Lon Molnar, co-president of Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies, gives us the low down on how they created Thing and the chalk spider for the hit Netflix show
How did you become involved with this project?
Lon Molnar: Once MARZ caught wind of the fact The Addams Family was being rebooted, our ears all perked up. The idea of making Thing – a character, not just a body part – was the most enticing thing for us and we couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into it.
We had a prior relationship with the overall VFX Supervisor, Tom Turnball, who reached out to inquire about our interest and, given our particular strength in realistic character animation work, whether we’d be interested in putting Thing through its paces with some tests for the production. As we’re huge fans of Tim Burton, we were not going to let this opportunity pass by. The fact that Thing was set to be one of the main characters in the show, our decision was swift to go for it.
We created a test shot, essentially a short film, of a character performing a dance sequence in an attempt to fully grasp the essence of Thing. We explored how Thing may walk, crawl, leap, carry objects, communicate, rolling onto its stump so the fingers could emote/perform, and there were early discussions of a potential parkour movement.
Upon being awarded the character, it was exploratory and experimental in how and when the Thing character would be used in a CG perspective. It was all very much subject to the actor, and his capabilities. We were initially slated for a much larger volume of shots, but after Victor’s breathtaking performance, it was reduced. Thankfully, from our perspective, there were some limitations to his performance, and we were used when it was absolutely necessary. Those cases included performances that would be challenging to perform practically such as dropping out from under the car, or when Wednesday is walking down the street and Thing was resting on her shoulder. In some cases, it was a combination of practical and CG and shifting between them. We would use Victor’s hand, paint him out and continue the shot in CG.
Tell us about the team you put together for this show.
LM: We are thankful to have some of the finest artists in the industry on our team and eager to take on a character as interesting and challenging as Thing. For one, Animation Department Lead Michael (Enzi) Enzbrunner created a critically acclaimed short film where the main character was, in fact, a hand! Enzi’s talent and experience were a key part of handling the establishing animation of the character, which enabled us to push forward seamlessly.
Our CG Supervisor, Paul Chambers, who was heading Assets, had the responsibility to ensure Thing actually looked like a real hand. Paul knew early on that we wanted to keep the workflow for Thing in the Asset department for as long as possible, again, to ensure we had something fantastic. In turn, when the character was downstream in the pipeline, the character would only get better. It was all the little details that mattered most; the fingernails, the scarring, we did side-by-side tests that were pivotal to match Victor’s hand one-to-one for everything thereafter – both in look and in motion.
Across the board, we had to go all hands on deck for this – as much senior talent as possible and all our strongest artists to deliver the best possible rendition of this iconic and beloved character.
What preparatory work did you do prior to the shoot? How much were you present on set?
LM: After our initial test, we had a lot of back-and-forth discussions which also resulted in adjustments when we received the 3D scans and references of Victor’s Thing. Thankfully we had the pleasure of working with a seasoned VFX Supervisor, Tom Turnball, who has such vast experience and knowledge regarding what it takes to make a character like this come to life in post production.
That said, it was paramount for us to receive as much footage as possible of Thing. This is especially important when it comes to matching the lighting within the shots as accurately as possible. The amount of reference material we received enabled our CG takeover of Victor’s Thing to be significantly less cumbersome.
How did you create Thing and integrate the character into the required shots?
LM: Victor really defined the performance and we are trying to match and preserve as much of that performance as humanly possible. That is to say, the Assets department had to assess and create a full muscle system and even adjust skin thickness to make it feel like it has the right volume when it’s moving. The amount of on-set reference allowed us to adjust things accordingly, so we were changing Thing’s scale and volume by a one-pixel difference compared to the plate.
We were very interested in making Thing seem like a real hand as opposed to a disembodied hand. More accurately, making Thing more like an actor playing the role of a hand. In many instances, it was a process to make the animation less smooth to feel more like real human movement.
Tell us about your work creating the chalk spider.
