Artemis Fowl — The Cinefex Article That Got Away

The secret subterranean realm of Haven in Artemis Fowl. Image courtesy of Framestore.
The secret subterranean realm of Haven in Artemis Fowl. Image courtesy of Framestore.

Through February and March 2020, I conducted a series of interviews for an in-depth article on the Disney adaptation of Artemis Fowl, for publication in Cinefex 171, due out in June of that year. By the end of April the article was finished, edited, reviewed and ready for production.

By this time, however, the global COVID pandemic had brought the world to a shuddering halt and swung a wrecking ball through movie release schedules. By the time Artemis Fowl was finally released on the Disney+ streaming service on June 12, 2020, we’d been forced to scrap all our theatrical release content for the June issue and replace it with streaming shows. My Artemis Fowl story was one of those that ended up on the cutting room floor. Cinefex went on hiatus shortly afterwards, before finally closing its doors following the publication of its final issue, Cinefex 172, in February 2021.

Now, with the kind permission of Cinefex publisher Gregg Shay, I’m pleased to publish what I’ve come to think of as The Cinefex Article That Got Away. This online version of my Artemis Fowl story does not include the range of effects-related images normally featured in a Cinefex article, but the text is exactly what you would have read if Cinefex 171 had been published as originally planned.

Ferdia Shaw stars in Disney's Artemis Fowl. Photograph by Nicola Dove.
Ferdia Shaw stars in Disney’s Artemis Fowl. Photograph by Nicola Dove.

Two Worlds Collide

by Graham Edwards

Author Eoin Colfer has a deep affection for the fairy folklore of his native Ireland. He also happens to be a big fan of Die Hard. These two influences collided in 2001 with the publication of Artemis Fowl, Colfer’s breakout novel about a 12-year-old criminal mastermind who kidnaps a fairy from an underground realm and ransoms her for a ton of 24-carat gold. The author challenged conventions not only by making the book’s lead character something of a villain, but also by giving his fairies possession of a unique brand of advanced technology.

The anti-hero Artemis Fowl II went on to star in seven more books, with motion picture rights secured by Miramax Films in 2001. Years of development followed, culminating in a 2013 announcement that Walt Disney Studios — owners of Miramax between 1993 and 2010 — would adapt the first two novels in the series. Kenneth Branagh was appointed as director and the film was scheduled to hit theaters on May 29, 2020. However, as the marketing campaign hit high gear early that year, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted major studios to postpone theatrical releases across the board. Weeks of uncertainty followed, at the culmination of which Artemis Fowl skipped cinemas completely and was finally released in June through the Disney+ streaming service.

The story of Artemis Fowl spans two different worlds: the familiar above-ground realm of human beings, and an underground domain where fairies and their kin have spent millennia in hiding. Kenneth Branagh discussed design strategies with his key department heads, including production designer Jim Clay, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and visual effects supervisor Charley Henley. “Everyone was keen for an element of originality on the fairy front,” said Henley. “We didn’t want to be too traditional. The idea is that humans split off from the fairies years ago, but they’ve carried on developing just as we have, in a parallel society. The fairies have more of a connection with the natural world than we have and that’s become part of the technology they’ve developed.”

Working alongside visual effects producer Barrie Hemsley, Henley assembled a team of visual effects vendors led by Moving Picture Company (MPC), supported by Framestore, Industrial Light & Magic, RISE and BUF. Additional work was done by Exceptional Minds and an in-house team of artists led by associate visual effects supervisor Martin Walters. Nviz, Argon and The Third Floor shared a variety of previs, postvis and virtual production duties.

Artemis Fowl is wrapped in a framing narrative. From his prison cell inside a remote sea fortress, a dwarf called Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) narrates a tale about young Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw), who discovers his father Artemis Sr. (Colin Farrell) has gone missing. With the help of faithful family bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie), the boy learns of his father’s involvement with Haven, a vast fairy realm hidden deep underground, and embarks on a quest to free Artemis Sr. from the clutches of the evil pixie Opal Koboi (Hong Chau).

In Eoin Colfer’s novels, Haven is the second-largest city in the Lower Elements, one of the subterranean realms to which fairies and other magical creatures retreated after a fateful battle with humans around the year 7,500 B.C. The version of Haven seen in the film reflects the long history of this secret underground world.

“We planned out the city as if parts of it had been built at different times,” Henley outlined. “You’ve got ancient buildings that are worn out and newer buildings on top, like you might find in cities like Rome.” This eclectic mix of architecture resides in a system of caverns buried deep in the bowels of the Earth. “Ken was keen to have a sense of the geography and the geology. There’s plenty of rock, of course, but also a lot of minerals and iridescent elements. The fairies use geothermal energy from lava as their power source, and their lighting is based off the sort of phosphorescence you find in natural organisms.”

The audience is introduced to Haven by way of a dizzying approach shot. The camera first frames Artemis reading his father’s notes, before plunging into the book and down through layers of earth, rock, lava and water. Finally arriving in the underworld, the camera targets an elf, Captain Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), as she arrives by public transport at her workplace: the reconnaissance division of the Lower Elements Police (LEP).

