It was only four years ago that Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (MARZ) was located in a basement on Queen Street.
Now, the Toronto visual effects company is working for some of the biggest shows on the planet, including Netflix’s Wednesday, where MARZ is tasked with bringing the disembodied hand known as “Thing” to life.
The studio has also worked on Stranger Things, Ms. Marvel, Wanda Vision, The Umbrella Academy and Watchmen, to name just a few of their 120 projects completed to date.
But Matt Panousis, MARZ’s chief operating officer, says with Wednesday being the second-most watched English-language show ever on the streaming giant, helping create Thing for audiences was one of MARZ’s crowning achievements.
“Being attached to the most popular show on planet Earth and being attached to one of the most lovable characters on that show — it’s a surreal feeling,” said Panousis.
The company, which just passed the 300-employee mark, began work on Wednesday in the fall of 2021 after doing a interview that showcased what it could bring to the show.
Panousis says the firm wanted to live up to the expectations of the show’s legendary producer, Tim Burton, primarily known for hit movies such as Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Night Before Christmas
“As a company that’s focused on TV effects, getting attached to Tim Burton’s first-ever TV series was really important,” says Panousis
But bringing Thing to life didn’t come without its own set of challenges, says computer graphics supervisor James Higuchi.
The majority of scenes involving Thing were performed on set by actor Victor Dorobantu, who wore a blue suit to digitally remove the rest of his body. MARZ created the shots that were either impossible or impractical for the actor to perform.
Higuchi says some of the shot sequences they created included when Thing drops out from under a car, when he’s swimming underwater, when he’s being held up by Wednesday and when he’s being thrown into a duffel bag.
He says the feather in the cap was matching Victor’s “inspiring” performance, without audiences being any the wiser.
“Nobody questioned it,” said Higuchi, adding that there were several sequences in which the action cut back and forth between CG Thing and live action Thing. He said audiences thought were entirely performed by Dorobantu.
“Being able to produce that high level and not get called out by the Internet is obviously something that every VFX artist wants to achieve.”
AI products to be released, says company
With many future projects in the works, MARZ is trying to change the visual effects industry landscape by introducing artificial intelligence (AI) for visual effects products.
“It’s been three years in the making and it’s a first of its kind in the history of VFX,” says Panousis, adding that the upcoming products are part of the company’s plan to provide more efficiency and affordability to the industry.
Panousis says the firm’s new products will provide a level of automation that has never been achieved in visual effects.
Higuchi says this is to combat a shortage of personnel in the industry, resulting from a demand for material that came about when the pandemic hit and everybody stayed home and “blasted through all of their streaming content.”
“Netflix, HBO, Disney, Amazon… they all went, ‘We need more content now!'” said Higuchi.
Both Panousis and Higuchi hope their upcoming AI for visual effects products will allow them to continue doing character work for television productions, which they say is incredibly expensive in the industry’s current form.
“We’ve really fallen in love with the characters and we want to help bring very pivotal characters to life,” said Panousis.
“How that takes shape for us is continuing to attach ourselves to the best TV productions possible and to provide as much value to those as possible.”