gets about three to four weeks to work on each episode, and it is common for them to be working on two or three episodes at the same time. “The goal is to be done with an episode a week before it airs, but we do deliver just a day or two before they air in some cases,” Cappiccie says.
Character creatures do recur on the show, but many are eventually killed off and replaced by new monsters. Most recently, Cappiccie’s team has been working on several characters, including Don Nidaria, a lion-like creature that passes as a rich but abusive man in the human world. After killing his wife, he hires a slimy attorney (who morphs into a goat creature) to get him off the hook.
“We’re known for the way we do the interaction between hair and skin, which has been so important with some of our characters, like the lion,” says Chick. “We’ve pushed how we use Hair in Cinema since the beginning of the second season and we’ve made massive strides in how hair moves naturally by driving it dynamically using realistic 3D and object tracks.”
Their most disturbing new creature is a ghoulish Hexenbiest named Frau Pech that they created on their own. “NBC said they wanted another Hexen, so our modeler Jerod Bogh went for it and created Frau,” Cappiccie explains. “I wanted her to be as gross as possible, so I had her throat be exposed, allowing us to see it moving around when she talks.”
Having never modeled characters with the kind of holes needed for the exposed throat, getting the rigging right was challenging. “The trachea is one separate piece, and it’s rigged in a way that allows individual control of the mouth movements,” he continues, adding, “See those stitches over her eye? They’re rigged to stretch with her eyelids so we can tighten and loosen them.”
Running a close second to Frau is the “saggy lady,” the creature that detective Burkhardt’s girlfriend Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) morphs into in a nightmare dream sequence during season two. “Juliette normally doesn’t morph, but this is a dream and it’s also the most advanced morph we’ve created,” Cappiccie recalls. “This one really shows how we’re using displacement so you can see her body morphing slowly, starting with her hand and crawling up her arm to her neck.”
And then there is the goblin creature, Trinket Lipslums, that recently appeared in episode 15. A computer junkie/gamer/hacker in the human world, he morphs into a creature with green skin, CG hair, pointy ears and grotesque three-fingered hands with 8-inch long fingernails. Using a prosthetic hand with three fingers as the basis for their idea, the team came up with a morph in which the fingernails appear to grow from inside the hand. “It’s really extreme morphing that’s kind of X-Men Wolverine style, so as the fingernails grow, this viscous liquid drips down,” Chick explains.
Having just heard that they’ll be working with NBC again on Season 3, HIVE-FX is excited by the prospect of developing some new creature-making techniques.
“It’s been an entertaining season for our whole team,” says Cappiccie, “and we’re anticipating many new creatures that will challenge us creatively.”
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May 22, 2013
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