ZERO's team of seasoned supervisors, producers and artists live to create ground-breaking illusions that serve both the story and the need for highly technical, photo-real results. We are a full service studio and many times oversee all aspects of production, from page to post and everything in between.
ZERO collaborated with Antoine Fuqua and Saatchi & Saatchi NY to bring big-screen VFX to the Oscars. This new commercial for Walmart – also containing efforts by directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg/ Marc Forster – represented a unique opportunity to create feature-film level storytelling within a 60-second time slot.
Antoine chose to craft a story involving an industrious boy with the smarts and the desire to communicate with an all-powerful entity, via a ‘Gift’ composed entirely of items from Walmart.
ZERO’s involvement wasn’t so simple: design and execute a spaceship with something of a personality disorder.
The ship needed to feel ominous and threatening one moment, happy and joyous the next. How do you achieve this while, at the same time, not being derivative of the hundreds of famous sci-fi ships that came before ours?
The ZERO team started with extensive research, bringing together perspectives from many sides of the equation. We asked questions such as “How would the ship most likely communicate?” (A: They’d communicate with bioluminescence, like in a jellyfish or angler fish) and “How might an alien species construct a ship this huge?” (A: They wouldn’t build it, they’d likely grow it).
With original thinking, we were able to re-imagine how a ship could look and function in record time.
The timeline posed another challenge. Design was scheduled for less than two weeks to allow all departments (and the clients) to conceive the concepts, and define scale and lighting needs prior to the shoot.
Without a strong visual aid and focal point to drive the ‘real-world’ physics of a spaceship this large, much of the VFX schedule would have been spent fixing unintended issues rather than iterating to make the ship, and other key set pieces, as cool as they turned out to be.
There were slightly less than five weeks between the wrap of the shoot and delivery, with picture lock merely one week prior to final delivery. Key angles were established soon after the shoot so that complete lookdev could be executed, while Antoine and the client worked to lock the cut.
ZERO’s unified bi-coastal pipeline was tapped to deliver the short, leveraging artistic strengths on both coasts.
Production and supervisors choreographed a succinct five-week dance between the editorial team, modeling, integration, layout, lighting, FX, and compositing, with color timing provided by Stefan Sonnenfeld at Co3 and finishing completed back at ZERO Venice offices.
The result was an Oscars-featured short praised for its emotional nuance – featuring high-end FX to a highly unconventional brief.
ZERO teamed with Denzel Washington for the Academy Award-tipped, Fences - a period drama set in the haze of 1950s Pittsburgh. As lead vendor, ZERO created invisible effects throughout the dramatic narrative.
Adapted from August Wilson’s play, Fences follows a former pro baseball player who denies his son's dream of playing college football, fracturing his family in the process. The VFX requirements were more subtle than those of The Magnificent Seven or The Equalizer—the explosions here dramatic rather than literal.
“All of our work on the movie was fully invisible,” begins ZERO’s Meg Bailey, visual effects producer across the project. “We were committed to making things look amazing, and really raising the bar. Fences is rooted in drama, and our effects needed to emphasize and build upon that narrative from start to finish.”
Bailey, herself, had reason to be excited by the story; set in the 1950s, Fences centers around her hometown of Pittsburgh. “That was very meaningful for me, as we were building the Pittsburgh skyline—I’ve known that skyline my whole life. It’s in my soul.”
This passion was infused in every element of work carried out across the project. ZERO needed to not only build the Pittsburgh skyline, but ensure that it appeared as it would half a century ago.
“Fences is certainly a period piece, so we did a lot of work rebuilding the Pittsburgh skyline and neighborhoods,” says Bailey. “However, it wasn’t just about the architecture, but the atmosphere of the place. In the 50s, Pittsburgh was very industrial and it wasn’t a healthy environment. The air was full of smog. The drama in Fences takes place on a hill that’s in the middle of a city. The audience is above the smoke but looking down on it; they’re surrounded.”
“Denzel felt we needed to impart on the audience this feeling of claustrophobia: that they’re constantly breathing in this smog. It’s a subtle effect, but it’s there. The characters feel trapped, and so does the audience. It’s the perfect example of how even invisible VFX can reinforce a feature’s narrative themes.”
As lead vendor, ZERO played a huge part in bringing Fences from set to screen, maintaining constant VFX supervision on set, while also delivering concept and creative through to execution.
The result was some 100 shots across Fences’ timeline, with many stretched out across hundreds of frames, demanding the utmost skill from the film’s artists. “Frame-wise, it felt more like the equivalent of 300 shots,” says Bailey.
The opening shot of Wylie Avenue stands out as one of which Bailey is most proud. “We took a modern street and replaced the ground and everything on it with CG cobblestones,” she explains. “That meant we had to roto and remove everything that shouldn’t be there, place the new layer of cobblestones on top, and then match the shadows with the newly implemented cobblestones, ensuring everything interacted the way that it should.”
The most ambitious shot, however, arrives at the movie’s climax: “Denzel wanted the clouds to part and a beautiful ray of light to cast down on the film’s protagonists,” says Bailey. “He had one directive for it: in that shot he wanted to see God.”
As the plate photography had been shot with the sun behind the camera, ZERO needed to think about how to change the direction of the light, making it appear as if it shone from a different direction entirely. As Denzel told the team: “Make it work; make it beautiful.”
“We solved the shot using full CG,” explains Bailey. “As the camera pans up and we transition from the characters to the sky, the scene reveals a CG sun, CG clouds, and a CG tree. The tree asset meant that the light could shine through the individual leaves and interact with them, even as they subtly fall through the wind. Adding those silent touches—the way that natural things move—really sold the shot.”
Fences stands as another great example of what is achievable via the power of invisible effects. Visual effects may be capable of creating never-before-seen alien worlds, but they can also transport viewers back in time, heightening the emotional resonance of an actor’s performance.
