Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Interview with David Altenau (Fuse FX)

We present an exclusive interview with David Altenau, visual effects supervisor for FuseFX on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv series, who worked on The Bus, Lola and the Deathlok character. 

Thank you for accepting this interview. First of all, could you tell us about FUSEFX?
FuseFX, Inc., a Los Angeles-based visual effects company, was founded by David Altenau in 2006. Initially, the company provided visual effects for a small number of network episodic productions and commercials. In 2008, Tim Jacobsen and Jason Fotter joined the operation as partners. The company expanded, opened new offices in Burbank, and added infrastructure and personnel to offer services on multiple major episodic television programs as well as visual effects for feature films and commercials.
Since its inception, FuseFX has established itself as a key player in VFX for television, as well as increasing work on feature film productions. FuseFX has over 60 employees in Burbank, CA and consistently has 10 to 15 active television shows in production at any one time, as well as various commercials and feature film projects. The company relies on a highly refined pipeline and highly experienced team of artists utilizing Autodesk 3DS Max for all 3D animation and effects, and The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing.

During this first season, you have worked at the “Bus” of the team and the legendary Lola, the agent Phil Coulson’s car. Could you describe your work?
The Bus is one of the signature recurring elements in the show. It is a modified C17 transport plane that is outfitted with SHIELD technology. It serves as the mobile headquarters of Agent Coulson’s SHIELD team and has all kinds of SHIELD technology that is revealed over time as the series progresses. This includes an extra wing and engines in the rear giving the plane the ability to operate vertically for take-offs and landings, and even mid-flight u-turns. The Bus allows the team to travel anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, while bringing their lab and other gear with them at all times. FuseFX was given the opportunity to design the Bus. The design included many features from the the start, such as the ability to do vertical take-offs and landing, but the ability was not revealed until the eighth episode. Just one example of the writers waiting until the right moment in the story arc to reveal new aspects of SHIELD technology. The Bus also has defensive retractable gun turrets and the ability for other SHIELD aircraft to dock with it in mid flight. Extreme attention was paid when designing the textures and rigging for this asset. Half a dozen 8k maps make up the details on the plane which allows the camera to get right up to the surface of the plane without any loss of detail. A very complex rig controls every aspect of the plane from the landing gear, engine transformation, doors opening, lighting and even the wings have flex controls for the animators to sell the weight of this massive aircraft. When the engines are in vertical flight mode they have several degrees of rotation which gives the jet a lot of maneuvering ability.
Lola is Coulson’s pet name for his beautiful vintage 1962 Corvette. It’s a classic car and beautiful in its own right, but through digital effects, Fuse has added hovercraft capabilities. When Coulson needs it, the wheel’s rotate into a horizontal position, exposing hidden jet engine ducts that create lifting thrust through the rims of the tires, which double as turbo-fan blades. We worked closely with production to help design the mechanism and the look of the hovercraft engines. It’s Stark technology designed to be consistent with the period aspect of the car.

How many FUSEFX people have worked on the TV series?
The level of work for the show is immense, but the team of artists we have in-house are second to none. I (David Altenau) was the in-house VFX supervisor for the pilot and the first 8 episodes, with Matt Von Brock overseeing the CG on the show. Kevin Lingenfelser started the season focused on 2D supervising and has taken over as lead in-house VFX supervisor after episode 8. That has allowed me to take one step back and supervise new pilots. To keep everyone fresh and avoid burn-out, we’ve established 2 separate production management and creative teams to work on the show. The creative leadership stays consistent from show to show, but producers, compositors and various artists are able to alternate episodes. This is especially critical since most of the episodes are stacked up at the end of the schedule and have to be worked on concurrently – either two episodes at a time and sometimes three

I know you have also worked Deathlok. Could you describe your character’s work? What were the main difficulties?
Deathlok’s visual effects enhancements consist of a fully digital robot prothesis leg, an arm mounted rocket launcher and a half metal plated skull with robotic eye.
The robotic leg prothesis started as a small cuff that covered Mike Peterson’s leg stump that was digitally added as well. The cuff then began to transform from hundreds of small metal plates, gears and mechanics that grew to become a fully working robotic leg. Design of the leg was hashed out between Marvel creative executives and FuseFX designers, one of which has a mechanical engineering degree which made the process come together fairly smoothly. In one episode Deathlok is seen through an x-ray camera which reveals all the hidden robotics that make up his body. FuseFX had to meticulously track his movements to replace much of his skeletal structure with steel and hydraulic type moving parts.

What are the main technologies used by you?
Software used for SHIELD are 3DSmax and V-ray, Houdini, FumeFX, Naiad, Terragen, Mari, Zbrush and Hair Farm, Nuke.

What are you currently working on?
Just completed the pilot for Manhattan, Warriors, Red Band Society, Empire, Untitled Wall Street Project, Open. Recent and Current Feature Projects are Annabelle (Warner Brothers), Crawl Space (Warner Brothers), The Town that Dreaded Sundown (Blumhouse), Sinister (Blumhouse), Dark Skies (Blumhouse)
School Dance (Lionsgate), Jessebelle (Lionsgate), Faster (CBS Films). Actaully we are working on Agents of Shield (Marvel/ABC)
American Horror Story (FX), Bones (Fox), Hell on Wheels (AMC), Criminal Minds (CBS), Mad Men(AMC), Halt and Catch Fire (AMC), Gang Related (Fox), Salem (WGN), Masters of Sex (Showtime).

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