Nviz explored the shot in previs. “We built the cave and a two-mile-square segment of Haven,” said Nviz head of visualization Janek Lender. “We started out by mapping Holly’s entire journey to work, including shots of her inside the transport. As the sequence evolved it became more condensed, and more about linking Artemis and Holly together.” Artists built assets for use in Unreal Engine, allowing Kenneth Branagh to choreograph the shot using a virtual camera. “Ken had a very clear vision. He wanted the camera to come up over the lip of the platform as the transport lands, then follow Holly as she walks towards the LEP. The whole shot was a big stitch from a plate of Artemis above ground, through the CG reveal of Haven City, to a couple of live-action plates of Holly joined together, shot about four months apart.”

Live-action for LEP sequences was shot on sets at Longcross Studios, a complex built on the former Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment in Chertsey, just outside London. Special effects mounted a practical transporter on a custom gimbal with four axes of movement. “We used four large hydraulic rams,” explained special effects supervisor David Watkins. “That allowed us to move it in pretty much any direction. We also did a funky step unit that drops down so she could climb on and off.”

Like all the special effects rigs built for Artemis Fowl, the transporter conformed to strict safety regulations introduced in recent years on film sets. The transporter interior contained pressure pads, which shut down the whole rig if anyone stood on them; a laser curtain trip system did the same job externally. “Our game has changed considerably in the physical effects world,” Watkins observed. “We now have to follow the same rules as if we were installing something in a factory that’s going to be there for 20-30 years. We’ve always tested everything and made it safe; now we’re actually bound by law to do it.”

MPC executed the final Haven approach shot, introducing the fairy city as a sprawling urban environment inside a ten-mile-wide cavern. Artists based rock structures on the spectacular cliffs of the Faroe Islands. The rugged terrain of this North Atlantic archipelago also inspired the muted color palette of Haven’s agricultural regions, where fields are laid out in terraces reminiscent of Chinese rice paddies.

The MPC environment team created a library of buildings ranging from ageworn to pristine. Architectural styles varied from sculptural to crystalline, hard-edged to round; cottages stood cheek by jowl with fairy skyscrapers. “Each little house came with its own little rock,” said MPC visual effects supervisor Axel Bonami. “Some were standing on the ground, some could be attached to a vertical rock face, some to the ceiling. When we had created enough variations, we tested them in little clusters. We would show these combinations to Charley and Ken and they would say which they liked.”

Using in-house tools developed for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, artists at MPC laid out building clusters according to predetermined rules. “It’s very important that you don’t just randomly build,” Bonami commented. “We wanted to base everything on real cities, from New York, which is very square, to London, which is more messy. Cities in Spain have a lot of circular structures, whereas, in Paris, everything converges in areas like the Place de l’Étoile. We extracted black and white maps out of all of these and used them to grow our buildings into that giant cave.”

The buildings were scattered across the city as instances. This allowed artists to work in parallel: while one team refined the geometry, texture and displacement maps of each individual piece of architecture, another iterated on layouts, with assets updating automatically to the latest approved version. Artists illuminated the city by planting phosphorescent light sources into lakes hanging upside-down in the cavern ceiling.

MPC extended the LEP set with its digital Haven environment. A bluescreen wall facilitated this for certain angles; another part of the set was flanked by a scenic painted backdrop, although this was ultimately replaced by visual effects. Artists filled the cavern with fleets of flying vehicles. The fairy realm is suffused with magic, but the filmmakers were keen to base vehicle technology on science, at least to some degree. “The idea was that the engines interfere with magnetic and gravitational fields,” stated Charley Henley. “You can see the subtle patterns of these fields, like when you visualize swirls of magnetic fields with iron filings.”

“We wanted everything to be extremely grounded,” Axel Bonami agreed, “even though were doing a fairy movie. At one point, we did tests where the vehicles actually flew along the paths of magnetic arcs. But it looked messy, partly because the frame was already so rich with all the structures in the cave. We ended up with the ships following more of a straight line, so we had a simple visual reference that the viewers would understand.”

The fairies have developed their own version of the Internet. Called the Data Cloud, it is accessed by the population via a network of glowing globes. The art department provided set pieces; MPC added holographic datastreams rising up from them to merge with a veil of energy sparkling overhead.

Natural world phenomena such as spreading tree roots and diverging blood vessels provided the starting point for Data Cloud designs. The Nviz graphics team produced initial studies in postvis before visual effects refined the look. MPC combined organic forms with more regimented structures, specifically referencing the way trees in sidewalks conform their roots to the cracks between paving stones. Working in Side Effects Houdini, MPC effects artists set up rules allowing root-like structures to grow within a rectilinear framework.

The fairy realm is populated not only by elves such as Holly, but also by gnomes and gremlins. MPC animated LEP gnomes clad in green leather and composited the digital characters into live-action plates. For scenes inside the LEP Command Center, Framestore wrangled its own squad of gnomes wearing regulation blue jackets. Video reference of toddlers at play helped imbue the diminutive law enforcers with a lightness of movement.

Gnomes stand around 18 inches tall. Smaller still, Haven’s furry gremlins infest the streets like rats or pigeons. MPC animators handled the vast majority of gremlin scenes, basing their body language on the antics of capuchin monkeys. Framestore took on a single gremlin shot in which one tiny creature glides towards a prison cell on a makeshift hang-glider made from a T-shirt.