“We love to do the explosions and high-action set pieces like those witnessed in Hardcore Henry, The Magnificent Seven and The Equalizer—and those are invisible VFX too, just in a different way,” says Bailey. “But in films like Fences and Black Mass it’s all about crafting a sense of total immersion in the drama, and that was certainly achieved here.”
Denzel Washington, who’s as natural behind the camera as he is in front of it, set the overall tone for this project: “He was incredibly motivated and professional,” concludes Bailey, reflecting on the actor and director. “You could tell Fences was his baby. He cared immensely about it and that made us really care about it too. It was a passion project, through and through.”
From the retro cool of Saul Bass’s 50s title sequences to today’s vibrant visuals powered by the latest in technology, audiences love watching stories brought to life by dynamic, eye-catching visuals.
Brands are finding audiences ever more difficult to engage with. A compelling animation and motion graphics execution corrals limited attention spans - and this is what ZERO strives to capture while delivering a brand’s story.
Along with participation on feature films such as Magnificent Seven and Ghostbusters, Creative Directors and Co-Founders, Sean Devereaux and Brian Drewes apply their experience to commercial projects for clients such as Snapchat, Solar City, Under Armour, and Vaseline. Says Devereaux, “The fun is finding visual ways to express how a client’s product or message is fresh or interesting to the viewer. We love finding compelling ways to approach a client’s brief - we take that very seriously.”
Take the logo redesign ZERO did for film production company Escape Artists, which recently won a Summit Award. The team needed to represent the newly designed logo in such a way that balanced visual interest with relevance to the company’s ethos. “We developed ideas based on the logo’s pre-existing maze concept to create an entire universe that serves to introduce the revamped logo,” says Drewes. The result was a world of glistening crystal, through which a shadowy figure runs, before diving into the center of the maze. The camera then pulls out to reveal it as the iris of the eye logo.
This kind of symbiotic thinking extends to the world of commercials: “For Bose”, Drewes explains, “we were tasked with creating an entirely CG spot that captured the transformative quality of their latest line of speakers. The Bose team wanted their listeners to be transported, so we built a world inside of their speakers. Our visuals were able to bring that concept behind Bose to life.”
“We closely collaborate with the clients on each of these projects, looking to tell those stories through the visuals,” says Deveraux. “It’s great to be involved in the process, working with the clients to evolve the idea, and use the latest in technology, driven in large part by our feature film technologists, to arrive at a satisfying end result.”
And the most satisfying part? For Devereaux and Drewes, “When it all comes together!”. “When motion graphics are telling you something about the product without even looking at the text, you know you’ve done your job. It’s all about taking an idea and elevating it, selling the product instantly, seamlessly, and beautifully.”
2016 brought an exciting, engaging, and artfully done reboot of the 1980s classic Ghostbusters - this time with a new cast, in a new era, for a new generation of cinemagoers.
How did director Paul Feig and crew face the challenge? The trick was to realize and capture the essence of Ghostbusters - the story, characters, action, comedy, and cutting edge visual effects.
ZERO VFX was proud to be called upon for this task. The Boston- and LA-based VFX studio joined in the film’s production phase to develop one of the most memorable phantoms: a floating electric chair victim, wrapped in coils of phosphorescent blue energy.
It was up to ZERO to bring this ghost to life, combining just the right amount of expression, visual distinctiveness, and technology into his supernatural visage. ZERO successfully balanced all of these elements using their artistic vision and technology now three decades improved.
For ZERO, the task at hand was to create their biggest photorealistic CG character yet - a welcome challenge.
"We had to pull everything up by the bootstraps,” begins Robert Nederhorst, VFX supervisor at ZERO’s LA studio and an artist with over 18 years’ industry experience. “We had to build the entire character pipeline from nothing, while actively working on shots, and building the facility infrastructure. A CG character is one of the hardest things you can do even with that existing pipeline. Without it, you’ve got a major uphill battle."
The challenge originated from the technical complexity of the character, as well as from the narrative standpoint. ZERO wanted to convey the origins of the character they dubbed Fred, creating a look and feel that gave him a real sense of place in the story.
The film-makers sought a semi-translucent look that revealed his skeleton, gossamer skin, and writhing tendrils of blue energy. ZERO had a lot to consider, but thanks to the expertise of its team, they knew where to begin.
"We asked ourselves about how we could make Fred feel ethereal, and how we could make the photography and performance and character all look real together with the smoke and electricity," chimes Mike Warner, CG and animation supervisor at ZERO LA. "We also thought a lot about who Fred was before he became a ghost, and built that visual identity into not just his character, but the character of the effects."
ZERO opted to fully keyframe the ghost, given that any motion capture work would make the character appear as though he were hanging from rig – as the original actor was on set.
The ZERO team completely replaced the actor in the plate photography, using the footage as reference material to create a terrifyingly accurate CG apparition. This allowed the team to add supernatural effects, like modeling Fred’s mouth after a snake’s and making his head spin around a full 360 degrees.
For the glowing emissions and electric bursts around the figure, ZERO built four different "ghost smoke system" simulations, each programmed to effect the others in unique ways. SideFX’s Houdini simulation toolset was tapped to blend the effects together. Mantra was used for rendering, Houdini and V-Ray to develop Fred's wiry beard, and nCloth and Maya to work on his tattered prison uniform.
"We cached that through an alembic to send to Houdini, and nCloth informed the motion of all the Houdini-based effects that were generated," says Warner. "It was a very complex path system, going from Maya out to Houdini and then back into Maya for V-Ray for the lighting. Thankfully we had a great comp team, who built some incredibly useful custom built tools to put it all together!"
The character’s translucent nature presented further complexity. The brief requested a semi-translucent quality, a “very interesting lighting challenge, to say the least,” says Warner.
"We accomplished this translucent effect via a combination of lighting passes and compositing," explains Nederhorst. "We knew that we had to see the skeleton from time to time, depending on the lighting interactions and gaps in the clothing, so we rendered a skeleton with fully textured displacement maps, and we rendered a 'photographically real' ghost with skin and full textures. We could then control the level of translucency during the compositing process, showing varying levels of the bone beneath the skin."
