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Fairy Tales Can Come True

HIVE-FX brings to life the creatures of NBC’s Grimm.

By Christine Bunish

The Geier, created by HIVE-FX, appears in the woods in an episode of Grimm.
The Geier, created by HIVE-FX, appears in the woods in an episode of Grimm.

Portland, Oregon’s HIVE-FX (www.HIVE-FX.com) can turn ordinary people into monsters.

That’s the company’s creative brief for the NBC series Grimm, now shooting its second season in town. HIVE-FX is one of the preferred VFX vendors for the creatures in the show in which Portland homicide detective Nick Burkhardt (played by David Giuntoli) inherits his family’s legacy as one of the last of the Grimms who protect the human race against the menacing creatures from folk and fairy tales still living among us.

President Jim Clark and executive producer Gretchen Miller in the Portland, Oregon studios of HIVE-FX.
President Jim Clark and executive producer Gretchen Miller in
the Portland, Oregon studios of HIVE-FX.

It was quite a coup for four-year-old HIVE-FX to land Grimm. The company competed against other VFX vendors in Portland and LA in two rounds of tests. HIVE-FX scored with its approach to the creature morphing process and was awarded approximately 100 VFX shots for the first five episodes, which the company completed in three weeks. It subsequently contributed 15-25 shots per show for episodes 10, 12, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21 and 22.

For Grimm, HIVE-FX specializes in creatures, morphs, hair and animals. Det. Burkhardt routinely gets entangled with creatures in his work on the police force; he has the ability to see that people who appear to be ordinary human beings conceal creatures – wolves, goats, bears, snakes, bees, dragons and more – within themselves. When these creatures are revealed to Burkhardt, the actors morph from human to their hidden personae and back again. Repeat encounters feature longer scenes of creature transformation.

Creatures Featured

HIVE-FX is tasked with turning concept art for the creatures into fully 3D characters. “We sit down with the director, line producer and VFX supervisor and talk about the look and feel of every shot,” said HIVE-FX president Jim Clark. “We use photos of the actors, taken on set from every angle, as reference to help recreate their heads in 3D. We also put five or six tracking points on the face of each actor to reference the CG model and track to [it].”

He explained that initially they performed the creature morphs as a 2D process. “But that was too slow and inconsistent,” he said. So the company devised a process in which a 3D sculptor builds a model of the actor in several days. Then the creature is sculpted on top of the actor “so we can transform from the person to the creature seamlessly,” Clark said. “It’s easier to just move one slider and go from person to monster.”

Since the camera is usually not locked down for the morphs, all camera tracking is a hybrid proprietary process using automated and manual techniques, which adds to the complexity of each shot. “Tracking heads and hands is very time consuming,” says Clark. “The way our process works allows us to do three shots per day – that’s one of our big competitive edges.”

He recounts how, for the pilot, a subcontractor was charged with tracking three shots over a two-week period. They were unable to finish even one. Then HIVE-FX took on the task and completed all three in one day. The company employs Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes 3D tracking software for camera moves and its own Pinning software for head tracking.

As regular viewers of Grimm will know, sometimes a creature morph is preceded by the actor’s head shake. “That creates more tracking issues for us, but some directors like it because they feel it helps get the performance they want because the actor’s whole body is involved,” Clark explained.

New creatures turn up in every episode, but two have had regular roles in the first season. Beautiful lawyer Adalind Schade (Claire Coffee) was also a frightening witchy Hexenbiest. “Females are the hardest creatures to do,” notes HIVE-FX executive producer Gretchen Miller. “There’s a fine line between attractive and scary; we can get five, six, seven character redesigns for them.”

The Hexenbiest was originally created as a one-off who tries to murder Burkhardt’s aunt, who is also a Grimm. “We didn’t know she’d be coming back,” Clark said. “Once we recreated her, we could repurpose the 3D asset over the other shows.”

It takes painstaking roto work for HIVE-FX to create the wispy-haired, witchy Hexenbiest, a recurring character in Grimm.
It takes painstaking roto work for HIVE-FX to create the wispy-haired, witchy Hexenbiest, a recurring character in Grimm.

