Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 4 ‘The Airtight Garage’

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This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. This time: Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s 1976 graphic novel
The Airtight Garage.

For an explanation of the choices for this list, see the first entry.

Number 7 of 10: The Airtight Garage (US title, comic, 1976), aka Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius, Le Garage Hermétique de Lewis Carnelian

In the Before Time, in the Long Long ago, in the late 1970s and 1980s, some movie execs decided it might be a good idea to make a few big-budget effects-heavy comic book movies. So we had two classic films based on DC Comics characters. The first was Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, a hammy cheese-fest that nonetheless managed to charm the audience, largely via Gene Hackman’s movie-saving charisma and Christopher Reeve’s unshakable determination to play a ridiculous character as seriously as possible. On the other hand, the producers spent literally one-third of the $60 million budget to hire Marlon Brando in a cameo; and Margo Kidder gave a performance as Lois Lane that should have tipped off any competent psychiatrist that she was suffering from bipolar disorder and needed help.

The other was Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the first superhero film ever to capture the comic book fanboy’s love for the source material (in this case the uncredited Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (1986), but that’s a fanboy rant for another blog post). Burton, following Miller’s lead, showed mainstream audiences that comic books can be dark, intellectual, weird, artistic and funny. And Jack Nicholson was a thespian ruminant, chewing the scenery and then chewing it again.

Over time, Hollywood gave us films of all the superheroes the mainstream public, unfamiliar with comic books, would surely recognize; after a steadily declining series of Superman and Batman films, we had Marvel’s Spider-Man and The Hulk. Then the studios churned out films based on properties familiar to comic book fans but new to the general public; The X-Men, Iron Man, Hellboy, Blade, and The Fantastic Four amongst the box office successes; Howard the Duck, Judge Dredd, Mystery Men, The Punisher, Catwoman, Elektra, and Daredevil amongst the rest.

The next phase – comic book movies that weren’t about superheroes. Some were still science fiction or fantasy – 300, 30 Days of Night, Constantine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Others took place in the real world — Art School Confidential, From Hell, Ghost World, A History of Violence. But now the comic book world was completely wide open to film and TV adaptation – stories didn’t have to feature Warren Ellis’ “underwear perverts.”

This was good news, because those comic book titles that are the most visually striking are usually not hero titles. Of course there have been great artists working in that medium, from Jack Kirby and Will Eisner back in caveman times to… I dunno, I stopped regularly reading superhero comics when they brought Jean Grey back from the dead in 1986. Yes, I am a grumpy old man. I like J. Scott Campbell, Kevin O’Neill and Howard Chaykin, off the top of my head.

For this series I have chosen an artist who has never worked in the traditional hero genre (except once, briefly), but made his name drawing Western serials in France. His art has influenced generations of artists and production designers, but has never been used as the basis for an entire film.

Jean Giraud became a working artist at age 18, in Paris in 1956. His most famous Western comic book, Blueberry, ran from 1962 to 1974 and earned Giraud his face on a French postage stamp. But he is best known in America for his science fiction and fantasy stories and art, done under the pen name “Moebius.”

In 1974, Moebius and three others founded the seminal adult comics magazine Métal Hurlant; an American version was launched in 1977 called Heavy Metal, which is accidentally displayed in bookstores’ music sections to this day.

One segment of the 1981 Canadian animated anthology film Heavy Metal, containing stories from the magazine, was “Taarna,” inspired by Moebius’ “Arzach” fantasy stories; but the art style was not based on his. (This is the segment parodied in the 2008 South Park episode “Major Boobage.”)

He contributed to several feature film projects. The most notable were Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted 1976 project to bring Frank Herbert’s novel Dune to the screen as a ten-hour feature, with Moebius and Alien artist HR Giger doing original production art; and Luc Besson’s 1997 The Fifth Element, perhaps the only live action film in which Moebius’ elements (the Mondoshawan ships, the Flying Noodle Boat) appear recognizably as he designed them. Other films on which Moebius worked: Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982, uncredited), Tron (1982), Masters of the Universe (1987), Willow (1988) and The Abyss (1989).

His most famous creation is a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness science-fantasy graphic novel originally called Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius, released in the US as The Airtight Garage by Marvel under the Epic Comics imprint. The Airtight Garage was written, drawn and colored by Moebius, four pages at a time, as a game with himself to introduce irreconcilable plot strands in each segment, and then reconcile them later. As a result, the “story” does not exist as such, at least not until the final 15 pages, which were drawn all at once to bring the tale to a conclusion that parodies superhero comics and leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

In rough outline, the Hermetic Garage of the title is a large asteroid containing a much larger artificial world on the inside (“hermetic” in this case is used to mean both “airtight” and “esoteric”). The Garage was created by Major Grubert, an immortal human from Earth who is locked in ceaseless battle against another immortal, Lewis Carnelian. Eventually, these mortal enemies must join forces to prevent the destruction of the Hermetic Garage by an evil alien known as The Bakalite.

Nearly every panel of the comic contains characters, images, references, jokes and invented words that hint at entire worlds, civilizations and conspiracies just beyond the frame’s edge. Hardly anything is explained, not even the backgrounds or motivations of the two main antagonists.

An animated feature adaptation of The Airtight Garage, to be produced by legendary Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa Akira (!!!) and directed by Otomo Katsuhiro of Akira (1988) fame, fell through in the mid-1990s.

So why on Earth would you use The Airtight Garage as the basis for a big-budget, live action VFX film? Three reasons.

First, the non sequitur storyline provides a blank slate for the filmmakers, who are free to fill in the blanks however they wish; or, a la JJ Abrams, just leave the blanks blank. The Airtight Garage provides a firm skeleton on which to hang a dramatic sci-fi high adventure with a good dollop of comedy.

Second, The Airtight Garage is a cult classic with a large fan base. In 1999 the Metreon shopping mall in San Francisco opened with an Airtight Garage-themed attraction, which was hugely popular until the mall was shut down in 2007 (probably a Bakalite trick!).

And third, Moebius’ artwork is beautiful, original, and unique. Many artists and filmmakers are inspired by him, but no one has produced an entire feature film that takes place in a Moebius universe. At one time, his vision could only have been realized through traditional animation, whether one was the director of The Seven Samurai or not. But with modern VFX, that has changed.

The mind-bending, multidimensional layout of the three levels of the Hermetic Garage; its vast alien vistas and retro-futuristic architecture; Grubert’s trusty starship, the Ciguri; the Star Billiard, a colossal green humanoid robot that the Ciguri crew uses as an exploratory vehicle; the bizarre lifeforms of the Garage, such as the pink riding animals called Melvils – all of these could come to life.

And not only would Moebius’ actual drawings provide inspiration for artists – I think that the incomplete nature of The Airtight Garage would give CG and VFX professionals an unprecedented world-building opportunity.

Jean Giraud is 72 years old, and hopefully has many years ahead of him, thanks to French cuisine and Socialized medicine. But it would be nice to finally produce an Airtight Garage adaptation that he would be alive to enjoy.

Previous: Wings of Honnêamise (anime, 1987); Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005); Appleseed (comic, 1985-89)

Next: Warhammer 40,000 game franchise (1987-present)

See a set of The Airtight Garage art on Flickr.

Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 3 ‘Appleseed’

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This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. This time: Shirow Masamune’s manga and anime franchise Appleseed.

For an explanation of the choices for this list, see the first entry.

Number 8 of 10: Appleseed (manga: 1985-89; anime: 1988, 2004, 2007)

If there’s one thing modern CG can render with absolute realism, it’s hardware. From modern consumer automobiles, commercial aircraft and military vehicles to futuristic robots, mecha and spacecraft, VFX artists have mastered the art of heavy gear, from 1984’s The Last Starfighter to last year’s Avatar.

But the military hardware, vehicles and spacecraft in modern VFX movies and television shows and video games do not show as much creative variety as one might expect, given the nearly boundless flexibility of CG. Spacecraft usually look much like the USS Sulaco from 1986’s Aliens, which itself isn’t terribly original. The “APUs” in Avatar are nearly identical to the battlemechs from the BattleTech franchise, themselves inspired by anime mecha. And any time you see a BFG (Big “Effin’” Gun) or any other large military prop in a sci-fi film, TV show or video game, it seems to come from the same prop house or 3D model library as all the others.

This isn’t necessarily because production designers and VFX artists are lazy or unoriginal – there are creative and production concerns. If a giant futuristic space blaster looks exactly like what the audience expects a giant futuristic space blaster to look like, a filmmaker need not waste time explaining what it is. The same goes for spaceships – film-goers unfamiliar with sci-fi (are there any of those left?) might be confused by the giant, spherical spaceship at the end of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (they were already confused by the plot); but will instantly recognize the alien ship in 2009’s District 9, given its resemblance to the bastard love child of the giant saucers from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Independence Day (1996).

Furthermore, the use of preexisting assets can save a production a great deal of money; and looking to previous films, shows and games for inspiration can save time and effort. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Artists make artistic choices, referencing other artists for storytelling purposes. When director David Twohy introduced the evil Necromonger religious zealots in 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, their ships and armor intentionally referenced those of similar sci-fi characters in 1984’s Dune and the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Likewise, the iconic city-destroying giant saucers in Independence Day are so recognizable because they are based on the nearly-identical ships in the 1980s TV miniseries V.

And finally, so many of these hardware designs resemble each other because of common science fiction tropes that artists often are not even aware they are perpetuating. I have already gone into this in detail elsewhere. But a few that apply here include: spacecraft designed according to a nautical paradigm, or to resemble an office building; the idea that while every other technological advance makes devices smaller, military technology will just get bigger and bigger – today’s hardware on steroids; and that human spaceships should be blocky and covered in devices, while alien ships are biologically-inspired and spiky.

So how can VFX artists and production designers break out of the sci-fi hardware design rut? Allow me to make one very specific suggestion. Dig into your manga collection (admit it, you have one), and pull out the collected works of Shirow Masamune.

One of the most popular and talented mangaka to see his work adapted during the anime renaissance of the 1980s, Shirow is known for many things – his trademark character design, bizarre humor, complex cyberpunk storylines, and (especially recently) ribald eroticism (NSFW). But he is best known for his hardware; aircraft, armored vehicles, military and police gear, and mecha; and two concepts he in particular created and popularized, the biological robot “bioroid,” and the child-like intelligent robot tanks, the “Fuchikoma.”

The best thing about Shirow’s hardware design is that it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Indeed, Shirow’s designs have not been widely copied in the anime and manga world, precisely because the plagiarism would be so obvious. His vehicles and weapons have a decidedly biological inspiration; but this is tempered with the sensibility of a serious mechanical, industrial and military engineer.

Every detail of a Shirow creation serves a particular purpose. If an object transforms, then each of its pieces would genuinely fit together. If the device is a vehicle, then an operator would actually fit inside. He draws cut-away schematics of many of his creations, to prove they are thought-out and fully realized. Just as a realistic portrayal and a deep backstory make an audience care more for a human character, so the same principle can be applied to production design to make the viewer care about a world. James Cameron accomplished this in Avatar, and Shirow does the same with his futuristic environments.

For the purposes of a live-action CGI film, I propose an adaptation of Shirow’s 1985-89 manga Appleseed. This might surprise most Shirow fans, who would expect me to choose his most popular creation, the dark cyberpunk manga, film, television, toy and game franchise Ghost in the Shell, which stars the sexy cyborg police Major Kusanagi Motoko and the lovable Fuchikoma.

Appleseed, on the other hand, was Shirow’s first major success, a post-apocalyptic love story set in a utopian city-state. Deunan Knute, a sexy ex-LAPD SWAT member and Landmate (military exoskeleton) pilot, is in love with her partner, Briareos Hecatonchires, a faceless cyborg who has lost most of his original body to military replacement parts, but has not given up his soul or his love for Deunan. Together they roam the ruins of Los Angeles until they are recruited to police Olympus, a hyper-advanced city populated by bioroids.

Shirow’s Major Kusanagi is a bioroid, and her story explores the typical cyberpunk themes of human identity and machine consciousness. But for the most part, she looks human – she would be portrayed by an actress (Angelina Jolie, probably) with a bit of occasional digital makeup.

But Appleseed’s Briareos would be a challenge for VFX artists – a fully thinking, feeling, and emotional character without a human face. He’s the ultimate hardware as a character. And his relationship with Deunan (Charlize Theron?), and her acceptance of him in his inhuman form, is key to the story.

It should be noted that much of the preliminary work for a live-action VFX adaptation of Appleseed has already been done, for Aramaki Shinji’s 2004 and 2007 CG animated films Appleseed and Appleseed EX Machina. The Appleseed universe was 3D modeled for these films, although the final animation was cel-shaded. But they serve as a proof-of-concept that Shirow’s unique and compelling take on the world of the future could serve as the foundation for a successful movie experience.

Previous: Wings of Honnêamise (anime, 1987); Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)
Next: The Airtight Garage (comic, 1976-80)

See a set of Appleseed art on Flickr.

Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 2 ‘Erma Felna EDF’

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This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. This time: the furry animal sci-fi comic Erma Felna EDF.

For an explanation of the choices for this list, see the first entry.

Number 9 of 10: Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)

It took a few decades, but computer graphics engineers have mastered the modeling and rendering of hair and fur. This has allowed a tremendous level of sophistication in CG animals that are realistic (the giant ape in 2005’s King Kong), cartoonish (the new CG Chipmunks films), and somewhere in-between (Aslan the Lion from the Chronicles of Narnia adaptations).

But little has yet been done in the realm of anthropomorphics, what is sometimes referred to as “funny animal” or “furry” animation and comics. These are usually representations of characters with animal heads and other bestial characteristics, but humanoid (“anthropomorphic”) bodies, intelligence and the ability to speak. Such furry characters may or may not wear clothes; may live in their own “furry” world, or in the real world with humans; and may have their own animal-based culture. Such creatures appear in children’s literature (Beatrice Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit; Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 The Wind in the Willows) and in adult stories (Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1980-91); Kirsten Bakis’ 1997 Lives of the Monster Dogs).