In addition to Fred, ZERO collaborated with Peter Travers, the film’s VFX supervisor, on a variety of other effects.
"We owned the entire (subway) sequence," says ZERO co-founder Brian Drewes - the animation of the proton pack beams, as well as face replacements, set extension work, and Houdini simulations for ectoplasm that covered actress, Kristen Wiig.
The team looked back to the original Ghostbusters film for inspiration on elements such as the proton guns, but drove each look further using new and enhanced tools.
"When working on the R&D of the plasma and proton beams, we did look backwards a great deal to the original film," explains Drewes. "We came on pretty early in the schedule and did a lot of the lookdev for the beam. We added modern FX, but made sure we captured the tone and feeling of the original's proton beams. We looked at their motion, and how frenetic the energy was. We wanted to stay true to that, while moving it into the look and feel of this century."
A similar approach was taken with the overall aesthetic of Fred: "A lot of what we took from the original films was the luminescent quality and the semi-transparency of a lot of the ghost characters," says Nederhorst. "We wanted to maintain that.”
ZERO was thrilled to be working on the same show as some of the world’s biggest and most prolific VFX vendors.
"Our work stands alongside MPC, Iloura, and Sony Pictures Imageworks – all really big companies with deeply ingrained pipelines," says Drewes. "I think that, from a peer review standpoint, our work is truly impressive, and we pulled it off efficiently thanks to our scale, business model, and the agility we’re afforded by virtue of being a smaller studio."
"In the end, it's about feeling rather than seeing; about making things feel that much more believable,'" says Warner. "Of course, nobody sitting in the cinema is going to be tricked into thinking they’re seeing a genuine ghost, but if they forget even for a moment that they’re watching a film, and they slip totally into the narrative of the moment, just because we poured that extra 5% into the displacement maps and delivered that greater sense of physical place within the environment: that’s when we’ve succeeded.
"For ZERO, if no one is thinking about the VFX work, and they’re just totally there in the moment," he concludes, "that’s when we’ve won.”
Check out the before and after reel here:
We've grown a lot over the past year, expanding from our studio in Boston to a new location in Venice, Los Angeles.
In addition we added to the footprint of the Boston office to now include multiple floors at about 12,000sqft total. Finally, this allows us to dedicate space to the heartbeat of our production process: the dailies screening room. The custom-built Stewart screen, 4k color calibrated projector and movie theatre seating makes a perfect venue for this vital piece of the ZERO pipeline.
This space, and the dailies session itself, gives the entire project team unadulterated and dedicated time to discuss and critique their work as a group. Our LA office has matching hardware, allowing for color perfect and real-time discussion when working bi-coastally. This ensures we don’t miss a beat and that all commercials and feature shots are flawless.
This luxurious new screening room was designed by Sean Jennings, art director on The Magnificent Seven at ZERO. Read how he went about creating it below:
"While working on The Magnificent Seven at ZERO I was asked to help design and oversee the build of the new screening room. Knowing that ZERO will continue to grow, a design that provided adequate space was essential, but it also had to embrace the size of the available room. I enjoy a good challenge, so finding a way to make it work as a screening room without it feeling packed or awkward was a fun task!
“My aim was to give the ZERO team a screening room that will aid in the production of even more amazing work in the years to come, and I think we've definitely achieved that."Get in touch to see the screening room for yourself! Email MBailey@zerovfx.com and we’ll get the popcorn ready!
Hardcore Henry is undoubtedly one of the most distinct cinematic offerings of 2016. Partially crowdfunded on Indiegogo and directed by Russian director Ilya Naishuller, Hardcore Henry doesn’t just turn the action movie crazy dial up to 11 (and 12, and beyond…) – it approaches it from an entirely different perspective. The first-person perspective, that is.
Whether pursuing a fleeing enemy on foot or escaping from a floating mid-air fortress, the audience spends the entirety of Hardcore Henry watching through the eyes of the titular protagonist. Filmed via a GoPro worn by a stuntman-cameraman lead, the action is blisteringly paced and intensely violent, rushing headfirst through wince-inducing hand-to-hand battles, blood-drenched shootouts, and one truly explosive highway car chase.
It was that last sequence which was laid solely at the feet of ZERO VFX. The studio was charged with working on the chase from start to end, creating a plethora of CG elements within the confines of frenzied GoPro footage to bring the scene to life.
Read on to learn how ZERO tackled the first-person perspective throughout the adrenaline-pumping chase sequence, ensuring that Hardcore Henry never once lets up its insane pace.
“Well…it’s quite the sequence,” begins ZERO CEO Brian Drewes, reminiscing on the blood-pumping highway chase.
What begins with Henry and sidekick Shartlo Copley pursuing a convoy in the distance soon turns into a non-stop, screen-shaking action set-piece, replete with vans torn apart by miniguns, motorbikes riding through the innards of trucks, and grenades hurling vehicles high into the air.
The action is so over-the-top it feels it could break free from its careful choreography at any given moment. Thankfully, ZERO was ready in post to ensure the feeling of controlled chaos remained consistent throughout.
“We worked on a lot of full-CG elements to really sell the sequence, augmenting what was shot on set,” says Drewes. For starters, ZERO created a full-CG convoy, witnessed in the distance. As the heroes get closer, the convoy is replaced by real trucks, which the pair attack with a side-mounted minigun.
“We added muzzle flashes, as well as all the damage caused to the truck,” says Drewes. “We really tore it to shreds, creating all of the debris, the particles flying off from the bullet hits, the blood, and the shells pouring from the minigun.” The ZERO team also simulated these shells to follow the speed and action of the motorbike, peppering them across the road whenever Henry looks back.
Other augmentations included additions to a semi-truck which the hero clambers up, over and underneath.
