CoSA VFX worked on VFX for DC Entertainment’s Swamp Thing series. CoSA worked on Visual Effects for various episode for Swamp Thing. The fifth episode of the DC Comics-based television series Swamp Thing which was released Friday, June 29 on the DC Universe subscription service contained several pivotal sequences that involved the visual effects work of CoSA VFX.
The episode was called “Drive All Night” and contained important moments for many core characters including Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), Daniel Cassidy (Ian Ziering), and, of course, the Swamp Thing himself (Derek Mears). For a look “behind the curtain” at what went into visualizing the story, we are again turning the spotlight on CoSA VFX Co-Founder and Swamp Thing VFX Supervisor Tom Mahoney for some insights, as we talk about eels, changing environments, and men with blue fire burning their arms. If you have not seen the episode yet, be warned some spoilers may be discussed below.
How long is the VFX creation process on an average episode of Swamp Thing, and is it longer on an intense episode like 105?
TOM MAHONEY: Generally on Swamp Thing we’ve had about four weeks to complete an episode, from the time it’s turned over to the time we deliver it — with the exception of the first probably two episodes where we had more time. We don’t necessarily have more time on more difficult episodes, but we do try and identify sequences that are going to be tough, and then try and frontload any work that we can as soon as possible.
How many artists on average work on a given episode?
I can tell you this: Across all of Swamp Thing, we have anywhere from 50 to 60 artists working on it every day. Now, granted, there are multiple episodes going, but I would say that probably on the the peak side of any given episode is probably 30 artists.
When we first see Swamp Thing’s “swamp vision,” there are vines wrapping around him, which is a thing that we see in many episodes. How is an effect like that achieved?
Basically, we have to initially match move the actors; in this case, the Swamp Thing himself. So for instance, in a scene where he’s touching a tree and then a bunch of viney tendrils come up from the ground or off screen, they wrap around his arm and they make the contact that allows him to have his “swamp vision,” that lets them see the past or other things that are happening. So first, we start with match moving Swamp Thing. And what that basically means is that computer animators sit down and get a relatively close model of Swamp Thing himself, and make sure that on a frame by frame basis, it lines up into the same position. We also need a camera track, because the camera moves independent of Swamp Thing. Then from there, it has to go and be textured and lit, and then from there, it has to have additional dynamics, which are smaller details, like small branches, and things like that. And then it goes into compositing where the compositor puts in the final touches, integrating it with the scene before it goes back to our client.
Sometimes you also do things to accentuate the look of Swamp Thing himself, is that correct?
It depends. Swamp Thing himself is very practical. We do very little to Swamp Thing himself. The only time we touch Swamp Thing is when he gets damaged, or wounded, or has to transform something — like, a vine has to come out of his hand, or his his hand has to transform into a tool he needs. So, we don’t do too much to Swamp Thing himself, unless there’s something specific that requires us to. The only thing we do tend to do, is we do change his eyes to kind of reflect his mood. When he’s angry, his eyes are redder; when he’s calm, they’re less red.
When you begin the process of an episode, does the team meet with the producers to discuss the sequences beforehand, and do they have to shoot things differently based on upon what you talk about?
Absolutely. David Beedon is my partner and he was on set for Swamp Thing. What he would do, is he would go through the scripts, with the producers and the director of any given episode, and identified where visual effects was going to be needed, and then shoot things carefully to allow for the best results for visual effects. And in a lot of ways that would also include setting up additional cameras, taking digital reference photography, taking measurements, getting to know the camera lens, and a whole bunch of data that we gather on set.
It’s also making sure that we try and shoot things as smartly as possible to try and make it as cost effective as possible. Then, after the editors have cut together a sequence and they’re happy with how it’s playing out, we sit down with the producers and do what we call a FX spot, and we go through the show and they point out what they’d like to happen and what cuts, and sometimes things change a little bit in post just due to editorial flow, or maybe a new idea pops up that works better. Then, once we’ve spotted through it with the producers, we get the footage, and then we start work, which entails a lot of what I just described, match moving, and lighting, and texturing, and so on, and so forth.
Can you talk about how the bridge sequence was created and how the locations were changed for that sequence?
I think it initially was hoped by the production that the bridge would be able to stand more or less the way it was, but then I think it became more noticeable that it didn’t quite match up with the interior sets. There’s a whole swamp set that was built on stages in North Carolina, and I think in order to make it feel like the two locations tied into each other, we had to alter the practical location so that it felt more like the built location.
I don’t think it was anything anyone’s foresaw so there’s no blue screen or anything, we basically had to rotoscope, which is frame by frame creating a map so that we can put something behind actors as needed. In this case, we also had to try and be as strategic as possible to not create too many shots, but do enough as to make it feel like it works in that swamp environment. And part of the deal was, the freeway and certain other things we probably were always going to do, because they wanted this to feel like an isolated town, but in terms of the actual views of the river, I think that was something that after the fact, everyone realized it would work a lot better if we had kind of a different vibe for the river to make it feel more swamp-like.