Although highly popular in comics and traditional 2D animation (Warner Bros characters such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck; Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood (1973) and TaleSpin (1990-91)), the only professional example of 3D furry animation I could find with a quick Google search was this French soft drink commercial (may not be safe for conservative workplaces).

Indeed, furry anthropomorphics have a bad reputation with those in the mainstream culture who are even familiar with the notion, thanks to news reports and crime procedural dramas that paint all furry fans as sexual deviants. I won’t go into that controversy here (see Wikipedia), only to say that while there is some small truth to the allegations, most enthusiasts in furry fandom just enjoy the characters and art, and don’t have any involvement with the erotic material.

Furry anthropomorphic characters offer a unique challenge to visual effects artists. Can a balance be found and maintained between cartoonish animal CG characters, like the feature film Scooby Doo, and realistically-rendered characters like Narnia’s Aslan? There is an old idea, its truth debated by my (admittedly odd) friends growing up, that if the charismatic and roguishly adorable Bugs Bunny were to suddenly appear in the real world – if those enormous eyes were made of real sclera and ocular jelly, if a cunicular body were stretched out to those freakish proportions, if those begloved four-fingered paws were groping at you – you would run away screaming in absolute terror. Is there a funny-animal version of the Uncanny Valley?

So what funny animal comic have I chosen as the best example of a property that could today be turned into an amazing live-action TV show or feature film? There are rumors of a live-action CGI remake of Don Bluth’s brilliant 1982 animated feature The Secret of NIMH. But my choice is Steve Gallacci’s 1983-2005 space combat epic Erma Felna EDF.

The serial was the main feature of Albedo Anthropomorphics, a furry comic book anthology for adult audiences, which Gallacci edited. Erma Felna EDF was a hard sci-fi war and political drama focusing on the personal and professional crises of the eponymous character, an anthropomorphic female cat and a Tactical Aerospace Commander in the the Extraplanetary Defense Force, or EDF.

No, really. Despite the funny animal angle, Erma Felna EDF was a serious science fiction drama. As “hard” sci-fi, its space travel science and military technology were very well worked-out and explained by Gallacci, a former technical illustrator for the US Air Force. In fact, I was quite impressed by Gallacci’s to-my-knowledge unique take on space combat, which combined real-world physics with some logical conclusions drawn from theories of faster-than-light travel.

And the story, while not without its share of action and suspense scenes, centered largely on politics, both military and interpersonal. A brief synopsis: Cdr. Felna, daughter of a war hero, is part of the EDF, which defends the Confederation against the Republic, a xenophobic polity run by rabbits. Wounded in battle against the Republicans, Felna is sent to the planet Ekosiak, to help train the local military. Seen as a symbol of Confederate meddling, she nonetheless is drawn into putting down a local uprising. Now seen as a hero herself, Felna is sent to the Ahahn-Tako system for PR purposes, and survives an assassination attempt that cripples her spacecraft. During the rescue attempt, an alien spacecraft is discovered, revealing secrets that may reveal the origins of all civilization.

Why is Erma Felna EDF a furry animal comic at all? Probably because that’s what Gallacci wanted to draw. But honestly, while Erma Felna EDF is well written, without the furry angle it would not stand out much from all the other hard sci-fi I have read over the years. The disconnect between the serious hard science fiction and adult literary drama on the one hand, and the funny animals on the other, emphasizes each aspect. It seems like a gimmick, until you read it.

So what about Erma Felna: The Motion Picture? (Actually, fans usually remember the comic by the name of the magazine – so it might be Albedo: The Motion Picture.) Not many hard sci-fi space-based films or TV shows get made. Avatar had a strong hard sci-fi component; on TV we have had FOX’s Space: Above and Beyond(1995-96) and Firefly (2002), as well as the Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica (2003-09). The furry animal angle might be what a well-written space epic needs to spur interest in general audiences, who may buy a ticket or tune in out of curiosity, and stay for the compelling story and characterization.

But can it be done? A 3D rendered Erma Felna has to be realistic enough to fit into her high-tech, futuristic and militaristic universe. She has to be human enough to convey complex emotion; but she can’t look like a talking cat from a cat food commercial. She has to be charismatic and sexy, without creeping out the audience. And she can’t be so realistic that she looks like a deformed monster cat.

It’s quite a challenge for any animation and rendering team. (Add to this the rest of the Erma Felna universe, full of anthropomorphic rabbits, dogs, birds, foxes, hamsters and countless other critters.) If it could be done, and the creative problems could be solved, Erma Felna: The Motion Picture would be unlike anything made to-date.

Post-script: It’s not traditionally anthropomorphic or sci-fi, but a “live-action” CG remake of Watership Down could be a disaster, or it could be brilliant, depending on how it was done.

Previous: Wings of Honnêamise (anime, 1987)
Next: Shirow Masamune’s Appleseed (manga, 1985-89)

See a set of Erma Felna EDF scans on Flickr.

More info: Furry fandom and Albedo Anthropomorphics on Wikipedia.

Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 1 ‘Wings of Honneamise’

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This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. First up: the 1987 anime feature film The Wings of Honnêamise.

In the 1980s and 90s, effects-centered films and television shows occupied specific niches. In film, an effects-heavy movie like Ghostbusters or Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a summer tentpole release designed to reel in teen audiences of repeat viewers; while a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its $2.5 million an episode budget, was a risky experiment in capitalizing on 1960s nostalgia.

Today, most movies rely heavily on VFX, many of those effects invisible. Greenscreen sets and set extensions, digital makeup, and post-production fixes for on-set mistakes are just a few applications of digital technology used in films and TV shows that the average viewer might think had no effects whatsoever.

But audiences still want “effects-heavy” films, from The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies at the turn of the millennium to the Iron Man films and Avatar today. And for the first time in TV history, shows from Firefly and Battlestar Galactica to V and Human Target are recreating the experience of effects-heavy, action-oriented movies on the small screen.

Two factors have led to this renaissance in effects-driven entertainment. First, technological advances have made it cheaper and cheaper to create top-quality effects. And second, those same advances have made it possible to realistically render visions that were never possible before. Today’s VFX artists can create worlds that just ten years ago producers would have said could only be represented with traditional animation. Rumor said James Cameron abandoned his Spider-Man film project because he was dissatisfied with the realism of the character’s CG web-slinging. Can you imagine the director of Avatar having such a concern today?

But how can science fiction filmmakers best take advantage of this new artistic freedom? Some recent films have impressed with their ability to create amazing sci-fi realms and alternate worlds – The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, I Am Legend, Watchmen, 2009’s Star Trek. Others have been less successful, despite the potential of their source material. The skill and creativity of the VFX artists and technicians is not in question. World creation is a specific variety of visual art; and even the most talented VFX artists can’t create an amazing, immersive experience unless that imaginary world is original, vibrant and complete.

There is a large number of existing science fiction properties that could give film and television creators all the material they need to produce visual epics of a type as yet unseen on screen. The Internet is full of lists of sci-fi classics that would make great movies – this list concentrates solely on properties that would provide the most inspiration to VFX artists. Character and plot are secondary (but not irrelevant) considerations. These are ideas for films that would engender in today’s jaded audiences the same kind of excitement we experienced when a Star Wars or a Raiders of the Lost Ark first premiered.

