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Beyond the Rage: Decoding the Unsung Beauty of She-Hulk's VFX

After the high of Avengers Endgame, the interest in superhero films has left a bad taste in the audiences’ palette, through no fault of their own the genre has dominated the cinemas for the better part of a decade. So it’s safe to say the audience is awaiting the new type of genre that will take over. While Hollywood throws films at the wall to see what sticks, it is important to appreciate the work that everyone puts into the films and TV shows being released. One of the shows in the middle of this transition is She-Hulk.


 


Released in August 2022, She-Hulk set a precedent for using a CG photorealistic character as the main protagonist in a TV series and prominently featured across multiple episodes. This was an especially great achievement because the character was placed in a natural environment making her blend in the scene. Daylight shots made her feel real, and the advanced technologies developed by the VFX studios made subtle things like her green skin have natural subsurface scattering and nerve simulation under the skin. These are the technologies I’d like us to go through to fully appreciate what it took to make the character so seamless and dispel the notion that it was “Bad CGI” because none of it was.


 


Character Animation


Adopted from Tatiana Maslany’s realtime time performance, She-Hulk had to be animated on a different scale as Tatiana is 5’ 4” (1.63m) and She-Hulk is 6’ 7” (2m). So they took her performance and scaled it to match someone at that height. This meant having animators display the detailed skin and muscle deformations plus a myriad of other factors including weight, bone density, and even personality differences worked for someone at that height.


 


The CG characters that exist in the Marvel arsenal are caricatures so they can get away with having absurd muscles and facial structures, but with She-Hulk, she is a fully human character so subtle performances are what inform the viewer what they should experience. This gives animators, like senior animation supervisor Sidney Kombo-King small margins of error when animating her from the reference footage, if the eye doesn’t move with the emotion being conveyed, the audience will pick it up and such nuances.


 


Character Simulations


First off, her hair. Hair simulation has been an upward battle in the animation industry and She-Hulk’s hair is a culmination of years of advancements. Her hair was simulated to be voluminous, it had to be curly and silky, a tricky situation because the algorithms used preferred one property at a time so when you simulate the hair on top of the character performance, the hairs would tangle together because of the friction of the hairs close to each other. She had seven custom grooms and three times the amount of hair in a normal head. They made solvers that would grow the hairs without gravity and then turn the gravity on, and the hairs would have high friction but not be stuck together, have low rod stiffness but not lose their groom.



We’ve discussed facial animation but it’s important to note the system they used to get the information. It’s called FDLS (Facial Deep Learning Solver), and it’s a machine learning algorithm that efficiently translates the dots on the actress’s face into a 3D model. It was developed on top of an award-winning algorithm that has been in use for years. It was first made for the film Gemini Man and later adopted for this TV show. The incredible studio working on the technology I discuss in this article is called Wētā FX and while I’m fanboying over this studio, it’s also important to note that they worked with other studios, using a very efficient pipeline that uses alembic (.abc) file formats for sharing files back and forth. I discussed in my previous article how the USD format aims to be the ‘HTML for 3D’ by combining all these different formats into one cohesive format that carries all the information needed.


 


Costumes/Cloth Simulation


The character had several costumes but the hardest and most intricate piece was a gala dress made of sequins. They had to make an underlying layer made of a lacy blue fabric for the initial simulations to ensure the weight matched if sequins were present, then they had to place the sequins on the dress one by one because the tools present would only give the sequins random positions and make them gather unintended light instead of chattering on and off especially because of the camera flashes which had to be replicated in 3D.


In a Facebook post showcasing the dress’s breakdown, the studio said “We had to cover the dress in 1,165,769 sequins that had a variety of different sizes and surface materials that would simulate against each other giving it a shimmering effect that a real dress would have. ”



 


I have only discussed the character in this article, there’s lots more in the show that I haven’t touched on so you can see the scale of production of such a show would entail. Understandably, the show as a whole didn’t captivate a bigger audience but the use of visual effects shouldn’t be one of them. Tatiana Maslany recently revealed in a Twitch game show that the show blew the budget but there hasn’t been any official communication about cancelling the show yet.


 


So while the fate of the show is unknown, it’s great that we get to appreciate the advances made in this show. We've explored the groundbreaking techniques and technologies that brought the titular character to life. From the character animation and simulations to the intricate costume design and cloth simulation, every aspect of She-Hulk's visual representation was meticulously crafted to achieve photorealistic results.


 


Despite the show's mixed reception, there is no denying the impressive technical and artistic achievements on display. She-Hulk stands as a testament to the dedication, skill, and innovation of the visual effects artists who continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of digital entertainment.


 


What do you think, do you agree with my assessments? Have anything to add, reach out in the comments and I’ll be sure to reply.


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