Inside the LEP is a technological nerve center run by Foaly (Nikesh Patel), a centaur with a genius-level intellect. Foaly’s operations desk occupies a rotating platform some 16 feet in diameter and encircled by a second platform — a ring over 30 feet in diameter that rotates in the opposite direction — while ramps and steps lead every which way. “It was like a crazy playground,” remarked Charley Henley. “Foaly would be walking on the outer part while another character stood in the middle going round and round. He could gallop on the spot if he was excited, or maneuver his body to spin his control panel around to face him.”

Special effects designed and operated the contra-rotating platforms. Electric motors delivered the rotary action via a system of belts. Watkins combined the two turntables into a single rig, with both platforms rotating in opposite directions about the same axis. A single operator controlled both platforms, backed up by two safety observers on opposite sides of the set. “All three had electric stops,” said David Watkins. “If they saw any problems they’d hammer on those stops, which would shut the rig down.”

Framestore crafted Foaly’s office as an almost fully digital environment. Faceted stone pillars move up and down around the turntables, following a design inspired by the hexagonal basalt columns of Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway. The office is dominated by holographic displays. Artists emitted particle streams from the pillars and assembled them into airborne clouds. Some holograms were derived from live-action plates. The footage was first dimensionalized by projecting it onto proxy geometry, forming the foundation for particle effects simulations. The original plate was then discarded, leaving compositors to blend the rendered particle layers into the shots.

As befits his name, Foaly has the body of a young horse. Early sessions with Nikesh Patel helped establish the youthful centaur’s character and body language. “Foaly’s a tech nerd,” said Framestore animation supervisor Eric Guaglione. “He’s the kind of young guy you’d see working in a game company wearing a hoodie and bulky headphones, which doesn’t completely jibe with our preconceptions for what a centaur is.” Prior to visiting the set, Guaglione prepared a reference video of playful foals. “Nikesh Patel is young and lean with a naturally lively presence, a good match for the foal concept. I got the chance to do a few on-set sketches applying a foal’s body to a centaur design and then, back at the studio, I created Photoshop illustrations grafting a foal onto Nikesh to lock in the proportions for asset builds.”

Patel wore sprung kangaroo shoes to elevate him to the correct height. Guaglione worked with Charley Henley and the stunt team to help Patel practice equine movements. “Humans can turn 180 degrees quite easily,” Guaglione pointed out. “Playing a quadruped, Nikesh had to make several quick steps with his human legs in order for his centaur hind legs to swing all the way around. He quickly established the muscle memory required to maneuver easily around the set.” Patel wore a partial horse butt with a stick-mounted marker for a tail. “We had to politely remind the numerous actors and extras on set, ‘Please don’t walk through his ass!’”

Framestore refined Foaly concepts into a workable digital asset. Dr. Stuart Sumida, professor of vertebrate paleontology at California State University and a regular animation consultant for feature films, helped the team lock down the character’s anatomy. “We had to adapt the centaur’s morphology a bit to make sense of the animation,” said Framestore visual effects supervisor Stephane Nazé. “Stuart helped us work out where the blend would work best between the human body and the horse.” When Framestore rigging lead Quentin Sanchez announced that his own horse, Osaka, was exactly the right age for Foaly, the team spent a day studying and photographing the animal.

Animation studies commenced before footage was available from the shoot, based on studies of Patel in other roles culled from YouTube video clips. “I wanted his centaur half to feel like a relaxed extension of Nikesh’s human self,” remarked Eric Guaglione. “The movement had to go from the brain down his human body into his centaur physique, never the other way around. I also reminded animators to think about the computer-geek inside Foaly; it was easy to slip into classic centaur mode, which could come off looking aggressive.” When plates became available, Framestore faced the challenge of animating fluid centaur movement around Patel’s actual performance. In a number of final shots, the actor’s head was retained and everything else was digital.

The goblins of Artemis Fowl. Image courtesy of Framestore.
The goblins of Artemis Fowl. Image courtesy of Framestore.

Among the nastiest of Haven’s denizens are the goblins, distinctive for their long noses, big ears and unsettling ability to breathe fire from their nostrils. KM Effects created prosthetic makeup for the goblin performers. For background characters, Framestore replaced the ears and did cosmetic work to clean up the eyes and add warpaint.

 For a sequence in which Mulch Diggums argues in closeup with the Goblin Chief (Adrian Scarborough), a more complex solution was needed. Scarborough delivered his performance on set wearing goblin prosthetics, then later repeated it in a facial capture session, without makeup. Framestore used Dynamixyz software to capture microdetails in the actor’s expressions.

Inevitably there were discrepancies between the two performances. Framestore employed keyframe animation to match the on-set performance, and used the captured data to translate micromovements in the actor’s flesh and skin. “Our rigging lead, Mahmoud Ellithy, programmed a means to extract gross movement from natural muscle noise,” Guaglione explained. “We used a mixer to blend in actual human noise — or in some cases gross movement — into our performances. It was not uncommon to have a keyframed mouth, with data on cheeks, and a brow with some data layered with keys. We always had keyframed eyes.”