Over the next few weeks, I will cover my top ten choices, from number 10 through number one. Of course, I must be familiar with a book, comic or other property in order to write about it. Originally I considered both sci-fi and fantasy; but in the end, my top ten choices were all sci-fi. If you have any favorites I missed, please talk about them in the comments.

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (dir. Yamaga Hiroyuki, 1987)

Back when Wings of Honnêamise first hit the US anime fan circuit, when we sat in dark basement rooms watching unsubbed anime while poring over fan translation printouts off of Usenet, few American otaku thought the film was any good. I was one of a tiny minority who agreed with the Japanese critics, that it was one of the best movies of the year, and perhaps the best anime feature yet made.

Today, when you can buy manga at Barnes & Noble and Naruto is a household word, Wings of Honnêamise is almost forgotten except among anime aficionados, many of whom lament the film’s lack of giant transforming robots and sex-obsessed middle-schoolers. The US DVD release in 2000 (upon which I relied to provide screenshots) was made from a terrible print; get the 2007 Blu-ray version and watch this film. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Wings of Honnêamise takes place on a parallel Earth where modern technology and global culture began in the East rather than the West, in an alternative version of Japan and Southeast Asia. The hero, Shiro (based on actor Treat Williams), is part of his nation’s unheralded, underfunded and comically deadly space program, which exists only as a ploy to lure another, alternate-Western nation into a war. Shiro falls for a pretty religious zealot named Riquinni (based on Tatum O’Neal), and in an effort to impress her, volunteers to be the first man in space.

Unlike many Asian and European films, Wings of Honnêamise adheres to a three-act structure; but its mood is unusually flat, which may be what put off American audiences. The characters, especially the two leads, are so thoroughly crushed by the pointlessness of their lives that even their epiphanies feel listless. And Shiro’s violent attempt to consummate his relationship with Riquinni does not play as well with Western audiences as it did in Japan.

But all this moodiness and moral malaise pays off at the climax, when Shiro’s dangerous and soul-changing flight into orbit (imagine if Apollo 11 had launched during a full-on Soviet invasion of Kennedy Space Center) successfully ignites in the viewer all the hope and excitement for the future we felt back when America’s space program really meant something.

Wings of Honnêamise makes this list because of its justifiably famous and influential (in anime) production design. When brand-new production company Gainax (later the creators of the immensely popular Neon Genesis Evangelion) decided to make an alternate-reality film, they really dedicated themselves to an alternate reality, with an impressively obsessive attention to detail not seen since Blade Runner. And while Ridley Scott was limited by budgetary and practical constraints, the artists at Gainax were hindered only by their imaginations.

Everything in the world of the film – the architecture, technology, costumes, calligraphy, urban design, food, utensils, doorknobs, windowsills, every single incidental detail – is carefully crafted as part of a unified, original cultural continuum that is inspired by, but different from, East Asian culture. (The alternate-Western culture, worked out with far less effort, is humorously based in medieval European iconography, like a modern society evolving directly out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.) The vehicles – automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, and a few that are harder to categorize – are different, yet familiar. The aircraft fly “backward,” with their propellers on the rear instead of the nose; but they seem to conform to the same laws of aeronautics as on our world.

Assuming the events in Wings take place at a point in its world’s history roughly contemporaneous with our Yuri Gagarin, and it seems they do, then many aspects of that world’s technology are a few decades behind ours, but not all. Yet their machines are not cross-decade Steampunk chimera like the parody technology of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; the devices are consistent, both internally and with each other, and seem to make sense, having developed out of the same technological and scientific tradition.

Some science fiction films make the mistake of portraying technology that is too consistent. Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and you might believe that all technology in that distant future year was produced by a single designer working for a single company. The archaic computers, inverted telephones, and beautifully-crafted train ticket dispensers of the nation of Honnêamise seem related, but not the same; they come from the same culture, but not the same place within that culture. The viewer doesn’t necessarily notice this, unless they obsessively examine the film as I have, but it registers in the back of the brain as realism. All the puzzle-pieces fit together, seamlessly; and as in The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, they create a strong sense of a single, genuine reality that beckons to the viewer, who wants to leap through the screen and explore.

Interestingly, director Yamaga eschews wide vistas and establishing shots; the details of Honnêamise are presented through medium shots, and in the background of two-shots. The world of Wings of Honnêamise is a real world of real people, so we learn about it through the experience of those people. Not only is the sense of reality heightened, but viewer’s lizard brain screams out zoom out! Back up! I want to see!


When Wings of Honnêamise was released in the 1980s, it was impossible to shoot it in live action; Roger Ebert basically said as much in his review of the film. The cost of the costumes, sets and backlot stages, miniatures, special effects, and the countless props, would have been absurdly prohibitive; as it was, Wings was one of the most expensive animated features made to date. But today? With virtual sets and greenscreen set extensions? The success of a live-action remake would be measured not in budgetary considerations, but in the artistic freedom, courage and devotion of the filmmakers and artists.

Next: Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)

See a set of Wings of Honnêamise screencaps and production art on Flickr.

Zoic Studios Works with Tiger Woods, Wieden+Kennedy to Create Moving “Earl and Tiger” Spot

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See the “Earl and Tiger” spot on Nike Golf’s official YouTube channel, or on the Zoic Studios site.

There is no need at this late date for a simple VFX blog to recount the recent events in the professional and private lives of golfer Tiger Woods. But as Woods attempts to resume his career, both as an athlete and as a corporate spokesperson, he and sponsor Nike, along with ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, production company Pretty Bird and Zoic Studios, have created a moving, personal and risky 30-second commercial spot. Zoic has worked with Wieden+Kennedy on several spots of late, particularly the ESPN NASCAR campaign out of New York, and Coke NASCAR and now Nike out of Portland.

The spot was unveiled April 7th, and discussion of the commercial has spread across the Internet and the media, as fans and pundits argue over how the spot will affect the career of the most famous golfer in history. Entitled “Earl and Tiger,” the spot features a close-up of Woods standing on a golf course, listening to words spoken by his late father Earl Woods, who passed away in 2006. The spot was shot on black & white film with a gritty realism, complete with dust, grain, developer streaks and an authentic roll-out at the end.

Zoic Studios’ creative director Les Ekker discusses Zoic’s involvement in the creation of the spot. “We were approached on a Tuesday for a bid,” Ekker says, “and I ended up flying out to Orlando that afternoon (in record time!).

“On Wednesday we spent the whole day rehearsing, because we would only have Tiger for one hour on Friday morning. The shot would be done with both a steadicam and a technocrane.” Max Malkin (Nailed) directed the spot, and acted as director of photography as well.

“On Friday, Tiger came in from 8-9 am. We used black & white stock, and switched at the last minute to one with a slower film speed and finer grain structure. It was important to the director that the spot convey authenticity and honesty, and visual effects were added in post to restore and enhance these qualities. In fact, the shot of Tiger that was eventually chosen for the final spot (in record time!) was the final roll-out take that didn’t even have the complete camera move that was rehearsed. But the director, Nike and Tiger himself loved it and felt this take best complemented the sincerity of the message.

