Eli Tucker is the Assistant Head of Faculty for Multimedia and also a tutor at Yoobee School of Design in Wellington, New Zealand. He gives his insight into producing the Automata webseries.
Ever since I’ve been working in the creative industries I’ve known talking to people and making connections opens doors. It’s also who I am as a creative – I love to collaborate, interact, discuss and build. So when the opportunity to work on a popular web-series such as Automata came to light, through my connection to the director, I grabbed it with both hands!
Van Alan Blumreich, a director based in Seattle, United States was planning to create the Live Action adaptation of the Penny Arcade web-comic and he needed a VFX crew to bring his vision to life.
And what a story it is! Automata is a science–fiction series, set in the 1930s, based on characters from the popular Penny Arcade web-comic. It’s prohibition time in the United States, but alcohol isn’t the focus. Rather, the production of highly sentient robots known as automatons. They live amongst the human population as an underclass of social outcasts, victims of human prejudice and strict laws that govern their existence.
The production of the series has been a labour of love. We began pre-production of Automata in 2014 with a proof of concept which I worked on from New Zealand alongside idea originator / director Van Alan Blumreich in the states. From there, the project was proven to be viable, and a very successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign raised nearly half a million US dollars allowing work to begin on the five episodes.
One of the benefits of being a tutor at Yoobee School of Design meant I had access to tutors, graduates and students with a range of skills and experience. I was able to recruit not only high level roles, but vital ones where Yoobee students and graduates could also gain valuable experience in producing an iconic series. My role was the VFX supervisor, and other Yoobee team members included:
Yoobee graduates involved included:
From my own experience, having previously worked on Avatar at Weta Digital in 2009 and also in Sydney on Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole at Animal Logic in 2010 I was well prepared for a large scale production such as Automata. However, the fast production turn-around required for Automata brought its own challenges and meant efficiency was king.
Towards the end of 2015 I started my very own VFX Company “Crabmech FX Limited” in order to bring together a team that could meet this challenge. Unlike at larger companies where people commonly specialise in a specific skill area, I knew that everyone involved with Automata would have to be Generalists – capable of covering a broad range of skills within the 3D production pipeline. Our Yoobee graduates and tutors were perfect for this reason, seeing as replacing actors’ heads with CGI robot versions involves all of the same methods we teach in our 3D Graphics programmes here at Yoobee.
Through 3D modelling, texturing and rigging we created photo-realistic robot head assets based off the concept art from the web-comics. These were then match-moved to replicate the actor’s motion within the filmed footage, and also keyframe animated to add performance value and additional character cues. Lighting information was extracted from Chrome Ball HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imagery) photography taken during filming and this was used in our 3D scenes to match the exact on-set lighting conditions through IBLs (Image Based Lights).
On the post-production end, my team were responsible for rendering the CGI assets and compositing these to match the footage. Certain shots also required green-screen keying, rotoscoping, tracking-marker removal and effects work. The actor’s heads were cleaned from the live-action plate and the shirt-collars composited back over the top – in effect, becoming a Live-action/VFX Sandwich.
What makes me really proud as a tutor is that many of the graduates that helped with Automata have gone on to work within the industry. Yoobee is a school that trains and channels its students into sustainable work. Some of these students and tutors include:
From my position as a tutor first and foremost, it’s amazing to see the team’s hard work pay off, and I couldn’t be more proud to see them out there following their dreams.
In 2017, the Automata series was ready to be distributed through indie film festivals including Seriesfest 2017, PAX West 2017 and the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival. The series received glowing reviews before finally being released publicly over Dust’s Youtube Channel.