Lead CFX TD at TRIXTER Philipp Kratzer told us about the character creation pipeline at the studio, explained how they cooperate with big-league filmmaking companies, and discussed the challenges of VFX production.
I'm Philipp Kratzer – a passionate Austrian Lead CFX Artist working on feature films and TV series at TRIXTER’s Munich studio. I'm also a VFX Instructor teaching basic and advanced VFX courses on working with Houdini with a focus on FX/CFX simulation.
A friend of mine Daniel Kvasznicza and I went to the cinema together as teenagers to see Independence Day (the original one from 1996), and we were both super fascinated by the incredible VFX of the movie. We were sitting in the theater thinking "This is so cool! We wanna do that too!". So we started looking into 3D graphics and spent a lot of time learning and creating together. It didn't look like much back then, we were just having fun, but it laid the foundation for what we both do and love today, and our hobby step by step turned into our jobs. He is currently an Environment Art Director at WB Games Montreal, and my journey led me here to TRIXTER Munich.
Most of the skills I have are self-taught – fueled by the constant drive to get better at what I do. When I get the time, I am watching tutorials, reading articles, attending conferences, talking to colleagues and friends, etc. The amount of helpful material that is available these days is incredible! Teaching, which I do on the side, also helps to keep me on my toes, as you can only teach what you yourself fully understand. But a lot of it also comes from my time studying film and animation in Vienna from 2009 to 2011. Back then, I was allowed to try equipment and workflows that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to test. I messed around with photography, digital movie cameras, and lighting equipment, edited my material, and added VFX, etc., and by doing so, I gathered useful "real-world" experience about the whole process of filmmaking. I consider learning a fun, but also necessary and never-ending process, which is needed to keep your skills sharp in such a fast-paced, rapidly changing industry. Many of the things I learned along the way happened away from the computer by going through the world with open, and curious eyes. VFX is mostly used to create or enhance images that need to look "real and believable", so the more you know about the real world, the better you can do your job!
I started my career doing all sorts of renderings for print advertising before moving into advertising VFX at Südlich-t Munich. The time spent there working as a 3D generalist was super valuable as the team and the projects helped me greatly to grow a solid foundation of skills which were invaluable later on when I got the chance to join DNEG in London in 2016 to contribute to my first ever feature film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Then I've been working on another feature film called Life before joining the DNEG episodic team to work on cool TV shows like Altered Carbon (Season 1), Dr. Who (Season 11), and Chernobyl. I returned back to Europe in 2019 and joined some of the Studios here in Munich – RodeoFX, Sehsucht, and TRIXTER – to support them as a freelance FX Artist. I worked on Tales from the Loop (RodeoFX), helped to bring the kangaroo in The Kangaroo Chronicles to life (TRIXTER), and contributed some nasty mold and slime FX to Sky's Hausen (Sehsucht). TRIXTER kept coming back to hire me to help them create Marvel's fantastic superheroes as well as some great German productions, and at one point, I got an offer to join them permanently, which I gladly did.
TRIXTER has been putting the "X" in VFX since 1998 and has since grown to one of the biggest VFX studios in Europe, with offices in Munich and Berlin. Our team of employees and freelancers consists of over 250+ talented people working on German and global AAA projects. In 2018, we joined forces with CINESITE, becoming part of one of the largest independent digital entertainment studios worldwide.
Our services cover a wide range of tasks, including concept art, visual development, animation, characters and creatures, FX, environments, and DMP. The company offers its team a very flexible, hybrid work environment where you can freely choose between working from home or in the office – with only some small exceptions for departments like IT, which have to be present to operate the hardware, etc. It's really cool to be a "Trixterian", and we are still continuing to grow in all directions!
Working with Large Corporations
The biggest challenge of working with large corporations, in my own personal opinion, is to keep delivering stunning visual work that matches the vision of our clients while staying within the boundaries of the budget and deadline. This isn't always easy, to be honest, but so far, we’ve managed to achieve fantastic results together and we are planning to continue this way.
Another challenge is that most productions aren't done by one VFX vendor alone anymore these days. Many projects are so vast that a broad group of VFX studios across the world collaborates to achieve the final result. That means we all – both VFX vendors and the client studios – need to work together on a global level, across all our different pipelines and timezones. Every time we pull this off together, I am both baffled and amazed at how this is possible, but it is!
TRIXTER's Character Creation Pipeline
Our main tasks in CFX are the creation and dynamic simulation of hair, fur, feathers, muscles, and cloth. To achieve this, we collaborate closely with other departments like Modeling/Assets, Animation, and Rigging, but also Lighting, which are using our caches to create the final renders. It's a huge, coordinated team effort to bring our characters and creatures to life.