When a troll goes on the loose in the world of humans, Holly Short is sent topside to deal with it. She boards a travel pod and speeds to the surface through a tunnel of lava. Special effects hoisted up a practical pod and transported it across the stage. “We built a huge cylindrical arm that went from floor to ceiling,” said David Watkins. “There was another big arm cantilevered off at 90 degrees that traveled up and down the vertical section. On the end of that was a claw. We picked up the pod, traversed all the way round to the other side of the set, and dropped it into a chute.” Controlled through Trio Motion Technology software, the rig was assembled from laser-cut components, most of which were visible on camera. “Our work usually gets covered up with set pieces. In this instance, 60-70 percent of the rig was exposed, which was nice to see.”

For shots of Holly inside the pod, special effects mounted the vehicle on a six-axis gimbal on a standalone process stage. The same setup served for another sequence in which Mulch rides in a similar pod. Framestore created fully digital shots of the pod careering through a simulated lava river.

Emerging from a volcano in Italy, Holly finds the errant troll running amok at a village wedding reception. Argon explored the troll attack in previs before any of the key departments had crewed up. “Ken wanted to start by looking at one scene and use that as a way of getting into the movie,” Charley Henley recalled. “We picked this crazy, chaotic battle because it allowed us to explore some action, along with Holly’s role, and it gave us a bit of the mood for the film.”

Following a verbal brief from the director, the Argon team built a digital troll inspired by an illustration called Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon by Swedish Art Nouveau painter and illustrator John Bauer. Painted in 1915, the illustration forms part of the artist’s folklore anthology Among Gnomes and Trolls. The village environment was based on the Tuscany hill town of San Gimignano. Animators then set the troll loose.

“Ken gave us ideas on staging,” said Argon founder Jason McDonald. “He likes the camera to relate to a character’s emotion. If there’s a negative feeling in the shot, he might ask for the camera to crane down to reflect that. He definitely approaches it from a dramatic point of view.” Argon used Kenneth Branagh’s direction as a framework to devise action and gags. “Our troll was comedic rather than terrifying, both visually and in the way he behaved. He was a bit of a clumsy oaf!” Additional previs for the sequence was provided by MPC and Nviz.

Scenes for the troll attack were shot at Longcross Studios on a partial set replicating a San Gimignano piazza. MPC extended the set, surrounding practical facades with a modified version of the real town. Artists built up the asset based on photography from the location, with different look development accommodating scenes both in daylight and at night.

Movement artist Robin Guiver and a team of puppeteers manipulated a lightweight troll puppet during the shoot. This proxy performer gave the actors a physical antagonist to play against, and camera operators something to frame. A more detailed — and much heavier — troll mannequin provided a static stand-in for certain shots. Whenever possible, takes were repeated both with and without the troll stand-ins.

Nviz used Ncam for live camera tracking and handled postvis for the sequence. “After the shoot, we were given the plates to add the troll and make the edit work,” Janek Lender related. “We did a lot of 3D work in Unreal Engine, doing motion capture of one of our animators as the troll. We put that together with the plates as slap comps to inform the edit.”

MPC developed the troll design into a 12-foot creature with a distinct lack of personal hygiene. “We looked at a lot of reference of dirty hands, dirty feet, dirty cloth, dirty dreadlocks,” said Axel Bonami. “Also those ‘world’s strongest man’ contests where the guys are muscular but with a big belly. It wasn’t easy to start in the morning with troll review, looking at floppy old skin and dirty toenails!”

Actor Adam Basil delivered a troll performance wearing an Xsens motion capture suit; a cut of the sequence was assembled using clips from this motion capture session. MPC animators used the motion capture data to roughly block shots before switching to keyframe animation. A robust muscle rig helped animators endow the troll with a sense of strength and weight.

The troll’s expressions were based on a performance by actor Taylor James, captured using a three-camera head rig after the cut had been locked. “The facial capture helped us with details like crazy rolling eyes and flaring nostrils,” Bonami noted, “even though the troll has features very different than a human face. The reference gave us the timing, attitude and change of mood, all of which had been chosen by Ken.”

MPC combined its troll with the plates and the digital environment, synchronizing the animation to enable the rampaging creature to pick up stunt performers flown on wires during the shoot. Meanwhile the effects team smashed up props and buildings. With the proxy troll present in so many shots, the prep department was kept busy painting out puppets and rebuilding plates.

While the troll wreaks havoc, Holly flies around trying to restore order. In the world of Artemis Fowl, fairy wings are mechanical engines powered by a strap-on backpack. Lara McDonnell and her stunt double performed as Holly on various wire rigs. The backpack was part of the wardrobe, and the coppery wings were added by visual effects.

MPC constructed the wings following art department designs. An articulated paper mockup demonstrated the intricate way the blades unfold from the backpack, origami-style. “We animated the wing deployment based on the origami,” said Bonami. “We had to cheat the thickness as they fold back in, because all the little panels on the metal frame wouldn’t actually fit inside the backpack.” Deliberately avoiding insect references, animators instead gave the wings a rotary motion. “We did a lot of motion blur study to get the strobe effect you see when you film a car and it feels like the wheel hub is spinning the wrong way. We added that kind of sub-movement in the motion blur, so sometimes you see another set of wings moving slowly inside the high-speed wings.”

Compositors varied the ratio of plate actress to digi-double according to the needs of the shot. “Sometimes there’s a real arm with a CG body,” Bonami revealed, “and sometimes it’s the other way round. We used a lot of face re-projections with the digi-double. The actress has a young, fresh face and it was important to keep the subtleties of her expressions when we moved to CG.”