“Tiger was shot against a white screen with tracking markers, to make things cleaner for roto. But the screen couldn’t completely cover the background because of the angle of the sun. We did a super-fast turnaround on the roto, and extracted a 3D track of the selected take (in record time!).

“We created a multi-plane background matte painting, inspired by the sliver of actual background glimpsed in the selected take. After the background design was approved (in record time!), we rendered the multi-plane to the camera. The matte painting included some subtle animation, like twinkling reflections on the water.

“The original negative had a lot of dirt and streaks in the white areas from the developer bath, and we reproduced these in the composite and matched the original grain quality. Then we added some sun glare over Tiger and degraded the image slightly, all of which were added to match the authenticity of the original film. This was done to support the goal of the spot, to create a sense of ‘powerful humble sincerity.’

“In the end, we turned around the spot in three days – the take was chosen on a Thursday, and we delivered the final spot the next Monday morning (in record time!).

“We worked very closely with the creative director, Hal Curtis, to ensure all of his detailed visual goals were achieved. Wieden+Kennedy, Joint Editorial and Zoic worked in tight coordination with a uniformly focused sense of purpose, and that made the job a real pleasure, despite having to do it ‘in record time!’”

The freelance VFX producer who was brought on to run the project, Karin Joy, has extensive feature film experience, most recently on The Forbidden Kingdom and Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Les worked with Joy at Boss Films in the late 1980s, and says it was fun to be reunited with her on this project.

Zoic Studios worked with the advertising agency, Wieden+Kennedy and Joint Editorial, and Ekker, along with Zoic commercial executive producer Erik Press, say that both firms were utterly professional, and dedicated to producing an important, meaningful and controversial spot that is of great importance to both Nike and to Tiger Woods.

More info: See the “Earl and Tiger” spot.

Planes, Trains & Automatic Weapons: Zoic Provides Explosive VFX for FOX’s Human Target

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Based loosely on the DC comic series of the same name, Human Target is an action-drama starring Mark Valley (Boston Legal) as security expert Christopher Chance, with Chi McBride (Boston Public) and Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen). It airs Wednesdays at 8pm on FOX.

Zoic Studios provided a number of visual effects shots for the series, including for the pilot episode. Zoic creative director Andrew Orloff discusses the studio’s work on Human Target.

“The question is, how do you do a super-sized action movie every week?” Orloff asks. The answer? Invisible effects, stunt enhancement, special effects and pyro enhancement. “There are all kinds of things, from a bullet train, to a HALO jump, to a large passenger airplane flying upside down in a storm, to a fight on a gondola suspended above a ravine. There are a lot of explosions – exploding boats, exploding trains, exploding buildings, and large set pieces.”

The largest set piece Zoic did was for the pilot episode, which took place almost entirely on a bullet train. Since America doesn’t have bullet trains, the team created the train station and landing. Both the 3D train and the landing were designed and created at Zoic.

“When [the characters] get on the train, what they are really stepping into is a greenscreen with a hole in it,” Orloff explains. “Then when they are on the train, the outside we see through the windows is a plate, which we shot via helicopter.

“We flew out to central California from Van Nuys airport; and flew at low altitude over the train tracks, making multiple passes going forward and back, and side-to-side. We used those helicopter plates to make exteriors to be seen from the windows inside the train.

“We also shot a ton of aerial establishing shots, which was a fun thing to do. We planned out the helicopter day by going on Google Earth and identifying where all the train tracks are. It was supposed to be a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, so we were looking at the tracks around San Luis Obispo, and the ones a little more inland towards Tehachapi. We plotted out the course, and got our passes. Those were tracked in 3D, and the 3D train was put in on top of them.”

Another episode features a scene in which a CG passenger jet, flying through a storm, flips all the way over and then back again. “We couldn’t use any existing model of a passenger jet for legal reasons,” Orloff says. “So we had to take an existing jet model, modify it, and change up the existing engine configuration so it was more generic.

“We did a dozen shots of the plane at night, in clouds, with rain and lightning strikes, flipping over and right side up again, with smoke trailing back from it.” The production built a full-sized cockpit mock-up on a greenscreen stage, which could be rotated 360-degrees and upside down. This greenscreen footage was integrated into the CG airplane shots.

One episode portrayed a HALO jump. “It was interesting and challenging – we shot the main character on greenscreen, and added a whole aerial background, where we see clouds behind him. We enhanced the wind blowing in his face, and created a CG parachute that opens up and floats to the ground.”

Other VFX for Human Target are less spectacular, but just as important to creating the world of the show. In his review of the pilot episode, USA Today reviewer Robert Bianco wrote that the “confined-spaces fight on the train is a miniature marvel of its kind.” Orloff says there have been several confined gunfights on the show, and that it’s not safe to shoot with blanks in such tight quarters. As a result, Zoic creates and enhances muzzle flashes for the gunfight scenes, even for an underwater gunfight.

There were also a lot of set extensions. “There’s a big show where they escape from a building by climbing around in the ventilation and elevator shafts,” Orloff says, “and those were all shot on small set pieces, with greenscreen work extending the ventilation shafts up and down in this 50-storey building. There was an elevator shaft, that was a set that with two floors of elevator; we extended it, and the characters were zip-lining down the elevator cables.”

There are many wire and rig removals, and other stunt enhancements, “like when they’re coming down the zipline in the elevator shaft. They’re using a homemade rig in the story, but it’s a real rig and we erase that. There’s also a motorcycle jump off these big steps, and there were wires holding the motorcycle upright; and we’re erasing that. They’re fighting on a gondola, and they’re getting knocked over and flying off; there are all kinds of rigs and harnesses keeping the actors from falling off the gondola, that we erase.

“We did an episode where we blew up a building. We were using pyro and glass elements that were shot on our soundstage, along with special effects elements used to create CG fire. We do miniature shoots sometimes; do a small explosion and comp it into a larger piece. In the pilot, we blew up the wall of an office building. We shot that with no explosion, and then we went on a separate day, made a small quarter-scale version of that set and then blew it up.

“It’s a really interesting show; it’s a variety of challenges. It’s a different thing every week. It’s all based on real world phenomena, and it’s important to the show that this exists in the real world. We did a shot where there’s a DC Metro station. It was shot in Vancouver in a hotel lobby, and they greenscreened one side; we made a subway tunnel on that side, and brought a CG train into it. It’s a lot of stuff like that — expanding the scope of Chance’s world, bringing him to different environments and helping with these various moving action set pieces.

“You have these really cool shots you’d expect in a feature film. In the pilot there’s a shot from outside the train car, where they’re running from car to car to car and you’re seeing it through the windows. And there is actually no train – all that stuff is put in. When they go through a tunnel, there’s no tunnel. We’re doing all that.

“It’s a fun show. There’s a lot of work that might go unnoticed, but it really contributes to the believability and the scope of what they’re trying to accomplish.”

More info: Human Target official website; “Give ‘Human Target’ a shot, and it could just be a bull’s-eye” on USAToday.

