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Rodeo FX in 2023: Inside the Studio Where Blockbuster Magic Meets Total Immersion


LBB’s Adam Bennett sits down with talent from across the powerhouse Montreal studio to reflect on the work that defined the past 12 months, and look ahead to another visual feast in 2023

Rodeo FX in 2023: Inside the Studio Where Blockbuster Magic Meets Total Immersion

If you spent any time near a screen in 2022, there’s a high probability that you’ve seen Rodeo FX’s work. Scrolling through a portfolio of the Montreal-based creative studio’s commercial and longform projects is like flicking across a list of 2022’s defining cultural events: TV such as Stranger Things, The Sandman, The Rings of Power, Better Call Saul, video games including The Callisto Protocol, and blockbusters like Black Adam to name just a selection. Added to that, the studio also picked up triple Emmy nominations - for the second year in a row. Oh, and if you’re lucky enough to live in one of a number of chosen cities, you might also be familiar with Rodeo’s work on the uniquely immersive Stranger Things: The Experience

Casting our eye forward to 2023, the momentum shows no signs of letting up. High profile projects such as John Wick 4, season two of Apple TV+'s Foundation, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid suggest that the next 12 months are going to be just as busy as the previous year for Rodeo. Industry-watchers should also be advised to keep their eyes peeled for a few more blockbuster-level immersive experiences for some of the world’s most-loved shows. 

With a set of work like that to look back on, picking out specific highlights is no easy task. For VFX supervisor Ara Khanikian, however, there’s one project which shines especially brightly. “For me personally, it's the Lord of the Rings, The Rings of Power. Working on that show is something I’m extremely proud of, and honestly, just thrilled to be a part of its legacy”, he says. “I can remember when the original trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring was released, I was studying CG in a basement somewhere. It was mind blowing. That's something that inspired me when I was starting to play around with CG and 3D modelling - I was just ecstatic to be part of this new generation”. 

But, of course, the extent of Rodeo’s work in 2022 goes much deeper than that. And, within it, we can already see the outline of another stellar year in 2023. The highly anticipated sequel to 2021’s Dune, for example, is slated for release within the next twelve months. 

In the meantime, there’s so much more to look back on and take stock.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

In one of the more memorable scenes in the most recent Fantastic Beasts instalment, a group of heroes attempt to infiltrate the German Ministry of Magic. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t yet seen the film, an awesome and visually spellbinding explosion of magic soon follows. Helping to bring that key scene to life, of course, was VFX Supervisor Arnaud Brisebois and the team at Rodeo FX. 

“Besides spells, fire, and rain, the most challenging aspect of that scene was the countless cups, plates, knives, glasses and other elements flying around in the chaos”, recalls Arnaud. “Each element was individually rendered and composited onto the plate in an intricate choreography that not only needed to fly around the actors, but also stay cohesive throughout the different camera angles.” 

Although that particular scene might have been the most eye-catching, the studio’s involvement with this movie didn’t end there. “From the food to the canapés, from the painting on the walls to the flying trays, this was truly a unique project”, explains Arnaud. “Furthermore, the VFX team collaborated with the practical effects team to brew up a CG poison in a glass into an actual acid that burns through wood in the practical studio, which was filmed and then layered onto the plate.”

Happily, a sense of expertise built up throughout a number of projects in the wizarding world meant that the Rodeo FX team were ready to respond to whatever challenges 2022’s Fantastic Beasts sequel threw up. “After making the two first films, you kind of know what sandbox you're playing in - even more so given the fact we were again working with [VFX supervisor] Christian Manz with whom I developed a good relationship over the years,” says Arnaud. 

The Callisto Protocol

In 2022, Rodeo FX were approached with a specific kind of challenge: To take a video game and entirely new IP, and help bring its marketing to life in a way which both differentiated its premise and helped connect it to a diverse audience of gamers. 

The game in question, The Callisto Protocol, was a fascinating proposition. The first in its series but also a kind of spiritual follow-up to the popular Dead Space series, it had audiences intrigued from the moment it was first announced. Rodeo FX’s task was to help (alongside creative agency Digital Kitchen) in creating three distinctive pieces of marketing communications which promoted the game. 