Holly’s strategy goes south, whereupon more fairies arrive and contain the situation using a time-freeze bubble. To create the illusion that time has stopped, stunt performers held themselves motionless in a variety of outlandish poses. MPC fixed wobbles in post and delivered shots of the bubble materializing over the village — an effect presented more fully in the film’s final act, when fairy forces lay siege to Artemis’ seaside home, Fowl Manor, in an all-out assault reminiscent of a World War II beach landing.

Since many scenes would take place in and around Fowl Manor, the production chose to construct the entire house full-sized at Longcross Studios, and use it for exteriors and interiors alike. “There are whole scenes that play within the house,” said Charley Henley. “It was like shooting on location, except we had more control of the lighting.” A legacy of its military heritage, the Longcross complex retains an array of high-incline slopes once used by the U.K.’s Department of Tank Design for testing armored vehicles. Jim Clay re-purposed one of these as a lifeboat ramp running down from Fowl Manor to a private beach below.

Certain scenes for Artemis Fowl were shot at Dunluce Castle, a 16th century ruin on Ireland’s Causeway Coast. Photograph courtesy of Tourism Ireland.

In order to plant the Longcross set into a coastal environment, the filmmakers shot plates at seafront locations in Northern Ireland, including Whiterocks Beach near the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. The region also provided locations for scenes of the fairy army coming ashore, for which special effects built tracked vehicles designed to bring weapons and equipment from the landing vehicles up the beach, operated by radio control.

During the shoot, an augmented reality iPad app developed by real-time specialist Dan Rickard permitted the filmmakers to visualize the manor house and other visual effects elements in situ. “It was like a virtual viewfinder,” commented Henley. “We would select whatever lens we wanted, put in keyframes, and go around designing shots. Ken designed drone shots just standing out there with the iPad. We were able to show the drone pilot exactly what we wanted, rather than having to describe it.”

Argon prevised around 200 shots for the Fowl Manor siege. “The art department sent us the plans and we built the entire manor,” said Jason McDonald. “We set up a virtual reality room at Longcross and provided our scenes in VR so the director could go in and pick shots.”

In post, MPC composited the Longcross set with the seafront plates and replicated both locations for set extension work and fully digital shots. The environments team positioned the manor on a windswept peninsula assembled from chunks of real landscape. “The Visualskies scanning team did a drone shoot of two or three miles of Northern Ireland cliffs,” Axel Bonami disclosed. “We re-created everything using photogrammetry and curled it around to make our peninsula.” Artists grew a digital forest across the clifftops, rigging trees to move dynamically in the wind. The background ocean was frequently simulated. Fully CG shots were frequently dusted with live-action elements. “We might have a fully CG manor but with one real window, or part of the real roof. What mattered was maintaining the illusion.”

The fairies enclose the manor inside another time-freeze bubble. Handling previs for over 600 Fowl Manor exterior shots, The Third Floor conjured a massive dome of energy over proxy models of the house and peninsula. “We started off establishing the geography and placing events in order,” said The Third Floor visualization supervisor Martin Chamney, “then threaded in various time-freeze ideas. The result was an enormous virtual set with fairies and their ships flying around, time rewinding, giant waves hitting the side of the bubble, and everything slowly solidifying into a frozen moment. We assembled our scenes in Unreal Engine ready for Ken to explore in a virtual scout.”

MPC embarked on a lengthy creative journey to conceptualize the appearance of the time-freeze bubble. The team began by studying frozen soap bubbles, which form when the air temperature is cold enough to freeze water trapped between the soap layers. Another touchstone was underwater video of crashing waves. “We also found reference of a balloon exploding underwater,” Axel Bonami said. “You get an air pocket that has a very specific kind of turbulence. We ran that backwards and thought it could work for the creation of the time-freeze bubble.”

During the design phase, artists found fluid simulations too unwieldy for effective iteration, largely due to the immense size of the bubble; instead they did their experiments with simpler cloth simulations. “The cloth allowed us a quicker turnaround,” commented Bonami. “It showed speed, surface turbulence, size and frequency of the details, and how those changed from closeups to wide shots.”

As the work progressed, MPC delivered time-freeze backgrounds for temp shots by rendering 360-degree proxy bubbles in Nuke. “After that,” said Bonami, “it was just about refining the properties and making it higher resolution.” Artists achieved the final high levels of complexity using Houdini’s flip solver and introducing subtle movement inspired by the magnetic undulations of the aurora borealis.

Artemis joins forces with Butler (Nonso Anozie), Holly (Lara McDonnell) and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) to repel a fairy attack on Fowl Manor.
Artemis joins forces with Butler (Nonso Anozie), Holly (Lara McDonnell) and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) to repel a fairy attack on Fowl Manor. Photograph by Nicola Dove.

As the fairies press home their attack, Artemis and Butler repel them using a magical Neutrino gun, which can change into a variety of configurations. The Third Floor did previs for a scene in which the camera swoops around the two characters as they pick off oncoming fairies. “The fairies aren’t harmed, just displaced in space,” observed Martin Chamney. “We zapped them away from camera at high speed using wide angle lenses to accentuate the change in scale.”