“We covered it with CG damage, like a broken windshield, and in one sequence we created a digi-double character who flies through that windshield following a collision,” says Drewes. “We also created the CG overpass in the background that threatens to kill Henry before he can jump into the semi.”
The real standout moments that occur during the sequence are even more destructive. One shot sees Henry drive right through the center of the van on a motorbike – “we added smoke, sparks, and other debris to really increase the impact,” says Drewes – and several shots required huge explosions that tear the vehicles asunder.
“That’s the biggest eye candy,” says Drewes. “It was a case of enhancing some of the practical effects carried out on set, and also creating – and then destroying – completely CG vehicles. We created the engulfing fireballs and everything that sprays out, enhancing the visceral sense of danger of being right there on that road.”
Another element that makes the sequence stand out is that it takes place in one continuous camera move – or at least so it seems.
The sequence is in fact comprised of nearly 45 different shots stitched together in post. ZERO’s job wasn’t just to create anarchy, but to bring it together with grace.
“There had to be no indication that there were any cutaways throughout the chase," explains Dan Cayer, VFX supervisor at ZERO. "Given that these shots were filmed at different times, and some had hard cuts from the camera, that was a major task. Also, we joined the project after it wrapped, so had to utilize a lot of our creativity to ensure each shot matched up without on-set scans and lighting information.”
One example of a particularly challenging task saw ZERO blend two shots filmed 180 degrees in completely opposite directions. Using a variety of creative techniques, ZERO collapsed the two shots into one, imparting the impression that Henry had simply turned his head. It was approached in such a way as to convince the audience that no CG augmentation had been applied.
“We had to do that kind of stitching and blending across each of the 45 different shots, and each was incredibly distinct, so there was little to no opportunity to standardize or repeat the approach,” says Cayer. ”We had to approach each as if it was a completely bespoke challenge. It was a case of just getting our heads down and working through each shot. We couldn’t be more pleased with the final result.”
Another challenge that permeated the sequence came in the technical specifications of the GoPro. The same effect that makes GoPro footage so distinctive – it’s curved, wide-angle lens – was also the element that made even simple bread-and-butter VFX difficult to implement.
"If you look at a fisheye lens undistorted, completely flattening it, the footage looks almost like a four-point star,” explains ZERO’s Don Libby, VFX supervisor. “Having to work visually on that, placing CG elements in that world, was certainly challenging.”
ZERO would have to implement elements such as CG blood and sparks into the flattened, undistorted frame, then make sure that these additions still looked well integrated when the distortion was added back in. “That’s a very different way of working, and one that made even simple VFX shots something that we really needed to think about,” adds Libby.
The ZERO team would also have to accommodate in the render size the distortion amount that would happen around the edges of shots. “We were actually rendering a lot larger frames than we normally would just to accommodate the distortion,” says Libby. “There’s a lot you have to think about to get it just right.”
"Many of the things you'd usually try to avoid in VFX, this project had in droves," says Drewes of Hardcore Henry. Nevertheless, it was Hardcore Henry’s indie nature and ground-up approach that attracted ZERO to the project in the first place. Even if it did come with a host of creative challenges, it was worth taking them on to work on a project this inventive, this daring, and this ambitious.
“That’s what I love about ZERO,” enthuses Drewes. "I've never worked at another company that would have put the amount of effort and resources into something that was, at the end of the day, an independent film.
“However Hardcore Henry was truly a passion project for the team,” he continues. “We were able to say, ‘Our A-team is working on this, and they’re going to get it done, and done right. We weren’t trying to sell cheaper alternatives just because we weren’t working with the same resources as a multi-million dollar action film – every decision we made was for the benefit of the project.
“We don’t cut corners at ZERO: we commit. We do that for every project, indie feature or not. We're all very proud of that.”
Check out the before and after reel here:
We are thrilled to announce ZERO VFX has been named a Silver winner, and a two times Bronze winner in this year’s Summit Awards!
Our Escape Artist logo redesign has received the exciting Silver award in the Logo Redesign category.
Our team have also been awarded bronze in the Healthcare/Medicine Commercial category for their work on the Abcodia ROCA Test spot, and bronze in the Editing/Effects category for the Space Flavors spot.
The Summit International awards are celebrating 22-years of creative excellence this year. Since 1994 they have been enabling creative firms to receive recognition for their work.
You can see our Escape Artist spot, along with other spots on our Vimeo page.
Creating visual effects that disappear
By: Cindy Atoji Keene
If we do our job right, viewers never even know that we’ve been there,” Zero VFX special effects worker Don Libby said.
leading video or graphic inside story_update.jpt In Story Photo or Graphic Section paragraphs 2 leadingContainer photo leadingShape horizontal hasRBox true
If it’s on a reel, chances are it’s not real. Moviedom has nearly perfected the art of computer-generated effects, whether it’s a simple background adjustment or jaw-dropping visuals. Don Libby of the Boston-based digital effects company Zero VFX has played a supporting role in enhancing recent films such as “Black Mass,” “American Hustle,” and “Southpaw.” Libby spoke about the cinematic illusions created with imagery tools such as NUKE, Maya, and Photoshop.
“We recently finished adding digital destruction and mayhem to a wild highway chase in ‘Hardcore Henry,’ a movie shot almost entirely with a GoPro. Director Ilya Naishuller and his crew delivered dozens of [pieces of] footage that had to be stitched together into one seamless sequence. There was a lot of environmental work, too, painting out skies and trees and covering them up with elements, and then layering all the explosions on top. The van in one scene was completely unharmed but is actually supposed to flip over and explode, so we needed to create a CGI [Computer Generated Imagery] version of the vehicle. This required modeling a 3-D representation of the van and then demolishing it. This is the typical sort of pyrotechnics that can be created, some for cool car, shoe, juice, or restaurant commercials as well. Where are all these mirages created?
By: Mekado Murphy
"Hardcore Henry" includes just about everything audiences expect in an action movie: explosions, wild stunts, an armory of bullets. But there’s no Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson or Daniel Craig to be found. Instead, the movie has a more unassuming star: you.
