GVN Talking Comics Interview: Falk Büttner – Scanline VFX Supervisor for Netflix’s ‘Blood Red Sky’

When Netflix released the German made film Blood Red Sky on July 23rd, they were hoping it would gain an audience. In less than a month, the film became Netflix’s most watched German made film surpassing 50 million viewers worldwide in less than a month. Blood Red Sky, which was a plane hijacking / vampire film, surpassed almost all expectations. This was good news for Netflix and just as good news for Scanline VFX which did all the of the 529 different effect shots for the film. We recently had the opportunity to talk the Falk Büttner, who was Scanline’s VFX Supervisor for Blood Red Sky. As usual, we first talked about what inspired him to become a VFX magician.

Falk’s Beginnings

GVN: Thanks for giving some of your valuable time, Falk. So let us start with a bit of your history. What first got you interested in the VFX side of production and was there a television show or film that inspired you?

FB: Thanks for having this interview with me, Martin. As a kid, I was very fascinated by animation and computers. I started to create computer games. Technically, my games sucked, but the graphics looked good. So I stopped coding and stuck with computer graphic design. I was very influenced by the work of Czech VFX pioneer Karel Zeman, who made movies like ‘Invention of Destruction’ or ‘On the Comet.’ Those were the first movies where I saw a combination of real humans with animation and I was absolutely amazed. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, I saw the James Bond Main Titles of Maurice Binder and movies like TRON. It was then that I became completely hooked to VFX.

First Professional Work

GVN: What was your first professional VFX gig and did you have a mentor or someone in the business who was essential in your initial indoctrination to that job?

FB: My first professional VFX gig was the German TV movie Die Rättin in 1997. I worked with a group of people in Stuttgart on the vineta underwater sequence. My job was to create concept designs and textures. After that, I studied animation at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. My time there influenced me greatly and gave me a strong basis for my VFX knowledge. In 2000, US VFX Supervisor John E. Chadwick and Mexican Director Francisco Athié brought me to Mexico to work with them as a VFX Coordinator on a Mexican movie called VERA. That was quite a trip. It was there that I experienced how movies are really made, and the reality is not always what you learn in film school. In Mexico I learned how to survive on a big film set in stressful situations, working in strange environments, and how to adapt and improvise quickly.

Equating Success

GVN: Nothing like learning on the fly. Netflix’s Blood Red Sky was released a bit ago and has proved to be quite popular with the streaming service. Unlike a box office production that uses box office returns to gauge its success and in a sense, yours, what metrics does Scanline VFX use on a streaming film like Blood Red Sky to equate with success?

FB: It doesn’t matter what kind of project it is, we always want to satisfy our clients and meet (or exceed) their expectations with our work. Of course we want to be proud of our work as well. If we’ve achieved both, then we consider the project a success. However, if the project is also a hit with a big audience, then that’s a great additional bonus for us as well. To measure the viewership of streaming movies like ‘Blood Red Sky,’ we track the numbers on online platforms such as flixpatrol.com.

Running the Whole Show

GVN: On your work for Blood Red Sky, (according to the Scanline’s Media Sheet) Scanline was the sole VFX vendor for the project, completing a total of 529 shots. That is a full plate of work. As VFX Supervisor, do you feel any added pressure when Scanline has that much responsibility?

FB: It wasn’t any additional pressure, it was the opposite. It acted as additional motivation to have all VFX under our control and enabled us to really impact the movie. We are thankful and honored that RatPack Filmproduktion trusted us enough to award all of the VFX shots to us.

Daily Routine

GVN: From the results, you came through for them in a big way. In this project, Scanline’s VFX work centered around such shots as creating invisible effects as well as screen and window inserts, painting out snow in some shots and adding snow to others as well as cloud simulations. Besides pyrotechnical effects, weather-related effects fit squarely under Scanline’s vast expertise. As the sole vendor, were there any challenges you ran into during your work on these types of shots?

FB: As you mentioned, changing weather, advanced simulations, and creating vast set extensions is a daily routine at Scanline VFX. Our real challenge in ‘Blood Red Sky’ was that we only had 5 months (20 weeks) to create all 529 shots. That’s an output of almost 27 shots per week, or essentially 5 shots per workday. That was quite a challenging logistical endeavor. Our production department and all our supporting departments, including Editorial, HR and IT, did a great job in managing this huge work and data load in a very smooth way. Your artists can only give a great performance if your support departments are robust, and our artists did an amazing job. I want to thank everybody involved in this project for their amazing and hard work.

Working with Vampires

GVN: Among the work required were face extensions for the two main vampires Nadja and Eightball. What kinds of software or techniques were required to bring those shots to fruition?

FB: To create the face extensions for the two main vampires, we used a mix of 3D animation and compositing techniques. We had several 3D scans of the two main actors including the original bodies and faces. The face with special make-up was applied for each of the vampire transformation stages, and the special effects make-up department provided us with additional 3D scans of their original concept design busts. The main goal was to extend the faces in a way in which we didn’t lose the characteristics and original performance of the actors, while also maintaining the original vampire special effects make-up, which was created by prosthetic make-up designer Mark Coulier and his team.

Finding the Right Balance

Finding the right balance of how strong our face changes should be was a process that took several weeks. Our match move department did 3D body tracks of the actors. The 3D Modelling department used the 3D scans as a basis to model an extended face with a widened eye distance and bigger jaw. Our job was to only widen the eye distance. After that, the comp department copied the matchmove transformations onto our extended head model.

We then used the resulting differences between the original head model and the extended model to drive the distortion inside Nuke to widen the eyes. There are also a couple of shots where we replaced the lower part of the actors’ faces with CG renderings or bigger jaws, along with the occasional ears. Our animators recreated the actors’ facial motions and exaggerated them to look supernatural. We then blended CG seamlessly onto the original plate in compositing.

Upcoming Projects

GVN: Thanks for your time once again, Falk. Do you have any upcoming projects you can hint about? I know from past experience that the studios are very protective of their properties. So anything you can share is appreciated. And if you can’t, we certainly understand that as well.

FB: I’m currently working on “Blackout” – a mini-series for the German streaming platform JOYN. It’s based on the bestselling book “Blackout” by Marc Elsberg and produced by Wiedemann & Berg Television. The show is about the electricity grid failing all over Europe, resulting in a complete blackout. In time, a hacker becomes a person of interest for the investigators … lots of interesting things will happen.

GVN: Excellent. Thank you once again for your time, Falk and we hope to connect with you again in the future.

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FB: Thank you again, Martin. Please also feel free to watch this VFX breakdown, released by Netflix, which shows some of our work:

Wie Blood Red Sky durch visuelle Effekte zum Leben erweckt wurde | Netflix

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