The Third Floor built the scene as an assembly of separate cuts, which Kenneth Branagh later decided to fuse into one continuous shot. The stunt team helped determine the staging for each little action vignette. “Witness videos captured the stunt choreography,” Chamney said, “then we reproduced the performances and combined them with our previs camerawork. We stitched all our shots into a single camera move, then deconstructed that through techvis to work out how each section would break down into individual camera moves — wirecam, handheld, dolly track.”

The Third Floor completed postvis on the sequence then handed off to MPC, whichaugmented the shapeshifting Neutrino gun with visual effects. When configured like a longbow, the weapon fires liquid blobs of energy. Artists drew inspiration from the spitting abilities of archer fish, which can bullseye flying insects from underwater. In its shotgun configuration, the Neutrino gun blasts out an energy pulse resembling a circumhorizontal arc, a meteorological phenomenon also known as a fire rainbow. These form when the sun shines at a specific angle through high-altitude cirrus clouds, causing suspended ice crystals to act like prisms and refract the sunlight into its constituent colors. MPC artists channeled the fire rainbow concept by incorporating optical decomposition into its effects simulations.

The fairies roll out their secret weapon: the troll they managed to capture during the incident in the Italian village. They strap the hapless creature to a siege engine and use his head as a battering ram to break down Fowl Manor’s front door. Special effects suspended a dummy troll on a crane and smashed it into a breakaway door on the Longcross set, then transferred it to a stationary rig for further shots. Visual effects painted out the rigs to make the battering ram appear to hover.

The troll plows through the house in pursuit of Artemis and his friends. Some shots featured the full-scale puppet; for others, the special effects team dragged an inanimate troll dummy through the set. “We made a crash test dummy troll and flew it down a wire,” David Watkins explained. “We must have smashed it through every single room. We absolutely destroyed Fowl Manor!” Collaborating closely with the art and construction departments, Watkins replaced set pieces with breakaway sections to maximize the mayhem. “The breakaway sections had to be strong enough so we could get them into the set, but obviously weak because we had to bust through them.”

Artemis leaps onto a gigantic chandelier, closely followed by the troll. Special effects suspended a two-ton chandelier from a Stagemaker chain hoist. “Because we had humans riding on it,” said Watkins, “we had to employ a ten-to-one safety factor. There wasn’t a box section available that was strong enough for what we needed, so that whole chandelier was solid square-section steel.” Four cables ran outwards from the chandelier to a quartet of linear winches positioned in the roof. “We picked up the chandelier at four equal points and basically puppeteered it around.”

MPC animated all the troll action, and augmented the live-action with digital destruction. “We never kept the puppet from the plates,” Axel Bonami noted, “but we kept as much of the real destruction as we could.” Shots of Artemis, Holly and the troll grappling on the swinging chandelier covered every conceivable point on the practical-to-digital spectrum. “Sometimes we had the real chandelier with the real actress playing Holly, but with CG wings. Sometime we had the real chandelier with a totally CG Holly. Sometimes everything was CG.”

The time-freeze bubble collapses, creating tornado-like wormholes which threaten to catch unwary fairies in their pull. For shots of the bubble disintegrating, MPC designed effects simulations inspired by high-resolution footage of magnetic firebursts on the surface of the sun. Starting with basic cloth simulations, artists used rotomation to copy patterns from the solar footage. This drove more detailed fluid simulations, with high-frequency detail achieved through additional layers of particle simulation.

Holly and Mulch get drawn inside a wormhole, with the camera following them all the way. Imagining they would need a different setup for wormhole interiors, MPC artists first tried simply dropping cameras into the simulations they had created for the exterior shots. To their delight, the results were spectacular. “We had already made the wormholes hollow because we knew at some point we would need to get inside,” said Bonami, “but we were nervous about what we would see when we put a camera in there. We got lucky — it looked really cool.”

The otherworldly physics of the wormhole causes Holly’s and Mulch’s bodies to stretch. MPC used digi-doubles throughout the sequence, sometimes enhanced by face projections of the actors. Instead of physically stretching the characters, however, the team re-created a classic cinematographer’s trick: the dolly zoom. “Charley thought it would be fun to approach this as if we were doing it optically,” Bonami related. “We created a special rig to do that Hitchcock effect from Vertigo, where the camera travels forward and you compensate by zooming out the lens. We never stretched the physical assets — everything was done with camerawork.” The digital camera rig allowed artists to select a point of interest on a character’s body — say, Holly’s hand. The camera would push in while reducing the focal length, thus keeping the hand the same size in the frame but causing the body behind to appear stretched out. “We would select the focal length we wanted and the relative position of the camera was taken care of by the rig. ”

The MacGuffin around which all this action revolves is the Aculos, a fairy device that looks a little like a giant acorn. Inside its mechanical workings lies a magical seed that can manipulate time and space. Artemis needs the Aculos to rescue his father from Opal’s clutches, and it is the power of the Aculos that disrupts the time-freeze bubble and scatters the fairies.

The Aculos starts out locked inside a safe in Fowl Manor. Mulch Diggums tunnels into the house on a mission to retrieve the prize. As a dwarf with extraordinary abilities, he does this by unhinging his jaw and literally chewing his way through the earth. Josh Gad performed a handful of shots wearing a prosthetic extended jaw, but the action was largely executed through visual effects by Framestore. “We wondered how we were going to make this work,” said Stephane Nazé. “You have this guy with an enormous mouth chewing rocks and pooping debris out of the back. It’s a bit crazy!”

