VFX Studio Gets Strange for 'Weird City'
February 26, 2019

VFX Studio Gets Strange for 'Weird City'

VFX house Artifex Studios completed its most robust project of 2019 thus far, delivering over 250 shots as the sole VFX vendor for Jordan Peele and Charlie Sanders’ highly anticipated YouTube Premium anthology sci-fi series “Weird City.” 

The dystopian comedy, which features a stark divide between classes living “Above the Line” and “Below the Line,” granted Artifex ample opportunity to showcase its skills, providing shots ranging from full-CG animation, set extensions and matte painting work, to graphical interfaces and wide-ranging compositing duties.

“Weird City” sets the scene in its credits through the visual impact of the bifurcated cityscape of the city itself. Artifex’s CG team created the opening aerial panoramic shots of the shiny, futuristic city of the rich juxtaposed with the ramshackle city of those who live below “The Line.” Artifex’s work can be seen continuously throughout all six episodes, in detailed CG animations, environments, and creature work as well as ever-present HUD overlays, video and holographic interfaces, icons and surfaces.

In episode one, “The One,” Artifex had free reign to build out the city Above the Line, as well as modifying Negari Labs via 3D work and matte painting. Artists created new buildings (also seen throughout the series), embodying bold, futuristic architecture. Once inside Negari Labs, Artifex helped Dr. Negari, played by Levar Burton, up his “escape tunnel” vacuum tube, before adding effects and site gags the main characters interact with. Artifex was called upon to provide filmed park footage, shot outside Vancouver, that they incorporated into a greenscreen experience a couple share while on a date. Additionally, the crew at Artifex was invited to have some fun when concepting a store with touchscreen emoji pets, which were modeled off the real-life dogs at Artifex’s facility.

The anthology’s second installment, “A Family,” which centers around Michael Cera’s offbeat, ‘just wants to be loved’ character joining Shape Cult, a crossfit-style gym led by Rosario Dawson, features some of Artifex’s most difficult work on the series. The team added beauty work on Cera’s jacked-up muscle suit prosthetic, removing seams and texture, as well as providing workout “light” beams and particle effects. From there Artifex dove into the ‘meat’ of the episode. Cera’s character Tony creates juice-fueled carnivorous worms, which he eats to ‘max out’ and which eventually eat Dawson’s character in turn in a CG-fueled invertebrate feast Artifex created in Houdini.

“The two biggest shots for us were probably the opening establishing shot of Weird City, used in the first episode and opening credits, which was a full CG build descending down from the clouds,” said Artifex’s VFX Supervisor Rob Geddes. “And of course the worm sequence from episode two, which required extensive match-move work on the actress as well as some darkening and milking effects around her eyes, and heavy FX simulation of the wriggling and crawling worms.”

“Smart House,” the fourth part of the anthology, leans heavily on Artifex for comedic effects, as Dr. Negari has imbued a questionable personality as the A.I. on a ritzy home Above the Line, which lashes out at its owners. As the situation escalates during a house party, the home decides to get drunk on its own, for which Artifex created a CG animated sink hose using Maya that knocks over bottles of beer and chugs an entire bottle of fine scotch. For this scene, Artifex animated the hose over a green suited actor, removed digitally in Nuke. The gag culminates in an expulsion of alcoholic bile from the sink, created with spray simulations. As things continue to spiral out of control, the home catches fire and eventually explodes. This required artists to integrate practical fire elements with CG flames, smoke effects, and flying debris and matte damage.

Artifex rounds out the final episodes of “Weird City” with impressive contributions that took nuance to pull off. In episode five, characters lapse into a VR-style entertainment system akin to Netflix, where they experience TV show plots Below the Line. However, in this episode a CG dragon roasts two children as a “metaphor for poverty.”

“The dragon we were asked to create had to be part Game of Thrones and part camp,” said Artifex Founder Adam Stern. “Because it’s a comedy and these Above-the-Liners have such a limited understanding of life outside of their bubble, we had to create a monster that was intimidating and cool but at the same time, ultimately cliché. It’s a tricky thread to weave but we feel we pulled it off.”

In the final episode, “Below,” Artifex provided one of the most memorable images:  Awkwafina’s and Yvette Nicole Brown’s outfit swapping as they learn they have limited free will to do what they please. Tackling this required significant morphing and compositing work to aid the transition and get it to work naturally.

Artifex provided a total of 265 shots for “Weird City,” incorporating 21 artists as well as on-set VFX supervision.