Streaming Effects
Marc Loftus
Issue: Edition 1 2020

Streaming Effects

Cinesite created various creatures, like the Kikimora, for The Witcher.

Streaming services are making it easy for audiences to obtain their entertainment on-demand. And boy, are they delivering - not just on convenience, but on original programming as well. The shows are often unique, engaging, and full of amazing imagery and feature-film quality visual effects. Here we examine several shows that have upped the ante in terms of their visual content (and story), proving why streaming content has become a favorite option for viewers.



When you are delivering a fantasy series, visual effects are a must. But if you are delivering a great fantasy series, the visual effects have to be more than ordinary. They have to be extraordinary. And on this front, Netflix's The Witcher delivers.

Based on the book series of the same name by Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher is set in a medieval fictional world on a landmass known as "the Continent," where people often prove to be more wicked than beasts. The series follows the story of solitary monster hunter Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), and Cintran princess Ciri (Freya Allan), who find their destinies tied together.

Filming for the series ran from October 2018 through May 2019; Season 1 dropped at the end of December. All told, four studios were responsible for the visual effects: Framestore, One of Us, Platige, and Cinesite - the latter handling more than 250 shots across all eight episodes. That work focused mainly on creatures, with some crowds and other VFX that included filling the Continent with dangerous monsters and epic battles, in addition to a fiery climax sequence.

The work by Cinesite in London was led by VFX supervisor Aleksandar Pejic, who worked closely with production supervisor Julian Parry. Pejic was on set while Cinesite's shots were filmed.

"As well as being able to give input at that crucial stage, it meant we established a working relationship early on, which was very important for when we would be communicating remotely later," he says. "By the time I arrived in Budapest, the sets had been already built and the crew was ready to shoot. We worked closely with [Parry], providing information not available on set that would affect the filming of the visual effects. We created motion tests as well as concept designs in relation to the set pieces, which had been built, and this helped with understanding the limitations of the sequence itself in relation to the brief, the physical set, and cost."

Cinesite crafted the opening battle sequence in Episode 1, where Geralt of Rivia fights a massive arachnoid known as the Kikimora in a dark swamp. The Kikimora, a legendary amorphous kind of creature from Eastern European folklore, appears in the series as an enormous spider with a humanoid torso and head.

Before building the creature, the artists studied the movement of real-life insects to get a realistic and coordinated sense of movement for the eight-legged creature, which needed to be dangerous but also precise. So, early on, Cinesite's main work in regard to the creature involved look-dev for the people on set, in particular, understanding the speed and scale of the creature; creating motion tests; and thinking about how it would move through the swamp.

"We created various motion passes for different types of insects as we developed a sense of the Kikimora's speed," says Pejic. "The production provided previs and storyboards based on concept work, but once the set had been built, changes were required, which basically meant we started over."

As Pejic explains, the stunt choreography had plotted pre-planned moves, so the CG creature had to fit around those set pieces. Thus, the animators developed the Kikimora's movement to fit with the action, planning the interactions between Geralt and the creature, although the animation could not be planned too closely in advance, as the team needed to work with what had been filmed to get a real sense of connection during the fight.

"Keeping the legs looking tidy, not covering Geralt, yet still functioning realistically in a fight scene was key," he explains. "Too much action and the viewer would just get lost in a frenzy of legs!"

The scene was filmed in water on set, though it was fully replaced with CGI (using SideFX's Houdini) in most of the action shots, with the water surface covered densely with leaf litter and forest debris. To make the scene believable, animators had to maintain a realistic sense of movement and resistance on the Kikimora's legs while retaining the speed of the combat.

"The animators also had to take into account the Houdini water simulation. Moving a leg too quickly might cause an aesthetically unpleasing splash, so finding the right balance while still fully interacting with our hero was a complex task," says Pejic.

Although the majority of the swamp environment was built on stage, set extensions helped create scale and depth, which was particularly important for some angles and views, says Pejic.

"It's a mysterious place, with dark, skeletal trees and a foggy, dreamlike atmosphere," he points out. "The production provided HDRI and image references, and this, along with what had been shot on set, gave us plenty of information to drive explorations in Gaffer for our lighting rig setup."

Cinesite also created massive armies of Nilfgaardians and Cintrans.