The film, in theaters Friday, April 8, tells its story — a cyborg searching for his kidnapped wife — totally from the viewer’s perspective. These first-person scenes turn the movie into a more active experience. Think “Run Lola Run” meets the video game Call of Duty. And while the visual effects (and carnage) are plentiful, the core of the action involves real stunts executed by performers who scale buildings, swing from helicopters and leap from crazy heights.
“Hardcore Henry” is the brainchild of, and the first feature by, the Russian director Ilya Naishuller. The 30-year-old filmmaker first used the point-of-view technique in a pair of music videos for his band, Biting Elbows. His 2013 video, which includes a frantic car chase and a jaw-dropping free fall through the middle of a building, went viral. One of its fans was the producer and filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), who contacted Mr. Naishuller about expanding the concept into a feature. Mr. Naishuller was not thrilled at first.
“I thought, ‘That’s a horrible idea,’” Mr. Naishuller said during an interview at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Tex., where the movie played to an enthusiastic audience. “I just thought: ‘Why would you do that? It’s a gimmick.’” But Mr. Bekmambetov persisted.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are only part of the ongoing evolution of VFX work for spots and brand videos, says ZERO VFX brain trust.
With Star Wars mania still upon us, the Super Bowl just around the corner, and Oculus Rift set to release its consumer virtual reality headset any day now, the craft and execution of visual effects imagery has never been more relevant. Effects shots are now the norm in almost all categories of film and video production, whether it’s simple clean up or jaw-dropping visuals.
With all of the hype surrounding the art form, the content creation community is looking to effects artists and designers to help create a new world of digital tools, techniques and styles.
For insight into this explosive field we’ve turned to the leaders of the fast-growing Boston and Venice, CA based effects, animation, design and CG studio, ZERO VFX. Founded in 2010 by Sean Devereaux and Brian Drewes respectively, a veteran VFX Supervisor and Creative Director, and an experienced Executive Producer, ZERO VFX has helped put Boston on the map as an effects hub, providing effects, CG, animation and post for a range of ad assignments and feature films.
Joining Devereaux and Drewes in this Q&A on the state of the effects industry is Executive Producer and Director of Business Development Sarah Spitz, a former agency producer who moved over from Arnold in 2013. Since her arrival, ZERO has worked for such brands as Jack Daniel’s, Scion, New Balance, Dunkin' Donuts and many others. On the feature side, ZERO VFX has played a supporting role in such recent films as Black Mass, American Hustle, and Southpaw.
ZERO’s ability to easily shift back and forth between advertising and entertainment projects – often working with the same teams of artists and producers – gives the company a uniquely broad perspective on the effects industry.
With its star-studded cast and sprawling narrative, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass heads back to the seventies to tell the the story of Whitey Bulger – the brother of a state senator and one of South Boston’s most infamous criminals.
It was fitting, then, that ZERO VFX – with one of its two offices in Boston – was called upon to recreate the bygone era of the city it calls home.
From augmenting crowd shots to swapping one season for another, ZERO’s work on the project was far- and wide-reaching. Nevertheless, despite its contribution, ZERO lived up to its name, leaving no trace of its fingerprints across the production.
“We managed to implement a diverse range of invisible effects across Black Mass, working directly with the plate photography,” begins Sean Devereaux, VFX supervisor for ZERO on the project, and more than willing to spill the family secrets.
“It was challenging, but I think 99.9% of the people who see it will never know we touched a single frame of it.”
The ZERO team worked on 375 shots in total, straddling period enhancements, shot corrections and violence augmentation. The name of the game was realism, which, while adding to the drama of the film, was a challenging task.
“The director, Scott Cooper, wanted the film to be totally true, in every way possible, to the time it took place,” explains Devereaux. “That meant shooting on location in Boston, and sometimes in front of buildings that wouldn’t have existed in the time period. It was up to ZERO to remove those buildings from the plates.”
Another factor to consider was that Black Mass was shot in late spring, whereas most of the scenes in Black Mass take place in a much colder late winter. ZERO’s team of seasoned supervisors, producers and artists took on the monumental task of swapping seasons.
Utilizing a diverse array of tools – including Maya, NUKE, and Photoshop, Devereaux and his team went about transforming mild spring to a stark winter. This involved creating CG snow (“Any time you see snow in the film, it was added by us,” says Devereaux) and removing the thick foliage from the trees visible during footage.
“There’s really no way to just take off leaves from a tree – you have to replace the entire background,” explains Devereaux. “A lot of our shots became over 80% digital in order to accomplish that, with entire backdrops of green foliage changed to snow-tipped branches.”
All of these changes were impressively created without the aid of any green screens. For Devereaux, this wasn’t necessarily an issue, as it gave the director much more creative freedom in how he approached each shot for the film.
“I want to give the director as much time as possible to figure out how he want his shot to look, and as soon as you put that green screen up you’re instantly limiting his ability to have more time with the cut,” explains Devereaux. “In avoiding that, yes, it meant we had to focus on rotoscoping, but it allowed the director more freedom in the editorial process. At ZERO, we want to engender that creativity, not distract from it.”
Devereaux states that the most VFX-intensive shots faced during the production were those set within a moving vehicle. “They did take the most resources,” remember Devereaux. ”We had to replace absolutely everything outside of the windows, including the reflections, which required a lot of careful, meticulous work from our artists.
“Thankfully, VFX supervisor Paul Linden was one set,” he continues. “He did a great job on set, ensuring that the transition between on-set shooting and post-production was as smooth as it could possibly be.”
In addition to the CG snow, crowd extension – achieved by duplicating extras – became another important element in the Black Mass VFX process.
“There were no CG people involved in Black Mass’s crowd extensions,” explains Devereaux. “It was a case of simply duplicating extras from multiple takes. We achieved the effect in 2D using assets captured from other takes and angles. The result was totally seamless.”
