In our latest interview, we spoke with Kevin Yuille of FuseFX, the VFX supervisor on season 2 of Netflix’s Raising Dion which premiered on February 1st. Raising Dion follows a single mother who must hide her son’s superpowers to protect him from exploitation while investigating their family’s origins and husband’s unexpected death.
Unlike typical shows, nearly every scene was shot as an FX giving the FuseFX team the ability to create stunning visual effects like teleportation, force fields, and plasma energy projectiles to add to the intensity of the series. The team was also in charge of bringing the main enemy, the Crooked Energy, to life. The character needed to be developed out of smoke which has the tendency to soften or obscure certain features on screen, but they overcame that obstacle by incorporating custom solvers, shaders, and volume deformers for each scene.
PH: Hi Kevin! Can you share a little bit about your background and what led you to becoming a VFX supervisor?
Kevin Yuille: I took a very winding route to working in visual effects. My undergraduate degree is actually in architecture which I practiced for all of a minute. I loved learning about architecture and design, but I did not enjoy it as a career. In 2000, I moved to San Francisco with some friends and jumped into the dot com boom. I worked at a couple of startups and even had an online Japanese candy business that went belly up. By 2006, I was doing web design which felt creatively stifling.
Feeling lost, I decided to go back to school and pursue an MFA. I enrolled at the Academy of Art in San Francisco with an emphasis on editing; however while taking a cinematography class, another student made a short film with some visual effects in it. I was amazed and asked how he did that. As it turned out he was a VFX student studying compositing. I immediately switched tracks. Upon receiving my MFA in VFX compositing, I moved to Los Angeles, where I very quickly got my first gig and have never looked back. In 2012, I interviewed with FuseFX and was fortunate to be hired. It’s hard to believe I am coming up on 10 years at FuseFX. I’ve seen the company grow from a small studio of about 15 artists to where it’s at today. FuseFX has been very supportive and given me career opportunities for which I am grateful, thus leading me to where I am today.
PH: What factors do you consider before saying yes to a project?
Kevin Yuille: FuseFX is a vendor for many production studios. A lot of the work we receive at FuseFX is through established connections and strong relationships with the studios, showrunners, directors, producers, client-side VFX supervisors and so on. It also boils down to resources. Do we have the personnel to do the work? Post-COVID lockdown, the VFX industry has been extremely busy. There has been more work than we could possibly handle and have had to turn down. Regarding myself, it’s not so much that I say “yes” to a project, but that I am placed on a project by FuseFX that fits my wheelhouse. I enjoy the bigger world-building stuff, so I am fortunate to get to work on these sorts of projects. If it’s my niche, I like it and cannot complain.
PH: Let’s talk about your work on Raising Dion. How did you become involved? What excited you about the series?
Kevin Yuille: Raising Dion was brought to FuseFX by Mark Kolpack who is the client-side VFX supervisor for the show. I happened to know Mark very well since I worked with him on seven seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so it made sense that I would lead the team here at Fuse. He first knew me as one of the original compositors on S.H.I.E.L.D., working my way up to compositing supervisor, and then ultimately becoming one of the DFX (digital effects) supervisors. The fact that I have so many years of experience working with Mark, makes collaborating together that much easier. After each season of S.H.I.E.L.D., he knew where we left off and liked to raise the bar. Raising Dion was no different. He pitched his idea of the main bad guy as an anthropomorphic smoke wraith, named the Crooked Energy. Smoke creatures had been done before, but we were tasked with creating a character made of smoke that had to talk, preserve details and features as it moved, and also evolve in its form over the course of the season. Though clearly not a small task, I was immediately excited and thrilled to work on such a creative project.
PH: Now this show is unlike many, due to the fact that almost every scene was shot as an FX. Can you share what that means and what creative (and visual) freedoms that granted you and your team?
Kevin Yuille: Typically effects, FX for short, refers to anything requiring simulations such as water, fire, smoke and they are very commonly done in Houdini. On your standard show that requires CG, it usually calls for set extensions, vehicles, creatures, digi-doubles – things of that nature that generally utilize Maya or 3DSMax. Raising Dion was unique from the standpoint that nearly every shot was 100% FX and rendered out of Houdini. Our main effect was the Crooked Energy, an animated creature with a base cloth simulation and layers upon layers of smoke and pyro simulations. The real creativity and visual freedom came with giving characteristics to the smoke. How did it flow? Where and how far did it drift? These were among the many questions we asked ourselves when shaping the look, and every answer defined how the FX artists did the simulations. Beyond the smoke, the lightning was another FX task that added beautiful details with scattered internal lighting creating shape and outlining backlit internal structures. If we wanted to express power, we filled the room with smoke. Anger, the smoke moved faster with amped-up lightning. The FX became a storytelling tool and it was just plain cool to look at. I have to commend FX artists as they are true wizards.
PH: You were tasked with bringing the series main villain, the Crooked Energy, to life. What sort of challenges did you face—and how were you able to adjust accordingly?
