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MARZ VFX Interview: Watchmen, The Expanse, & More

MARZ, short for Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies, is a tech company and VFX studio focused exclusively on premium television programs like The Expanse and The Umbrella Academy. They are also working on Marvel’s highly anticipated WandaVision series, and are arguably best known for their work on Looking Glass’s CGI mask in HBO’s Watchmen show, an effect which has been praised by critics and viewers as a rare example of an absolutely perfect visual effect.

Like all great VFX sequences, Looking Glass’s reflective mask works so well because it seamlessly fits within the reality of the show, meaning most viewers will watch the show without realizing they’re seeing any CGI at all. CGI is prevalent across both film and television, but the fast-paced nature of TV production means corners are frequently cut in order to meet deadlines and operate within a limited budget. Companies like MARZ specialize in creating film-quality CGI effects within the premium television space. It’s been said the rise of cable and streaming has created a new “golden age” of television, and the work done by companies like MARZ allows the most critically-acclaimed TV shows to boast the production values of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters, closing the gap between film and TV.

Related: Disney: 5 CGI Scenes That Still Look Great (& 5 That Don’t)

Screen Rant spoke to MARZ Co-Presidents Jonathan Bronfman and Lon Molnar, as well as VFX Supervisor Ryan Freer about some of the work done by the company in some of today’s hottest shows, including Watchmen, The Expanse, and The Umbrella Academy. They talk about the pros and cons that came with working from home during quarantine, the evolution of CGI over the years, and the trick to creating good CGI blood, among other topics that will surely be of interest to cinema fans and VFX artists.

Are you still working from home? If not, how long were you working on your personal computers as opposed to your work rigs? Can you talk a bit about some of the challenges or unexpected rewards that come from working at home? I imagine your average render time goes up a bit at home…

Jonathan Bronfman, Co-President: Primarily, we are still working from home. About 10-15% of our employees have chosen to work out of our Toronto studio and everyone else is working remotely.Given the nature of the visual effects business, we don’t really use personal computers—both because our team works off of our shared studio drive to protect the privacy of our clients, and because the computers we use are high-end machines with unique specifications. So before the shutdown even became official, we created a process for remote access and asked our team members to use their personal computers to tunnel into their studio workstations. This means render times aren’t affected because our team is still relying on the studio’s setup, and that’s worked really well so far.The main challenge of working remotely is building a culture—especially given that we’re continually onboarding new members to our team. It’s a struggle to replicate the camaraderie and bonding that are so natural when a bunch of talented, hard-working people work out of the same office. Efficiency is another challenge, because of compression issues when working remotely. But the number one reward, of course, is that people get to spend more time with their families.

Hollywood productions are in a tricky place with shutdowns and closed sets, but the need for VFX artists is probably greater than ever. Work-from-home notwithstanding, how else have you pivoted to adjust to the current Hollywood landscape?

Jonathan Bronfman, Co-President: This situation created either a feast or famine environment. We were lucky enough as a company to have contracts that held us over the course of this pandemic, and allowed us the unique position of avoiding layoffs. In fact, we continued to hire more people throughout. And now there is a wave on the horizon, with an anticipated glut of new projects (that’s needed by networks to continue releasing new content) being hopefully imminent. Only a few factors made the difference between this feast and famine for us. Firstly, being a young company with a focus on technology made us relatively lean. Secondly, the duration of contracts and bids that we had secured were longer. And lastly, the shooting schedules of these productions were favorable, with a lot of our shows being wrapped as opposed to just getting started (and having to shut down). Companies that unfortunately didn’t share our reality when it came to these three key factors, suffered.

In the coming months or years or however long it takes for Covid restrictions to become unnecessary, do you think work-from-home will become more commonplace for your industry? Are computer-focused office jobs going away, or is the act of literally “going to work” a vital part of your day-to-day life?