ZERO didn’t just need to draw a crowd, but also draw blood. Black Mass is, after all, a violent film, and that meant a great deal of arterial spray being used to enhance the special effects occurring in the original plates.
ZERO’s work didn’t just include enhancing the violence, but also toning it down: “If you’re a sucker for authenticity you know bullet holes don’t have smoke come out of them when you shoot somebody, but squibs sometimes cause that,” says Devereaux. “As such a lot of our work involved squib clean up. It was about making things look more real while also enhancing the impact of the violence.”
Throughout the Black Mass project, reality was the name of the game. Yes, entire buildings were removed, and an epic reversal of Mother Nature was achieved, but despite these impressive feats ZERO’s involvement needed to remain as low key as possible.
“We did a lot of work, but what I’m really proud of is that, of all the work we’ve done at ZERO, Black Mass truly is one where you’ll never know we were there,” concludes Devereaux. “We’re truly invisible – it’s a true illusion in every sense of the word.
“At ZERO, we take a lot of pride in that.”
Read about it here!
Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw doesn’t pull its punches. From the get-go viewers are thrust into a vision of the boxing high-life that’s as gritty as it is glamorous, the mansions and luxury cars juxtaposed with violence, loss, and inner turmoil.
For Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy ‘The Great’ Hope, boxing is more than just a sport – it’s a release for the inner demons that he must overcome to win back custody of his estranged daughter. The fights he engages in are unflinchingly authentic, each punch powered by a lifetime’s worth of pain.
As such, Fuqua wanted nothing less than absolute reality – a boxing flick that transcended the usual underdog-overcomes-adversity-to-become-champion tale, and one that presented the sport as a real, raw release, causing the audience to feel every jab and hook as if they were right there in the ring.
Of course, no matter how much of a method actor he might be, you can’t have Jake Gyllenhaal take each and every blow throughout the film’s numerous fights. Instead, carefully crafted, absolutely invisible visual effects were needed to bring Fuqua’s vision to life.
It was ZERO VFX that stepped into the ring to deliver its one-two of invisible visual effects expertise.
With reality the name of the game in Southpaw, the boxing choreography wasn’t set up shot-by-shot, but rather round-by-round.
“The production shot three rounds at a time, using 15 different cameras,” begins Sean Devereaux, Southpaw’s VFX Supervisor, and one of the people responsible for ensuring the VFX was properly prepared for on-set. “The actors would do a round, go and sit in their corners, do the lines they had to do, then get back up and keep boxing, all while the cameras continued to roll. We weren’t working with specifically designed shots, where we stop the action to cut to inserts or cutaways for cool punches. It was all in real-time.”
The benefit of filming each of Southpaw’s bouts in this style was that it allowed Fuqua to communicate the visceral nature of the fights and the emotional arc of the characters: the actors didn’t need to pretend they were tired, they were tired, and this became the foundation of their performances.
“We knew the production was going to shoot three rounds at a time, so it was up us to work with the filmmakers to determine how to design the most flexible system we could,” remembers Devereaux. “It made things more challenging, for sure, but we never want to limit the director in their ability to shoot the way they want to.”
As such, not a single blue or green screen was put up for Southpaw due to the nature of this shoot, meaning Fuqua was not limited to any specific angle. However, ZERO did use highly detailed LiDAR scans and set survey data to compensate for the lack of tracking markers and shaky, hand-held camera movement.
“We did everything in those big takes,” states Devereaux. “It made putting the crowds into the background – although quite typical in VFX these days – more challenging, because we couldn’t control any of that structure on set. That meant a lot more work needed to be done on the extensions than anticipated.
“Nevertheless, this approach to visual effects meant that Fuqua could shoot the film exactly the way he wanted to, while still delivering all of the final impact. The VFX supported the concept of the film, rather than defining it.”
It wasn’t just the real-time rounds that gave Southpaw its intensity. ZERO’s visual effects help bring another element of realism to the fore: “Every single punch in Southpaw is connected,” reveals Devereaux of the film’s intense boxing.
“There’s not a single near miss where the sound effects do the work,” he continues. “Every punch thrown that is supposed to connect with the other fighter makes contact with their face, warps it, and spit and blood are ejected. That’s every single punch – there’s not one that misses unintentionally over the film’s 35 minutes of boxing.”
This impactful result was achieved using a variety of different techniques, from 2D paint work and warping – using which ZERO would extend a boxer’s arm, bend their glove upon impact, and warp the recipient's jaw – all the way up to full CG replacements of gloves and arms.
“We would sometimes completely move a boxer, taking them out of the frame, or move them closer to their opponent because they were too far away,” explains Devereaux.
“We also had to do a lot of head adjustments – if you get hit by a jab in professional boxing, the head barely moves, but sometimes the actor in question would react slightly too much. We had to limit the movement so it looked a little more realistic.”
It wasn’t just the bouts that had to look real, but the environments in which they occurred. That meant taking a small, simple arena surrounded by shadow, and turning it into two of the most captivating and prestigious sporting arenas in the world – Madison Square Garden and Caesar’s Palace.
“The fights in Southpaw were originally filmed in a very small arena; we had to then create the stadiums in CG and fill them with crowds,” says ZERO’s visual effects producer Brian Drewes. “The stadiums were full CG builds, right up into the rafters and the luxury boxes. We also created the crowds, the lighting – everything that you see outside of that central ring.”
These hand-built stadiums were created using the aforementioned LiDAR scans and photography reference of the actual locations, allowing the ZERO team to map their extensions with absolute precision. It was then a case of combining 2D and 3D systems to meticulously add crowds into each level of the stadium.
“That’s prevalent for many, many minutes of the film,” says Drewes. “We didn’t attempt to escape from any of that – we built it all by hand.”
Despite the challenges inherent in working in such an authentic, realistic manner, the final results are there to see on screen. Southpaw’s intense bouts of boxing feel intensely real, and few would suggest that they weren’t filmed either on location within the world-famous stadiums, or if not that, then a physical facsimile built on a sound stage.
