Many of Grimm’s creatures roar to life thanks to the visual effects work of Portland’s HIVE-FX. Here, creative lead Guy Cappiccie and CG supervisor Karim Moussa take us through the VFX process of an episode.
By Katie Sauro Editor
Photos courtesy of HIVE-FX
Now in the midst of its fifth season on NBC, Portland-shot series Grimm continues to surprise and delight fans with plot twists (Juliette’s dead! Who’s Eve?) and horrifying new creatures, called “Wesen” in Grimm-speak.
Working behind the scenes to bring these creatures to life is the team of visual effects artists at HIVE-FX. The Portland company, led by executive producer Gretchen Miller and creative director Clark James, is one of the preferred VFX vendors for Grimm, specializing in doing shots that involve human/creature morphing and furry CG animals.
HIVE-FX has been with the series since episode one, proving their mettle in competition with several Los Angeles companies to earn a spot on the show. According to Miller, each bidding company was asked to do a test on a Hexenbiest, a witch-like Wesen that resembles a zombie. It was a “blind” test, so the show’s VFX supervisor and producers didn’t know which company created which creature. HIVE-FX won the bid.
Five seasons later, the studio is continually implementing new techniques and technology into their workflow in order to enhance the fairytale world of Grimm and the creatures who inhabit it.
In a recent episode, “Wesen Nacht,” HIVE-FX introduced viewers to a hideous, slimy, blobfish-like creature called Hasenfussige Schnecke. Not only was this a new Wesen in the Grimm world, but it also presented a new set of challenges for the HIVE-FX team, which creative lead Guy Cappiccie and CG supervisor Karim Moussa relished in.
Each project begins the same way: The show’s producers have an idea of what they want the creature to look like, a sketch artist comes up with a stylized, hyper-real concept image, and that image is sent over to Cappiccie and Moussa to bring to life. Cappiccie works with the producers on their initial ideas and then funnels those ideas through the pipeline, while Moussa facilitates the actual production of the creatures, working with the modelers and animators to achieve the end-product. It’s a back-and-forth process that typically goes quickly and smoothly, and this was indeed the case with the blobfish.
“Every time we get a creature, we think of it as a new challenge,” says Moussa. “How are we going to make this creature morph? How are we going to make it look way different? This one is blobby; it doesn’t have definition. How can we make it look scary or cool? So we sit down and make a plan. There are a lot of steps, production-wise and concept-wise, so we plan everything beforehand. Then we hit the ‘go’ button and everyone gets to work.”
After receiving the initial concept image and discussing a gameplan, HIVE-FX will get photo references of the actor’s face from all angles. “That’s our starting point because essentially we need to take that human and turn him into the creature,” explains Cappiccie. From there, a team creates a 3D model of the actor’s head, then sculpts the creature on top of the actor. Then it’s time for some CG magic: a process involving animation, texturing and re-engineering.
Cappiccie notes that for the majority of the Wesen they create, they follow the same “cookie-cutter” guidelines as far as technical and artistic processes, so getting to develop a new character like the blobfish is an exciting challenge.
“This is the fifth season, so when these challenges come up, we know how to tackle them,” he says. “Animals with big horns, big mouths, hairy creatures, slimy creatures—we have a good understanding of how to attack it. For the blobfish, we invent new techniques and learned a lot of new things. This season has gotten more adventurous and we have too.”
Moussa says that a major challenge of the blobfish was figuring out how to make this creature work in CG, since there were multiple stages of looks and the transition had to be seamless.
“One of the biggest challenges of this model was the difference between the size of the creature and human—his head is substantially larger than the actor’s,” explains Moussa. “Morphing the actor into the blobfish was a big challenge. How do we make this look cool, with dimension and bone structure? How many layers of skin are we going to use? In CG, we typically use one layer of mesh, but with this one we used three different meshes.”
