'The Liberator': A Unique Epic War Story
November 11, 2020

'The Liberator': A Unique Epic War Story

Polish visual effects and sound studio Juice and Trioscope Studios, a new studio dedicated to next-generation enhanced hybrid animation, are showing the recent fruits of their labor in the compelling Netflix series The Liberator, which debuted appropriately on November 11, Veterans Day in the US.
Based on the book by Alex Kershaw, The Liberator is a character-driven action miniseries based on the true story of World War II infantry commander Felix “Shotgun” Sparks, who led the members of the 157th Infantry Battalion of the 45th Division, an integrated group of white cowboys, Mexican Americans and Native American soldiers (over 52 tribes) drawn from across the West. On every level, Sparks and his battalion of “Thunderbirds” were classic citizen soldiers, and for over 500 days they led a special group of American soldiers from Italy to France, to the liberation of Dachau, through some of the most grueling battles of the war. This motley group of men not only coalesced into a fighting force to be reckoned with, but became one the most decorated American combat units of World War II.

In addition to the story, what makes this series so unique is the new proprietary technology platform used to produce it. The Trioscope Enhanced Hybrid Animation technology combines state-of-the-art CGI with live-action performance.

Juice’s scope of work on the series includes production supervision taking place in Lodz, Poland, and close collaboration with Trioscope throughout the entire postproduction process, wherein Juice artists and engineers produced over 4,000 visually-stunning shots.

“We tell this fascinating story using Trioscope, which is marked by an unusual style, combining acting, animation and a specific ‘graphic novel’ look. So, we needed a trusted partner with relevant experience in ‘standard’ post-production and VFX animation, but also with the talent and vision to go beyond the limits of photorealism,” says Grzegorz Jonkajtys, director and chief creative officer of Trioscope. Juice has created a wide range of such artistic projects. Their sensitivity and experience make them a great partner for this series and the many more we have coming.”

Michał Misiński, art director and second unit director at Juice, added: “This is a milestone for our entire studio. The talks about cooperation on the series lasted over two years. Together with Grzegorz, we have been specifying what the series should look like. Initially, just two of us, and then with the whole Juice team, we created something that is called ‘proof of concept.’ The technology will allow us to preserve the authenticity of the emotions of the real actors. Thanks to CG, we will take care of every detail – even the smallest – on the screen. We create a new original visual language, and Grzegorz's sensitivity and approach will allow us to create something absolutely unique compared to other film productions.”

The Liberator is produced by Trioscope Studios, A + E Studios and Unique Features. Grzegorz Jonkajtys serves as director. Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive) has written the script. The trailer can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZaIZgkCcXQ.

Here, CGW Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey speaks with Misiński and Marko Zarić, VFX supervisor at Juice, for an in-depth look of this unique work.

How did you get involved with the project?
Michał Misiński: I’ve known Grzegorz Jonkajtys (director and chief creative officer of Trioscope) for a while. He invited me to join forces and develop the ‘Trioscope style.’ As I’m part of the Juice family, we all jumped into the project. Four years, we have produced almost 200 minutes of content representing this kind of a visual language.

How long did it take to make the film, from concept to final?
Michał Misiński: About four years.

How was it decided which shots were CG vs live action?
Marko Zarić: Everything that didn’t require our actors in the frame, or them interacting with the objects, was done in CG.

How was the video acquired – was any archival footage used or was it all shot contemporaneously?
Marko Zarić: The entire footage was done contemporarily. But with that being said, we used a lot of archival footage and photos as a guideline. For example, there are shots in episode 04 that were filmed exactly as the archival footage.

Why the decision to use a mixed medium for this project?
Michał Misiński: We simply wanted to be able to express true emotions. Nothing can replace the facial expression, you know – the real ones. Having actors on the set will be always an advantage in this field. Using CG, on the other hand, gives the control to create the world as you imagine. Mixing these two was a perfect match for this kind of production.

How much of the film is CGI?
Marko Zarić: Every piece of the environment, as well as the vehicle animation, weapons, and visual effects, were done in CG. We also had full CGI shots, like some crowds of soldiers on the battlefield. On the other hand, there were a bunch of actors. So, we can easily say that the entire show is equal parts of live footage and CGI.

Please describe this animation style that was used.
Michał Misiński: It’s an enhance hybrid animation – Trioscope. It is a proprietary animated drama engine that fuses live-action with animation for a groundbreaking moving graphic novel experience.

Why was this style used instead of something more realistic for the film?
Michał Misiński: I love both. On one hand, you can create a style that is unique, something that no one has seen it before. When you look at the Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and other [epic war films], you want to produce something new, so in this case, a stylized approach will bring something new to the table. Who knows what will be next. 

Describe the animation process.
Marko Zarić: The animation was done in stages. First, we would take all live-action footage and treat it with our tools until we achieve the desired look and overall ‘feel.’ Then we would animate needed parts, which included props, vehicles, and so forth. And finally, all of that would go through some custom tools we developed so we could ‘destroy’ natural flow and get the desired ‘low-fps’ feel. Tweaking all elements to work independently from each other but still feel like they are in the same ‘time frame’ was the final icing on the cake. 

What tools did you use and for what specific tasks?
Marko Zarić: We tried keeping the entire production within our existing pipeline, meaning we used our CG pipeline consisting of [Autodesk’s] Maya and Arnold, [SideFX’s] Houdini, our 2D\compositing pipeline consisting of [Foundry’s] Nuke and [Blackmagic Design’s] DaVinci [Resolve]. But for specific effects and tricks, we explored other options.

Did you devise any new tools or techniques?
Marko Zarić: Yes we did. The visual style we developed required us to come up with a procedural way of treating live footage. So, we developed sets of custom tools for our compositing pipeline which allowed us to work in a seamless way that wasn’t shot-oriented, but rather scene-oriented. Our R&D department worked very closely with the director, and we ended up with multiple plug-ins for our Nuke pipeline. Also, matching style was required for all of the CG parts and bits, so we wrote a custom shader for Arnold that married those two worlds perfectly.

What were the biggest artistic challenges in terms of creating the CGI?
Marko Zarić: Details, details, details! The constant question we asked ourselves was: where is the fine line between the look and feel we are after, and realistic details? For example, we were creating actual existing cities or vehicles, which look like that and nothing else. So, finding that fine line of artistic interpretation and real existing details was the most challenging aspect.

What were the biggest technical challenges?
Marko Zarić: It was definitely combining all CG elements with live footage. But unlike any other production we have done before, the style was directing both. So, finding a perfect balance between achieving perfect visual\artistic style and having fast turnaround (render times and changes) was the priority from day one.

How does this project differ from other projects you have done?
Marko Zarić: In most CG-related projects, you are adapting CGI to your footage, or just creating it all in CGI. Here we had to adapt both – live footage and CGI to a very specific style and make it look seamless. This was a new way of thinking for all of us, and it required us to ‘reinvent’ our workflow.

How many artists at Juice worked on it?
Marko Zarić: There are 130 names on the credits roller responsible for the production and postproduction, plus another 130 names responsible for the actors’ part of the production. Add to this list all the people from the sound production and post, finishing (Atlanta), and everyone involved from Trioscope Studios, A+E, and Netflix.

Tell me about your studio.
Michał Misiński: Juice was founded in 2016. We started as a design studio, and it was quite natural to get involved in moving images. We now talk about ourselves as a full-service visual effects and sound studio with strong branches in VFX, animation, and design. We work for a wide range of industries; we create commercials, produce content for culture, education, gaming, TV series, and feature films.