How Outpost VFX regenerated Demerzel’s android skull for <i>Foundation</i> Season 2
October 6, 2023

How Outpost VFX regenerated Demerzel’s android skull for Foundation Season 2

Season 2 of Foundation picks up a century after the events of the Season 1 finale. In an explosive first episode we’re reunited with Emperor Cleon Brother Day who narrowly escapes an assassination attempt from the Blind Angels. 
Demerzel, Brother Day’s loyal robot-aide, gets caught in the action and receives a samurai sword to the head, resulting in half of it being sliced off and thrown across the floor. Later we watch as Demerzel calmly repairs herself using nanotechnology, giving us just a glimpse at the power she has available to her. 
The Outpost VFX team were excited to work with the captivating and complex character of Demerzel once again, after working on a key sequence featuring her in Season 1 which saw her tear her humanoid skin to reveal her true robotic form beneath. For Season 2, Outpost’s 2D and 3D departments led the design of Demerzel’s inner skull and the behavior of her regeneration process across a number of shots. 

We spoke to Outpost VFX Supervisor Mathieu Assemat, 2D Supervisor Geoff Wigmore, and CG Supervisor Himanshu Khatri about the team’s work on the sequence, and how they brought this moment to life. 

Can you tell us what was in the plates for this sequence, and where did you begin?

Mathieu Assemat (MA): The plate featured Demerzel actress, Laura Birn, in front of a vanity mirror, wearing a cap across one side of her head. We were tasked with removing the capped area and replacing with CG elements that represented her android skull and its inner workings. In this sequence she heals herself with nanotechnology, so we were also responsible for developing the look of that regeneration process, using some work we’d done in Season 1 as reference. 

This sequence was both creatively and technically challenging; in one shot in particular, there’s a sweeping camera move that meant we could see four different angles of her face in various mirrors, as well as the back of her head from her ‘live’ self. This was one of the early challenges this sequence provided as we had to accurately track her in each reflection so that we could embed the CG elements. 

Geoff Wigmore (GW): Whenever you’re working with mirrors on set, you’ll invariably see the crew too, so we ended up recreating some of the room in order to remove all instances of the on-set cameras and crew. 

Each shot had its own challenges, for example on the extreme close-up shot there were a few candles lighting her from different angles on set, and obviously they were flickering at different times which meant it was a bit of a challenge for us to match with CG lighting. 

For Demerzel’s android skull and its internals, did the client have a specific look in mind or did you help to develop that? 
MA: The relationship we had with the client was very collaborative. For the skull, they had a loose direction on what they liked and didn’t like, and so from there [Outpost VFX Art Director] Steve Molloy started with some concept work to get us going in the right direction. We also gathered loads of reference for both the internal circuitry and the webbing, looking at circuit boards and quantum computers. We did a couple of versions and sent them as proposals, alongside some really early tests to try to understand where they wanted it to go. 

GW: Throughout the whole process, the client-side team were really great to work with and very open to collaboration. They would show us some options to work from and provide us with really clear and constructive feedback. It was nice to be able to have that kind of creative input. 

What was the process behind the regeneration behavior? 

MA: What you see in the series is actually version one. We began with a really rough mock up from the client, which Head of CG Joan Panis used to create some rough concepts, and the final was an early version that the client re-elected. We did a couple of refinements timing wise, but otherwise the look and behavior were largely unchanged. We used one big cache throughout the three shots where you can see the top of her head and it worked really well. The client really liked it. 

GW: We had the added benefit of having done something similar in Season 1, so we knew the client already had an idea for how this technology worked and what it looked like, but Mathieu really drove to the heart of what the client was looking for quickly, and that helped the overall process greatly.

Demerzel uses a pen-like tool to restore her skull, how did the team develop the look and behavior of that?

MA: That was actually a really fun process because at the beginning there were conversations about the pen being able to stretch and do some really weird things, so we did a version based on those notes and showed it in a client call and we all decided it was looking a bit odd and not really working. 

We discussed it with them a bit, what they liked, didn’t like, and we all floated some ideas around. After that, we went to the team and asked everyone to do one version. I did a version, Geoff did a version, all the compositors did a version, and in the end we used a little bit from pretty much all of the versions that were made by the team. It was a really nice way to get everyone to design something, and we all made something really different. 

When we presented them all in the next client call, I don’t think they were expecting it but they looked at each one and picked out the elements that they liked the most, and so we ended up mixing them all together to get what you see in the show. 

Himanshu Khatri (HK): Again, we were able to use our work in Season 1 as a jumping off point. We wanted to use that idea for consistency, but also make it a little more complex which is why we went down the laser route; we have some of the ‘magic’ particles that were shown in Season 1, but there’s a stronger beam in the center. 

What was one of the bigger challenges you faced within this sequence?

MA: Blending between Demerzel’s head and hair to the circuitry was probably one of the bigger challenges. We had DMP recreating some hair to try to hide some parts of the plate that didn’t look quite right.   

GW: Also, because she’s talking in a few of the shots, she’s moving in some very subtle ways; for example, the jaw moves, her temples go in, all the skin shifts on her head slightly. To get it to over the line we needed some serious CFX help, as well as comp reprojecting, warping, and blending. It was definitely a labor of love. 

What were some of the considerations you had be aware of when revealing the inner part of her skull?

GW: There’s a shot where she’s talking to Brother Day who is stood behind her, and that’s where you see the most of her skull and what’s inside. The challenge here was to represent all of that without confusing the image, because as soon as you start adding more layers and details, the more difficult it is to make sense of. 

We went through iterations of this, making it less busy and experimenting with whether or not we wanted to include lights. We figured if we put lights in there then that’s going to obscure everything in the front, it’ll flatten it out and you’re just going to see a whole mess of thingsthat’s before you even start to think about sampling concerns and things like that. So we kept it a bit simpler in that sense.

GW: One thing that we did stumble upon, in this shot and the others, was how much distortion is involved in a perfectly flat mirror. There are all of these little imperfections and differences that we needed to make up for otherwise it didn’t feel like it’s true to life. 

You see her eclipse the edge of the small mirror which has a lot of distortion towards the edges; her head kind of wraps as she gets towards the edge which is really difficult to do in 2D or 3D, and so we took a mixed approach where we had CFX deform her skull so we could achieve the look of the tracking in CG, so there was a little bit of cheating going on to make it stick in each of the mirrors.

Watch Outpost’s work in Foundation Season 1 and 2, both available to stream now.

Foundation S2 VFX Breakdown: Watch 00:41 - 01:00 for the Demerzel android skull sequence

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Images courtesy of Outpost VFX