The second season of the IMDb TV teen spy thriller sees VFX finessed by Goodbye Kansas Studios
Following their contribution to the first season of Alex Rider, Goodbye Kansas Studios has delivered 215 shots and 12 assets for the second season of the action thriller series. Based on the hugely popular teen spy novels by Anthony Horowitz, season two sees the eponymous hero return as a teenage secret agent working under MI6. Goodbye Kansas Studios acted as the primary VFX vendor, with the team led by VFX supervisor Jim Parsons and CGI supervisor James Sutton from the studio’s London division. The first season of the series premiered in 2020, with Horowitz serving as an executive producer alongside Eleventh Hour Film’s Jill Green and Eve Gutierrez, and series writer Guy Burt. The series was distributed worldwide by Sony Pictures Television.
With a style grounded in realism and acclaimed for its understated adaptation of the original books, Alex Rider captures a unique, contemporary edge of the spy genre. After establishing the characters and key plot points in the first season, we now find Rider pushed to new limits with the introduction of deadlier, technological villains, holographic illusions, and of course, explosions — all revolving around a villainous video game. In this series, the use of VFX becomes a vital component in moving the plot forwards.
One of the key VFX sequences revolves around a deadly drone that begins destroying everything in its path. “Like all digital assets, the drone started with some good references and concepts,” says James Sutton, CG supervisor at Goodbye Kansas Studios. While there were several practical drones on set to provide point-of-view action and act as stand-ins for both timing and eyelines, Goodbye Kansas were responsible for developing the digital asset of the killer drone.
“The challenge for us in 3D was that our killer drone was in essence a hybrid of a commercial drone and a heavy duty Gatling gun. We had to first make sense of its construction and overall design language. A lot of effort was made researching military hardware and determining how the mechanics would function being sure to reference component parts and materials from real world examples. Staying true to real world examples in this way really helped push the realism of our drone.”
“The animated CG drone was enhanced with numerous 2D effects from the compositing team producing some exciting shots ,” says Jim Parsons, VFX supervisor at Goodbye Kansas Studios. The CG team created the animated drone with the compositing team adding additional elements and details including Gatling gun shells, tracer fire, laser pointers, and smoke. The scene ends in a violent drone chase, necessitating the combination of compositing and 3D to create the effects of damage, including bullet holes and fire.
Along with killer drones, the action-packed series also introduces several villains in the form of augmented reality skeletal warriors. These characters appear in a sequence in which Rider dons a headset to see them and a suit to feel pain points when hit. To create this incorporeal effect, the asset designs had to maintain an air of fantasy about them.
A key challenge for the team within these sequences was maintaining the show’s realistic feel while developing this fierce, “video-game-style” character design. The team’s research involved both ancient Aztec imagery and game character designs from Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct as reference points. “It always had to have a game element to it,” adds Parsons.
Following the character design, the next step was pinning down the animated movements through motion capture. With Goodbye Kansas Studios’ motion capture studio unavailable due to pandemic restrictions, they had to get creative with performances.
“We had to go for an alternative option, which was three men — two dancers, and one stuntman — dressed in green outfits. They performed on the set so that Alex Rider actor, Otto Farrant, could have a reference for aiming. We filmed them in their suits, and used their movements as the basis for the animation of the skeleton warriors,” says Parsons.
To utilise the filmed movement, Joe Arnold, Head of Tracking, and Fredrik MacLeod, Creature Supervisor, developed a solution. “We captured the movements through roto anim, a process which extracts the movements from film to digital space. Once in the digital realm we were then able to map these movements to our Aztec warriors. It then required just a little bit of animation cleanup, plus secondary animation for the costumes. This process produced around 70% of the animation for the sequence, proving to be a very effective approach.”
From the Stockholm office, VFX Supervisor Staffan Linder then polished multiple shots including adding extra character to the creature animations. These included the warriors putting hands on hips, laughing, and moving their fingers while they’re preparing to shoot their bow and arrows at Rider.
For Sutton, a VFX highlight of the sequence was a shot in which Rider shoots three of the warriors in quick succession: “It’s quite a moment — Alex is getting into a rhythm of defeating the warriors by this stage. Pop, pop, pop, one by one, the characters digitize into glowing cubes that fall to the ground. It’s really quite satisfying to see them disintegrate one after the other.”
While maintaining the realistic tone of the series was an important requisite, the rules were sometimes bent for creative expression. “For no reason whatsoever, one of the Aztec skeleton warriors becomes a giant and then shoots lightning out of his eyeballs,” Parsons reveals. “The director of this block, Rebecca Gatwood, just thought it was cool. It was a highlight for me — I thought it was a brilliant shot. Sometimes, you’ve got to go with ‘cool’ over ‘reality’.”
With regard to the warrior’s design reference points — the team looked back at Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts designs — Sutton comments, “For us, this is our little nod to that work, rather than necessarily a direct reference. It’s nice to think that we can follow in those footsteps when developing new works.”
Alex Rider’s second season launched on IMDb TV in the US and UK on December 3rd, 2021.
Here’s the breakdown reel:
About Goodbye Kansas Studios
Goodbye Kansas Studios offers award-winning and uniquely integrated services for feature films, TV series, commercials, games and game trailers. Expertise includes VFX, FX, CG productions, 3D Face & Body Scanning, Digital Humans, Creature & Character design, Performance Capture, Animation and RealTime expertise. The company, with a staff of 250+ is part of Goodbye Kansas Group AB (publ), listed on the Nasdaq First North Growth Market and with studios and offices in Stockholm, London, Vancouver, Helsinki, Vilnius, Belgrade, Beijing, Los Angeles & Manila.