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Hive-FX’s Jim Clark and Guy Cappiccie on Seamless Morphs for Grimm

Using Cinema4D, Maya, After Effects and More to Crank Out Creatures on TV Budgets

NBC's Grimm, which resumes its second season on March 8, revolves around a Portland homicide detective descended from an elite line of criminal profilers dating back to the time of the Brothers Grimm. The detective must tread carefully between his real beat and the largely evil mythological world only he and other so-called "Grimms" can see. Those ancient beasts of the fairytale wild, however, snarl into being with alarming frequency, requiring swift and precise work from Portland's Hive-FX and the other VFX houses brought in to meet the demanding episodic schedule.

Hive-FX President Jim Clark runs the VFX/animation/live-action studio with his co-founder, Executive Producer Gretchen Miller. Up against seven other VFX shops on a blind bid for the creature morph work on Grimm's pilot, Hive won over producers with the technique it uses to create magical CG creatures that bleed in and out of the shot with a ferocious scowl or furry twitch. The shop has been involved with the show ever since. We talked to Clark and Hive's Guy Cappiccie, who has supervised most of the Grimm shots to date, about getting the job, their pipeline and the tools and challenges of painting and animating so many grim faces. Check out Hive-FX's full-on creature morph montage, below, then read the interview.


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StudioDaily: How many shots do you do per episode?

Jim Clark: We'll average between 15 and 40, which is probably our max. We do every other episode now. We didn't want to compromise the quality, so that's how we're doing it. But during Season 1 alone, we created 1.6 million files for Grimm.

How long have you been working with Hive, Guy?

Guy Cappiccie: About four years now. I started working with Hive right out of school.

Jim Clark: We helped develop the look and the way the creatures deform from the start. I set up Grimm and got it going, and turned it over to Guy on episode one or two after the pilot and he's been running the day-to-day shots.

Why do you think Hive got the job?

JC: Some of the other vendors haven't managed to produce the high quality, but especially the speed that we have, and I think they maybe take on too much sometimes. I mean, it's pretty demanding work. If they change a character design, and we have to change it three days before delivery, we've got to run it through the entire pipeline in that timeframe. If you fail to deliver, you're out. There's no room for compromise.

What makes your pipeline foolproof?

GC: [Maxon] Cinema4D has a lot to do with it. We primarily work in C4D for our render agents because the creatures that we use all have hair and C4D manages our pipeline really well with the hair quality. We've been using [Pixologic] ZBrush to model with and [Adobe] After Effects to composite.

JC: The pipeline starts out in ZBrush but we then go into [Autodesk] Maya for rigging and then [The Foundry] Mari and [Autodesk] Mudbox for texturing. After characters are surfaced we have a custom point-cache system written that converts Maya animation into Cinema4D directly.

I take it Mari is a more recent addition to your toolbox, based on when it was released. Was it easy to integrate into your existing workflow?

GC: It was pretty fluid for us, mostly because it has a real painterly quality to it. It added more depth to the creative aspect of the work for us. In Mudbox, you're kind of just sampling a lot of textures. And in Mari you're able to create an entirely new look.

JC: We had an artist come out of Tippett Studio [in Berkeley, CA] who was a Mari pro with us for a while, so she brought us in on the system and got us going.

Do you use C4D to render everything?

JC: If there's no hair, a lot of times we'll do it in Maya with [Chaos Group] V-Ray as our renderer. It depends on how the artist wants to work. But if we use V-Ray or C4D to render and put it through the point-cache tool, it all goes to the same render farm. We also have one artist full-time who just does Cinema4D hair for us. Then it all gets compiled in After Effects.

Have you considered comping in Nuke?

JC: The majority of artists that jump around in freelance are trained in After Effects. For us to have a full-time compositor on a system like that would be a huge investment for us, and the budgets on these shows just can't accommodate it.

Budgets for episodic VFX may be much less than those for feature VFX, but is there an upside to doing effects work on this scale?

JC: Sure: we love what we do. But something has to be done. We've obviously approached a time where we need a collective bargaining position, especially since the demand is so high for the quality of VFX work. The expectation is feature-level quality but on TV budgets and turnaround. The challenge is that they start the show with a determined price, and VFX shops are then told they have to do the shot within that price. It's really difficult to back into a shot that way. The other downside is that with television, we have to win every episode. As an example, we had two episodes that were given to other houses and we had to lay off a group of people after those people had been on solid for a full year. So it would make a lot more sense for VFX shops to get seasonal contracts. And TV budgets just are not as high as people might think. Business-wise, it's a huge challenge. Everyone's dealing with it. 

Has your process changed at all from one season of Grimm to the next?

JC: Yes. When the show first started, we'd originally start with just CG characters and then we'd do a 2D blend technique in After Effects to blend in the creature effects. As the season went on, our ZBrush artist got faster and more efficient — and our pipeline's very, very fast — and he was able to start sculpting the actors from photographs taken on the set for tracking points. Now the character's being sculpted in full 3D as a human actor, with the texture maps applied, and then the sculpture of the creature is on top of that. So now, a lot of times we'll go for full CG heads from top to bottom. It can then start out as a CG human and go out to the creature and back and not have to go back to a practical plate anymore. This has really accelerated the animator's workflow. With the old technique, when you'd rehash something through the pipeline you had to also redo all that morphing because the surface dimensions have changed. Now it's just a CG issue only. We're also doing more passes per shot into this second season.

How do you handle all that and back everything up?

JC: We have four primary file servers on our system, and each one of those has triplicates elsewhere. Then we have two online archive servers, so all our data is in five places at once. We also have about 200-plus TB on our network currently. We have about 38 quad-core Xeons on our render farm and about 140 processors dedicated just to hair and face rendering for Grimm. We build all of our workstations custom. The compositors use Macs, but all the CG is done on custom 12-core PCs with 24 to 48 GB of RAM. We use NVIDIA's Quadro 4000 cards and everyone has a 30-inch monitor.

What are some of the creatures or shots you are most proud of in Grimm?

GC: I think the one where we really had a lot of creative juice flowing was the dragon episode [Season 1, Episode 14, above], where part of the dragon's face becomes burned off and singed. We had some really gorgeous concept art and we just had a great discussion with the producers, who told us what would make this character really cool.

JC: In Season 1, Episode 6, there are some other examples of the kinds of things we do. We did some CG frogs and butterflies. And we did a full grizzly bear in episode one.

Which was the most difficult to pull off?

JC: The most difficult thing we've done to date was probably in Season 2, Episode 2, with the captain. It took a team of artists and energy because it involved a mirror. All the CG and all the movement had to be precisely tracked in both the mirror and on his face in every shot.

GC: Yeah, the sequence of the shots was much more tight than we were accustomed to.

JC: And they were long shots, too. The color integration was pretty challenging.

GC: We wanted to make them look really awesome. We had animated morph targets, fully animated texture maps and 3D bubbles against the skin throughout the whole scene. We were pretty proud of that.

Grimm resumes Friday, March 8, at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

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