With a global box office of $856 million, Venom’s 2018 outing quashed any doubts around the character’s popularity.
Even without the appearance of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, Tom Hardy and director Ruben Fleischer proved that Venom could successfully grab the attention of audiences as easily as the eponymous Symbiote could snatch up his enemies for lunch. And with that box office, a sequel was never far behind.
In Venom: Let There Be Carnage, motion-capture performance wizard Andy Serkis takes to the director’s chair, and Tom Hardy returns as the journalist turned parasite host. New additions to the cast include Woody Harrelson as Cletus Kasady, a serial killer transformed into the super-violent, Symbiote-powered antagonist whose sadistic personality perfectly matches that of its alien host.
With two Symbiotes on the loose, Venom: Let There Be Carnage required many visual effects. Award-winning visual effects supervisor, Sheena Duggal, was on point to keep the two aliens in check—a job made simpler with cineSync in her toolkit.
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“Tom Hardy is Venom,” begins Sheena. “Tom performs the role so well; everything he does makes the animation work better.”
Sheena notes the difficulty in performing with a character that doesn’t exist on set. “We had a lot of conversations with Tom, the stunts team, and visual effects, then previz’d and blocked out the sequences in which Tom interacts with Venom. Tom performed the way that worked for him, then once he’d got the performance set in his head, we’d give him an eyeline or a displacement object to hold, and this would become the basis for the animation.”
Developing Venom’s relationship with the hapless Eddie Brock was key to the second film’s narrative. “We wanted to give Venom much more character, so we worked with writer Kelly Marcel on set to understand the intention behind her writing of Venom. We would work to incorporate that knowledge into our approach to the character into everything we did.”
Let there be cineSync
As with many productions during 2020, Venom: Let There Be Carnage felt the impact of lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic.
“After wrapping principal photography in San Francisco, I came back to Los Angeles, and shortly after we all went into lockdown,” recalls Sheena. “I was supposed to be in the UK with my production team and VFX producer Barrie Hemsley, but of course, that didn’t happen. So, owing to the pandemic, we completed the film with everyone on the crew working from home from different countries. My team remained in the UK. I was able to build a small team there, including a coordinator and VFX editors Roxy Dorman and Claudia Jolly.”
Impressively, even with this disruption, the Venom post-production team—including DNEG, Image Engine, Framestore, and an in-house team—powered through a considerable amount of shots via a remote pipeline. “For the 1,323 shots in the cut, the approximate number of unique submissions I reviewed stands at 35,128; that’s subs I looked at and wrote notes for,” reveals Sheena. “cineSync certainly assisted with the process.”
Remote review and approval cineSync ensured that Venom‘s remote visual effects team stayed connected, even on complex and challenging shots, and that clients could quickly provide feedback and review iterations from halfway around the world.
“cineSync has long been the standard for remote collaboration in visual effects. A huge bonus is you don’t have to worry that someone won’t know how to use it; studios are comfortable with cineSync and confident that their images are secure.” Sheena explains. “When the pandemic forced everyone to work from home on Venom: Let There Be Carnage, we were able to keep performing collaborative shot reviews between the production side and our vendors around the world with minimal disruption. cineSync was ready for the transition to working from home before we even knew we needed it!”
One area where cineSync helped to align creative vision was in the ever-evolving design of Carnage throughout the production.
Interestingly, although Andy Serkis brought a wealth of mocap expertise to set, no mocap was utilized: Carnage is entirely keyframe animated. “We explored Carnage’s movement with performance artists, and on set we had performers stand-in for the characters to give us a basis for movement, but ultimately Carnage’s animation was all done by hand,” states Sheena. “We worked with The Third Floor to previsualize Carnage’s movement, and Image Engine and DNEG developed FX simulations for the alien movement and tentacles.”
Sheena and her team also worked to dial in the right feel for visuals where Carnage increases his biomass and propagates himself. “I explored ideas with the in-house concept artists and The Third Floor previz team and realized that we could make this growth symbiotic to the environment,” remembers Sheena. “I researched Lindenmayer systems, a mathematical formalism for describing the growth of simple multicellular organisms. With an L-system, you can encode a simple set of rules. When applied iteratively, these rules result in arbitrarily complex geometric structures. My research led me to L-systems in architecture, where you can create structures and systems from organic forms. Using this idea and leaning into how the symbiotes moved and shot out new small tentacles to propel themselves, we used a similar simulation but based it on the structures in the environment, for example, the obelisk in the Ravencroft escape and the spires in the cathedral sequence.”
Spectacular visual effects
With the design of Venom and Carnage locked down, Sheena and her team were able to work on a multitude of shots, which cineSync helped refine as the production moved toward completion.
“Our in-house concept artists, Adam Burn and Jeff Read, who had been working in the art department during production, joined us in visual effects. I had a wonderful time working with them both to explore design ideas and key art. I know the vendors found all of this enormously helpful, as a picture does speak a thousand words!” says Sheena. “We worked on a ton of fun scenes, like Venom making Eddie breakfast and the fight scene in their apartment, where a combination of Venom wraith heads and tentacles were augmented in post-vis to march Tom Hardy’s brilliant performance.
“Oliver Scholl’s production designs of the cathedral interior for the third act were also amazing,” continues Sheena. “We loaded his designs into The Third Floor’s virtual scouting tool Pathfinder, which helped to gauge the scale and aesthetics of the digital set extension to be appended to the real set. The postvis process was then instrumental in sculpting the many transformations of both Eddie to Venom and Cletus to Carnage across this scene. A vignette of fully CG shots were created by The Third Floor’s post-vis team for Venom’s down the aisle towards Carnage.”
One scene that stands out is an animated storybook sequence created by Framestore, which tells the story of a young Cletus Kasady—and not a very pleasant one. Cletus kills his grandmother, electrocutes his mother, and is nearly beaten to death by his father and school bullies before being rescued by his vision of an angel, the young Shriek.
“The drawings in this scene needed to feel convincing from Cletus’s completely deranged mind,” says Sheena. “The hardest thing from a design standpoint was getting the level of ‘artistry’ correct. Andy Serkis and I loved a particular style by British illustrator (and frequent Hunter S. Thompson collaborator) Ralph Steadman, which has a sense of violence about it. Together with Framestore, I explored Steadman’s character design, linework style, paper textures, and blood splatters. Framestore had to write some proprietary tools to create this line drawing style in 3D. I love how it came out.”
The future of remote
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a stunning sequel and further proof that a superhero movie doesn’t have to have the hero part to be successful. The film is also a remarkable example of the scope, breadth, and quality of visual effects work that can be delivered even when working remotely. All it takes is talent, dedication, and a little bit of help from cineSync.