Breaking Down the Agents of SHIELD FX with VFX Supervisor Mark Kolpack

After a months-long wait, Agents of SHIELD finally returns to ABC later tonight with the premiere of the show's sixth season. As with the ending of last season, the show is still based among the cosmos — at least in part — and provides viewers with expansive cosmic-based visual effects that rival those you'll see on the silver screen.

Leading up to the season's premiere, sat down with Agents of SHIELD visual effects supervisor Mark Kolpack to talk about what goes into the processes he and his team undergo to create some of the best visual effects work seen on network television. First and foremost, let's talk about your role as the VFX supervisor of Agents of SHIELD. What's your day to day job, what's your role in the whole production?

Mark Kolpack: Well it covers a lot of ground. Basically, in a nutshell, I lead the visual effects department. I have a producer, Sabrina Arnold and I have a coordinator, Briana Aeby. Basically what it is is this, we go through and when we get outlines and then scripts, we break down the work as scripted and as desired within the story. We come up with basically a list of shots, the kinds of things that we would do to the shots in terms of the work and we take meetings on these things and discuss what's possible, what's not possible based upon time, overall budget, and where the overall script needs to go in terms of where the emphasis. Sometimes the emphasis is a little bit more about visual effects and sometimes the emphasis is not about the visual effects, even though I'd like to think of the visual effects as a cast member by this time, because it will be in the run of the show.

But I end up designing with the production and the director who comes in to direct the episode. Generally, my finisher Sabrina will get the script. We each read it, we each break it down and highlight everything. She puts it all into a database that we've created and then from there she gives it to me. Then I go through it and I start figuring out how much coverage we need in certain scenes for the specific visual effects. I do a lot of storyboarding in a program called Frameforge and so oftentimes I'll do boards. I do research almost at the same time online as I'm breaking down the work. I break down all the creative and technical direction of how the shots will be photographed as well as elements that will go into them.

When we get done with our first path, which is our estimated budget of shots and amount for that particular script, then that work goes out to different vendors that we have. Our lead house is FuseFx, our second lead house is CoSA and then we're also working with Rhythm and Hues and Digital Domain now. They've currently come on for season seven.

So amongst the additional stuff, is sitting down into the effects meeting going through the shots, making sure everyone is on the same page, making sure that we're all talking about the other ancillary things that might be needed if there's a contribution from special effects whether I need an element from that, or it's going to be shot clean, if we do everything added later on within the world of visual effects. Those kinds of things are what we sort of do.

Then I go on set and I work with the crew and director and make sure that everything is shot correctly because nothing I despise more than things that are incorrectly shot and then it creates more work for someone downstream. When that happens, you're not focusing so much on making the shot better, you're now trying to figure out how to make things work and therefore sometimes the shots don't come out as well. So there's a lot of planning and detail that goes into all of the work that we do. There's a very high bar set for the work.

Every season we've tried to improve upon techniques and ways that we do things. We have our own motion capture suits from Xsens that we own and sometimes we do motion capture. We do a lot of motion control and in the world of post, there's just a lot of creative direction that goes into making sure the work comes out. I do a lot of what I call "Vendor Days," where I go out to the vendors and I spend time in their screening room and we go through the work. Looking at each shot, making sure that things are being addressed properly and that what I'm looking for is actually coming through and hoping to find wonderful creative contributions from the artists and all that kind of stuff.

Also working with the editors, I can't leave them out because I often sit with them and go through the elements that were shot and how things are going to go, and also timing. There's a certain amount of time is spent when the Zephyr lands, or it takes out. And the same with the Quinjet, and all that kind of business.

(Photo: Marvel Television)

You did mention season seven. What's the time frame look like from when you get the footage between it hitting the air? How much time does your team get to work on the VFX shots?