First of all came a live-action trailer starring none other than Josh Duhamel. In a testament to the finished spot’s quality, the online response to the cinematic clip was phenomenal. In the YouTube comments (famously not the easiest crowd to please), there’s a palpable clamour for a live-action series based on the ad. With its quintessentially sci-fi setting invoking genre classics such as Alien, alongside thrilling moments inspired by the game itself, it's easy to see why the trailer made such a splash upon release. 

And Rodeo’s work with Sid Lee didn’t stop there. In New York and London, digital billboards - in the words of VFX producer Emilie Debiasi - “plunged passersby into the game’s prison setting, whilst zombies fought to break out and attack them.” The result, visible in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus respectively, was an arresting visual experience which was utterly authentic to the game’s premise. 

Last but by no means least, 2022’s Gamescom in Germany allowed the Rodeo FX team to serve up another characteristic helping of VFX wizardry. “Liquid Arcade approached us because they loved another installation we did for the SAAQ, and asked if we could develop this type of CG scan activity at Gamescom,” says experiential producer Julia Nau. “Essentially, the attendees entered a kiosque for The Callisto Protocol and stood in front of a big screen which ‘scans’ them and, when they’re least expecting it, a huge monster appears  on the screen whose skeleton we also see in the style of the scan.” 

Reflecting on the campaign as a whole, Emilie makes an interesting observation about how these kinds of diverse activations worked especially well in promoting a video game. “Bringing the fan into the experience and making them feel like they’re part of it creates an emotional connection you simply can’t reproduce on a flat screen,” she says. “This obviously worked perfectly to promote a long-awaited video game as the fanbase got a glimpse of what playing the game itself was going to feel like.” 

Stranger Things Season Four

As anyone who spent months in 2022 humming along to previously-obscure Kate Bush hits can attest, season four of Stranger Things proved to be a cultural and commercial smash. For Rodeo FX, it was also a remarkably ambitious creative challenge. 

Among the Montreal-based studio’s tasks was bringing Vecna - season four’s main antagonist - to life in all of his gruesome glory. “For Vecna, all of the work began with 3D concepts from Michael Mayer, the VFX supervisor on the client side. We started to flesh out this concept and make it fit Jamie Bower, the actor who was playing Vecna. We basically made the concept fit to his morphology, and then we handed off this model to production who was able to 3D print it,” explains Julien Henry, VFX supervisor for the project. 

But, at that point, the team’s work on Vecna was not yet done. “The most challenging parts about Vecna were the vines in the attic and how his body interacted with them - this resulted in needing some shots to have a full CG replacement except for Vecna’s head,” continues Julien. “This allowed us to keep the character performance, but then we had to paint out a lot of the body and replace it in order to get that to work correctly.” 

Fascinatingly, the Duffer Brothers (creators of Stranger Things) drew on some surprising source material which helped guide the Rodeo team. “Something we were shown early on in the process was the 1987 film Hellraiser,” says Scott Winthrop Holmes, animation supervisor on the show. “There was a particular point where the vines had to implant themselves into Vecna, and it had to look painful. The vines in the attic had hooks so they could suspend Vecna, but then the vines in the Mind Lair didn’t have hooks. I suppose they weren’t as violent in nature, although I'm sure the actors would disagree!”. 

Looking back at season four of Stranger Things, the show’s infamous break between parts one and two is something Julien remembers with fondness. “Part one was airing whilst we were still working on various components for part two. Whilst I can appreciate the fans might have wanted to binge the entire thing in one go, it was amazing seeing audiences react and speculate whilst we were putting the finishing touches on the whole thing,” he says. 

Ultimately, Rodeo FX’s story of 2022 is one of heavy-hitting creative success. But, perhaps more than that, it’s a statement of where the studio is and the direction in which it’s heading. With some of the planet’s most-celebrated work connected to Rodeo, there’s arguably never been a more exciting time for the Canadian studio. 

Whatever comes next, one thing is for sure: Millions will be watching. And, for Rodeo FX, that’s just the way it should be. 

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Genres: Visual VFX

Rodeo FX, Thu, 09 Feb 2023 08:37:00 GMT