‘FlashForward’ Flashback: Zoic Studios’ Steve Meyer on the Award-Nominated VFX for the Pilot

Posted by Erik Even in I Design Your Eyes on April 1, 2010

Property of ABC; screencap from the Zoic Television Reel.

Based on the science fiction novel by Robert J. Sawyer, ABC’s FlashForward tells the story of the aftermath of a bizarre global event. For 137 seconds, every person on Earth (except perhaps one) loses consciousness, and experiences visions of their own future.

The pilot episode presents the immediate aftermath of the worldwide disaster, with the consequences of the worldwide blackout – millions of deaths due to traffic collisions, crashed aircraft, and other accidents. Star Joseph Fiennes, portraying FBI agent Mark Benford, survives an auto wreck and looks out over a chaotic Los Angeles cityscape. Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios was tapped to create the disastrous tableau; the company’s work on the episode was nominated for two VES awards, for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program and for Outstanding Created Environment in a Broadcast Program or Commercial.

Zoic VFX Supervisor Steve Meyer discusses the creation of the complex scene, which required a tremendous amount of rotoscoping and motion tracking. The amount of roto was necessary, Meyer says, “because they shot in downtown LA, looking from the 4th St. overpass, over the southbound and northbound 110 Freeway. So naturally you can’t stop all that traffic, or get a greenscreen up.

“There’s a big, swooping hero shot following Joseph Fiennes as he jumps up on a car and looks down, and it’s a huge vista. Then we reverse it and look northbound. Everything in the foreground on that overpass we had to roto out. We had a team of seven or eight people going for weeks, just rotoing that and a bunch of other shots.

“We ended up having to remove all the traffic on the freeway; then added in overturned cars, cars burning, flames, smoke, helicopters crashing, just debris everywhere. We had to build a 3D matte painting in that environment. There’s a lot of detail – you can look at the shot over and over, and always see something new.”

The production brought on an experienced feature film matte painter, Roger Kupelian (2012, Alice in Wonderland) to create a “road map” of the shot. “Kupelian took a still of the freeway overpass shots, and he just dialed it in with Kevin Blank, the VFX supervisor – we want smoke here, we want the helicopter to hit here, we want fire and destruction here, we want this tree burning. They gave us a template – this is what we need it to look like. Kupelian sent us the files, and sometimes we used his elements.

“There are about 45 shots we ended up doing for the pilot, and the majority of them were for that overpass sequence. For most of the shots, nothing was locked off – every shot had some sort of roto, because there was no greenscreen. We had to roto everything to build the shots, and then try to match the smoke, fire, debris, people and other elements from shot to shot.

“We were working with different formats — stock footage, film footage, the Red Camera — trying to mix all these different formats to create one environment.”

All the scenes were tracked in Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes camera tracking software, from which the team was able to build a 3D environment. The artists used this 3D information in Adobe After Effects to rebuild the plate with clean pieces of freeway, overpasses, signs, etc.

“The smoke was a combination of digital photographs, Google images, CG smoke, and moving elements that we had in our vault. Some of the smoke was a dust cloud that we slowed down. One of the smoke passes was a photo of a brush fire I took up by my house with my iPhone. I took the image, gave it to one of my compositors, and said ‘this will look good off in the distance.’ It’s so far off you don’t see it moving, so it fit in fine.

“They shot lots of people on greenscreen, and they all needed to have the right camera lens perspective. They’re way off in the distance; you have to get up close to an HD screen to see them. But we didn’t want any nuances to be overlooked. We don’t want to shoot a person head-on when the camera is going to be looking down at them.

“Another complication with the overpass sequence was that it was shot on a bright day, so we had a lot of technical problems. If you look at someone up against a bright sky, the sun wraps around them a bit, like a halo – and we were trying to put a dark smoke cloud behind them. It just doesn’t work right. We had a lot of technical things to try to work through when we ran into those kinds of problems. Every shot had to be 3D tracked. We took that 3D track into our environment, and we placed things in our 3D world shot by shot by shot.

“We also had a CG tanker in there that blew up. They actually had a real tanker with a big hole in it, and they threw in six gallons of gasoline and lit it and boom! It was huge. We had to put the shell of the tanker on there before the practical explosion; and then we just blew it up in Autodesk Maya and added CG debris, camera shake, heat ripple and dynamic smoke trails; plus glass shattering on the buildings and other background effects.”

Property of ABC; screencap from the Zoic Television Reel.

Wreckage from the tanker explosion strikes an overturned car and knocks it off the overpass onto the freeway below. Zoic created the car in CG. “They shot everybody running up to the guardrail and looking over,” Meyer explains. “We had to remove the railing and put in our own CG railing, so when the car goes down it takes it with it. So we had the complicated roto of recreating the people’s bodies that were behind the railing. We had to rebuild lots of people’s legs and waists. We put in the smoke and stuff that dynamically reacts to the car, so when it gets sucked down it creates a vortex and pulls the smoke down. Also, there’s an orange cart right nearby. We try to get every detail right, so when the car goes down we have a couple of oranges that roll away with it.

Property of ABC; screencap from the Zoic Television Reel.

“Then we had the falling LAPD helicopter. We took a panoramic image of a building, so we’re working on one frame and can do a pan-and-tilt in post. The helicopter has already crashed into the building, and we needed to have the smoke barreling out through most of the sequence, with the rotor blades still spinning — then we get to a certain point, and there’s an explosion that pushes the helicopter out. It tumbles and it’s scraping the building, tearing it apart and opening it up.

“Roger Kupelian labored intensely on a matte painting of the inside of the building, with what would be exposed – wires, beams, pipes, office equipment. As the CG helicopter was falling down the face of the building and opening it up, our compositor just revealed it with little mattes. At the same time we threw in sparks, debris, dust and smoke. It ended up pretty good. It was tough making an animation that made everyone happy, but in the end it looked great on the big screen at the viewing.

“Some of the shots were fun, because you can really push the envelope — let’s see what happens when we do this or when we do that. It took a lot of planning and careful choreography to between our 2D and 3D teams to keep the action and look continuous. Our teams worked tirelessly to create seamless product because anything out of place would be glaring.

“This isn’t ‘sci-fi’ with spaceships and aliens,” Meyers says, “which allow a bit of imagination – but rather, real-life vehicles, smoke, fire, people and buildings that have to look real.”

More info: FlashForward on ABC.com; the latest Zoic Studios Television Reel on ZoicStudios.com; Steven Meyer on IMDb.

Zoic’s Syd Dutton on Mentoring in the Visual Effects Industry

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on3/25/10.

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It’s easy for today’s young filmmakers to forget that the art of the cinema goes back 132 years; television 83 years; and interactive media 23 years. Today’s students might think the latest high tech tools are all they need to succeed in the rapidly-changing visual effects industry; and they’ll be sorely disappointed when their ignorance of time-tested filmmaking technique puts them in the dole queue.

That’s why mentoring is so important to the future success of young VFX professionals. I recently sat down with Zoic Studios’ Syd Dutton to discuss the importance of industry pros passing along their knowledge to the next generation.

Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, The Bourne Identity, and Serenity. The Emmy-Award winner co-founded Illusion Arts in 1985, which created thousands of shots and matte paintings for over 200 feature films over 26 years.

As we spoke, Dutton’s longtime collaborator and Zoic compositing supervisor Fumi Mashimo listened in, and occasionally interjected. Mashimo’s credits include From Hell, Van Helsing and Public Enemies.

The things I learned gave me the foundation I needed for this business… I try to pass it along as much as I can…

The first assistant I had was Rob Stromberg, a well-accomplished matte painter. I would have hired him immediately, but he was driving a Porsche, lived in Malibu, and had a cell phone at a time when cell phones were still a luxury. So I said this guy’s pretty talented, but I can’t afford him. Then I found out later it was all a façade, and he was poor as a church mouse. But he had tons of talent.

syddutton_188x250So I hired him, and he just really excelled when we switched to computers, which just terrified me — but he really embraced it. It was all Macs at the time, because you could get more bang for the buck from multiple Mac stations rather than from just one SGI machine. Our first creature was a bird that Fumi [Mashimo] generated in a traditional painting, I think the same year Jurassic Park (1993) came out – and our big accomplishment was doing this bird!

Rob was great; and he really wanted to direct, so after a number of years he left. He later went back into matte painting and formed his own company, called Digital Backlot. Then he became a digital art director on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Apparently Rob had learned all the lessons I had learned from [legendary visual effects supervisor and matte painter] Albert Whitlock, that I passed along, like how to compose a shot using light and dark.

Most recently he became a production designer — which is really a jump for a visual effects person — first working for Jim Cameron on Avatar, for which he won an Academy Award [Best Achievement in Art Direction]; and this year he was productions designer on Alice in Wonderland, which is pretty amazing.

Mike Wassel was another one. His background was in design – he went to the Art Center in Pasadena — but he also knew car design, which was fortuitous for him. I got a call from Universal around 2000 saying we have this little movie we want to do on a budget, and we have about 20 shots or so, do you want to do it, it’s for Rob Cohen? I had worked for Rob for years, starting with The Wiz (1978) when he was the producer on the show for Motown.

My partner Bill Taylor and I both realized that Mike was the guy to supervise this. I didn’t know much about cars, but Mike was a complete car fanatic. He knew how cars would bank and all that stuff. Fumi did a wonderful test of a car, and I showed it to Rob Cohen. He said “why are you showing me this?” I said “What do you think it is?” “It’s a sports car turning a corner.” And I said “that’s CG.” We got the job. [laughter]

Bill and I talked Rob Cohen into hiring Mike Wassell as the visual effects supervisor. Now Mike’s working on the fifth edition of Fast & Furious. He was nominated for a VES award on Hellboy II: The Golden Army. So Mike’s having a pretty good career since he left too.

There have been several others; their careers are just beginning. I don’t know if it was so much my mentoring directly. I certainly try to pass on what I learned from Al Whitlock, who taught me everything I know about painting, even though I went to college and I had degrees and stuff like that. But the things I learned from Al gave me the foundation I needed for this business. I try to pass it along as much as I can.

But it was also the environment of Illusion Arts — not just me mentoring, but everyone would help bring up the next person. Do you think that’s fair to say, Fumi?

A good eye is a good eye, whether it’s looking through a whole bunch of glass and a projector, or at a computer monitor…

Fumi: It was a really nice environment.

There’s a couple more people, but I really don’t want to mention them until they achieve something. [laughter]

Fumi’s probably the most unsung person; now he’s compositing, but Fumi can do anything. Fumi did CG birds on The Bourne Identity (2002)…

fumimashimo_188x250Fumi: Oh God.

They were great. Hundreds of birds. I don’t think you will watch The Bourne Identity and notice any of our work in it. And we did dozens and dozens of shots. We always, especially in a contemporary movie, try to be as invisible as possible – I guess that’s what everybody tries to do. In science fiction it’s impossible. In historical dramas, sometimes you can get away with it, if people don’t think too hard. But most of the time in contemporary films, invisibility is what you want.

Erik: Fumi, do you have anything to say about Syd as a mentor?

Fumi: Oh, I mean, I learned everything from him. I didn’t know much about filmmaking when I was hired by him. I can respect him as a boss and also I can respect him as a person. That’s why I have been working with him for the past 23 years.

We found Fumi when he came from Canada with Randy Cook, who’s an Academy award-winning animator (for The Lord of the Rings trilogy). At that time Randy was working on a film called The Gate (1987), and Fumi was working as his assistant for no money, because he wanted the experience; and Fumi didn’t speak very good English either. [Fumi scoffs] But we could tell from his work ethic that he would fit in. So when Randy’s film finished, we asked if he could stay on. He learned English and all sorts of things, and when the computer came along he learned that too.

The old-fashioned optical printer guys, once they learned the computer, they became at that time the very best compositors; because a good eye is a good eye, whether it’s looking through a whole bunch of glass and a projector, or at a monitor. A good eye is what it takes.

Erik: Can you talk about mentoring, as far as personal relationships?

I think mentoring is a pretty intense relationship. You try to give that person all you know and hope they will take it to another level.

Erik: Based on my own chequered experience in this industry, it might be different on the creative side, but I’ve run into a lot of “I’m not going to teach anyone anything, because they might compete against me in the future.”

That’s exactly what happens – but that doesn’t help anybody. There’s always going to be somebody competing against you. If you own a business and don’t teach your people how to do good work, then your company doesn’t do good work. There are a lot of people who won’t give away their quote-unquote “secrets,” and that just isn’t me. I like working with young people. If it’s the right person, I like mentoring.

Fumi: There are a lot of young people CG artists, they don’t want to hear it. We have so many of them passing through.

Yeah, if they didn’t work out, they didn’t stay. I wasn’t cruel about it, I didn’t fire people and embarrass them, but if they didn’t work out, they just didn’t stay. It really was a family, and if a person didn’t fit in that family, it really didn’t matter. It was just a dysfunctional family.

Fumi: It was really nice, though.

If you own a business and don’t teach your people how to do good work, then your company doesn’t do good work…

I’m proud, especially with Rob and Mike, that they have done so well. It reflects well on me [laughter], and it passes on something important. When I first started working with Al, I had artistic experience and I had degrees, but I didn’t know how to apply it to movies. Al was very patient with me, and taught me all his tricks, and all of [legendary special effects creator and matte painter] Peter Ellenshaw’s tricks, because he worked with Ellenshaw.

Al made me aware of how people like W. Percy Day worked, who was a production designer in England in the 30s. I was introduced to all sorts of production designers; most of them are long gone. It was wonderful. It connected me all the way back to the 1920s and 30s. I felt I really learned a lot on how to do things, how to be economical with your vision.

Erik: It sounds like a lot of what you learned translates into the new technology.

Oh, it all translates. People just don’t necessarily know about it. If you hadn’t been exposed to it, and talked to people who worked on these movies that were classics — it’s not in books, it has to be learned firsthand.

Erik: Do you get people who think that knowledge from before the digital revolution can’t translate?

Yeah, sure. They can’t believe it would work. Some simple — what we used to call “gags” – these tricks that are effective, they say couldn’t possibly translate into the digital age, and they can.