We're a broadcast show. Broadcast shows in general work where you're shooting eight days, generally. Then you've got four days for the director's cut and you've got to wait for the editor to get done with their cut, which is usually a day or so after shooting. Then four days for the director, unless the director takes off and goes to another show and gives some general notes and that gets turned over to the producers earlier. In terms of visual effects, we tend to start things or try to start things a little earlier. What I mean by that is when we know we have an intricate or complicated asset that has to be created, sometimes we'll get a little heads up that "He, Hive is coming, or Lash is coming," and then we'll do some research. We'll start to get some conceptual designs into the process before we're actually shooting because it takes time to do quality work and you can't do it where if you waited for an episode to say, lock now you're going to do your visual effects.

Now you're talking about ten days. Well, there isn't enough time to design a character, model a character, rig, texture, light, animate, grow all the nuances in, even when I do have more time. And we planned everything meticulously. Even when I do have that, I'm still wishing I had more time to massage performance, to massage what's going on in the actual shot.

So we also will get somewhere around 15 days. And like I said, if we have an episode that's starting sometimes, it might start even before that episode goes into pre-production, so it varies, but a broadcast show is kind of like a train station. The trains are coming in, the trains are going out, and they're all on sort of a schedule. Right?


So it's a very fast paced environment to work in. You have to be able to pivot fast both on set and as well as in post, and of course in visual effects post. My mind has to move at a really, really quick pace, this way I can ensure that what we're planning on getting, we actually get and sometimes I change things on set, because I get an idea and I go, "You know what? Let's do it this way. It's going to be a cooler shot if we do it this way," because now I'm looking at the set, and we're all there or wherever the location and I get inspired.

It's funny there was one director we worked with a while back, a guy with the name of Bobby Roth, he was a really cool guy. And he was very literal about when we plan it, he'd want to do it that way, and I'd say"We better do it this way, let's do this. Put the camera here, this kind of thing." And then we're sitting by the video monitor and he goes, "You know what? You're like a Cassavetes of visual effects. You're changing stuff." Look it, if you see something that looks better, go for the better.

You mentioned earlier that you get to work through the script for potential things that you may not be able to do. How much of the stuff is taken off? Is it a rare occasion? Is there something here or there that is taken out?

The writers write to make a very cool story, to make a very cool script. So I don't blame them for putting more in than what we can do and the show has always, always been about quality over quantity. We always pick our battles extremely carefully. And sometimes we'll say there are too many gags and we can't afford all these gags. We don't have the time for these gags and things will get pared down, you know the effects people realize we've got to lose stuff. Sometimes tears are shed, or they'll just say, "You know what? Maybe we can explore this again in a later episode."

So the writers led by Jed [Whedon], Marisa [Tancharoen], and Jeff Bell ... you know, Jed or Jeff is always separating one episode or the other, so we all get it. We all understand that when you're trying to produce a show, there's an overall budget. You've got to live within your means and even though it's a bummer at times, at the end of the day we've gotta make an episode.

Again, we usually look at the script and we say, "What is really this script about? Is it about this? Or is it about that?" And we go, "It's about this. So let's lose this."

(Photo: Marvel Television)

This is probably a pretty elementary question, but obviously, there are more than enough genre shows out there, right? I don't want to slam any other shows but I'm sitting here watching Agents of SHIELD 6x01 and it's like I'm watching a movie. Then I flip on the TV channel and it's apples and oranges really. So I was just curious, is the difference in quality mainly a budget thing or the vendors you work with? Why the massive difference?

No. There's a bunch of factors that go into it and I'll kind of run it down quickly. Okay, so this was the first Marvel Television live-action show, right?

I started interviewing for the show back in October of 2012 and got hired in November of 2012. When I met with everyone, one of the things that I said was, "I'm here to protect the Marvel brand." I said that the Marvel audience is very accustomed to a level and quality of work. I said, "That has to translate in some degree into this project. Into this television show. We can't do what Iron Man is doing. We can't do at the moment what Thor might do or any of the other films."

