How Visual Effects Brought Netflix’s ‘The Umbrella Academy’ to Life

Posted on Friday, September 2, 2022

How Visual Effects Brought Netflix’s ‘The Umbrella Academy’ to Life

In our latest interview, we spoke with Laurent Spillemaecker of FOLKS, the VFX supervisor for season 3 of Netflix’s The Umbrella AcademyThis season FOLKS delivered around 570 shots in 9 months. They had to create everything from CG Ravens to flamethrowers to destruction and debris. Some of the other main things they developed was the KugelBlitz, a blob that grows and disintegrates things, and a Kugel-Wave, a magic shockwave that destroys anything in its path.

Laurent went into more detail about how FOLKS brought so many fantastical elements and superpowers to life this season.

PH: Hi Laurent! Can you give readers a little insight into your journey as a VFX supervisor? How did you get your start in the industry?

Laurent Spillemaecker: I started as an engineer in the Signal-Treatment and image processing field before switching off completely to become a Flame Compositor in 2000, in Paris, France, working on various commercials. After hundreds of shampoo and car spots, I wanted to work on a feature film, but that wasn’t a big market in Paris. So I decided to look somewhere else, and I landed in Quebec, Canada, to work for Hybride in 2004 for a few amazing contracts, as a Flame Compositor. I decided to stay and live in Canada and stayed at Hybride for a while. Then joined RodeoFX, a small startup of seven employees in a basement at that time, as a Lead Compositor, then Compositing Supervisor, and then VFX-Supervisor (2013) and Head-of-2D (2015). After 11 years at RodeoFX, I decided to join FOLKS in 2018 as a VFX Supervisor and Head-of-2D.

PH: What are some of the considerations you have when looking for new projects to work on?

Laurent Spillemaecker: I am lucky enough to have worked on many projects, from independent shorts to Star-Wars or Marvel features, and many in between. So now, after 22 years in this industry, the first thing I favor when looking at new projects is the team; who am I going to work with? I value the type of collaborative relationship I can have with the client, artists and production crew working on the show. Then I look at the visual challenges and the artistic scope of the work.

PH: That brings me to The Umbrella Academy. How did you get involved? 

Laurent Spillemaecker: FOLKS got the first mandate with Netflix to do some “simple work” on the first episodes of the first season of the Umbrella Academy. We needed to add leaves in all the trees of many plates that were shot in early spring in Toronto, and the production team realized the trees looked winter-dead. It had to be seamless and unnoticeable, so I was called to carry on with these shots. I believe we did really well, so we got hired to do more and more work for the show, episode after episode. Then season two, more VFX-intensive work, larger CG environments, CG creatures, and various super-power effects, leading us to a bigger award for this third season, which makes me very happy!

PH: What was it like designing and planning the stages (and world of The Umbrella Academy) this season? Can you share a bit of your process for developing those? 

Laurent Spillemaecker: The design of the Sparrow-Academy buildings (another version of the Umbrella Academy building) and the surrounding city was done in close collaboration with the production Art Department and our internal team of asset artists. We had a lot of creative latitudes to design these. 

PH: How did you develop fantastical elements and superpowers? How did you work with others on the crew to relay stories through fantastical elements? 

Laurent Spillemaecker: We were involved early in pre-production on this show, especially for 2 key assets: The Kugel-Blitz, and Christopher (the Cube). Both these assets were almost completed before the principal photography. As an example, for the KugelBlitz, we delivered early renders of the KugelBlitz to production, then they built a big LED Cube (a few of them of different sizes) that would play our rendered images to create interactive light in the scene. Actors would also have something to look at, a bright pulsing cube, and act accordingly. There is nothing better than real lighting, right? Then we would of course re-render and comp the CG KugelBlitz on the plates in post-production. We did the same for Christopher. Once our CG Model was done they actually built a real-scale model rigged with internal light to put in some shots and reduce the number of VFX Shots for Christopher only, or at least give a very good reference for actors or for VFX when it needed to be replaced.

PH: Do you have any favorites? Why? 

Laurent Spillemaecker: I personally love the destruction of the Academy building by the angry KugelBlitz, the first appearance of Fei’s Ravens in episode one, emerging from her back and chasing Luther and Alison in a corridor. Finally, I love the Kugel-Blitz Asset as a whole, from the early lookdev and designs that we did long before principal photography in close collaboration with Production Supervisor Everett Burrell, to the final shots and how it evolves, grows, and interacts with our heroes.

PH: What were some of the VFX challenges you encountered? 

Laurent Spillemaecker: The large Kugel-Wave destruction shots and, of course, the destruction of the Academy were the most demanding shots as you could expect. We always need to find an effective balance between time, budget, and amount of destruction detail; how many buildings do we need to actually recreate? How many internal details, structures, and breakable layers do we need to create and “rig” in the simulation? Most of the wide city shots use either Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) or Chicago Stock footage, but each one of them needed huge environment work, including dozens of CG buildings, to create our fictional city and eventually destroy it.

PH: How have you seen the industry change over the past year? 

Laurent Spillemaecker: Definitely, COVID has changed our industry, A LOT. Nowadays, a majority of our artists are working from home, and even if the pandemic restrictions are fading out, very few actually want to come back to the office. We thought a few years ago that working from home was impossible, yet we did it and delivered many shows from home without needing to commute daily. 

PH: What do you think the future of VFX looks like? 

Laurent Spillemaecker: Hard to predict without being presumptuous, but I believe that remote work is here to stay (at least for the jobs where it’s feasible) and that Machine-Learning (and related fields in the AI spectrum) will profoundly make our technical tools evolve. Yet I think creativity and a good understanding of the filmmaking process and photography will remain key to producing great images. 

PH: Do you have any other upcoming projects you'd like to share (or that you can share?) 

Laurent Spillemaecker: Yes, I do, but as you may expect, I could not share any info about them. The only certain thing is that we are quite busy for the coming year(s).