Reimagining The Munsters

When executive producer/writer Bryan Fuller and director/executive producer Bryan Singer set out to create a new version of the 60s classic “The Munsters”, they turned to Mirada to bring this reimagined world to life in Mockingbird Lane.

Mockingbird Lane is a one-hour dark comedy/drama—produced by Livia Hanich for NBC Universal—with an edgier tone than the slapstick feel of the original. In supporting its creators’ vision of bringing one of TV’s oddest, most lovable families into a modern context, Mirada created the more outlandish characters that reside at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. And to meet the needs of a visually spellbinding retelling of The Munsters, Mirada drew on its nimble-yet-robust VFX and creature pipeline.

In one iconic moment, Lily Munster’s flare for the dramatic is revealed as she enlists an army of spiders to knit her a silk dress—taking her from bare skinned to elegantly outfitted—in a matter of seconds.

This dazzling scene was created using Houdini to harness the program’s procedural strength. Likewise, a specific animation system was built within Houdini that allowed individual “spider” particles to avoid each other, or from running through one another. Some even stopped in their tracks to allow spider particles with “right of way” to skitter past first to give the impression that an impossibly collaborative, highly organized arachnid tailoring process—call it “spider couture”—was taking place. At the same time, an intricate custom cloth weaving system was designed by the team – letting them propagate thousands of silken strands trailing behind each spider to entwine cloth patterns that felt like authentic practical fabric. From there, all rendering was done in Houdini using Physically Based Renderer – PBR for shot.

To create the vapor in this sequence, the Mirada team committed to a multi-tier approach unique to film and television. Having smoke billow off something is straightforward; having it shape into a solid form is something else entirely – and here, a vapor cloud needed to flawlessly transition into a person. Integration was the key to creating this moment. For this reason, the artists created three layers of smoke simulation: first, smoke flowing from one area to another; second, smoke coalescing and wisping around Lily; third, trace smoke spilling off her. The data flow from the third simulation layer was then reversed in the scene, so it appeared to be absorbed by Lily. Finally, all three layers were combined – making it appear as if they were all one practical magical phenomenon.

A specific animation system was built within Houdini that allowed individual spider particles to avoid each other, or from running through one another.

Perhaps the biggest piece of storytelling magic behind Mockingbird Lane involved bringing “Spot”—the often referenced, but never seen, pet dragon from the original series—out from under the stairs and into full view of audiences. Mirada artists conjured Spot from scratch—as an entirely CG creation—in less than five weeks; record time compared to most all-digital characters.

Department of Human Management
Mirada artists conjured Spot from scratch—as an entirely CG creation

Breathing life into Spot was a multistep process; first the texture team’s work began with classically trained illustrators who can matte paint as well as texture; second, the creature’s look was developed and refined. The team assembled a massive library of creature skins, allowing the director and paint team to “speak with photos,” empowering the filmmaker to explore a “creature stew”—adding a dash of African Crocodile or an Albino Salamander—to ensure no creative stone was left unturned. In the process, the team collected custom elements using both high-end digital cameras and medium format Hasselblads to achieve the highest-level of detail possible. The process allowed the team to create different skin pattern concepts – which, in turn, allowed the director to see the base painting and know immediately if a desired detail would translate to the final render.

When it came to animation, the initial challenge was that—aside from ornery bursts of fire now and then—audiences had never actually seen this mythic “underground Munster” before; the Mirada team had to establish both his look and personality for the first time. Originally conceived as an adolescent—a moody teenager, if you will—Spot went through many evolutions before developing into the character that ended up on screen; what emerged was a playful balance of intimidating, fearsome predator, and soft, lovable, (perhaps overly) protective pet. The team took pains to incorporate countless subtle gestures and carefully timed expressions of body and face – on top of anatomical believability, which is paramount to the success of any digital creature. Likewise, articulate rigging and muscle deformation systems were very important in this process – and the team leveraged the cutting-edge rigging system that was developed by Mirada artists for the enormous Kaiju monsters for Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim.

The result was an exercise in character development as much as it was a technical challenge. In capturing all the intrinsic elements, the Mirada team used Maya, Houdini, and a diverse handful of other tool sets and programs – working to model, rig, texture, shade, light, render, and composite each shot in an incredibly short amount of time, while ensuring that performance integrity and character essentials remained center stage in the eerie and wonderful world of Mockingbird Lane.