But at the end of the day, you have to feel that the work being produced on Agents of SHIELD is kin to the cinematic world. Otherwise, I was fearful and I thought that we might get audience that'll tune in and tune out and they go, "This is work. This isn't Marvel." So I was very much about protecting the quality of the brand.

There's a way you shoot things. There's a way you plan them. There is knowing how much can get done in time and at the end of the day, every supervisor is responsible for their own art. It is a truly driven thing that you are leading a bunch of artists so, therefore, I am casting visual effects houses like a casting director and producers would cast actors for a role. You're not going to just have anybody play so and so. They're looking for the best person.

That's what we do with visual effects if we're doing it, in my opinion, correctly. So I picked very good partners, visual effects houses that I felt confident were going to get my cinematic style. Because if you look at the work, everybody has a thumbprint to their art. Whether you're a director like Spielberg, you turn on a minute of a movie, and you go, "That's Spielberg." You know?

Same with Scorsese, there's a thing. I think the same with visual effects. You can see what visual effects supervisors, from movie to movie, you can see their flavor. So at the end of the day, it really depends on all these factors plus extreme organization, because the more organized you are, the better off you're going to be in terms of refining the work and caring.

My thing is, "just good enough" is the enemy of perfection. You'll never hear me say, "That's just good enough." Never. I push everything to make it the best shot that it possibly can be. Do I walk away from some shots, feeling a little bit like, eh? Yeah. But I know there's still heads and tails above other work, but it just has to beat my standards. So while I'm not patting myself on the back, and this is not said hubris in any way shape or form, I'm always saying that this is all a reflection of a lot of people's work that I lead and guide and take into contributions.

Absolutely. Out of the five seasons that have been released so far, is there one shot that comes to mind that was most challenging? Is there something you look back on and are just like, "Damn, that took a minute!"

There were a few things. There were a few. With the lighthouse hangar, that's something that I was very excited about because it was under water. Now you've got to remember, simulating fluids takes memory, takes a lot of power. So simulating the 300 foot water drop from Lake Ontario down the sides of the wall of that circular hangar was something I was very excited about because Black Panther had come out and they had beautiful waterfalls. I kept saying, "I want Wakanda. Wakanda," but that simulation kept breaking halfway through.

I'm gonna put it in terms that I think everyone understands now with bytes of information, that simulation was chunking through 150 gigs a frame to make that waterfall look the way it did, so that was challenging. We'd keep hearing, "the sim broke overnight again. The sim broke. It kept crashing," so they had to figure out how to manage all of that data so it would stop crashing and we could get the shot done.

Another thing I was very proud of, of course, was Ghost Rider. I have major, major pride in how that turned out because I had set out a bunch of things that I wanted to accomplish that I never felt the movie versions achieved. It's no dig to them, I'm not doing that. I'm just saying how people who do this kind of stuff look or interpret what the work should be. It's all very subjective.

I'm very character driven. I'm very story driven, hugely story driven. For me, I was so excited to get this character and then the challenge was "How do you make a skull express? How do you express emotion?" There's no eyeballs, there's no skin. It's a dead palette basically.

We employed the coal eyes, we employed the squash and stretch of the eye orbit so he would scowl deeper and then you could see it release. Then we would have extra flames coming out of the temple area of the skull and that was for the purpose of when he killed someone, those things flamed out whiter, hotter. The flame articulation, all that Houdini simulation was tremendous so I just think that we were able to achieve a lot. Working with Gabriel Luna on the thing and what he brought to the physicality of the performance, all work hand in hand. It was Hive that was also a nice accomplishment.

(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

You know, you bring up Ghost Rider, any chance you're going to do some consulting or something for the new show?

Well, time will tell.

Time will tell?

We'll see. I can't talk about anything yet. Nothing that generally I don't really talk about, but we'll see. And like I said on Twitter the other day, everyone kept saying, "Oh, are you working on this?" Like, "What are you doing?" You know, and I just finally said, "I work on Agents of SHIELD. And when my next project comes up, you'll all hear from me what it's going to be."