It usually begins shortly after the project is started by discussing with Modeling/Assets how to create the models so that they fit the requirements for simulation. In addition to the render geometry, they often build utility geometry like skeleton- and muscle-meshes for us, which aren't used for final rendering but are essential in CFX to do our simulations. We also have to talk to Rigging and Animation early on to ensure that the rigs contain all the needed CFX meshes and are providing the flexibility that the animators need to create the desired creative performance but also to meet the technical requirements for simulation – like proper pre-roll and avoiding intersections. We always try to support them by giving feedback about what works and what might need another tweak. Once we get the first anim caches for testing, we start developing our character setups. This nearly always involves some back and forth with all involved departments to iron out the challenges we might run into in order to make the setups ready for shot production.
There are a lot of different tools involved to achieve all this, but CFX mainly relies on Houdini with its procedural power and flexible vellum (multi-)solver. This, combined with some handy HDAs we developed over the years, forms the backbone of our CFX pipeline. In addition to that, we currently use Maya and Ziva for muscle simulation, and a Houdini plug-in called Godfeathers for feather grooming. Fur and hair grooming happens in the grooming department using Maya and Yeti. Beyond that, modeling is mainly using Maya aided by ZBrush for sculpting, animation and rigging happens in Maya, lookdev and lighting will soon transition from Katana to Gaffer - an open-source lighting software Cinesite is using.
I can only speak for CFX, but as stated above, we are closely intertwined with other departments and their teams so we have to be very organized in how we work with them but also how we work internally. Within CFX, I always try to adapt our structure to the size and requirements of the current project.
On bigger projects with 15+ CFX artists, I like to organize multiple small teams of 2-5 people on average. Every team of artists takes on one specific character setup or sequence of shots and has 1-2 "stakeholders" among them who are responsible for the development and maintenance of the master templates – usually our senior artists. Those templates are then used by the teams as a base to create all the shots we need to deliver. Think Team Kangaroo or Team Digi-Doubles. My role as a Lead is to support and coordinate those smaller teams and to be the link to other departments, our Supervision and Production teams. Daily rounds, reviews, and one-on-one meetings are helping as well to keep everyone on the same page.
On smaller shows, those structures shrink of course to always keep hierarchies and workflows as flat and as possible. There were even shows where I as a Lead was leading only myself.
Ftrack helps us to keep track of everything we create, and the last (and absolutely vital) ingredient in our VFX creation process is a magic potion called "coffee".
An often-underestimated challenge these days is to get enough skilled people for our projects to begin with. There is so much content being created these days that it is hard to find enough crew capable of producing what all the streaming services and studios want to produce. Luckily, our HR team does a fantastic job to ensure we get the crew we need to keep rolling!
Once we are rolling, we almost always face characters or creatures that have very unique requirements. So even though we are always doing tasks like hair, fur, feather, or muscles, it is rarely anything like the project we did before. Having enough tricks up our sleeves for all kinds of situations is key. We also need to keep up with the rapid nature of our industry. Workflows and tools are constantly evolving and changing, and it's tricky but of great importance to make sure that our tools and workflows do as well. The secret is to never stop learning, to never stop being curious.
Another big one is to ensure that our work blends seamlessly with shots and sequences done by other VFX vendors. To achieve this, we need to share certain assets and setups, which can get quite complex considering that every studio has its own, unique set of tools and workflows, but once all comes together on the big screen, it is especially rewarding to see that we were able to pull it off together once again.
The Business Side of Things
Trixter was founded over 20 years ago in Germany and now operates worldwide as one of the key vendors for character work. We have been working with Marvel/Disney for a long time, but also other international production companies, streaming services, and German productions are among our customers. We are happy to name the following recently released productions, like She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Ms. Marvel, and Die Känguru-Verschwörung.
TRIXTER leans towards the "classic" VFX business model. Here we work on big feature film productions, but also for streaming and independent films. We are continuously developing our technology and our creative working processes, so of course we are also using and working with AI and VP.
As already mentioned, TRIXTER is well known on the national and international market, especially for our character and creature work. Our quality speaks for itself and we work with our customers on a long-term basis.
In the VFX market, it is important to always have an overview of the latest technologies and know which software or workflows are most artistically valuable and efficient to use for each type of work. Of course, this only works with a team of international specialists. We will therefore continue to expand our team, offer each member of staff an interesting and motivating working environment and thus continue to achieve the best, most visually appealing results for our customers and productions.