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The Tick's VFX team explains how to make the most awkward superhero ever

Contributed by
Nov 29, 2017

Most comic book movies and television series these days take great advantage of the latest in visual effects. And though it's more character-driven, The Tick, Amazon Video’s series about a blue-costumed crime fighter and his sidekick Arthur, is no different.

The latest adaptation of Ben Edlund's landmark comic maintains its trademark unconventional style, which often requires some equally unconventional visual effects work. There’s a surprising number of CG actors, digital vehicles, a baddie called Overkill, a talking dog, and even a very large (naked) man. The Tick is currently half-way through its first season, but visual effects supervisor Chad Wanstreet from FuseFX found time to run SYFY WIRE through the show’s biggest effects shots so far.

FuseFX's visual effects breakdown video for The Tick.

The Tick is such an offbeat show, although those visual effects looked really challenging. Was the show as fun to work on as it looks?

Chad Wanstreet: The show was tremendously rewarding and a blast to work on due to the collaborative nature of the executive producers Ben Edlund, who is also the creator, Barry Josephson, and David Fury. We developed a great working relationship with them, both in our New York office as well as our L.A. office, and were able to work on not only the execution of the shots, but also a tremendous number of the visual concepts and designs of key elements of the show. This gave the team a great sense of ownership and pride in the work they produced, which I think shows in the final shots.

People might be surprised to learn about the extent of digi-doubles used in the show. What was your approach to acquiring reference of the actors and suits, and then building these characters and replicating them in CG?

Chad Wanstreet: Early on we knew they would be a component, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for how extensive the use became. To start, we scanned our actors with TNG visual effects to create the base geometry for the actors. 

While in the scanning sessions, hundreds of reference images were taken for additional sculpted high-resolution details and complex shader creation for the characters back at our office in L.A. Even after the base scans, there were still weeks of effort that went into adding the details to the models, in particular the faces, the rigging of their bodies, and, of course, adding the facial rigs to give the digital actors real personality.  Ultimately, having great talent on our team is paramount, and our character artists Matt Lefferts and Manny Sierra painstakingly crafted these assets, scrutinizing every pore and wrinkle.

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Since the characters are just "sort of" superheroes, was there anything you had to keep in mind when making them do superhero actions?

Chad Wanstreet: Absolutely. Arthur is what we refer to as a reluctant superhero, and as such, when animating his flight and actions in shots, we always tried to portray a sense of clumsiness and lack of skill. He has no prototypical superhero three-point landing, or other flashy move, and instead we focused on ways to help him feel off-balanced and unsure of himself.

The Tick, while he exudes a naiveté, is imbued with super strength and is practically invulnerable. To express this, we drew reference from the Hulk principally, since the Hulk has a carelessness to the consequences of his actions. While the Tick is certainly not careless, he is often completely oblivious to the fallout of his do-gooder deeds, and we looked to some of the body mechanics of the Hulk to draw parallels.

CG wings can be tricky for so many reasons. What challenges did you face with Arthur’s wings?

Arthur’s effect of flying was certainly tricky, as we started with a design for the pilot episode that had not been fully fleshed out. Originally, the wings did not articulate and fold in the ways that we ultimately ended up with. We drew a lot of inspiration from airplanes and kites when we started to conceive of his specific method of flight. Each of the flaps of the wings can air break and articulate to catch air when needed, as well as provide lift for Arthur. A good example of this is in Episode 5 at the park with Overkill, where he harpoons Arthur and then flies him like a kite to bring in him to the ground.

Additionally, when he did finally fly, we needed to convey his complete and utter lack of skill, which is not something that was easy to convey with the practical actor hanging on set, so the digi-double shots of him flying presented some of the biggest moments to really drive that story point home.

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OK, how’d you do the talking dog?

The talking dog is a blend of a digital and practical dog. We took a ton of reference photos of the dog, since he was not going to sit still long enough for us to scan him, as well as measurements, and then we hand-modeled him to match. We then shot all of the scenes with the practical dog in them, who, by the way, did a fantastic job. Each shot is then match-moved to line up the digital dog to the practical dog at every frame.

After that he was hand-animated by our dog animation extraordinaire, Gary Abrahamian, to the voice-over of the actor. Creating a rig for our digital dog that could enunciate and be convincing while speaking definitely proved to be a challenge, and each shot had new challenges to overcome to make the performance believable.

What’s the hardest effect you’ve had to pull off so far for the show?

The hardest for sure is yet to air, but of the episodes that have aired I would say that no single effect but rather the combination of all the effects, and the timeline we had to complete them for sure made the 5th and 6th episode very difficult. Both of these episodes had well over 100 shots each for us to complete in the span of about three weeks. We did them at the same time, pushing out 298 shots of Arthur flying, a talking dog, Tick and Arthur digi-doubles, and an out-of-control bus with explosions and destruction, at a rate I have never seen at another studio. To say the least, it was a massive challenge, and the team at FuseFX handled it with grace and composure, and a little bit of stress management.

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How did you approach filming the bus crash, even though the bus would be CG?

For that sequence, Terry Windell, the client-side VFX supervisor, created extensive storyboards which we used to guide what would be shot. My counterpart in our New York office, Jeff Wozniak, and Terry took point on set and had a practical complete bus as well as a practical bus rear that we used to shoot a number of the plates for the sequence.

The trouble became getting the explosions and smoke to look like they actually interacted with the practical bus. This involved us match-moving what was shot and then ultimately replacing the practical bus with the digital bus in most shots for continuity. For the rest of the sequence, we composed lock-off shots on set, knowing we would later add the digital bus, extended as required to compose the frame, and add camera drift and shake as needed.

Finally, what can you say about the very large, and naked, man from a VFX point of view?

Chad Wanstreet: At the moment, I can tell you he is large and growing, and the rest will be revealed after February 23, when the second half of the season airs. You won’t want to miss it.