Another early battle sequence, filmed on a hillside outside Budapest, required the creation of 10,000 Nilfgaardian soldiers fighting the Cintrans. They were simulated using Toolchef's Atoms Crowd system, and integrated to work within Cinesite's pipeline. Between 15 and 20 extras were filmed as reference and captured with 360-degree photogrammetry and motion-capture cycles as infantry and on horses, with a range of armor and uniform. This provided the artists with scale, lighting, texture, and movement reference. Later, they were replaced with Cinesite's crowd agents and CG horses.

The 3D team also created the Striga creature and the golden dragon for the series. The horrifying Striga is featured in Episode 3, in another fight with Geralt, this time in an old Gothic castle. A thin, haggard, zombie-like creature, the Striga has leathery skin, long stringy hair, and an umbilical cord hanging from its stomach. Most of all, the creature sports deadly fighting skills. To build the monster, the artists researched a wide array of reference material from horror films.

"Striga needed to have an otherworldly feel but not be supernatural. She had to conform to real-world physics, but at the same time, she had to be able to interact with the environment in some unusual and interesting ways," Pejic explains.

The production built a prosthetic costume, which was worn by the stunt crew for various action shots. However, that had its limitations, notes Pejic, as the elongated limbs were difficult for the stunt people to move in. As a result, the CG artists stepped in to augment and improve the prosthetics, as well to create the creature entirely in CG for some more physically demanding shots, which needed to intercut seamlessly with the prosthetic version. 

According to Pejic, the approach for the 2D shots was to get a full rotomation of Striga to use as a shape guide for more traditional 2D warping methods. The team created two versions of the model: one that matched the prosthetic, and one that was manipulated with a slimmer look. This allowed them to UV-project the plate onto the larger model in Foundry's Nuke, and then transfer these textures to the slimmer model, giving a procedurally slimmed image.

The artists were provided with a full cyberscan of the prosthetic, which was used to create the full-CG Striga for the shots that required more dynamic movement. 

"We made some adjustments to the prosthetic, which included extending the legs and arms, but needed to keep faithful to what was shot to ensure a seamless transition with the full CG version," says Pejic.  

In all, 12 shots involving a fully-CG Striga were created, in addition to several shots where the artists augmented the prosthetic. The face of the prosthetic was in some instances enhanced using a 2D approach, and in other shots replaced with a fully CG face.

During the fight, a blast forces Geralt and the Striga to fall through the floor of the Great Hall, down to the crypt below, where the battle continues. Houdini was used to create the destruction FX simulation, with dust and debris added.

"Animation was the toughest challenge for the creatures. Also, we needed to deviate from what was shot in the plate, but not too much because the rest of the sequence still had the stunt guys in the prosthetic - the biggest challenge was in creating consistency between the CG and real, while retaining the style of the original choreography," says Pejic.  "We had to make it better, more believable."

The Cinesite team also created the sequence with the golden dragon in the cave. As Pejic points out, the scale of the dragon was limited by the physical location. The cave interior was shot at a location close to Budapest, and the exterior shots outside of the cave entrance were filmed in the Canary Islands. 

"We followed the storyboard design and pre-production, although the look of the dragon changed significantly during production," he says. 

The golden dragon needed a regal and majestic bearing, Pejic says; he has a birdlike beak and golden, metallic skin with touches of rust. The animators initially concentrated on a set of poses, which fitted the creature's regal attitude and gave a sense of how imposing he was. These poses set the basis for the animation. 

"The clients wanted a different dragon look. They didn't want a robust battle dragon; the golden dragon is thinner, more elegant, with a longer neck. But he can still be aggressive, he can breathe fire," says Pejic. "We went through several iterations to get the look that the clients felt was right for the character."

Yennefer ignites a massive fire that spread via magic, thanks to VFX.

Although slim and regal, the golden dragon is nonetheless aggressive.


Cinesite was also charged with the sequence at the climax of the series involving the creation of a massive fire by Yennefer, spread magically and engulfing a nearby forest.

"It involved CG fire on a massive scale, which took a couple of months to create, with the first month spent entirely on shot setup," Pejic points out. "FX TD Evrim Akyilmaz did a great job. That solid foundation was vital and meant that making changes later on was much more straightforward. The second month was spent adapting the speed and look of the fire, as the client required."

The fire progresses very quickly, spreading through magic, but it had to be realistic and convincing. This effect was generated in Houdini by creating a CG forest and dividing it into sections - manageable chunks that were further subdivided into even smaller clusters.