“That was really the goal, and what the director wanted,” says Devereaux. “It was all about making it genuine, making it real. We weren’t trying to make Southpaw more violent by adding big movement to the punches – it had to feel like a real boxing match.
“Yes, that’s a challenge, because we couldn’t get away with the usual VFX band aids that you have, like cutting to spectators, or a slow motion shot – it was all there in the moment,” he concludes. “Nevertheless, the final film is all the more believable and impactful – and the director’s vision was maintained – all because of that extra work that we poured in during post.
“That’s the core to invisible VFX at ZERO.”
Leading visual effects and creative studio ZERO VFX has opened a new 5,000-square-foot office in Venice Beach, California, expanding on ZERO’s long-term Boston headquarters.
This new bi-coastal approach to operations will enable ZERO to continue delivering high-end visual effects to feature films such as Southpaw and Black Mass, while also continuing to develop in the commercials sector.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – 2016 – Leading visual effects and creative studio, ZERO VFX, has opened a bran new West-Coast operation.
The new 5,000-square-foot office in Venice Beach, California, expands on ZERO's long-term Boston headquarters and marks a substantial bi-coastal scaling of operations in both the feature film and commercial markets. The move and additional staffing in the Boston office effectively doubles the company size from 40 to 80+ employees.
ZERO has achieved great success in the feature film, television, and commercial markets, having recently executed three projects with Netflix Originals in less than a year and delivered work on high-profile feature projects including The Equalizer, Southpaw, and Black Mass. Several more high-profile projects are currently in the works.
ZERO's commercial credits include work for leading brands including Toyota, Jack Daniel's, New Balance and more. The Venice Beach office was partly chosen due to its prime location for the support of further high-end commercial work.
The company is renowned for its deep creative and technical problem solving and close involvement in projects. ZERO is lead by its two co-founders, industry veterans Brian Drewes (Head of Production) and Sean Devereaux (Creative Director).
Brian Drewes comments: "This is a really exciting time for us, and we are looking forward to offering our clients even greater service with the opening of our second location in LA.
ZERO’s artists are the lifeblood that keeps this studio pumping out creative project after creative project. From the invisible effects that power Southpaw’s punches to the innovation behind each and every commercial, their work never fails to impress and amaze.
That’s why we decided it was time to further showcase their amazing work within the film and commercial industries.
By: Vincent Frei
In 2012, Lara Lom talked to us about the MPC work on SKYFALL. After that she worked on films such as 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE and then on ROBOCOP and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY at Framestore. She then joinedZero VFX in Boston.
I came to Zero to work on SOUTHPAW. I was drawn by the substantial use of visual effects in what first struck me as a movie that would require minimal use of it. I think most people are surprised to learn that we delivered over 500 visual effects shots for this film. Not only did we create 3D stadium environments, but we also substantially re-animated and re-timed actor performances for the majority of the boxing matches to enhance the realism and violence of the fighting.
SOUTHPAW is the second project directed by Antoine Fuqua on which Zero has worked.
The company also completed the visual effects on Antoine’s previous film, THE EQUALIZER.
Working with Antoine Fuqua was a very positive experience. What I appreciated the most was his genuine respect for the work of each and every visual effects artist. As a boxer himself, he was also extremely knowledgeable about the sport and provided invaluable insight into the boxing world, a passion that definitely resonated with the artists.
Having worked with us before, Antoine shared a strong working relationship with Visual Effects Supervisor and co-owner of Zero, Sean Devereaux. Where Antoine had a clear vision of what he wanted, Sean knew how to create it digitally.
By: Margaret Lenker
Since premiering last month on Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six” hasn’t exactly been riding stellar buzz. In his review, Variety‘s Justin Chang wrote the Adam Sandler comedy was “so lazy and aimless, it barely qualifies as parody.”
But according to Netflix, the slapstick Western is hardly a joke.
During their CES keynote on Wednesday, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and chief content officer Ted Sarandos offered some insight into the company’s movie business as well as the eye-popping performance of Sandler’s new film.
Since debuting exclusively on Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six” has been seen more times in 30 days than any other movie in Netflix history. “It’s also enjoyed a spot at #1 in every territory we operate in, and in many of them it’s still #1,” Sarandos added.
Some outlets erroneously reported on Wednesday that “Ridiculous Six” was the most-watched Netflix title in history. A source later clarified:
By: Daisy Griffin
(BOSTON) – ZERO VFX announced today that it delivered over 600 visual effects shots on the production of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster film, The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington. As the Visual Effects Supervisor throughout the production of the film, ZERO VFX co-founder Sean Devereaux played a significant role influencing the design and scope of the visual effects for the film.
By working closely with the director and producers from early stage pre-production and planning, to on set VFX supervision, ZERO VFX and its creative team were able to successfully anticipate challenges and influence the work while on set, and also help drive the story forward. Enhancing lead actor’s Denzel Washington’s presence throughout the film, the team at ZERO also created mind-blowing sequences that created an elevated sense of tension and excitement.
During 2014, ZERO VFX also acted as VFX supervisor on such major film releases Sex Tape, starting Cameron Diaz, and American Hustle starring Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence.
“Working so closely with director, Antoine Fuqua, was an amazing experience because we had first-hand insights into his vision for the film – and that insight helped us identify some significant VFX challenges and how to solve them,” said Sean Devereaux, creative director and co-founder of ZERO VFX. “The Equalizer was not what you’d call a typical VFX film. The challenge for us as artists was to realize Antoine’s vision and drive the story forward without getting in the way of that vision.
By: Juan Martinez
Cloud-based special effects file management
Google has acquired Zync, a start-up focused on special effects and design. The acquisition provides Google with a tool that allows movie studios, designers and producers to store and share large-format rendered files within traditional band-widths.