Jonathan Bronfman, Co-President: Yes, I think work-from-home will become much more commonplace. Covid has introduced, at first through necessity and now through ease, a different ability to work remotely. Especially once we were able to introduce secure methods of production that allowed people to work from anywhere, it proved to us that we can remove a lot of the barriers for remote access that we previously thought were too restrictive.Of course, what this can’t replicate is the cultural aspect of being in a studio. There is an inherent benefit both mentally and from an efficiency standpoint that is realized by working in the office, that I think a lot of people are missing. So it’s a give and take. The downside is that we lose some of our culture (face-to-face time, bonding, office parties) and the upside is that we can expand our network to hire the very best people, regardless of their location in their world. And these are a bit more specific about the nitty-gritty of the job.

I watched the entire series of Watchmen before I discovered that Looking Glass’s mask reflections were CGI. As far as my eyes could tell, it was a 100% perfect effect. From my understanding, great CGI comes from skill and talent, but also having the time to perfect the effect. If you had more time, do you think you could have improved upon that, or is Looking Glass something of a crowning achievement for you?

Lon Molnar, Co-President: We’re so happy that very few people realized, after watching the series, that the Looking Glass mask was visual effects. That’s the sign of a job well done. And yes, it is a crowning achievement…for now. For the circumstances it was created under. For the timeline. The truth is that VFX artists are on a relentless quest for perfection. It is our job to duplicate reality, which means the job is never quite finished. We have to abandon it or it will never stop. That’s what great artists do: they use projects as their personal R&D to constantly push boundaries, which is why the VFX of 20 years ago and the VFX of today are incomparable. So as good as it was, if we could have kept working on the Looking Glass mask, I’m sure we would have found ways to integrate it better. We would have pulled off better shadows, perfected every fiber of the mask, and spent more time on cloth simulations. Duplicating reality is a difficult, difficult task, so it is almost a blessing to have a deadline and a budget, because otherwise, as creatives we will always find ways to keep pushing on that pursuit of perfection.

Umbrella Academy CGI Effects

A lot of superhero shows and movies have similar effects, like people shooting lasers out of their eyes and hands, shockwaves emanating from a person, or flight. For shows like The Boys and Umbrella Academy, how do you take super hero effects that viewers might take for granted, and make them unique to each show, and from what viewers have seen before?

Ryan Freer, VFX Supervisor: That uniqueness is always a concern but a lot of the heavy lifting was done for us in the first season of The Umbrella Academy, when Vanya Hargreeves started to exhibit signs of having this power. Especially in the last episode of season one, it was all blue lights and shockwaves, so the initial look development was done. In season two, we inherited that and got to make it our own, working on Vanya’s developing power and Harlan Cooper’s similar abilities. We set the effect apart in two ways: giving their force fields a lot of thickness so they didn’t appear flat, and making sure that you could see their powers ripple time and space.In terms of the first point, especially with Harlan’s powers which take a tornado or bee-hive shape, it was important for us to make sure the whirling lights weren’t too thin as they wrapped around. There needed to be substance and thickness there. We accomplished this with lens distortions and displacement maps: we overlaid a lot of the same effects that we had developed in 2D on top as a displacement layer to sell the shot. These displacement lenses made the effect look thick.In terms of the second point, we wanted the effect to be distorting and displacing the background plate and anything in the way of it. This was done to sell the physicality of the effect; after all, Vanya’s power especially does affect space and time, like an energy field. We used that as well with a heavy amount of camera shake and flickering lighting to convey the power behind the effect. It’s important for me to note that these effects were done in 2D, working with a limited budget and a really restricted TV timeline. We relied on our incredible compositing team to pull this off and they crushed it.

Is it still true that handheld camera shots are trickier than something more old-timey and cinematic in its framing, or has that pretty much been taken care of by now? Related to that, are directors more aware of the workload of VFX artists and do you ever get to spend time on set to help make sure nobody misses any steps that might make your job a lot harder? Or do you just have to play the hand you’re dealt, so to speak?