Totally understandable. You did mention Black Panther and Wakanda, what's the collaborative environment look like with the movie side? There was that one shot with Ghost Rider that was a very Doctor Strange-esque shot.

It was. It was because Darkhold was part of that whole series of books that Doctor Strange and his comrades were caretakers of. I think that the writers had sort of intended that to be like, "Oh that book would have been in that library." It was definitely one of those things. So, therefore, it was a book of mystical powers and what not and the dark side of things and e thought well we're going to deal with some portals.

Season Five was one of my favorite seasons, so when we did the flame ring, I just pitched it. I said we should be doing the same thing that they did in Doctor Strange and they all thought it was the right tone to go for as well. We just sort of mimicked what that was. Just kind of like what we did with Extremis from Iron Man and then even the same thing, when they went into the Framework and AIDA was in there, it was Madame HYDRA. The Triskelion was a model that we got from Captain America.

There are times that we cross. We don't cross a huge amount because I think it was an article I read recently that Jeph Loeb and Jed were saying that we move so fast. They were saying, and it's true, where one movie will take 18 months or longer, it's very hard to say when we'll cross, because we don't know where things are going to go or things could shift television schedule and things could change, like what are you going to do? You got an episode that ties directly into something that hasn't been released yet. What do you do? So it's kind of a hard world to cross. And I think even Kevin [Feige] had put that in an interview once that it's just very hard to think these two different worlds up, just because there are certain logistic issues.


One final question. Obviously, you're involved with SHIELD and you're in VFX. From a VFX standpoint, is there one property you would love to get your hands on? Which comic book character makes you go, "Man I want to develop this character with graphics and the like."

Well, it's funny and they've already done it, which is kind of a bummer for me, because I actually have a painting of him and I've got other things of him in my home office, but I love Deadpool. So as much as I love it, it's been done. But I got to take Ghost Rider and I was super excited over that because I felt that was something that I was going to be able to put my thumbprint on and be able to add something to it and take it to a level that I thought it deserved to be at.

So I got to do that. There are just so many characters now. You know, it's funny...10-15 years ago, it was so much easier to say, "Hey I would like to have this character. This would be cool to work on this kind of thing," and now there are so many films and there are so many television shows. It's just a massive amount of work that's coming out, and the care that goes in, and it's really hard to now go, "Yeah well, God you have to start going really deep to start finding stuff."

Also one word of note is that while we start season six on Friday, so that's the 10th?


On the 31st is the episode I directed, so episode four. I did an Agents of SHIELD: Slingshot webside, but that was sort of my audition, if you will. But I've been directing actors for almost all my career in doing visual effects because I have to talk to them and I talk to the directors and everything. I had directed some commercials back in the early '90s and mid-'90s, and these little things, and really put it off. Then I just said, I want to make this career jump, so finally, the producers said "Hey, here you go." Anyway it's a super fun, very cool episode that I think everyone's going to really enjoy.

How did that come about, did you just ask Jed and Marisa?

Well, it was a lot of pushing. It was a lot of reminding. It was a lot of talking. It was a lot of not giving up. I started asking for an episode back at the end of season two. Now it took me to season six, so it took some time and a lot of that is just because you got to build a confidence in the relationship and the production and he EP's and all that kind of thing. Ten finally we got to season six and I got mine and it was pushing from my agent and everything else, so it's just not giving up. They knew that I was going to do well at it. It was just a matter of the right season at the right time.

Right. They must have figured, "Hell he took us to space, let's give him an episode." Right?

Yeah. All the shots that you see of the Zephyr flying through space, or doing any of that stuff, that's what I board out on Frameforge or I work in collaboration directing FuseFX, or whatever. So that's me just like you would designing a shot, but with actors in it. The same kind of thing except the difference is there's the human quotient which I'm always trying to put into all my visual effects anyway.


Agent of SHIELD returns tonight at 8/7 p.m. Central on ABC



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