Until now, Zync has operated on Amazon's EC2 cloud, but Google will move Zync to its own Cloud Platform, the company said. The Wall Street Journal says it believes the move will force Zync's clients to switch from Amazon to Google's Cloud Platform.
Zync has fewer than 10 employees, according to its LinkedIn profile.
How it helps businesses Google sees the acquisition as an opportunity to provide Hollywood studios that don't have the resources to build their own render farms with a service that offers cloud-based rendering and capacity at cost. Google will offer its clients per-minute billing in order to relieve clients of having to pay for unused capacity that would exist under traditional hourly agreements.
Zync has been used on hundreds of commercials and more than twenty movies, including American Hustle and Transformers. The Boston-based company was founded in 2011 after having been part of visual effects company Zero VFX.
By: Scott Kirsner
Boston-based Zero VFX’s digital transformation of contemporary footage such as this street scene in Worcester (at top, before, and at bottom, after) to a bygone era helped it land work on the film “American Hustle.”
Last March, Sean Devereaux drove out to Worcester, to audition for a part in the movie “American Hustle.”
He landed the role, but you won’t see him on screen. He also won’t be sashaying down the red carpet at next month’s Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, where the film is up for 10 Oscars.
Devereaux led the Boston-based special effects crew at Zero VFX that back-dated footage shot in present-day Worcester, Boston, and Manhattan to make all three locations look like New York in late 1970s. They added buildings, removed Apple Stores, and inserted period taxis and low-slung sedans. They also did something to the actors’ outlandish 1970s hairstyles that they are contractually forbidden from discussing.
Even though Devereaux and cofounder Brian Drewes don’t show up in “American Hustle” until the closing credits, their role in the movie could be a career-maker for their 43-person firm, which is just four-years old. (The film is about a fictitious bribery scheme loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation.) Even though it’s small, Zero VFX is already the biggest special effects studio in town.
The “zero” in the company’s name references the kind of subtle special effects they specialize in. Did you notice their work in “The Way, Way Back,” a coming-of-age story that featured Concord native Steve Carell? That’s exactly the idea.
But they can also crank out the kind of explosions, fantastic vistas, fake crowds, and realistic-looking creatures that big-budget blockbusters require.
Ridiculous 6 galloped onto small screens around the globe via Netflix on 11 December – the latest in a growing collection of original Netflix programming that challenges the status quo of traditional film distribution.
And this particular endeavour – a Blazing Saddles-style farce set in the burning heat of Old West America – fared particularly well via the service. Indeed, a month after its release Netflix announced that the Adam Sandler comedy had been viewed more times in 30 days than any other movie in the service’s history.
ZERO VFX was honored to be a part of this comedy-driven adventure, being brought on board to deliver 400 shots that required a varied set of disciplines and approaches.
“We worked on a variety of shots, from set extensions, to split screens for explosions, to adding smoke and integrating pyro effects where they were needed,” begins VFX supervisor Randy Goux.
“However, being a comedy, most of the shots we worked on were there to give that extra bit of impact to the humour – there were lots of little gag jokes!” he continues. “For example, we helped chop off Harvey Keitel’s head. At first it was just a clean chop, but to add that extra ‘yuck’ fact we added a spine element sticking out the top. Visual effects can be funny too!”
To ensure as streamlined and simple VFX process as possible, ZERO’s experienced VFX team was present on The Ridiculous 6 from the very initial stages of pre-production.
“To be prepared on set takes a lot of communication prior to starting anything else,” explains Goux. “Weeks before a single camera was switched on we were discussing every element of the film and preparing for all eventualities. Things will always change, but if you are in communication and in tune with your director you don’t need to worry as much – you know exactly what you need to do.”
When filming commenced, ZERO’s supervisors were on set from day one, staying in constant communication with director Frank Coraci. “That’s exactly the way you want it,” says Brian Drewes, ZERO’s creative director. “We discussed methodology and the story he wanted to shoot, and when we were finished and came back to the studio to work on post, we knew exactly what was needed to achieve that creative vision.”
The collaborative and preparatory process ensured that ZERO was more than ready to tackle any VFX challenges as and when they arose – including adding extra CG elements to enhance the humour of the plate photography.
“The Ridiculous 6 is an Adam Sandler comedy after all, so often we had to react to plate photography that didn’t always hit home with the original comedic intention,” says Drewes. “We used visual effects to generate those extra laughs in post – another example of how CG can be used to enhance storytelling.”
Another challenge came in the 4K nature of the shoot, with every Netflix Original movie posted in 4K. “We were using Maya for 3D and NUKE for compositing, with everything in 4K resolution,” says Goux. “That was an additional onus on us, so we upgraded some workstations and our server. That’s been really useful for ZERO, as we have two more 4K shows in the pipeline, and we’re now totally 4K ready.”
The result is a movie that’s packed with laughs, but also surprisingly beautiful, the 4K resolution enhancing the stunning cinematography captured during the shoot.
“Dean Semler was the director of photography, and he’s amazing,” remembers Drewes. “It’s fun to watch him work and see what he can achieve, being in New Mexico with those amazing backdrops that naturally come for free.
“Considering that, the bar was set when we walked on – being at those beautiful places with such a legendary cinematographer, and matching the VFX to that level: that’s something for ZERO to be really proud of.”
ZERO VFX lives at the intersection of creativity, technology and culture.
Our team consists of passionate and experienced artists supported by a technologically sophisticated pipeline tasked to deliver complex visual effects for feature film and commercial projects.
The idea started in a basement in 2010 with one simple goal: promote top level artistic innovation and out of the box thinking no matter the medium.
Part of this drive led to ZERO's launch of the world’s first completely cloud-based rendering solution, ZYNC, which was sold to Google in 2014.
At ZERO, we encourage a warm and creative atmosphere, organizing family lunches, movie screenings, and a host of other activities that keep people smiling and positive, again to the benefit of our employees and our work product.
Interested in the jobs currently available at ZERO?
Interested in our internship and training programs?