“It raised the question: ‘How cartoony do we make this?’” Eric Guaglione elaborated. “We did a number of tests with varying horrific results. That was ultimately the issue: was it meant to be funny or horrific?” The answer turned out to be a little of each. “The end result used comical proportions combined with realistic visuals, so it satisfied that feeling of being funny and slightly scary at the same time.”

Framestore created a Mulch digi-double for fully digital shots of the dwarf excavating his tunnel, and used a digital head to augment plates of Josh Gad, retaining only the actor’s eyes. In early iterations, artists attempted to give the oversized mouth rig a logical underlying bone structure. “It didn’t really give us what we wanted to see,” acknowledged Stephane Nazé. “In the end, we gave the animators control to stretch absolutely everything — bones, muscle and everything on top. Sometimes what we were doing didn’t necessarily make sense, but through the camera it worked.”

Mulch uses his magical beard to pick the lock of a safe in Fowl Manor. Image courtesy of Framestore.
Mulch uses his magical beard to pick the lock of a safe in Fowl Manor. Image courtesy of Framestore.

Having reached the safe, Mulch reveals another unusual talent: the ability to manipulate his luxuriant facial hair, which he uses to pick the lock. Framestore used its proprietary hair system, fcHairFilters, to control the dwarf’s remarkable tresses.

The grooming team established initial shapes for the various hair structures. Riggers built controllers, which animators used to guide the hairs towards their target. “We didn’t want to give the feeling the hair was just scaling up,” Nazé said. “It had to grow, which is not the same thing. The animators controlled that growth through the guides, then it went back to grooming to manage all the hairs and microhairs following those guides.”

The lockpicking sequence includes several multi-vendor shots. While Framestore handled Mulch, MPC delivered Fowl Manor background environments and ILM took charge of the safe interior. “The safe is a fusion between human and fairy technology,” said ILM visual effects supervisor Julian Foddy. “They built a practical safe door but we designed the interior in post. The Aculos levitates by its own magic and also by electromagnets, so we incorporated galvanized metal and magnetic coils into our designs.”

Gaining possession of the Aculos, Artemis takes the device to the Fowl Manor library, where he attempts to use its powers of teleportation to free his father. ILM replaced a physical Aculos prop with a digital replica featuring a moving shell of rune-covered tiles.

ILM created a procedural rig in Houdini to manage the restless jostle of the tiles when the Aculos is idling. Animators took control for shots of the device powering up, while still allowing the procedural rules to govern certain background behaviors. “The animators had a proxy version of the tiles,” Foddy explained. “They could define rotation rates and orbits, and decide where everything was in space. That was then passed back to effects because tiles often needed to snap back into a specific place.”

BUF delivered a fully digital shot of the device’s inner structure. “We did design research to determine how the Aculos contains and distributes power,” said BUF visual effects supervisor Pierre Buffin. “The idea was to mix some modernity with the organic quality of the acorn. We modeled the inner mechanism and showed the rise of energy by juxtaposing cold and hot effects.”

ILM effects artists simulated flares of energy jetting between the tiles. These become ribbons of light that fill the entire library. “We had two different kinds of ribbons,” said ILM effects supervisor Koen Hofmeester. “The flares coming out of the Aculos were based on curves with some procedural animation on top, plus particle simulations. We laid out the bigger ribbons with geometry and then made them into volumes.”

Soon the Aculos is the brightest thing in the library. The creative team studied the work of the 18th century English artist Joseph Wright. Several of Wright’s paintings show scientists gathered round candlelit subjects, in particular A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.

The actors were illuminated by a central bulb hanging slightly above the Aculos prop. The intensity of this light source steadily increased through the sequence. ILM added its CG Aculos and the phantasmagorical light show it generates. “It was an incredibly complex bit of roto and cleanup,” Julian Foddy stated. “The camera was dollying in a circle around the table and the light was putting a big blue anamorphic lens flare right through the middle of the frame. We had to clean that up before we put our CG in, then put the flare back again.”

Tight rotomation and interactive lighting passes gave compositors the elements they needed to wrap energy ribbons around the characters’ bodies. “For a lot of shots we rendered digital versions of the actors,” said ILM compositing supervisor Scott Pritchard. “Quite often Artemis or Holly or both are holding the Aculos. Whenever the prop was occluding their hands we’d do a CG hand replacement.”

Meanwhile, Opal has bound Artemis Sr. in chains inside her remote mountain hideout. Tormenting her prisoner, she causes crystalline growths to sprout from the chains and form a crushing cocoon around him. ILM augmented an industrial-looking hideout set, expanding the environment to resemble the inside of a missile silo. Artists replaced prop chains with digital chains, set in motion through rigid body simulation. Procedural animation prompted the crystals to grow along the chains. “We scattered points on a low-res model of the shapes we wanted the crystals to make,” Koen Hofmeester detailed. “We instanced crystals on each point and decided which parts would start growing at which moment in time. We simulated smaller particulates on top to add fine detail.” Artists painted maps to control the rate of crystal growth across different parts of the prisoner’s body. “It was all about the timing: when does it grow around his face? When does it reach his eye?”