Adalind Shade has long, flowing blonde hair, which changes to white when she morphs to the Hexenbiest. “We have to paint out her hair in every frame and make it white for the transformation,” Clark reports. “It’s a very labor-intensive process; we have really talented roto artists who can maintain the wispiness of the strands of hair.”

In one of the last episodes of season one, the Hexenbiest loses her powers in a VFX shot where her ghostly spirit leaves her body. “We had a lot of latitude in creating the shot,” Clark said. “We decided to do it as a complex 2D process compositing a series of still photographs from start to finish. We have a good dynamic with the production team; they understand that we try to push the look to create something different and sophisticated.”

The other recurring character is Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), a clockmaker and reformed Bludbot – the proverbial Big Bad Wolf, who helps Burkhardt navigate the Grimm world. The design of Monroe’s creature, originally done by another vendor for the pilot, has evolved through season one. “Monroe is a bit amorphous; he’s designed a bit differently each time since the show alternates vendors, and we don’t typically share assets because we use different software,” Clark explained. “We rebuilt Monroe as a sculpted human so we can morph him from digital human to digital monster instead of using a 2D process. So his asset is easier for us to deal with now.”

Among the most difficult creatures to craft were the fire-breathing dragon faces, says Clark. “They required hard-core displacement maps – incredibly high-resolution models. We shot real fire and composited it coming out of their mouths.”

Clark supervised an innovative shot in episode five in which the bluebeard Ziegevolk’s reflection appears in the garden pond of his Bed & Breakfast Inn. “We had the option to shoot plain water and add a full CG character, but on set I decided to lock down the camera, shoot the actor with his real reflection, then have him step aside and shoot plain water,” he said. “We did the transformation on his reflected image and added back in the reflection values from the plain water. The process worked pretty smoothly.”

HIVE-FX has no crossover with practical effects, he notes. But sometimes the company is called upon to match the make up of Academy Award-winner Barney Burman, the show’s special make up effects designer and creator whose work is typically shown in wide shots. “We sometimes do 2D augmentation adding blinks or snarls to the make up,” says Clark. “One shot where a werewolf falls on his face and turns was done with a prosthetic mask, but we were asked to add facial twitching and mouth and eye movements.”

Monroe, seen here in his CG Bludbot incarnation created by HIVE-FX, befriends Det. Nick Burkhardt and helps him on his Grimm missions.
Monroe, seen here in his CG Bludbot incarnation created by HIVE-FX,
befriends Det. Nick Burkhardt and helps him on his Grimm missions.

HIVE-FX also has created full CG animals for season one, including a bear that falls into a pit trap and a series of small frogs that populate the Ziegevolk’s garden. “Ninety percent of the frogs hopping in the garden were CG,” Clark said. “When the Ziegevolk ate one, the actor was chewing on a gelatin version, which we replaced with a CG frog. When Burkhardt’s partner stepped on one he lifted his shoe, and we saw a CG squashed frog with CG blood and guts.”

Selecting Software Solutions

The HIVE-FX team uses an extensive roster of software solutions for Grimm. Everything starts with 3D sculpting in Pixologic’s ZBrush then models are sent to Autodesk Maya for rigging and animation. Imagineer Systems’ Mocha is the 2D planar tracker; Adobe After Effects is the compositing tool.

The company is transitioning to The Foundry’s MARI for high-end 3D digital paint. “It allows for displacement maps and texture maps and can easily be managed in realtime,” Clark said. Surfacing also is done with Autodesk Mudbox and hair with MAXON CINEMA 4D.

Clark calls CINEMA 4D “pretty much the best off-the-shelf hair tool on the market.” He had tested the software when he worked at Portland animation studio Bent Image Lab, which he helped to build, “and fell in love with it. CINEMA 4D is not looked at as a character tool, but it’s very strong and its UI is so easy. I use it on every production.” In fact, a dedicated HIVE-FX team partners CINEMA 4D and Adobe Photoshop for Nike branding projects.

