MastersFX, the show's producer of practical creature FX since the series launch in 2011, has evolved the company’s skill set for this series. For “Falling Skies,” MastersFX has implemented a new digital enhancement process, dMFX – one that mixes on-set special FX creature work with the company’s proprietary digital tools, ultimately creating unique alien beings prominently featured in Season Four.
Starting with the Emmy-nominated pilot for “Falling Skies,” MastersFX has created for the series armies of practical monsters, from small parasites, to the 12-foot-tall spindly Overlords and car-sized Skitters.
“A lot of the fun of this show is the creative force behind the stories,” says Todd Masters, president/founder/chief monster maker for the company. “Every week, when we receive the new scripts, we salivate – like the show's fans – because we are excited to see what the writers have conjured up next. And we also enjoy challenging ourselves to see if we can fulfill those challenges."
As they perfected their practical creature FX work over the first three seasons of the series, MastersFX, working from studios based in both LA and Vancouver, was already developing techniques to better integrate their work along with modern digital visual effects. During Season Three of “Falling Skies,” MastersFX began to add its unique digital process to the series with the company’s creation of the Volm alien race.
During Season Four, the facility is expanding use of its dMFX process to include other alien characters as well. Said Masters, “Even the most unruly critters were somehow engineered to believably arrive on set; the 12-foot-tall alien Overlord characters were created at actual size and lensed in-situ, in motion, as portrayed by real actors on leg extensions. Later, to depict the creature’s demeanor, we integrated expressive alien eyes and emotive facial features by using our dMFX process during postproduction.”
By incorporating the company’s unique dMFX process, MastersFX can mix their decades of on-set know-how with the flexibility and control of several digital techniques. “We like to think of ourselves as representing the next era of monster-making,” Masters states. “Our dMFX process allows us to integrate more traditional creature and character FX techniques with high-end tracking, photo processing and performance transfer, to solve monster problems for our clients, in a highly efficient way. Achieving great characters for commercials or producing interesting new creatures for film and television is no longer just for big budgeted projects.”
André Bustanoby, visual effects supervisor within the dMFX Division, adds, "As artists, working in both make-up and visual effects, we prefer to embrace any tool or technique appropriate when helping our clients tell compelling stories. In 'Falling Skies' for example, the alien characters are a unique amalgam of techniques, built by our studio between our make-up and digital divisions, thus sharing the same artistic direction and goals. One mind, one monster. With too many cooks in the kitchen, the effective depiction of unique characters can get easily out of control or lose design cohesion. At the end of the day, helping create an organic, relatable character, in service to the story is paramount."
“We have the ability to take advantage of all the artistry of the sculptors, lighters, cameraman, and actors on-set, and then extend their capabilities,” says Johnathan Banta, senior visual Effects supervisor within the dMFX Division.
The most popular new alien character from "Falling Skies" is Cochise, introduced to the series at the beginning of Season Three. Cochise is a warrior of the Volm alien race, portrayed by actor Doug Jones. Jones – known for his portrayal of "Hellboy's" Abe Sapien, and Silver Surfer in the “Fantastic Four” films, as well as the character Faun in Guillermo del Toro's multi-Oscar-winning fantasy/horror project "Pan's Labyrinth" – has also performed as several other members of the Volm species, even playing his own father in last season's finale.
By integrating the company’s dMFX process, MastersFX prides itself on helping to embellish Jones' performance – actually allowing him to drive the digital enhancements of his Volm characters. The dMFX system analyzes the actor's original performance – tracking the precise on-set movements of Jones -–and then "super-sizes it" with proprietary methods. The MastersFX team then blends together the on-set prosthetics, Jones' performance, and the digital enhancements crafted in post.
Regarding this digital makeup FX process, Jones says, “The character of Cochise, which I portray in ‘Falling Skies,’ is a combo platter of both practical and digital techniques, all under the MastersFX umbrella. I always prefer to wear prosthetic make-ups on-set when I’m playing other-worldly characters – this allows for normal interaction with the other actors in each scene, since they are able to talk with this alien character during a scene. Over the years, I’ve also noticed that wearing prosthetic make-ups actually affects my posture and gestures, and makes me move and react differently.”
MastersFX delivers Jones' character to the physical set in all of its “camera-ready alien glory,” with fully detailed practical prosthetics – created “fresh” every morning by the company’s Vancouver team, led by Creature Art Director Werner Pretorius and on-set Makeup Artists Felix Fox and Maiko Gomyo. Even though the practical version of Cochise is limited in movement, Jones' character appears perfect on-set in every detail. This is done so that other actors can better relate to his characterizations, and so that he can be physically present in the scene. Jones, as Cochise, can be directed and involved in his scenes, effortlessly interacting with other cast members as well as with the sets and props. Historically, this approach has been very difficult, if not impossible, with traditional visual effects solutions. In this manner, Jones’ Cochise character has the ability to perform as a believable and organic member of the show's ensemble cast.
Jones adds, “I love the practical side of FX. And now, by adding in the digital side, the MastersFX team is able to make my eyes blink and look around, my upper lip can move along with my dialog, my eyebrows can express emotion, and the muscles in my face can move in concert with my speaking voice. MastersFX makes my performances seamless -- they give life and breath to the prosthetic face by adding digital subtleties that don’t make Cochise feel like he’s a character within a video game.”
"Our goal with ‘Falling Skies’ is to subtly and appropriately embellish the live, on-set performances of actors who are representing alien creatures and wearing prosthetics,” adds Banta. "It provides the benefits of an actor actually being on-set, lit, and performing along with the rest of the cast. Afterwards in postproduction, we are able to provide subtleties and an organic sense of reality to the performance of Doug Jones, bringing in the ‘missing life’ that was not captured due to the limits of the prosthetics.”
Banta continues, “Our finished product looks real – because it is real. We enhance what is there, instead of trying to paste on digitally created elements. A creature that is actually there on-set - in real-time – allows the other actors and the director to see the 'being' and collaborate with it directly. There are no tennis-ball markers for actors to try and act to, or for directors to ‘guess direct’ to. With dMFX, we can deliver Cochise by blending the persuasiveness of practical reality with our in-house digital brew. Our process provides these creatures an actual physical presence of a fully realized monster, alien, creature – or anything imaginable.”
Masters concludes, “For decades, our team has been seeking ways to perfect the practical and digital effects mix, working with live on-set actors and away from that CG look – which can often remove the viewer from a key emotional moment. For as long as we’ve been a company, we have been strong proponents for advancing monster-making and evolving visual effects, to deliver better and more organic and believable characters. Our entire staff comes from a full-blown love of monsters. From our childhoods, we grew up with movie monsters, and are excited to continue to progress their art form. Our involvement with 'Falling Skies,' as well as other TV shows and feature films, has allowed us the perfect platform to evolve as a company, and has given us amazing creative challenges. We're excited to show off our new work during Season Four of ‘Falling Skies’ to everyone this summer.”