Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Creature Feature: How The Embassy Brings Monsters to Life, from the Silver Screen to Netflix Streams

Post Production
Vancouver, Canada
The Vancouver-based VFX powerhouse sat down with LBB to reveal how the company take creatures from sketch to screen, on productions like Netflix’s Warrior Nun

Intricate, adorable and intimidating VFX creatures don’t start out that way. It all begins with a sketch, and The Embassy has built up a mastery of bringing striking monsters and critters to our screens over the course of almost two decades. 

Having previously worked on films such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and Iron Man, more recently the company has been creating the monsters seen in Netflix’s Warrior Nun series and the terrifying creatures seen in Flonase’s allergy medicine commercials. 

LBB caught up with Winston Helgason, executive producer & president, Paul Copeland, visual effects supervisor, and Kenny Solomon, executive producer at The Embassy to find out how they pull off the production of large scale creatures on our big - and small - screens to shock and captivate audiences. 

Above: A reel breaking down highlights of The Embassy’s work with creatures of all shapes and sizes.

LBB> Your recent spots for Flonase showcase some Blockbuster-worthy creature effects. How does your experience working on these Hollywood heavyweights lend itself to the world of commercials?

Winston Helgason> Having some large VFX-heavy features under our belt like Battleship, Iron Man, and the Mockingjay films has enabled The Embassy to develop the pipeline and experience to complete these complex VFX projects at a high level. That being said, as with Flonase, we’ve leveraged this same knowledge to create some really fantastic commercials that push the tech just as much as the features. 

Plain and simple, our Feature Film team is the same team as used on our advertising work.

Above: The Embassy’s blockbuster-worthy work with Flonase began life as sketches.

LBB> You were brought in early on Flonase to manage all post production, as well as some aspects of production and concept design. What are the benefits of being part of the process early? 

Winston> Yes, we were lucky to be brought on early and it’s something that has really worked well on the projects. If we can get a dialogue going with the client at the onset of the project, we can be an invaluable asset to them on a heavy VFX-driven project. From shot planning, to scheduling, to handling the complete post, we are here to share the burden and help wherever we can. The final product ends up on our reel, so it's in our interest to help make it as cool as possible.

And in regards to managing parts of the production or concept, it's more like being a partner with them. Making suggestions on where we can lend a hand to production in solving problems. For years, The Embassy has also produced and directed our own commercials, so we get that side of the business as well.

Kenny Soloman> Also, when it comes to the concept stage I think this really helps with consistency across all departments as well as finding efficiencies in production and post. And it helps to keep the brand intent front and center throughout the entire project. 

Above: Terrifying earth creatures showcase what allergy symptoms can feel like.

LBB> You worked closely with artist Christina Cornett, who provided the concept sketches for the two creatures. What’s the process like transforming 2D images into living, breathing creatures?

Paul Copeland> The concept artist works closely with the director to zero in on a good design. We always try to find the best concept artist suited for the particular tone of the character. 

In this case, they began with silhouettes before moving to more detailed designs which was really helpful. It ensures these huge creatures will be readable from the variety of angles that they need to be featured in. Once the director is happy it’s then presented to the clients where they can weigh in on any changes they’d like. 

When the clients and director are both happy we get to start realizing the character in 3D. Once the proportions are nailed down, rigging can start in parallel with look development until the character is complete and can be placed into shots.  

LBB> You’re currently working on series two of Warrior Nun. Can you give us any insight into the development of the creatures established in the first series?

Paul> We worked with a great concept artist, Carlos Huente (whose work includes Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Hellboy and the upcoming Dune), to help us realize the Tarask and Wraith creatures. His portfolio is filled with a huge variety of grotesque and fantastic creatures that made him the perfect fit for this project. There was a lot of back and forth between ourselves, the showrunner, and Netflix to arrive at the final designs. 

The Wraith demons were particularly challenging creatures to both design and realize in 3D. It took many iterations to find the correct balance between the ethereal mist and the actual forms within that mist, not to mention how it would look in motion and react to different lighting environments. 

The demons had to work in both large-scale exterior locations and in tighter close-knit interior settings interacting with the actors, all the while feeling consistent in look and in fluidity of motion. We overcame the challenge with continual motion testing and collaborated with the editorial team to find the right beats for the actor’s motions and reactions.

Above: A gallery of images showing The Embassy’s work on Netflix’s Warrior Nun.

LBB> The creatures that your team have worked on over the years are significantly varied. Is it quite refreshing to jump between demons and monsters to more playful creatures like in Mentos’ ‘Planet Pure Fresh’ spot? 

Paul> Yes absolutely, having variety is always great. It keeps all the artists really engaged and keeps our skills sharp by adjusting to the challenges that different styles bring. 

The Mentos characters lean heavily into our animation skill set, whereas creatures like the Tarask or the Flonase Grass Monster flex our FX skills. One of the most rewarding things about our job is that the constantly evolving slate of work means every discipline gets its opportunity to shine.

Above: The Yeti from Mentos’ ‘Planet Pure Fresh’ ad is brought from concept to reality by The Embassy. 

LBB> Your work for Nissan Rogue is another example of eye-catching monster design - and they showcase a real personality even in a short time frame. How do you work to ensure the creatures aren’t just engaging in their appearance, but in their behaviour and movement?

Paul> We have to ensure there is good communication with our animators so they understand the director's vision. Early animation tests help to make sure everyone is on the same page. In addition to that, our boutique approach to visual effects reduces the number of layers of supervision for the artist. On key shots, the animators will regularly sit in on reviews with showrunners or directors.


LBB> Whilst you’ve created robots in District 9 and even singing cars for belairdirect, is there a knack to capturing the realism of an actual living animal - such as with your spots for Cat’s Pride

Paul> Looking at references of how real animals look and move is essential. We constantly evaluate our work against real footage and images for everything from the look of the fur to the motion of the body. 

If you can start from a very realistic place, then break that reality to do things like make a cat talk, you'll end up with a better and more believable result. 

LBB> How do those more ‘organic’ creatures differ from machines in the way you approach them?

Paul> Both types of characters come with their own challenges. One of the biggest differences is that organic creatures often need more rigging consideration to make their bodies deform in a believable way.  There are also other factors such as fur and hair and the way they look and move.

LBB> More broadly are there any particularly tricky parts when it comes to creature VFX - and if so, how do you overcome them? 

Paul> Yes - everything! You really need to have all aspects of a creature at a good level so the audience can suspend their disbelief. If any one part is lacking it can draw the viewer's attention away from the story. 

Thankfully, tools have improved a great deal over the years. Constantly reviewing your work against reference and having other people with fresh eyes offer feedback helps, and just keep up the iterations and put in the time.

LBB> Finally, do you have a personal favourite creature from all your previous projects?

Kenny Soloman> Of late I personally love our Flonase creatures and their nod to big budget blockbuster Hollywood movies. And I am a big fan of NY Bobby in our Cat’s Pride ad as he reminds me of my Uncle Norm from NYC!