The MEN IN BLACK have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest, most global threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization. Sony Pictures Imageworks, lead by VFX Supervisor Chris Waegner and VFX Producer Doug Oddy, suited up with Director F. Gary Gray, client side VFX Supervisor Jerome Chen and Daniel Kramer, and the team at Columbia to create and deliver 400+ CG shots.
One of the highlights of this work was bringing to life the new character “Pawny”, who teams up with the MIB agents. Imageworks launched into modelling Pawny after consulting production concept art. To bring the character to life, the team delved deep into Pawny’s backstory, coming up with the idea that he’s an intergalactic assassin and weapons designer. Though this backstory is never seen on screen, it helps the animators to establish a frame of reference and a more believable character.
During the process, there were many digital iterations of Pawny but once Kumail Nanjiani had been cast, things fell right into place and the process became even more exciting. Kumail's comedic style combined with our digital character gave us a wonderful opportunity to give Pawny the style and screen presence needed for this film.
- Chris Waegner, VFX Supervisor
The team also considered the particular traits of voice actor Kumail Nanjiani, who is well-known from the TV show SILICON VALLEY and the film THE BIG SICK. The actor was on set for portions of the shoot, off camera, capturing his performance using a head mounted camera rig. A 3D printed model of Pawny was used for stand-in and lighting reference. Animators began shaping the performance with Nanjiani’s work as reference.
This started with heroic and action poses, based on story beats in the script. When these were going in the right direction, the team moved quickly into walk and run cycles. This is an important stage because it informs how the CG body will deform, how the muscles and the skin are going to react, and how far the animator’s can push the poses.
Since Pawny has a large head but small body, the team realized he might have a hard time keeping up with the human characters in the film. So animator’s created running tests, quickly realizing that the speed at which he would have to run was almost comical. Luckily, the filmmakers decided that he was going to ride in the pocket with the agents, which solved the problem. Pawny’s fighting abilities were also an important part of his character, so Imageworks created multiple tests, using his sword and blaster to fight other aliens.
FACIAL AND BODY PERFORMANCE
Nanjiani was filmed with head-mounted facial camera capture, to be used as reference, along with the actor’s previous TV and film work. Animator’s built Pawny’s face shapes around that. The characters eyes are quite graphic looking - very simple and beautiful. Anatomy was added so they could match the expressiveness of Kumail’s performance.
Animators then spent time further exploring Pawny poses, taking into consideration his slightly unusual head and body shapes. They found that, due to the characters body shape - small arms, big head, no neck - they had to find other creative ways to indicate movements such as a shoulder shrug.
Those other creative ways came from looking closely at Nanjiani’s performances, which mostly came from his eyes and brows. Imageworks tried to sell all of his expression work in those big expressive eyes that he has, since they weren’t able to rely on his body language as much as we would with a different proportioned character.
Oftentimes, Pawny exhibits a sardonic, deadpan look, which was evident in the concept art. Reproducing that look in 3D was hard, since he has big bulbous eyes. But once they solved that problem, they were able to move into the shots and nail that character.
ANIMATOR VIDEO REFERENCE
In addition to voice-over reference, animators used their own video reference for Pawny shots. Part of that was to ensure the locomotion of the character remained natural, rather than designed. Animators were encouraged to shoot multiple takes of their shot even before they started thumb-nailing, or before they started trying to pose the character, just to make sure that we got that spontaneous feel for him.
Then the team would cut them all into the sequence, and then just judge how continuity was working between the shots. This helped us make sure we had the right emotional tone. Then, once we chose takes, animators would go and block that out.
The MIB Agents are confronted by the "Hive" alien at the end of the film. This creature is a conglomerate of many different alien species which the "Hive" has absorbed as it travels through galaxies consuming all life.
The Imageworks team designed the "Hive" to have many different physical attributes, most of which can be found within the cast of friendly aliens seen throughout the film.
Digital sets were required for many locations in Paris. Fortunately most were located around the Eiffel Tower.
The Imageworks team created a giant photo-real digital asset, approximately one square mile around the base of the Tower.
The build was quite elaborate featuring a highly accurate Eiffel Tower, Jardins du Trocadero, Champ de Mars park, Seine River and all the surrounding buildings and landmarks.