The company renders skin through Chaos Group’s V-Ray and hair with CINEMA 4D; composites tie the two together.

Software runs on custom Intel 12-core workstations with 24-48 gigs of RAM each. NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics cards are used to process data. The render farm is comprised of 42 IBM quad-cores; about half a TB of RAM is dedicated to rendering shots.

After a cut of an episode is approved, most vendors receive DPX sequences to work with. But HIVE-FX requests raw QuickTime files from the ARRI ALEXA cameras used to shoot the show. Portland’s Koerner Camera supplies ALEXAs to Grimm; it also supplies cameras to Leverage and Portlandia, which also shoot in the city.

HIVE-FX created the fire-breathing dragon Daemonfeuer for Grimm, compositing real pyro elements in its mouth.
HIVE-FX created the fire-breathing dragon Daemonfeuer for Grimm, compositing real pyro elements in its mouth.

“We rip our own sequences in-house, which helps our efficiency,” says Clark. “They ask for eight frames head and tail then automatically put 24 frames on head and tail if we want to extend a shot. We generate a QuickTime movie with all the data for the shot burned in: lensing, frame count, in and out points, plus three sets of timecode data – raw footage frame count, actual number of frames used in the edit and total number of frames.”

HIVE-FX uploads QuickTimes of work in progress to drop into the editing software so producers and others in the approval chain can review their shots in context. Final DPX frames are uploaded to the network server; they are pulled off and given to the show’s colorist for grading. “With this method we can deliver up to Thursday morning for Friday air,” Clark said. “There have been times when we got a full character redesign three days before delivery – they may want to see more of an actor in a creature. But our pipeline is so smooth we could accommodate that.”

NAS Offers Failsafes

Since HIVE-FX “is growing fast and is budget-conscious,” Clark says it has opted not to install one massive file server to handle workflow storage. Instead the company uses multiple Buffalo NAS (Network Attached Storage) systems: One for Grimm, one for Nike, one for active commercial projects and one for all the company’s assets.

“We have triplicates of all of them in other secure locations; we back up day and night so we have three copies of data at all times,” explained Clark, who oversees all the data management. “Every hour, for example, Grimm files are copied to a back up server that never deletes them and to a mirror server, which is identical to the primary server.”

 HIVE-FX created the porcine CG Bauerschwein creature for Grimm.
HIVE-FX created the porcine CG Bauerschwein creature for Grimm.

Many failsafes are built into the NAS. “A free utility from Buffalo shows the status of all the NAS so we know immediately if one goes down,” he said. “If the primary server tanks, we go to the mirror, change its name to primary server and it invisibly takes on that role.”
The company added 120 TB of archival storage, which it maintains online, not offline. “We re-access so much material all the time that we have to keep an online archive,” Clark said.

When season one got underway, HIVE-FX initially did episodes one through five consecutively. “Then we decided that it was best to do every other episode because the schedule was so tight: We were delivering an episode a week, and we want to do a great job,” noted Clark.

But with the commencement of season two, the company hopes to increase the number of shots it takes on. “In season one we got a great process together; now we feel like we can streamline things and bump up the number of shots a bit,” he said. “We’re excited about building a team of talent that’s world-class. We’re in the position of being a company that’s recognized worldwide, but isn’t in LA.”

In addition to its VFX offerings, HIVE-FX also has a full editorial suite and adjacent Pinata Post boasts a Da Vinci color suite.

Clark is proud of what his company – and Portland – have been able to achieve. “When we opened four years ago nothing was shooting here. Now we have Grimm, Leverage and Portlandia. Portland is technically progressive: Google is discussing putting a major station here. Intel, HP, Adidas, Nike and [advertising agency] Wieden+Kennedy help drive a lot of work. The design energy is good, there are a lot of resources, and the cost of living is low.

“We’re glad we got a foothold here before anybody else!”

May/June 2012 Table of Contents

November 7, 2012