Burn simulations were run on each cluster incrementally, reducing the overall render time and allowing the fire to spread from cluster to cluster in a convincing (although magically accelerated) way. There was the background, midground, and foreground; the midground and foreground were divided into seven sections, and each of these was further divided into three to seven smaller clusters, depending on how many trees the section required. The fire started in the middle of the forest, burning outward into the foreground and background. 

"Breaking the simulations down made rendering much quicker. Changes could be requested by the client and reviewed the following day," says Pejic. Rendering was done in Autodesk's Arnold. - Karen Moltenbrey



The new series Star Trek: Picard is an hour-long sci-fi program starring Sir Patrick Stewart, who reprises his iconic role as Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, which he played for seven seasons on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard follows the iconic character into the next chapter of his life as a retiree from the Star Fleet, as nagging memories about a galactic event, and its subsequent repercussions, haunt him.

Paul Ghezzo is creative director/VFX supervisor at Technicolor VFX in Los Angeles, which has done the post work on the series since Episode 5, and contributed to all of the subsequent episodes in Season 1, concluding with Episode 10. Multiple vendors provide visual effects for the series, including Pixomondo, DNeg (all 10 episodes), and Crafty Apes (1,200 shots - 140 on the pilot alone).

Ghezzo is one of two VFX supervisors who oversee the show for Technicolor. Most of the work at Technicolor evolves around set extensions (digital matte paintings or full-3D set extensions) and some props for the show. For instance in Episode 5, which features a puzzle box that emits a toxic gas, the group animated it but also came up with the design, the functionality, how the box opens, and how the gas is emitted.

Technicolor was among the vendors sharing the work on the new Picard series.

Much of Technicolor's set extension work has been based around inside the Borg Cube, an incredibly large alien spaceship (miles in diameter). "A lot of our work goes into extrapolating on the set pieces that they built on stage, and then we build in a ton of depth," says Ghezzo, noting that if a character were to fall over a handrail, the person would appear to fall dozens of floors to a dark and scary death. The studio also adds football fields of length and detail off into the distance to really sell the idea of its massive scope.

One of Technicolor's most complex visual effects contributions comes in Episode 10, where there is a fight sequence with some of the main characters.

"It's a set extension [with] over 40 shots, which entails not just geometrically building up the environment in 3D, but adding a lot of atmospherics," Ghezzo explains. "There's some steam, smoke, sparks. We had to do a couple of character takeovers, where we're replacing the performance with a digital double. There's hologram-style graphics that pop up and one of the performers gets thrown through it. And it all just blends together seamlessly." - Marc Loftus



DC Universe's Titans follows a group of young superheroes as they come of age. The show is a new, albeit darker, take on the Teen Titans franchise and features characters such as Batman's former sidekick Dick Grayson (Robin), the mysterious Starfire, the lovable Beast Boy, and Rachel Roth, who, as Raven, is possessed by a strange darkness.

Titans features several unique characters crafted or augmented digitally.

The series premiered in October 2018 and recently completed its second season. Encore VFX in Hollywood handled visual effects on the first two seasons of the show, helping to introduce the characters  as well as their signature powers. Each episode involves about 100 VFX shots, according to Armen Kevorkian, creative director/senior VFX supervisor at the studio.

One of the main challenges on the show was the transformation of Garfield "Gar" Logan into Beast Boy. "We decided early on that he's just going be a tiger for that year," explains Kevorkian of the character, which in cartoon versions regularly changes into a range of different animals.

Raven's effects entail a black energy. "[It] has a little bit of a liquid/smoky feel to it," says Kevorkian, "kind of like an extension of her evil side. It had to have its own personality. The way it attacked people. The way it wrapped around people. The way it just came out sometimes to show that she's on the cusp of that bad side."

The Raven character’s effects comprise a liquidy/smoky black energy.

Starfire, meanwhile, shoots flames from her hands. The team referenced "burning steel wool" as a starting point of what this should look like. All of her fire effects were created with CG and made to resemble that of a flamethrower.

"They're all simulations. We matchmove her so we can do the subsurface elements, and then if it's going to hit something, we usually have some kind of collider object there," explains Kevorkian. "If it's another person, we will usually put another digital double in as a collision object, so it feels like the fire is hitting something. The same goes if there's any kind of architecture it's going to hit."

Beyond the character work, Encore also created the entire exterior of Starfire's spaceship, along with parts of its interior to augment the practical interior used on set.

Having completed Season 2 of Titans, Kevorkian is working on another DC Universe streaming series - Doom Patrol - which, he says is coming to HBO Max. - Marc Loftus