Blur Studio and Chaos reveal lighting tricks behind David Fincher’s ‘Love, Death+ Robots’ episode

Be it Fight Club or Mank, David Fincher is a master at using low-key lighting and dark palettes to explore the pitfalls of human morality. Now, the director has taken his characteristic aesthetic to Bad Travelling, a Love, Death+ Robots episode that marks Fincher’s first completely computer-animated film.

Bad Travelling is a thriller about a dishonest crew sailing alien seas – and a monster who strikes a murderous deal with the ship’s captain. 

It’s also the first time he’s directly contributed to the Netflix anthology he executive produces alongside Tim Miller. To create the nautical world of Bad Travelling, Fincher worked with the team at Miller’s animation and VFX firm, Blur Studio, who used V-Ray for 3ds Max’s lighting tools to help Fincher embrace the darkness.

“David Fincher read the original short story that inspired Bad Travelling 15 years ago, and I guess the idea never really left his mind. Even though Bad Travelling was his first animation project, we quickly understood that Fincher was naturally curious, always looking to find new ways to explore his craft. However, there were definitely new things for him to learn about working with animation as a medium. Unlike live action, animation does not often leave much room for on-set happy accidents or instinctive decisions – everything is thought about, planned, and calculated,” said Blur Studio co-CG supervisor Jean Baptiste Cambier.

To counteract this, the Blur team leveraged V-Ray’s light selects and physical camera exposure controls to bridge the gap between live action and CG. By rendering sequences this way at an early stage, they were able to achieve more intuitive results with shots that didn’t look overworked. The team also built a proprietary tool for Nuke called Light Rig, which allowed them to treat V-Ray’s light selects as a cinematographer would on set. The exposure of each individual light could be controlled interactively, without re-rendering, ensuring that the environment, characters, and fluid sims could be lit on the fly, in real time. 

Lighting like Fincher:

Work on lighting began early in Blur’s look development process, which involved refining the aesthetic of each sequence before assets were made.

“Fincher is keenly aware of the practicality of different textures, surfaces, and materials, and the physics of how they react to light in the real world. His eye for color is insanely precise. For example, when we were establishing lighting for the ship’s cargo hold, Fincher specified that he only wanted oil lanterns and moonlight – specifically 1,800K and 4,000K respectively. And of course, they were all spot-on in look and feel,” said Blur compositing supervisor Nitant Ashok Karnik. 

As well as lighting and color, Fincher was also very intentional about how the audience should feel during key scenes. The sunset in the story, for instance, had to look ugly with greenish hues reminiscent of Se7en. Meanwhile, the ship where the film takes place had to feel disgusting, with a dark cargo hold below deck that would feel hellish and dank – exactly the kind of place the story’s crustacean monster would be found.

“We worked hard to make these characters feel like they were in a horrible, wretched place, and to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as the characters looked. We also played with lighting on the characters. For the antihero, Torrin, our art director had the idea of using a 50/50 lighting style, where only half his face was lit. Conceptually, we thought this lighting mirrored how morally gray his behavior was. You can see this transition from the beginning of the short, where the light wraps across Torrin’s face, to the end where he’s murdered his entire crew and his face is half-lit,” said Karnik.

Swaying the sea:

Being able to create a realistic, horrifying seascape was also key to ensuring the final animation felt immersive. To do this, the Blur Studio team used V-Ray’s infinite VRayPlane to define the horizon lines throughout each sequence. 

“Everything in Bad Travelling happens on a boat at sea. This represents a relatively contained space, so we knew that our representation of parallax and scale was key to making the final render look realistic,” said Cambier.

Once the horizon lines were defined, the team had to create the illusion of constant swaying from the ocean’s waves, which had to be checked in animation previews. There were two ways to do this: sway the whole boat and all the characters on it, as well as the cloth and hair; or simply move everything around the boat to give the illusion of swaying.

“The choice was quickly made to sway all that is around the boat, as it would have been a nightmare to animate everything happening on the deck. Using the VRayPlane was essential for this too. It allowed us to do some simple coding to include and snap that infinite ocean in all our renders, from animation to lighting all the way to the final comp,” said Cambier. 

Delivering in record time:

Despite having just six months to deliver 386 shots, the Blur Studio team was able to complete Bad Travelling on schedule by optimizing their workflow. 

“Chaos have been our partners in crime for a very long time. Even David Fincher’s relationship with V-Ray goes way back: his video for Only by Nine Inch Nails (created with Digital Domain) was the first time V-Ray’s photo realistic ray tracing was used in a commercial project,” said Cambier. 

“For a studio like Blur, each new version of V-Ray has a shorter render time, which is really a game changer. We can either decide to render our shows faster, therefore allowing us to move faster between projects, or we can decide to push our quality, by turning on features like shutter imperfections, caustics, or textures in fog. Either way, we have more power to keep a show within its original scope and schedule, giving artists time to find a healthy work/life balance, without making any sacrifices on the quality of our final render,” Cambier added.