Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 3, Episode 4 - "Devils You Know"
“Devils You Know” offers new insight into the season’s arc, while visual effects supervisor Mark Kolpack shares how to balance special effects and narrative.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Nick Blood, Adrianne Palicki, Henry Simmons, Luke Mitchell
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 4 - "Devils You Know"
Air date: 2015-10-20
This week it’s a rash. The actor with the rash will die at the end of the episode, so it isn’t cost effective to send him out for a professional laser scan.
So shared Mark Kolpack, visual effects supervisor for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., during an interview I held with him this week. Kolpack grabs his Apple iPad, points the attached Occipital Structure Sensor at the actor’s head, and scans him in three dimensions. He then provides that scan to the special effects house Fuze Effects so they can work their magic.
Teamwork is a necessary component of both the production and the narrative of this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. In "Devils You Know", the S.H.I.E.L.D. team takes their new teamwork with the ATCU to the next level of awkward collaboration, bedeviled by strong personalities and a lack of trust. An uneasy but necessary fit is something that visual effects teams experience regularly. The balance between budget and expectations is often difficult, sometimes leading to shots that can’t be produced, or effects that don’t deliver. This is not unlike the interpersonal balance between ACTU and S.H.I.E.L.D., between Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and between May (Ming-Na Wen) and Hunter (Nick Blood): for all three, their interactions are difficult and not as successful as the visual effects.
Kolpack says that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is "delivering feature visual effects for television". Not only does that require his team to work harder, it also means they need to work smarter. The Occipital Structure Sensor, which Kolpack describes as "pretty damn cool", attaches to a standard iPad Air 2, adding an infrared scanner that captures detailed three-dimensional models:
Before the Structure Sensor. If I had to do, for example, an animated growth effect that spread out across someone’s face, you had to take a generic head, make it feel like it was close, match the contours. And now, you don’t have to do that. You can use a scan of the actual actor. It saves time and it saves money. It is incredibly beneficial to the effects process.
The process isn’t perfect yet for scanning extras for close-up, but it can be used to map a face onto a model that’s flying a plane in the background. In the not-too-distant past, actors with close-ups received good appliances, while those in the background wore rubber masks; models were, well, just models.
Which brings us back to the rash: At the center of this week’s Inhuman plot is Dwight Frye (Chad Lindberg), former Social Security Agency IT guy, and now Lash’s (Matthew Willig) Inhuman detector; when Frye gets too close to another Inhuman he breaks out in a rash.
For Frye, Kolpack says: [O]nce the make-up was applied, I scanned him. I also did a single camera photogrammetry where I go high angle, looking around, where he is sitting on a chair. I go around him entirely. I go level and I go below and those became the textures. I was able to match moving and everything else with the scanned head, and the textures became what I shot with my Canon 5D Mark II.
Kolpack added that he "needs geometry for tracking and contours of faces so there is no interpretation as to how the effect goes across a certain set of lines across someone’s face." It worked; the rash looked both real and painful.
The S.H.I.E.L.D./ATCU awkwardness wasn’t the only uneasy moment in this episode. Simmons keeps her desire to return to the planet she was just rescued from a secret from Fitz, for at least most of the hour. (At the end of the episode, she did finally admit she wanted to go back and needed his help, a set-up for next week’s episode.) Ward (Brett Dalton) and Hunter’s (Nick Blood) encounter became uncomfortably threatening as Hunter’s cover was blown and a gunfight ensued. Enter May to the rescue, but in a tragic twist, Hunter became May’s devil she knew too well as he chose to pursue Ward despite Ward’s threats to May’s estranged partner, Dr. Andrew Garner (Blair Underwood).
And sometimes, it’s the devil we don’t know that undoes us. As Garner lies (seemingly) dead on the floor of a convenience store, new Hydra recruit Werner von Strucker (Spencer Treat Clark) runs and hides behind a car just before the explosion he set. His face reads fear and, pretty unambiguously: "What have I gotten myself into?" It isn’t clear if this first murder is a pivotal point that will lead von Strucker away from his new Hydra opportunities, or if it’ll awaken his genetic ruthlessness.
These expressions of the characters' uneasiness in this episode isn’t burdened by distracting special effects. Kolpack and his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. team eliminate, as they say in the make-up business, "the edges". The effects don’t disrupt. They quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, serve the story. And that is how it should be. That some of visual effects work can now originate from an iPad Air 2 with a 3D sensor attached is, as Kolpack says, "pretty miraculous".