Making a Sci-Fi Splash with Lifelike Jackals and Scary Mud Demons

Montreal VFX and animation house Mokko Studio has been doing feature-film work for the last 10 years, but just started doing creature work a few years ago, making dinosaurs for a Discovery TV project. The company's experience served it well when Riddick came calling. The filmmakers, working in Montreal on an independently financed threequel to the 2000 sleeper hit Pitch Black, needed to find a facility that could bring to life the otherworldly monsters and alien jackals with dog-like personalities that populate the planet where beefy antihero Riddick (Vin Diesel) is stranded. Mokko ended up leading the charge, completing more than 300 shots on the film, including conceptualizing, building, and animating the creatures; mud and water simulations related to the splashing action of the mud demons; and some digital environment work. The results speak for themselves, adding personality and a sense of peril that help the film feel bigger than its $38 million reported budget. We asked Mokko VFX producer Marc A. Rousseau about collaboration, creature development, and more.

StudioDaily: Tell us how Mokko got this job. Had the producers on Riddick seen your work before and liked it?
Marc A. Rousseau: A couple of years before Riddick called, we added creatures to the scope of our work. The best way to start with creatures is to work with Discovery and do some dinosaur shows, right? We were doing features at the same time, but also ramping up our pipeline for creature work with a Discovery show called Last Days of the Dinosaurs. The director [of Riddick] actually saw that and loved the cinematography and the animation. He called us up and said, "Can you guys do features?" And we said, "Of course we can do features." And we started breaking down the show with him. It took us about a year of discussions and prep before we kicked everything off, but once we started in pre-production it went very fast as we tested fur and creature designs.
What was your relationship like with director David Twohy and the show's VFX supervisor, Gunnar Hansen? How did the iteration process work?
We were the lead creative VFX house on the show, so they really were looking for us to bring design ideas and concepts to the project. The director showed up with rough sketches by [creature designer] Patrick Tatopoulos giving the idea of the silhouettes they were looking for, so we went into sketching mode and did some [Pixologic] ZBrush models that would give an idea of how the creatures were going to look. From there, so many questions come out and that's when you get a lot of the feedback — maybe the neck needs to be longer, or we need shorter, thicker legs — that you won't get from a simple 2D sketch. Our art director, Arnaud Brisebois, was a key part of that process.
Once the designs started to firm up, how did you actually build the creatures?
We brought in the team of modelers, texturers and riggers, who gave some feedback to Arnaud and exchanged ideas with him on what was the best approach. How would we do the quills on the jackals' backs? How are the mud demons' teeth going to look, and what kind of tongue should they have? We had to be really precise about those details. And then there are textures, colors, and shaders. Are the mud demons going to glisten? Will they be wet and greasy, or somewhat dry? Those are all things we designed hereand then proposed to the film's director.
What about performance? How was the director able to get the right performances out of your creatures?
These creatures have a huge role in the story, and it's all about their acting — especially the main jackal. So it needed to be directed by the film's director. We had a lot of early discussions about how to shoot them, and from there it was all about the acting — especially how scripted it needed to be, or not to be. The director's real worry was that it would look like a scripted CG animal who did exactly what he was told to do. He wanted to make sure we added some unscripted elements. So in one of the shots the jackal sneezes, and in another one of the shots he scratches. Just those things that dogs do, but you might forget to add those details in. We started by filming trained dogs as reference, to really study the movements and make sure we got it right. We also brought dogs into our VFX studio for a week so we could learn from them all the non-trained, unscripted thing that dogs do. A lot of it is just observing them, in the finer details.
What about the more abstract creatures?
The eels worked out OK, because eels are eels. And we had a bird-like creature. We could find references for all of those. But the most complex one was the mud demon. Is it going to hop on two feet? Is it going to run? How is it going to lunge out of that pool of mud? We did a lot of tests and brought different solutions to the director. We researched and tried to find reference in nature, but the scale and proportions were different, so the movement was created from scratch.
What's the workhorse hardware and software in your pipeline?
We're a Maya crew. We rendered everything in Renderman — fur and everything else. The water sims are done in [Exotic Matter] Naiad, and we also worked with the [Peregrine Labs] fur package Yeti. Yeti is not well known in the USA, but it's great fur software.
What was the most challenging aspect of Riddick specifically?
Everybody kind of agrees that the two most complex things in VFX are water and fur, and in this movie we got both. Once we locked the concepts down and got the fur and the dynamics to work just the way we wanted, it was really just about getting the emotions right. For the mud demons, it was more about getting the weight right. And the water sims were complex. Riddick is standing in real water, and then we have a creature jumping out of that same water, which means the splash has to be CG water. So how do we get them to match? They have to be seamless. So the mud and water sims are way up there. They're complex, they take a long time to sim and render, and there are lots of details to attend to as far as scale, and viscosity, etc.
Also, the promontory that collapses under Riddick [in a flashback scene near the beginning of the film] was huge. The set was pretty big, but once we started designing the shot, we kept moving the camera further back. The set became no more than half the screen, and everything else was a huge digital environment, including the sims of the rocks falling and the dust and debris. All this is to say we did not have any simple shots. It was more than 320 shots of creatures, digital environments, and water sims.
Do you feel like Mokko has taken a big step forward now that you've demonstrated that you can work a full creature feature?
When we started on Riddick, we were helping out on a few scenes from Underworld: Awakening, so we were already doing Lycans and matching their on-set references. But for sure — once you add a full creature and fur, it does solidify your position as a creature shop.

Mokko Studio

President: Danny Bergeron
VFX Supervisor:  Alain Lachance
Art Director: Arnaud Brisebois
VFX Producer:  Marc A. Rousseau