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Behind the VFX of 'The Last of Us' and '3 Body Problem'

Updated: 9 hours ago

The Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF) stands out as a premier Swiss event for genre film enthusiasts, showcasing fantastic, action-packed, and sometimes gory films. Needless to say, it’s an event we do not miss, and not only for the movies. There are also very interesting conferences on different subjects. This Monday, we attended two sessions on visual effects (VFX) as part of the NIFFF Extended program.


THE LAST OF US - STORM STUDIOS

Presented by Espen Nordahl, VFX Supervisor at Storm Studios in Norway, this conference delved into the intricate work behind the VFX for the hit series "The Last of Us". Nordahl’s team was responsible for 150 shots across six episodes, with around 30 people contributing over roughly five months of post-production. They handled complex shots involving “cordyceps” tendrils emerging from the mouths of the infected, face replacements, blue screen work and creating wounds and bite marks.



One key difference between the game and the series was the method of infection. In the game, characters are infected via spores, but the series opted for direct physical contact to emphasize the human element. “You’re fighting against humans, not things and that's what the directors wanted”, explained Nordahl.


This decision required the Storm studio team to conceptualize and test various prototypes for the cordyceps – you know, those weird, disgusting tendrils that come out of the mouths of the infected. Being involved very early in the pre-production allowed them to test different prototypes for this very important element throughout the series.

"Our motto is to fail fast, get ideas quickly”, Nordahl

This way, they can show early iterations to the directors, have feedback early on and determine which direction to take. This process was crucial in refining the cordyceps’ movement, aiming for a natural yet eerie effect. They did lots of trials, some too aggressive, others too limps, falling out the mouth like noodles, until they finally settled on a more plant-like, organic slow movement, reminiscent of how plant roots would behave. The final effect was achieved through a combination of hand animation and simulation, ensuring the tendrils did what they wanted in specific shots.

VFX last of us
Early look development of the tendrils | Image showed in presentation ©Storm Studio

The team also had to do CG face replacements. Although all the infected had SFX makeup, in some shots, like real close-ups, the prosthetics still felt a bit too rubbery, necessitating CG enhancements or replacement. Of course, the team built upon the incredible work already done by the SFX department, which allowed to add a more realistic layer and disgusting appearance. In other instances, they had to “fill in the gaps”, adding tendrils, deteriorating teeth, etc. Finally, there were stunt doubles who needed their faces replaced with the actors’.

"References are key to everything when you’re making photorealistic VFX", Nordhal emphasized.

3 BODY PROBLEM - PIXOMONDO

Michael Schlesinger, Lead Compositor at Pixomondo in Germany, shared insights into the VFX work for "3 Body Problem". The variety of shots in this project ranged from subtle enhancements to a big a** atomic explosion in space. In this case, there were a lot of invisible VFX involved. A prominent example of this is that they had to add cold breath in 52 shots for the first episode, which was set in a cold environment.

"It sounds simple, but you have to analyze how they talk and what they are doing to understand when the gas comes out of the mouth. It was all the more complicated, as they did not speak English!", Schlesinger explained.

But the team also had to work on bigger full CG sequences, like a rocket launch in Cape Canaveral and the dream sequence with a paper boat, which was filmed against a blue backdrop with the actor. The origami boat then had to be replaced so that it had a more paper-like texture, in addition to creating the entire environment (water, sky, fog, etc.).

VFX 3 body problem
Dream sequence | © 2024 Netflix, Inc.

For the atomic bomb explosion in space, they took a different approach; they did it with compositing techniques. As mentioned before, referencing real footage is key, so Schlesinger was surprised to see that there is actual historical footage from "Operation Fishbowl", a 1962 operation led by the USA where nukes were launched 400 km into space. However, they had to balance scientific accuracy with creative liberty to make the explosion visually compelling. “Scientists probably will see this and go like, what the? But we do it for the viewers, for the shot”, he joked.



Another particularly tricky aspect when you’re doing VFX is depicting scale. For the Pixomondo team, it was one level up, as in space there are no familiar reference points. So, to convey how big the golden sail for the rocket was, the team used techniques like reducing contrast for distant objects and sharpening closer ones, mimicking atmospheric effects even though space has no atmosphere. This approach helped create a convincing sense of scale.

 

These conferences highlighted the meticulous work involved in VFX, showcasing the blend of technical skill and creativity required to bring fantastical or realistic elements to life on screen. But that’s not all we have in store from NIFFF this week. Stay tuned as we cover more exciting conferences and reveal our top five must-see movies from the festival. You won’t want to miss it!

 

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