Framestore collaborated with Netflix once again to add a ghoulish touch to the streaming giant’s new teen thriller series, Lockwood & Co. Set in a version of London plagued with ghosts, Lockwood and his friends begin a ghost-hunting agency, and are soon joined by Lucy, a girl with phenomenal psychic abilities (Ruby Stokes). Together, they face devilish spirits each night, and battle corporate, adult-run agencies during the day. The Academy Award-winning VFX studio delivered over 400 shots of ghostly visual effects across eight episodes from its studios in London, Vancouver, and Mumbai, under the guidance of Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Mathieson.
I Ain't Afraid of No Ghost
“One of the stand-out ghosts for us was Annabel,” explains Framestore VFX Supervisor Oliver Armstrong. “She’s the first ghost we really see up close, and she sets the tone for the other ghostly beings throughout the series, as well as being central to the plot for the first three episodes.”
Annabel began the afterlife in previs and techvis, where the artists established how her character would look and move, setting the camera angles and the rig that would be needed to hold the form that would provide a lighted reference. The team then completed two rounds of performance capture, one for the ghost’s body, and another for her face.
“The body performer for Annabel was a ballet dancer. She was shot in a green screen studio on a wire rig to achieve floating ghostly performances. We then body tracked her to bring that performance into 3D space. A second shoot was then required to capture the static facial performance of the actress who you will see in the final shots. This was then transferred to the body using Keen Tools facial tracking tools in Nuke.” explains Armstrong.
The ghostly aesthetic was achieved using mainly smoke, straying from the usual ‘translucent human’ look. This requires a lot of effects work, to control the smoke and its movement, while holding the shape of a human form. The layers of motion capture and effects made for a complex compositing challenge, bringing together all the elements to create a chilling encounter for Lockwood & Co.
The agency comes into possession of a human skull in a ghost-proof jar of liquid, after Lockwood & Co. associate George steals it from a competitor. The jar is filled with a milky greenish liquid containing floating algae-looking debris, which is set into motion when the skull reveals itself, and glows in sync with the talking face. “We were provided with a real prop (a jar filled with milky liquid, containing a skull) on set for lighting and visual reference, then object-tracked and replaced entirely with the CG version,” explains CG Supervisor Simone Vassallo. “There was a lot of lookdev and rendering involved to get the right milky look. It's always hard to get a nice and photo-realistic looking object when glass and liquid are involved because of refraction and absorption.”
Lucy, who is particularly sensitive to the paranormal, is able to talk to the ghost in the jar. He becomes an important character in the story, providing useful information to the group, or revelling in their misfortune. The Effects and Compositing teams spent a lot of time developing the floating debris and algae in the jar, specifically the way it moves into place to reveal the ghost face over the skull. “It was a challenge to make the various elements work together in a believable way, and the render time was huge,” continues Vassallo. “Some of the closeup shots required almost 20 hours per frame to render all the required passes at 4k.”
“The skull in the jar is my favourite ghost” agrees Compositor Max Last. “His original design was based around him inhabiting a jar of kombucha - in fact one of our lighting leads went as far as to brew some of his own as reference.” Much care was taken to extract the glows and ambient light refracting through the liquid, so that the smoky ectoplasm could be read against the dark silhouette of the chunky debris.
That's the Spirit
Lockwood & Co. face many ghosts throughout the series, but perhaps the most menacing is that of Edmund Bickerstaff, a ghoul styled after a Victorian doctor. Bickerstaff is the largest ghost in the series, towering over his surroundings at four or five times the size of an average human.
“We received plates with the actor's performance on green screen, which was then body-tracked and scaled up. It was tricky to make him fit in some sequences - for example the underground set filled with columns - as there wasn't much room to play with” explains Vassallo. The team adopted a similar approach to Annabel, utilising compositing and effects to create a complex smoke simulation that could interact with other weapons and forces when needed. “We worked hard to retain the original actor's expressivity, and translated that into its ultimate smoky form,” adds Last.
One of Bickerstaff’s relics from his mortal lifetime is the bone glass, a mirror adorned with bones of the departed, which concentrates their spectral energy, and forms a window into the ghostly beyond. The team had their work cut out for them in a later episode, when the bone glass gets smashed, setting free the seven spirits it had trapped. “It was a really fun challenge” comments Last, “I think they’re probably our prettiest ghosts, little devils swirl around in intricate patterns, opening portals. It required a lot of attention to detail, but was so rewarding to see it all come together.”
Lockwood & Co is now streaming on Netflix.