Adds Cappiccie, “We took his human skin in CG and essentially melted it off his face, and during that process we blow it up. While it expands, other layers of skin get revealed. Seeing how it plays out, you can see a lot of different things moving underneath. It has deep dimension.”
“When we looked at the concept, we knew this guy was going to be a challenge, both technically and artistically,” says Moussa. “But we go all the way, 100 percent.”
This technical process seems like it would take several weeks or even months to complete, but with HIVE-FX’s talented and experienced team all working simultaneously on modeling, texturing and animation, a creature is finished in just over a week.
“During this whole process we’re having to represent ourselves. It’s kind of a pitch, an open dialogue with the client, and at the end of the period we say, ‘here’s what we’ve got,’” says Cappiccie. “Then we sit on the edge of our seats to see if they approve. Once we get a thumbs up, we start hammering on the production side of things—taking all those assets and attributions and applying them to the shot that’s given to us.”
In recent years, HIVE-FX’s contributions to the show have expanded to include more visual effects, like fiery explosions and shattering glass.
“It’s always really fun when those elements interact with the creatures,” says Cappiccie. “They are complex shots with multiple elements working together. Those are always really fun.”
Over the course of the series, the HIVE-FX team has worked on 90 percent of the episodes, or “over 100 episodes,” says Miller. Not to mention that they are usually working on as many as three episodes at any given time. This has allowed the team to develop a smooth, nearly foolproof process from concept to completion, but that doesn’t stop them from constantly looking for ways to revolutionize the pipeline.
“We often reminisce and it puts a really big smile on our faces because of how many pipeline evolutions we’ve had,” says Cappiccie. “Looking back and knowing what we know now, there’s a very stark difference. All of us had big, wide eyes in the beginning and we kind of act like seasoned veterans now. We reinvented our pipeline.”
Adds Moussa, “Every episode, the challenge is how can we make the pipeline better? There’s a bible for what we do. There’s guidelines. But how can we be creative in a new way while upholding the standards?”
“With new software, new techniques, new plug-ins, and new facets of exploration, we’ll discover something new,” says Cappiccie. “So how do we insert that into the pipeline?”
Fresh talent and creative energy adds to the mix. HIVE-FX still has its core crew that has been there since episode one of the series, but they are constantly bringing in new artists with new ideas, drawing from the thriving animation scene in Portland. Students from nearby schools like the Art Institute of Portland are ecstatic at the prospect of working at the “Grimm studio.”
As Moussa notes, “HIVE-FX is known for Grimm. The word is out and people are talking about it—everyone freaks out about Grimm.”
“It takes over the city,” adds Cappiccie. “They do a good job of highlighting local areas and a lot of people in Portland are big fans. As far as the community is involved, it’s pretty active. They take over parts of town and it’s fun for people to peek in.”
Of course, the fact that Grimm continues to film in Portland each year, utilizing local crew and vendors like HIVE-FX, is due to the state’s tax incentive program. The Oregon Production Investment Fund (OPIF) offers a 20-percent rebate of Oregon-based goods and services and an additional cash payment of up to 16.2 percent of wages paid to production personnel.
“We couldn’t have had the series here without the tax incentive,” says Miller.
Last summer, Governor Kate Brown signed House Bill 2171 into law, which extends the sunset of the OPIF to January 2024. However, a bill to raise OPIF’s cap from $10 million to $20 million was ultimately unsuccessful, meaning the state has had to turn away several interested productions because the cap has already been met.
Miller notes that major productions like HBO’s Lewis And Clark wanted to film in Oregon last year but without the tax incentive available, it just wasn’t feasible. She emphasizes the importance of the incentive program, saying, “It doesn’t just benefit Portland; it benefits the whole state.”
The Oregon production community is committed to increasing the cap in the coming years, and remains hopeful that this is one fairytale that has a happy ending.
Grimm is currently airing new episodes on NBC. Tune in to see what creatures HIVE-FX comes up with next!