CG Makes 'Avenue 5' a More Interesting Destination
May 28, 2020

CG Makes 'Avenue 5' a More Interesting Destination

Nviz provided previs, VFX, postvis and graphics services for Avenue 5, HBO’s space tourism comedy from Armando Iannucci. Set 40 years in the future, the series takes place aboard a fictional Judd Galaxy space cruise, where wealthy passengers enjoy all the luxuries space travel has to offer. The show’s cast is led by Hugh Laurie and Rebecca Front.
The show’s overall VFX supervisor Simon Frame previously worked with the Nviz team on sequences from the first series of Britannia, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. The Nviz team was led by VFX supervisor James Fleming and CG supervisor Sam Churchill, while the graphics were supervised by creative director Chris Lunney. 

The bulk of the studio’s work involved VFX, including the creation of environments inside and outside the spaceship, and starfield replacements. The studio also handled the gravity flip sequence in Episode 1, which serves as a pivotal event in the story arc. 

Previs for the gravity flip sequence was essential, not only to inform the director of the final look, but also to aid in planning the live action shoot. Previs was required to cover the three areas affected by the gravity shift: the atrium, which is the main area in the ship, the toy room, and the spa.

The previs was unusual in the fact that the team used crowd simulation for the many human characters in the various areas. Previs artist Eduardo Schmidek worked in Maya, using Miarmy for the crowd work, and worked on several iterations to find the right balance between accuracy in the gravity shift dynamics and the comedic timing. Once the general timing was established, the team was able to work in specific touches on hero shots.

Much of the action in Avenue 5 takes place in the atrium, and building this to show the scale and size of the ship was a challenge from a CG point of view. On set, the production built the ground and first floor. The Nviz team then augmented the environment in CG to make it appear six stories high. Each story was then dressed by 2D with crowd patches and 3D digi-doubles to complete the illusion of a bustling interior metropolis. The interior was also supplemented with Judd Galaxy branding signs and logos.

The Judd Galaxy spaceship features enormous viewing windows, and the 2D team was tasked with adding starfields and reflections. The action on-set had been shot against black screen and blue screen.  

“The black screens gave the advantage of allowing for more non-VFX live-action shots and saved on despill work,” explains Fleming. In addition to starfields, the view was occasionally augmented with a view of Saturn, CG meteors or a floating 3D astronaut.

The gravity flip sequence is a major sequence that provides the basis for the series’ plotlines, as the passengers and crew realize they are now stranded in space. The sequence was made up of large shots that integrated hundreds of elements. The work was a combination of a heavy 2D approach, using elements that had been shot on-set by Frame, including stunt performers being pulled from side to side, and then augmented with a barrage of CG elements, including digi doubles, yoga balls, yoga mats, massage stones, toys, cutlery, and a flying piano.

“We supplemented the scene with as much CG as we could get away with,” says Churchill. “The brief was to try to fully sell the sense of chaos and destruction.”

“Every live action person in that scene had to be rotoscoped, cut out and put carefully into every frame,” adds Fleming. “Then digi doubles (were) inserted for the action the stunt doubles couldn’t achieve. It was quite an undertaking.”

In addition to the wide hero and establishing shots, the sequence also cut in closer, including some comedy shots where piles of brightly dressed yoga enthusiasts are squashed up against the spaceship windows. CG props were added to most of these shots to try and emphasise the gravity direction. Food, yoga balls and mats were added to transform relatively static shots into far more dynamic ones and again drill home the gravity shift and the resulting chaos.

In another sequence, an “asteroid belt“ of excrement is accidentally ejected from and then gradually surrounds the ship. The Nviz team were provided with the original element that they then used to create up to 50 shots, with the elements comped into shot over multiple layers and angles, gradually increasing along with the developing storyline. 

Later in the series, when a passenger attempts to leave the ship via the airlock, they are frozen instantly. To realize this, multiple witness cameras were rigged on-set and the actors held heir final positions. Nviz’s VFX supervisor Fleming was present to oversee the process and this reference was then passed to a photogrammetry team that scanned the performers.  

The Nviz team had to decide whether to scan the performers in their final position on-set or in a T-pose that they would try to rig into position afterwards. Scanning the correct pose was always going to be the way to achieve the highest quality scan, however there would only be one chance to scan and if the poses were even a fraction out, they could create additional problems. The team opted for the latter.

The process then was to add the scan into the plate and match as closely as possible to the live-action performers. The differences in lighting, the balancing of textures and a handful of scan issues were dealt with before the team were able to begin to add the frost effect. 

As usual, comedy touches were added, such as a frozen eye-popping effect and shattering hands. Says Churchill, “The airlock sequence was such a fun sequence, with so much going on. The second I heard about it, I wanted it!”  

The fun didn’t stop there as the unfortunate frozen passengers float out into space and end up hitting the windscreen of a spaceship from Mission Control, like bugs on a highway.

In addition to all the action taking place in space. Nviz also created the Earth establishing shots for Judd Galaxy Mission Control. The basis for these shots were filmed at the famous McLaren head office. The team then got busy painting out the McLaren cars from the plate and augmenting the office with Judd branding signs, CG rocket ships and towers.

Another bulk of the studio’s work included the graphics required on board the ship. In all, Nviz worked on 400 graphics shots, with 144 different setups. The graphics team, led by Chris Lunney, both developed on-set designs for post production and then worked closely with the project’s production designer, Simon Bowles, to create new designs. The graphics ranged from the many advertisements and welcome screens around the ship, heads up displays for the bridge and spacesuits, to tablets, phones, and engine room and communication screens on board ship and Earth.

A final notable sequence takes place as Avenue 5 drifts through space and the crew decide to create a flight simulation tool for Captain Clark to learn how to dock the massive ship, as the controls could only be activated by his hands. The simulation sequences were created through a combined effort from Nviz’s 3D and graphics departments.  

The design, which was briefed to look like an early computer game, was created to seem incredibly complicated, with Clark’s first attempt resulting in 2,000 virtual casualties! The team built the entire simulator, including the space dock, Avenue 5, and a fleet of shuttles, much of which then had to be destroyed for the various simulations. 
The animation build and dynamics simulation was generated in Maya and then baked out and brought into Unreal Engine.