Brie Larson was nice but the CG cat Goose was completely gorgeous.
Founded two decades ago, Trixter is one of Germany`s leading VFX studios, creating stunning high-end VFX work and character animation for film and television. Artists at the studio have created some of the iconic Marvel characters from Iron Man to Black Panther, Rocket and Baby Groot. Trixter artists also create outstanding environments, set extensions and virtual worlds, along with complex effects, like water, fire, destruction and smoke FX.
In 2018, Trixter joined forces with Cinesite, becoming part of one the world’s largest independent digital entertainment studios.
Marking the company’s tenth collaboration with Marvel Studios, Trixter contributed 280 shots to the recent release of Captain Marvel at its Munich facility. Chris Townsend, the production’s Overall VFX Supervisor, employed Trixter to deliver the CG cat Goose. The facility’s VFX supervisor Dominik Zimmerle oversaw the team’s scope of work which included the search for Mar-Vell’s spaceship in the Quad Jet, a spectacular battle aboard the Skrull ship and the escape pod crash. Also a full run of Captain Marvel’s weapons; energy building and intensifying through her hands and the subsequent Photon Blast, one of the most illuminating effects in the movie.
The Captain Marvel character is based on the comic character which first appeared in comics in 1968. The primary challenge for Trixter was to blend the seventy digital Goose cat shots with real live-action cat footage. “Although there were four cats on set all playing the same Goose role, and we received reference videos from the cat trainer, it was still hard to achieve seamless back to back CG takeovers of Goose,” explains VFX Supervisor Dominik Zimmerle.
“We created Goose’s CG fur using the inhouse tool, Yeti. It was important to match the fur texture and clumping patterns of Reggie (the main cat on set); his fur was more scruffed up on his back and his belly fur was longer and fluffier. Matching our CG fur to the real cat fur was a huge challenge, as was achieving the natural interaction between Samuel L. Jackson and the CG Goose.” The team used the ZIVA muscle system to achieve the skin deformation, sliding and jiggling so Goose appears to move in a lithe, fluid and realistic way.
GOOSE the CAT
At Trixter, they have their own very robust rig builder they use to create the first draft of any character. Trixter VFX Supervisor Dominik Zimmerle explains the process further. “For a hero asset like Goose the cat, we need to heavily customise this initial rig to give our animators all the controls they need as well as to achieve realistic deformation, besides several technical aspects, like speed, that need to be considered.”
“First there were the references from set, which served not only our lighting department as a great comparison of how the real Reggie (the hero cat) or any of the other cats looked in this scene, but they also helped our animators to get the posture and feeling right in the scene context.”
“Additionally, the initial cat package that we received from Marvel, contained tons of video clips of Reggie doing various things like walking, running, sitting down, getting up, following a treat etc. These clips were a great resource of how Reggie moves under certain circumstances, and we actually roto-animated some of these to get, for example, a walk that corresponds exactly to how Reggie does it.”
The Trixter animation team looked at countless cat videos, pictures and anatomical references to learn and study how cats behave in certain situations, what their specific anatomy is, how their deformation is connected to, and driven by, the underlying anatomical structure and what forces create the unique biomechanics of this elegant creature.
“Before filming,” explains Zimmerle, “it was difficult for the production to predict how the four real actor cats would perform the necessary action on set, so our team needed to be prepared to create however many shots were required. Ultimately it seems that about 30-40% of the cat’s performance was captured in live action (in terms of shot count, not screen time), while about two thirds of the cat’s appearances were actually a CG representation. The big challenge was for the 70 CG shots to blend seamlessly with the shots of the real cat and achieving a successful Reggie-likeness in all of them; often both were cut back to back and there was no leeway.”
The animation was exclusively done by Trixter’s own animation team at Trixter, led by the Animation Supervisor Simone Kraus-Townsend and Lead Animator Grant Harris.
So where is this CG digidouble leading the screen entertainment industry? Dominik gives me his take on the progress. “There is the idea that CGI and virtual filmmaking could replace real characters and locations completely, and it’s driven by the fact that audiences want to marvel at the next big thing,” he says. “Although CG animals like ‘Goose’ are getting more common with the advances in VFX, humans will always remain incredibly difficult to reproduce, especially when it comes to a facial performance. The human face is just so complex, and we are all very good at judging any subtlety that is not 100 percent perfect when a human moves; it’s about the animation but also about the behaviour of the face.”
The largest sequence within Trixter’s body of work was the Mindfrack ship escape, which sees Vers battling to escape the Skrulls and their ship. Trixter was responsible for the extensive damage to the ship throughout the battle, the energy effects from the Mindfrack machine and the ship’s core breaking. Carol’s photon powers and many other effects like the Skrulls’ shock stick weapons and the ship’s consoles were also completed by Trixter.
Throughout the escape sequence, Carol’s efforts to break free of her cuff restraints increase, so Trixter had to ensure the gradual intensification of the energy building and glowing through her hands was consistently applied. From the initial battle in the interrogation room, the fighting moves to the ship’s core, where the most dramatic battle damage takes place. The destruction of the ship was primarily created in Houdini and the FX team were meticulous in ensuring that the incremental damage was consistent with the action.
Another set of hero shots see Carol hanging onto the core of the ship, before blasting herself through a door into relative safety. Larson was filmed on set against blue screen hanging from a rig within a partial practical ship set. Trixter created the CG space environment for the sequence. In one of Trixter’s most challenging CG shots, the team replaced the practical set piece background wall with an animated continuously breaking one by adding debris and airflow to the foreground as well as several impact explosions from the debris hitting the energy core.
Digidoubles of the Skrulls were created for some fight scenes along with additional Skrulls who are sucked out of the ship. Compositing was integral to the success of the final sequence, from rig removal to paintwork and the further removal of stunt rigs for the practical fighting.
Another notable aspect of Trixter’s work included Captain Marvel’s primary energy weapon, the Photon Blast. This was the first asset Trixter began working on even before principal photography began. Dominik and the team were responsible for developing a weapon style that had never been seen before in the Marvel Comic Universe. The blast had to appear connected to Carol and its power wielded from within her. Marvel supplied Trixter with extensive references. This combined with internal concept art, resulted in a finalised asset being developed and set up in Houdini, which was locked and shared with other vendors for use throughout the film.