We talk to Philippe Thibault, the VFX supervisor behind the Disney+ series, The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Q: So.The Mysterious Benedict Society. A dream gig, right? As in a VFX toybox!
Absolutely right! Benedict is a dream gig for many reasons. Reuniting with my long time friends Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer as the show runners. I also got to know the show creators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, what a dream team this group is! And for myself and FOLKS, you are also right, from full CG environments, a CG tower, digital avatar, and an underwater world, it doesn’t get any better than this.
We got to create a wide range of effects that got all the departments in my team excited. Integrating our work with the amazing production design and the stunning photography of DP François Dagenais, it all came together beautifully. I’m hoping no one will notice the VFX, as we worked really hard to integrate it into the story and not make it “stand out” if that makes sense.
Q: Disney plus is now making a lot of original content. Which is great: devolution in visual effects, right? As in television and film, kind of crossing over more? Unthinkable to see this level of effects on a television series even a decade ago? Or am I wrong?!
VFX has changed a lot over the last 10 years for sure, we have been doing a lot of big effects for TV shows for a long time but there is definitely more of it now than ever. There is a difference with all the streaming services, they all have a real appetite for VFX. Disney+ original content is creating a lot of work for our industry and we are all very pleased by that. It’s good for business and good for getting our creative juices flowing. Most if not all shows have visual effects these days.
Q: One of the standouts in the show is its mix of eras and looks. As in a historical, timeless paradox that cannot be ‘dated’. Future meets retro. Did you take a similar approach in the effects ethos? Mixing old and new methodologies..or is the genius to make it look that way whilst keeping it as economic as possible?
Because of the style of the show, with a lot of static camera shots and very wide lenses being used, we were able to use a mix of old and new. When I say old, maybe traditional would be more accurate. A lot of matte paintings throughout the show have a more 2D approach.
But don’t get me wrong, we have a full 3D city and an island created from scratch. We used a full CG layout to line up for the city and the background. The demand for details and the astronomical number of buildings forced us to get creative about how to achieve the show runners expectations.
We designed our CG town based on an early concept from the Art Department and we quickly realized the show runners wanted a much bigger and more complex town than originally imagined. We had to be really creative to be able to realize their vision and stay within budget. The amazing Folks CG and environment team led by Gabriel Beauvais and Jean-Pierre Riverin started by creating a 2D top view map to design the street and the landscape before starting the asset work.
When starting the assets, we had so many buildings to create that we decided to create modules by architectural type. Samuel Poirier, our asset supervisor, split the city into different neighbourhoods, regrouping around 20 to 30 buildings for each of them.
All those blocks were then created in low-res before going through our neighbourhood creator, a custom tool we created for the show. We also added a number of people, cars, boats, props and trees to fill out the city and make sure we could understand the scale of the geography.
Q: VFX vs SFX. Explain what the difference is? Other than a letter? I know many craftspeople who can get VERY irate should one get the name wrong..
They are very different as one, SFX, happens live on set and the other, VFX, is all digital. As an example, SFX will provide wind and smoke on set, directly in camera. In VFX, we would add those in post, digitally. I myself am a big fan of working with the SFX team, and I feel our collaboration makes the VFX work seamlessly. When on set, I always try to let them do their craft and use it in tandem with VFX as opposed to “killing” the live stuff and trying to recreate it all digitally. Like on a green screen set, a lot of VFX supervisors won’t let the SFX use smoke because it makes the “key” a bit harder and challenging. I personally prefer a layer of real smoke. Yes, it does make our work a bit harder but the end result is always better.
Q: How did you get into the trade? Were there specific films /shows that inspired you?
I am the co-founder of FOLKS VFX and a senior VFX supervisor. I started my career as a digital compositor. My current business partner and FOLKS co-founder, Sebastien Bergeron, introduced me to the VFX world, and I have been working in the VFX industry since the early 2000s in Vancouver.
Q: Tough year mid pandemic. How did you cope and get the work done?
We had to adapt. Fortunately, we have a state of the art setup at FOLKS. Seb along with Bruno Auger (Head of IT) and his team quickly found a great solution to connect all the artists remotely and keep the security very tight. Our life has become a Zoom meeting, but everything is working out really well.
THANK YOU, PHILIPPE!