“In one of the first tests we had constant crystal movement throughout,” added ILM CG supervisor Peter Kyme. “In the end we had the crystals growing in little clusters, which would suddenly get a spurt of growth in one area. That way you see little bursts of movement, which is much more visually interesting and creates a building sense of peril and real danger.”

The entrance to Opal's bunker clings to a remote mountainside. Image courtesy of RISE.
The entrance to Opal’s bunker clings to a remote mountainside. Image courtesy of RISE.

Just as the crystals are about to consume Artemis Sr., the energy from the Aculos generates a massive shockwave that propagates out from Fowl Manor and races across the world to Opal’s bunker. ILM generated the climactic blast inside the library, then passed the baton to MPC for an exterior view of the shockwave expanding out from the manor house. RISE took over for shots of the energy wave slamming into Opal’s hideout before handing back to ILM, which dealt with the elevator shaft leading down into the bunker itself.

Early on, in-house visual effects art director Thomas Wingrove developed a design for the bunker entrance was based on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. This later evolved into a massive concrete structure with a steel gate embedded into a mountainside, which RISE built for bunker establishers throughout the film.

Exteriors combined aerial plates projected onto proxy geometry with full-CG mountains and digital matte painting backdrops. “In the libraries that the plates were taken from,” said RISE visual effects supervisor Florian Gellinger, “there was also helicopter footage with snow falling. It looked very odd — I’d never seen anything like it before. You’ve got the helicopter motion and the wind, and the snowflakes themselves are so tiny. The way they behave in front of the camera lens looks surreal. We built a particle simulation that did just that.”

The shockwave passes through the landscape, shattering everything it touches then immediately restoring it again. RISE simulated an energy front that sweeps through distant mountain ranges then contracts around the bunker entrance. “We used a rigid body simulation to disassemble and reassemble the mountains,” Gellinger explained. Pyrotechnic simulations sent small avalanches coursing down the mountain slopes. “We used texture maps to drive the sims. Where you had rock, nothing would happen, but where you had snow cover — based on a certain brightness level in the texture — we emitted particles and fluid in cloud shapes.”

The shockwave becomes a highly compressed sphere of glowing energy. Reference of underwater explosions provided reference. “We treated the sphere like a glass body,” commented Gellinger. “It nicely refracted the environment and gave us a rainbow-colored prism effect like you get with a Fresnel lens.” Particle simulations introduced ribbons of energy resembling those unleashed by the Aculos in the library. “We parented light sources onto the simulation so you can see moving shadows inside the bunker door.”

The isolated sea fortress where Mulch is held captive. Image courtesy of RISE.
The isolated sea fortress where Mulch is held captive. Image courtesy of RISE.

The power of the Aculos successfully teleports Artemis Sr. back to Fowl Manor, reuniting father and son. As the film draws to a close, Artemis Fowl and his companions mount a helicopter mission to rescue a now-incarcerated Mulch.

For establishing shots of the sea fortress where Mulch is being held, Marzano Films captured aerial plates of the Maunsell Fort at Red Sands in the mouth of the Thames Estuary, just off the coast of southeast England. Built in 1942 and now abandoned, this group of seven stilted platforms was part of a defense network designed to protect the city of London during World War II.

RISE augmented the plates, tweaking the architecture and conforming external structures to interior sets. Artists built a precise replica of the existing fort, then added a skylight, side windows and scaffold rails. “By building the whole thing for real,” Gellinger noted, “we could track it in better. At the time of compositing, we used whatever bits and pieces we needed. If Charley had an additional request to swap out a wall, we could address that quickly.”

Inspired by the decayed state of the Red Sands installation, the RISE team caked its digital fort with a patina that emphasized its age. “We built the roof to be a little bit bumpy,” said Gellinger, “and decided that the lowest corner where the rainwater collects is where vegetation grows.” Texture maps piled on extra grunge. “We had rust, rotten metal and lots of bird shit from the seagulls!”

Artemis’ rescue helicopter was another RISE creation. Animators piloted the digital chopper into position and maneuvered a Mulch digi-double onto a dangling rope ladder; Houdini simulations caused the ladder to sway realistically. The team also extended a low-level shot of a stunt performer climbing a practical rope ladder.

The decision to frame the story of Artemis Fowl with Mulch’s narration came relatively late in production, as the edit evolved and test screenings proved the dwarf character’s popularity. While this kind of developmental approach is commonplace with big-budget effects films, it also suited the director’s modus operandi. “Ken wants tangible elements on set for everyone to bounce off,” Charley Henley remarked, “and he likes to allow things to evolve, so you have to be quite flexible. It was never about fixing an idea 100 percent and printing that. It was about seeing where we are now and what works — and what fun we can have next, based off that.

“It’s quite an exciting way to work. Challenging as well. We were never following a preset path because Ken is always open to new ideas. When you’re working with Ken, you’ve got to plan everything and prepare for the unknown.”

Text copyright © Cinefex 2021. Images copyright © 2018, 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc, unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Gregg Shay, Jody Duncan, Melissa Stone, Jonny Vale, Christina Baron, Greg Grusby, Annabelle Zoëllin, Aisling Newton, Kara Misenheimer.

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