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‘Watchmen’: How the VFX Team Created the Looking Glass Mask and Doctor Manhattan’s Blue Glow

The HBO limited series contains VFX ingenuity large and small, but without ever losing touch with its core humanity.

Watchmen Episode 8 Dr Manhattan Yahya Abdul Mateen II

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in “Watchmen”

Colin Hutton / HBO

Animation

In re-imagining HBO’s “Watchmen” series as a present-day sequel to the graphic novel about a race war tied to the Tulsa massacre, two of the biggest VFX challenges were how to create the reflective mask for Looking Glass (played by Tim Blake Nelson) along with the crucial look for the blue glowing Doctor Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). In fact, many will be surprised to learn that the mask for the Tulsa detective was all-CG, while the quantum-based superhero was a creative hybrid of different techniques.

But it took a lot of brainstorming and experimentation to please showrunner Damon Lindelof, who conceived of the mirror mask and wanted a less fantastical-looking Doctor Manhattan than his onscreen predecessor (Billy Crudup in Zack Snyder’s 2009 “Watchmen” feature).

“Damon came in and said, ‘I want this guy’s mask to be a mirror,’ and we all wondered if there was some fabric,” said Emmy-winning production VFX supervisor Erik Henry (“John Adams”).

Unfortunately, after consulting with costume designer Meghan Kasperlik, they realized that there was no fabric that could be as reflective as a mirror and stretchable enough to be pulled over Nelson’s head.

“So we came up with a CG mask, but that meant we had to shoot a scene twice: once for the performance of Looking Glass and then a second time for all the people around him reflected in the mask,” added Henry. “And I thought there was no way that production was ever going to let us do that. So I went to MARZ and said, ‘We have to find a way to use something like a GoPro on a headlamp with an elastic band.’ They tried the GoPros, but you couldn’t stabilize them and it would blur everything.”

Watchmen - HBO

“Watchmen” Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson).

HBO

Then they lucked out with a video camera from Rylo that was slightly larger than a GoPro with a 240-degree field of view and a built-in stabilizer. They used two of them on a rig and shot the action only once. The recorded data from the head rig was then mapped back onto the surface of the mask.

“Then Damon and I wanted it to be a mask with wear and tear, and so we had MARZ create a surface that had some flaking,” Henry said, “as if you were seeing a silk screen shirt that was stretched.

“And when you see it up close in the interrogation pod, there are some shots where it looks real. Blake first wore a mask on set made of green screen material and then later we just went for a mo-cap style gray fabric with geometric shapes for the second half of the shoot.”

[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the article contains spoilers for “Watchmen.”]

Meanwhile, with Doctor Manhattan, it was back to square one in figuring out how to make him blue. (Back in 2009, for the Snyder movie, Sony Pictures Imageworks used mo-cap for actor Billy Crudup with the main purpose to serve as a light source.)

“The first time I met with Damon, he said, ‘What do you think about painting him blue?'” Henry said. “He couldn’t get over the fact that his eyes lost emotion with a completely CG character. I told him that while I get that, just painting him blue won’t be enough to satisfy the audience. They’re going to want something more than that.”

Watchmen - HBO

“Watchmen” Doctor Manhattan (Yaha Abdul-Mateen II) and Angela Abar (Regina King).

HBO

After some R&D, they devised complete CG vascular, skeletal, and muscular systems in Montreal, only to have the work rejected by Lindelof for looking too clinical. In the end, they painted him blue and just glowed him with CG augmentation. KNB EFX painted Abdul-Mateen blue — and he only glowed when using his superpowers — yet it took months to please Lindelof with the right nuance and they only occasionally had to resort to a CG body.

But his face was tough. For that, Henry turned to Gradient Effects in LA to apply its AI-assisted tool called Shapeshifter, which was used to successfully de-age John Goodman on HBO’s “Righteous Gemstones.” The proprietary software tracked Abdul-Mateen’s face without markers, not to de-age, but to create a full 3D representation with metadata for all of the reshaping and manipulation necessary to pull off the physical demands of Doctor Manhattan. The key component for Lindelof, though, was achieving more compassion in the performance.

“We wanted to make him look like [Abdul-Mateen],” said Henry. “What we do is his blue glow tracks perfectly on his body. It’s just enough without looking like a glow stick. We experimented with not doing anything with the eyes. Ultimately, we did come back to a glowing white eye, just not as much as the Snyder movie.”

Watchmen HBO

“Watchmen” Doctor Manhattan (Yaha Abdul-Mateen II).

HBO

Then, when Doctor Manhatttan becomes a caged prisoner, Framestore created the iconic VFX for the electrifying removal of his life source by a very powerful extraction beam. This required various multi-layered simulations for the beam and astral-extraction, as well as the explosive matter and various forms of slow-motion particulate. But, again, the most important aspect was capturing the character’s heroic battle of self-preservation.

“How would it look if he is struggling to hold it together to keep his energy as it’s slowly and painfully ripped out of him?” added Henry. “One of the most emotional things about it is he’s able to shut out all the noise and, for a brief moment, [fight off the extraction], to experience all of his memories of love.”

“Watchmen” is available now through HBO.

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