Two-time Oscar-winning vfx supervisor Paul Franklin shares the secrets of creating super symbiotes for the hot fall movie Venom.
VFX supervisor Paul Franklin is no stranger to creating the visual magic of science fiction, fantasy and superhero movies. He won two Oscars for his work on Chris Nolan’s Interstellar and Inception and was nominated for his visual effects work on the helmer’s acclaimed pic The Dark Knight. This year, he returns to the superhero genre with Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s take on the anti-hero movie, Venom.
In this much-anticipated film, an alien parasite inhabits the body of investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), which leads to a battle of wills between them. “There are two different forms of Venom,” explains Franklin. “There’s the symbiote, which is an oily, gelatinous, slug-like amorphous creature that has no skeleton that is a constantly changing shape and swashing around before bonding with the host. After the bonding takes place, he produces this thick, rubbery exoskeleton that emerges out of the skin of Eddie Brock and transforms him into Venom, which is a large, physically muscular character.”
Early on in the production of the project, it was decided that motion capture was not going to work. “While Venom is humanoid in shape, he’s able to move at an incredible speed and has extraordinary agility,” notes Franklin. “The most important thing was to have some sort of positional reference so you could frame up for the shot. Often what we did was to get a 6’10” stunt performer and build him up even higher [Venom is 7’6”] with a Wiffle ball on a stick sticking out of the top of his helmet. We had motion-capture reference markers all over the suit so we could at least track his body movements and get a proper idea of where he was. But we never used the performance of our stunt double as the principal source of animation. It was down to the character animators to come in there and take the thing over.”
Every shot of Venom involved extensive effects animation, especially for the goo. “You wanted to always feel that this character could morph into tentacles and slimy tendrils,” explains Franklin. “We had this constant effect animation pass running, particularly over the head, that created the movement of the edges of the eye and the way that the strains of goo stretch between the jaws as he opens his mouth, which is a characteristic of the comics.”
Beefing Up for the Big Screen
Of course, comic-book artists have the advantage of being able to draw whatever they want on a frame-by-frame basis. The vfx team didn’t have that luxury since the shots need to be consistent so that the audience feels like they’re watching the same character and not completely different versions in each sequence. “Underneath all of that is what you would usually expect to do for a creature animation, such as muscle and skin simulations,” says the vfx supervisor.
Dealing with an almost entirely black character that primarily exists at nighttime was also a tricky predicament. “What defines a black-painted metal object is not the direct illumination, but the reflections of the environment around it,” states Franklin. “What we needed to do was to dress the reflections into the surface in order to give us a read on the shape. Initially when driving it from the HDRI maps that we captured onset Venom came out looking like a highly polished 1950s car driving down the strip in Vegas. It didn’t make him look threatening, and made his shape hard to read.”
Making the symbiotes feel real and extraordinary at the same time was the biggest challenge … We understood it would be an issue right from the start.”
Paul Franklin, vfx supervisor
Franklin and his team ended up lighting Venom in much the same way they’d light a car for a commercial where big reflection cards and bounce panels are used to create reflections that sculpt the shape of the body. Then they added a separate set of low light reflections from the environment that enabled them to see his physique and the intricate organic patterning that moves over his surface.
Complicating matters further were the massive white eyes of Venom. “What we found is that we had to dress the reflections carefully into them to keep them alive and avoid them looking like plastic,” recalls Franklin. “Venom looked best when he was in a complex lighting environment.”
Subtle surface relief was incorporated into the design inspired by the human eyeball. “You sell the emotion through the shape of the eyes,” he adds. “A cartoon approach was adopted because we had to overdrive those eye shapes in order to get a read on them. Then, to finally stop it from feeling static and dead, effects animation added this constantly moving, rippling edge to the eyes so that there’s always something going on with them.”
The length of Venom’s teeth needed to be controlled on a shot-by-shot basis. “The teeth have a slightly unclean texture, because if we made them bright shiny-white he looked like had just been to the dentist and had veneers put on,” Franklin explains. “The signature hanging tongue was used judiciously. We generally use it to emphasis a point. Venom is relishing a moment where he’s about to bite someone’s head off or is enjoying himself. We looked at Clint Eastwood and Jack Palance when they’re delivering lines through their teeth in films like Dirty Harry or Shane. If we tried to close his mouth completely it looked odd because his teeth are huge.”
Riot is the other symbiote featured in the movie which bonds with Dr. Carlton Drake. Portrayed by Riz Ahmed, he is the head of a nefarious survivalist corporation known as the Life Foundation. “Riot only exists in a couple of comic-book panels so we were given more freedom to be able to further develop the character,” remarks Franklin. “He has an angular rough broken gunmetal finish to his surface which worked out well. It played to the strengths of the lighting and rendering. Riot doesn’t have anywhere near as much dialogue to deliver as he is furious the whole time.”
Projectiles in Motion
Symbiotes are able to form various shapes. Venom tends to form tentacles and shields with his goo, while Riot has the ability to form axes, knives, darts and spears. He can throw projectiles from his body, which becomes an important part of the story.
DNEG produced previs for a key motorcycle chase. “Spiro Razatos, our second unit director, took that and ran with it,” states Franklin. “Pretty much all of the beats that we created in the previs have their counterparts in the real world but once you get to the live-action unit you begin to find that reality imposes restrictions upon you. Maybe the bike can’t go as fast as you had it in the previs, or the jump can’t be quite as high, or maybe they can do something much more violent and aggressive than what you had in previs. It was a lot of painstaking match-moving body tracking, interaction and cleanup to connect it all together.”
Although the story is set in San Francisco, the 13 weeks of principal photography took place in Atlanta. Franklin notes, “The good thing is that a lot of action happens at night, so it’s much more forgiving. Atlanta is the home of the Coca-Cola Company so we had to get rid of some giant Coca-Cola signs that are landmarks. Editorial did a lot of work by cleverly interspersing location material from San Francisco.”
Looking back at all the effects Franklin and his team created for the movie, he says making the symbiotes feel real and extraordinary at the same time was the biggest challenge. “We understood it would be an issue right from the start,” reveals Franklin. “Some of the things that required quite a lot of creative R&D were the transformation effects. The conceit is that creature lives inside of him in a liquid state, oozes out of the skin rapidly, soaks through the clothing, coalesces on the outside of the clothing and encapsulates him. That’s easy enough for me to describe, but to visualize and show it in an efficient and comprehensible manner required an awful lot of effort.”
In total, Venom is in the region of 1,100 visual effects shots. “The motorcycle chase is particularly dramatic and exciting,” shares Franklin. “I’m going to get a kick when people see Riot’s first appearance in the film; that will make a few people jump out of their seats.”
Sony released Venom in theaters on October 5.