Ryan Freer, VFX Supervisor: A hand held shot will always be more technically difficult, absolutely. But this should never drive or interfere with the cinematic storytelling. In my personal experience, camera movement should always exist unless the director has chosen to not move for creative reasons. We have some of the best trackers in the world at MARZ so getting a rock solid track is what we are used to, with tracking markers or not. That said, if we are on set to assist with VFX supervision and we can see in camera that there is a lack of tracking information, we will lay down tracking markers to help our team out.

Watchmen Looking Glass Mask

Are there any shots in particular that you’d like to shout-out for the Screen Rant reader, things you’re especially proud of that viewers may or may not even be able to notice?

Ryan Freer, VFX Supervisor: Perhaps our most photo real and certainly our most critically acclaimed work to date has been done for HBO’s Watchmen, on the mirror-like Looking Glass mask. When people find out that the mask is CG, most of them react with “I didn’t even realize that was VFX!” You know you’ve succeeded in creating something photoreal when people react that way. MARZ VFX Supervisor Nathaniel Larouche led a dedicated team of artists in creating that mask, which is showcased especially beautifully in the first episode of the series during the interrogation sequence. Throughout the sequence, Detective Looking Glass is sitting in a pod across a suspect, and you can see not only the suspect’s face clearly reflected on the mask but images from this 360 screen in the pod. There are shots that are super close to the mask, when the mask is covering 70% of the screen, and the details are astounding.There was an entire repertoire of software and technique used to create the mask—the material itself referenced denim, chrome, the wear-and-tear of leather and so much more. The reflections on it weren’t always physically accurate but subtly displaced and art-directed to look great. And all the while, the actor was just wearing a camera rig on his head that Nathan developed to capture the reflections he needed, and the rest is just very good VFX. That interrogation sequence is amazing to watch, especially with the knowledge that the mask isn’t real.

Finally, I think one of the more controversial effects in the industry is CGI blood, with old-school purists clinging to real world explosive squibs while others appreciate the more greater control artists and filmmakers have over the CGI alternative. We’ve all seen good and bad examples of CGI blood over the past 20 years or so. Is there a secret to getting it right, is it a deceptively difficult effect to implement, and do you have any particular benchmarks, set by yourself or others, of good CGI blood?

Ryan Freer, VFX Supervisor: I do think it’s deceptively difficult because the human brain is amazing at picking up when something that it has seen many times, like blood, doesn’t look quite right. When we see great CG blood, we don’t even question it (we just assume it’s real). It’s only bad CG blood that we notice. Whereas we might see a bad alien and get used to it a lot faster, because we have no idea what an alien would look like. When it comes to blood, there are a lot of things to get right. For example, in the second season of The Umbrella Academy, a male character gets stabbed in the eye. There’s this gory scene when he stumbles backwards with this object in his eye, and we had to depict blood pouring down from the wound. Our three considerations were timing, colour and weight. We had to make sure that the blood fell down at a tempo in relation with an implied pulse, that it was the right colour, and that it oozed down at a believable speed.We also contributed CG blood to the upcoming season of The Expanse. I won’t spoil anything but that had its own unique challenges, such as selling how blood would react in space as opposed to the earth’s gravity. For both of these shows, our work was being done in 2D, however, which makes selling the viscosity and weight of blood a lot more difficult. CG blood can be perfected when it’s in 3D, passing through FX departments that specialize in liquid and particle effects.In either case, CG blood can look very good but the problem is that productions often don’t dedicate as much time and budget to it as they should. It’s a utility effect, a forgotten post-production addition, and because of that, it often ends up not looking real. Yet I would say bad CG blood often ends up being a huge tax for the audience, taking them right out of the scene and cartoon-izing the shot.

The Umbrella Academy CGI Blood

Is it gross that I’m obsessed with CGI blood?

Ryan Freer, VFX Supervisor: No! CG blood is great. If it’s done well and looks photo real, it’s a great accomplishment. And if it’s bad…well, it’s still enjoyable because it’s kitschy.

Next: 5 Of The Best CGI Moments In The MCU (& 5 Of The Worst)

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