Making TV: Making Grimm Faces
Grimm, NBC’s hit series, succeeds with a unique shooting style and visual effects few network and cable channels would dare to try.
By Michael Fickes
A mouse creature from Grimm.
Marshall Adams shoots Wesen monsters. But he is not a Grimm.
Working with visual effects experts, Grimm Cinematographer Marshall Adams, ASC, lensed eight of 15 episodes shot so far in the second season of NBC’s hit police drama with a monstrous twist. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett alternates with Adams and handled the other seven episodes. Rocket also shot four of the last nine episodes in season one, alternating with Cort Fey.
The series premise claims that the Grimm Brothers fairy tales were true reports, not fiction. The Wesen or monsters are real. We don’t know about Wesen because they take human forms. When upset, though, they change into creatures with monstrous heads and paws. The Brothers Grimm could see the monsters beneath their human shapes. They killed the creatures and wrote about them. Grimm descendants do the same.
Nick Burkhardt (played by David Giuntoli), a Portland police detective, is a Grimm descendent. As a cop, Nick doesn’t shoot every Wesen he encounters, only the lawbreakers.
However, Adams does shoot every Wesen he sees, using three ARRI ALEXA cameras and Cooke Series 4 lenses. “We carry 14mm through 135mm,” Adams says. “We also carry Angenieux Optimo 12:1, 4:1 and two small zooms – 15mm to 40mm and 28mm to 76mm.”
“In addition to dark and horrific moments, Grimm is a wide-angle show, which is unusual,” Adams says. “When I worked on CSI: New York, we rarely used wide-angle lenses. We shot a shallow depth of field.
“On Grimm, the depth of field is deeper and everything – foreground and background – is in focus,” Adams continued. “We’ll shoot scenes with a 15mm lens. Then, rather than zooming in for a close-up, we’ll go in with a 25mm lens. It’s a much different look.”
Another stylized technique is shooting up. “The camera almost always shoots up from below the actor’s eye line,” Adams says.
Grimm is a dark show, both in mood and lighting. Adams often shoots with the ALEXA set to 800, the digital chip equivalent of the ASA number describing film speed. “The setting provides amazing images and beautiful details at low light levels,” he says.
When Adams needs more light, he selects from 18K HMIs, 20K incandescents and other traditional lights. “Our go-to lights, however, are battery operated 12-inch by 12-inch LED panel lights that don’t need power cords,” he said.
“The LEDs provide bright light that you can dim. And when you shoot up like we do, you have to hide any lights on the ceiling or paint them out. The panel lights are easy to hide.”
Put on a nasty face
When Adams shoots Wesen, he doesn’t see the monsters inside, just the actors whose actions change from human to animalistic.
A large visual effects group carries out the creature transformations. “The visual effects people are great,” Adams says. “It is amazing how much freedom we have to shoot. Years ago, we were given lots of direction.”
“We want the director and cinematographer to have as much freedom as possible,” says Eddie Robison, VFX supervisor with Inhance Digital, one of several visual effects companies that creates Grimm creatures and transforms the actors shot by Adams and Rockett into Wesen. Inhance also handles baseline visual effects such as muzzle flashes, monitor burn-ins, and green-screen compositing. One of the more complex effects created swarms of bees that attack Nick and his partner Hank (Russell Hornsby).
“We break creature effects into two phases,” he continues. “First, we develop concept art for the creature. We add texturing – fur, hair, scales – whatever is called for.”
It takes a week to create a concept and get approvals.
To produce the effect, Robison’s team uses Pixologic, Inc.’s ZBrush to sculpt a model. NewTek’s LightWave 3D or Autodesk’s 3D Studio Max then animate and render the creature.
“Max seems to be better for creatures with fur and hair, while LightWave is better with scaly creatures,” Robison says.
Fusion from eyeon Software Inc. handles the compositing chores, completing the final transition.
The Wesen appear only for a time. They always change back to human form. Then, only a Grimm knows who they are. So be careful.