Kevin Yuille: The Crooked Energy was definitely the big effect for the season. FuseFX’s lead concept artist, Jeremy Melton, did an amazing job coming up with the design of the character. After the client approved our concept work, we were given the daunting challenge of bringing a smoke creature to life that had to emote and speak, which took months of RnD to dial in. Smoke and pyro simulations are very difficult to tame and control, especially when trying to preserve features and/or details. Smoke has a tendency to soften features as it dissipates or completely obscure them when there are rapid movements. In order to overcome these obstacles, our talented Houdini FX team led by Ashkan Azarmi had to develop custom solvers, shaders, and volume deformers. The process also included a dedicated character setup to load the stretch and deformation of the bones, procedural tattering for the cloth simulations, and nine separate pyro simulations for the head, body, cloak, hands and hoodie. The many passes were rendered with deep data and assembled in Nuke. Deep renders allowed compositors full control over the various smoke layers that could be pushed forwards or backward in space to achieve the desired amount of detail. Light selects and a vast array of AOVs allowed comp to dial and seamlessly integrate the Crooked Energy into the scene. To add another layer of complexity, the Crooked Energy evolves over the course of the season, from a faceless anthropomorphic entity to a more formed cloaked wraith. The Crooked Energy was the crowning achievement for the season and a visual effect that our team is most proud of.
PH: What are your brainstorm sessions like? How do you come together to think outside the box? For example, can you share how you accomplished making one of the main characters appear out of thin air?
Kevin Yuille: The very first step is to gather as much information about the vision of the client as possible. It definitely helps to read the scripts, but it’s best to hear directly from the client what their idea is and what they are looking for. As a vendor, we work directly with the client-side VFX supervisor, not the showrunner or director. In this example about reconstituting a man out of thin air, Mark Kolpack gave us a thorough kickoff – over online video chat of course, because that is the reality of the industry post-COVID. Mark’s pitch about the reconstitution was this event picks up immediately after the end of season one when the Crooked Energy is defeated and flies into the night sky as an electrified smoke trail. At that moment it expels its human host Pat, and rebuilds him in the air starting with the nervous system, to bones, organs, muscles, skin, clothes and hair.
Brainstorm sessions start with looking for lots of references, usually by searching the internet. There’s seemingly a limitless number of creative people out there posting their work online, so it’s easy to source artwork and illustrations to draw inspiration from. We also referenced movies like The Watchmen with Dr. Manhattan’s creation and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 when Ego is rebuilt. Funny enough, we worked with Mark on a similar effect in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season four with a man reconstructing out of thin air in a similar fashion. Mark said to do that but much much better.
When it came to Raising Dion, it started with creating Pat’s digi double, and all of his internal organs were modeled and textured as well. Led by our talented senior Houdini artist, Tyler Brittion, the FX department used this to slowly form Pat as the shot progresses, iterating many times to strike the fine balance between visually interesting and readable. Many, many elements were added and removed, to find this balance. Each ‘internal’ body part had a unique transition and effect, whether it be the nerves, respiratory system or other organs. The lightning strikes around him also played a big part, not only did they jolt him when he was struck, but they also revealed the next stage of his transformation. The procedural nature of this process constantly involved all departments working on the shot, and a lot of back-and-forth had to be done each iteration.
PH: Are there other visual effects in the series you want to share (or give more insight to)?
Kevin Yuille: FuseFX provided the visual effects for many of the signature superpowers such as teleportation, force fields and plasma energy projectiles.
For Dion, his teleportation powers were re-envisioned from season one to have more visual impact. They were larger, more explosive, and had more internal energy coursing through it. We really wanted to sell the directionality and inertia of the effect depending upon Dion disappearing or reappearing.
Dion’s plasma powers required each hand and arm to be match moved in order for Maya artists to generate special render passes such as bones, veins and nervous system which compositors used to illuminate the energy beneath the skin. Houdini was used for the wispy strands of plasma licking off the fingers, the heated vapor off the hands, as well as the plasma projectiles that simulated swirling energy balls with particle trails and bursting impacts.
For Dion’s teacher and mentor, Tevon, his force field abilities required that we develop a setup that could accommodate any curved shape and size. Using the hexagon as the root structural pattern, Maya artists would block out the timing, shape and scale of the force field and hand this over to FX. Houdini artists would then run it through their setup to generate a multitude of passes for flowing particles, traveling seam energy, refractive passes, contact ripples, and many others. Compositors used all these passes for dialing in the intensity of the force field depending upon the time of day or whether an object or person is striking it.
PH: In your opinion, what is one of the most important characteristics of a VFX supervisor?
Kevin Yuille: I think being a strong communicator is an important characteristic of a VFX supervisor. Since FuseFX primarily works in streaming series and episodic television, it’s our job to communicate the vision of the showrunner(s) and/or client-side VFX supervisor to the many artists who work on a show. As we work with the artists, it’s important to be clear and descriptive with our notes. No one understands “make it look better.” Rather, first, offer some reassurance that things are headed in the right direction and point out what is working. Then, list the things that could use improvement such as integration, black levels, lighting, and so forth. It also helps to speak their language – not in the literal sense, but the language of their craft. For example, I am not an FX Houdini artist, but I have spent a lot of time working with those who are and I am better at expressing what I am looking for because of it. Good communication is critical.
PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you’re looking forward to?
Kevin Yuille: I just wrapped work on Raised by Wolves for HBO. We weren’t the main vendor but we got to work on some pretty cool stuff. Again, it was a lot of FX work. My current project is a Disney+ series. Not sure how much I am allowed to share, so I will leave it there.
PH: Lastly, how are you constantly reinventing yourself (and your craft)?
Kevin Yuille: I still love being “on the box” and working in Nuke to composite shots. I think with any new project you want to challenge yourself and push your craft. I personally strive to keep learning, as well as help others as much as I can. I enjoy collaborating with all artists from all different disciplines. Again, I believe it’s important to be a strong communicator, to learn the lingo as well as the process. It’s through collaboration, communication, and a lot of experimentation that new ideas and ways to achieve a desired look are discovered.