You did have to merge the swamp set with the bridge behind it. Can you talk about that?
What happens in the episode is one of the characters has to jump off a bridge into the swamp, and so on top of the bridge is the practical location. When they land in the water, it’s actually at the stage. So, there was a blue screen for the stage, so in the background of the swamp pool on the stage, we wanted to tie it in with the bridge. We basically created a matte painting environment of the bridge, and a few of the details of the bridge, so that we could put it in the background to tie it all together.
Developing the look of Blue Devil’s fire, was that inspired by the comics at all? How does that come together?
We certainly talked to the show creators about it a lot, and then we’re all geeks here too, so we certainly looked at the the comic books. Blue Devil is near and dear to all our hearts, because we found out that his origin story is that he was a stuntman and special effects technician who accidentally got turned into Blue Devil. I don’t know if they went with that storyline in the actual show, but in the comic books that that’s how it goes. We did kind of look into different looks, and with the guidance of Mark Verheiden and the rest of the guys over at Atomic Monster we backed into a look that everyone was happy with for Blue Devil that gets further developed as we go in this series.
Are there any particular challenges when emulating a person on fire?
Always. The biggest trick with fire is light, and so if you don’t have proper interactive light, it doesn’t look right. That was one thing David made sure of. I believe there’s a rig that held and LED strip in his hand, and a lot of times we’ll wrap LEDs around people to simulate where the fire is so that it casts the right light. Fire is also a light source, so you can always get away with just lighting the area with a stage light. Sometimes it makes more sense to have a point source that in this case, we did have an LED in his palm and some LEDs on his wrist, so that when he was waving his arm around and it was on blue fire, we had the appropriate amount of interactive light in the scene.
There’s a very chilling scene where Shauna is decomposing, and there’s an eel flying out of her mouth. What elements are built for that? Can you talk about how that was put together?
Sure. It’s one of my favorite jobs, actually.
Basically, it’s really just a shot of the actor opening her mouth, and then we augmented it from there. So similar to the process we went through before for Swamp Thing, we match moved her face so that we could create a CG version of her jaw and that part of her face, then the eel itself is 100 percent just CG animated. The animator Tracy who did it did a fantastic job. To also kind of sell it, we had this black goo, which is kind of synonymous with the evil of the swamp, also coming out of her mouth. But that wasn’t there practical, so we added that using dynamics, and our dynamics team put together some great black goo that also came out with the eel. It’s a truly odd and bizarre shot. It could easily have gone the wrong way, but I think the way that everyone put it together, from the animator to the compositor who put it together, they really did a great job. So, as weird as it is for a zombified looking girl to be spitting an eel of her mouth, it looks great.
Can you talk about like just the enthusiasm that the entire CoSA team has had for Swamp Thing? Everyone I have encountered at CoSA has been so excited for the series.
It’s been a labor of love. Everybody has really enjoyed working on Swamp Thing. For some of the people, they’re really huge fans of the comic, and I think that they’re really happy at how everyone — James Wan, and Mark Verheiden, and everyone — they love this interpretation of the comic and how it is done right. And so I think that, especially for a lot of the fans of the comic book pages, [they] love how this has turned out and they’re really happy to work on it. Plus, it’s fun work, too. I mean, we have vines grabbing people. We have eel coming out of people’s mouths. We have guys being lit on fire. A guy that’s made out of bugs… it’s fun stuff to work on.
For a series like Swamp Thing, CoSA was the exclusive VFX vendor for the series. What kind of services does that bring to a client, when they go exclusive with the company?
I think it’s an advantage in a lot of ways. We’re involved right at the very beginning, so I think we can identify areas where we can help control costs. I think we can identify areas where we can bring a little bit extra to the table.
There are certain times that people really believe they have to do something practically, but in certain cases, we can say, ‘look, this is really something that VFX can do, it’ll cost you less.’ And then there are other times where they want to go the visual effects route and will say the opposite and say, ‘no, you’re probably better served doing this practical, if you can.’ So being involved in the early stages, I think, is very, very helpful to how things get done. Plus, we’re also responsible for it, since we were there at the beginning, and we bring it into post, we definitely feel a responsibility for it. We want to make it work as best we can. We have a responsibility and ownership of it, and a desire to make it as great as possible, since we were there from the beginning.
As CoSA is now reaching its 10 year anniversary, can you talk about how Swamp Thing has fit in to the history of the company?
Swamp Thing has certainly brought a lot of the different disciplines that we’ve worked with over the last 10 years kind of to a pinnacle. It’s made us kind of spread our wings a little bit, and take on some new challenges, figure out how to overcome some new things, but that’s always great. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing. But shows like Gotham, and Pennyworth, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Marvel’s Runaways… they all just have their own very special place to us, because like I said, we’re all geeks, so we love working on all these shows. I mean, Gotham will always have a place in my heart. I was there from the pilot right there until the the last episodes. It was a great show, great crew, it was great to be part of, but for all of our shows, we try to give everybody the best that we can be.