LM: The main challenge on the chalk spider was to create a seamless transition from the flat 2D drawing in Xavier’s sketchbook to a fully articulated 3D spider walking around on the table. Internally, we developed several approaches to how this effect could be achieved to match Tim Burton’s vision.
Firstly, we played with a perspective illusion where the spider would stay 3D consistently throughout the shot, but is placed into a receded inlet in the book. When seen through the camera, it would appear as if the spider is squished – similar to an Ames room optical illusion; but instead of messing with the perception of scale, it would create an impression of ‘flatness’.
Our second take involved a ‘pop-up’ solution, where the model would be scaled from flat to a full 3D body, which looked promising as a proof of concept. Unfortunately, this introduced too many challenges in posing the legs in a certain way, so that they could be arranged in a natural standing position after the scaling effect occurred. Additionally, the transition between the two states felt too abrupt and, frankly, too obvious.
In the end, the shot was tackled in reverse. We would find the frame, where the spider is fully 3D and ready to be animated, but still matched the closest to the reference materials provided. The transition from the book was then executed mainly through a close collaboration between the surfacing, lighting, and compositing departments, creating a flawless transition between the reference and the animated CG spider. The main focus was on getting the shaders and textures on the model as close as possible to the charcoal drawing, as well as having the shadows cautiously appear from the flat image, while the spider transforms into a solid object.
How did you create Ajax’s hair?
LM: From a storytelling perspective, the animated snake under Ajax’s beanie was mainly there to support the character’s emotions, while he engaged Enid in the first episode. We decided early on we were going to replace the whole beanie and let the snake drive what was happening with the beanie – but with Tim Burton, you give him as much as possible, then we pull back until it’s much more subtle. The goal then was to not give away too much of what’s happening under Ajax’s hat, but simultaneously evoke the impression of something being underneath there and it’s alive.
The animation setup for this sequence was fairly straightforward. We created a flexible snake rig that was sitting on top of a match moving Ajax character. Since the animation needed to be very flexible and adhere to editorial timing changes on short notice, we had to make sure that the beanie deformation could be achieved efficiently and quickly. At first, we experimented with a traditional keyframe approach to create bulges and creases, which showed right away to be way too rigid for potential changes. So our obvious 2nd choice was then to have the beanie deform through an FX simulation, which was driven by the keyframe animated snake, which guaranteed speedy turnaround times and convincing, consistent results.
It was the subtlety that sold the effect; it alludes to realism, and the character’s snake reacts to the performance of the actor himself – we tried to not draw a lot of attention to it. Like Thing, we don’t want to encroach on an actor’s performance, but enhance it
What other shots did you work on?
LM: We are also responsible for building out the town of Jerico in Episode 3. We built out the entire town and the horizon and applied that look across most shots.
On the first trip to Jerico that the school takes, we did the longer establishing shots. The main hero shot of the vista and river was a lot of work on our end. The side-by-side tells the story. The production team had a very strongly fleshed-out set with facades of all the buildings in the main town square and the church itself. But all the other buildings in the town needed roofs and walls and we had some digital matte painting (DMP) work in the far distance. We really wanted to achieve that sense of scale in the town of Jerico.
Were there any unusual challenges on this project?
LM: Ultimately the most pressing challenge was Thing’s performance consideration. It was difficult trying to work out who this character is before Victor was even cast, and then as he was cast, getting his footage in to match it in real-time, and then the changes that came from that. We had to make Thing look real but fake at the same time. We had to match Victor’s incredible swagger before making Thing look seamless and making it believable.
With characters as iconic as Thing, there is always extra scrutiny surrounding it. Though now we are anxious for season two – we have an entire library of Victor’s performance and thus a much bigger scope of what his performance looks like, what the character is, and its atypical movement. Victor brings something ineffable to the character, and the twitchiness which is what makes Thing… Thing! Hopefully, we can use that knowledge seamlessly in season two.