Erik: What about the environment at Zoic, as far as mentoring and education?

I think the training program here is really very good. It’s a wonderful way to find out who’s going to work out, and it’s certainly wonderful for young people to be around this environment.

It’s never going to be the same as the world I came up in. I was exposed to this whole backlot world, and the old movie stars and everything. In this environment you aren’t exposed to sets, and all those things I found really interesting working for a big studio.

When I had my own business at Illusion Arts, we did go to the sets. We went on locations, too. What we did on glass was something very few people could do. But as times changed and everything became computer-oriented, this became the type of environment that people would have to learn to work in. And of all the places I’ve seen, Zoic by far has the best environment. It’s the friendliest, it’s the most open.

I told one of my client producers, you’d be hard put to know who to kill to take over the company, because there’s no obvious boss walking around smoking a cigar or something. Everybody seems to know their jobs, and they just collaborate with one another. I’ve never seen people yelling at each other – maybe I haven’t stayed around long enough to see that. [laughter]

It’s a good environment, and it’s actually one of the reasons I came here. It didn’t seem to have a whole bunch of pressure – there’s time pressure, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of alpha dogs going around screaming at each other!

More info: Syd Dutton, Fumi Mashimo, Robert Stromberg and Mike Wassel on IMDb; see also “Syd Dutton: Matte Painting from Traditional to Digital.”

From ‘2001’ to ‘CSI’: Zoic Studios’ Rik Shorten on Motion Control for VFX

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 3/12/10.

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In cinematography, motion control is the use of computerized automation to allow precise control of, and repetition of, camera movements. It is often used to facilitate visual effects photography.

I spoke with Rik Shorten, visual effects supervisor at Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, about his use of motion control and how the technology has changed since it was introduced over three decades ago. Shorten produces motion-controlled effects for CBS’ visually-groundbreaking forensic drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He recently took home a VES Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program for his work on the “frozen moment” sequence in CSI’s tenth-season opener.

“I didn’t work on the original 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Shorten says, “or back in the Star Wars days in the 70s when computer-controlled cameras were first developed. But fundamentally, the way the technology works hasn’t changed. The rig I use almost weekly on CSI is the original rig from [David Lynch’s 1984 science-fiction film] Dune. The Kuper controller, the head that controls the rig, runs on MS-DOS. It’s a really old-school programming language that they used for these original systems, that hasn’t really changed because it hasn’t had to. It’s a coordinate-based system, XYZ, and we can write the moves we need. The way we do it today is the same way they would have programmed it 20 years ago. So from that perspective, the technology hasn’t increased.

The way the technology works hasn’t changed. The rig I use on CSI is the original rig from 1984’s Dune

“What has changed is that the rigs have gotten smaller, lighter and quieter. They now have the ability to run silently — they used to be so loud that you couldn’t record dialogue with them. Today we have smaller rigs that can fit through doorways – they’re made out of carbon fiber pieces now, they’re not the behemoths they used to be — and you can have actors delivering dialogue in the same scene as a motion-control move.

“So how we use them hasn’t changed, but slowly but surely they’ve made progress. Some weeks I use the old rigs versus the new ones, because that’s all I need, and the moves are simple enough. We have a system that’s 30 years old that we use side-by-side with a system built three or four years ago. And we interchange them based on the needs of the shot.

“As far as CSI, there are two ways we use motion control. We do stand-alone in-camera shots with the motion-control rig, where we’re flying over a prosthetic, or we’re traveling around a prop, and we need to get a macro shot; we use them a lot for macro photography. We have a couple of different snorkel lenses we use on the systems; one’s an endoscopic lens, and one is a probe lens, and they were both designed for medical photography. They’re both barrel lenses, about 12” long. The endoscopic lens is a fixed lens, sort of a wide-angle lens; it’s a tiny skinny little lens you can stick through a donut hole. If you see any shots where the camera goes in-between something where it seems like it shouldn’t go, that’s the lens we use.

“The probe lens is a little bit bigger, but it has multiple lens sizes, so we can go as wide as a 9mm or 12mm lens, for super-wide shots; right up to your prime lenses, your 22s, 25s, 30s, whatever it is. We use that in the same way, for getting into tight spots, and for getting macro, because the close-focus on these lenses is only about six inches. That’s a lot tighter than a normal lens can get.

“We use these cameras to get that sort of fantastical camera move that a Steadicam or a dolly couldn’t do. So when it’s got to rotate on three axes and fly in, that’s when we’ll program something in motion control. It’s like a 3D rendered camera, but we’re actually shooting it in real life. It frees us up to do more aggressive, creative moves.

motioncontrolcsi_630x354Rik Shorten with Director of Photography David Drzewiecki (center); with unidentified crew member and actress.

“The other way we use motion control is for multiple passes — like in the old days where they did three or four passes of the starship Enterprise with different lighting setups, and combined them all later. We don’t do much of that these days, at least in television; I’m sure they still do it in features. We use it for multiple layering. We’ll do the same scene with different elements in three or four passes, all broken apart with the same repeatable move; then we’ll put them all back together so we can affect the different elements in different ways.

“We do ghost shots every week. We’ll have a production plate without a foreground actor in it, just a background. We’ll track that plate here at Zoic. The data is then converted to XYZ coordinate data — ASCII files that MS-DOS can read off old-school 3½“ floppies — so the Kuper controller on the motion control rig can mimic the camera move from the track plate that we shot in first unit. When I put that data in, and I have my background plate and my video setup, I run them together and they’ll run at the same time. The camera will mimic what the first unit camera did.

“Let’s say a guy is firing a gun in front of the greenscreen, and he’s supposed to be a ghost image superimposed into the scene. I’ll shoot him on greenscreen, with that tracked camera move; and then when I come back here to Zoic, I’ve got a motion control pass on the greenscreen, and I’ve got my first unit plate, and the two line up perfectly. That’s how we get all the stylized transition pieces, and all those layers that CSI uses to great effect, because we have the capacity to translate and then to reshoot at a later date using the motion control system.

Recreating a scene on the greenscreen that was shot in the field is always a challenge…

“The first time I saw this used was in [1996’s] Multiplicity with Michael Keaton – that’s when I saw this tech first exploding, having the same person in the same scene, over and over. There were a lot of production cheats used for years, with locked plates and simple split-screen; but this technology allows you to travel 360 degrees around somebody, and go into the scene and come back out of the scene; and people can cross and interact and do other things, that they could not do without this system. If you’re using live action elements for these high-concept shots, then motion control is the only way to do it.”

Shorten says that precision is an important issue, just as it was with traditional locked-plate shots. “Sometimes we don’t have the exact lens, we’re off by a few mils. Say they used a 50mm lens and I only have a 45mm, sometimes there’s a little eye matching that needs to happen. To say it’s plug-and-play is disingenuous. You need to understand the limitations of the system.

“Recreating a scene on the greenscreen that was shot in the field is always a challenge. You need to expect there’s going to be some compensation; you’re going to have to do a little eye matching, playing shots back and doing an A-over-B in our video assist, and then adjusting your frame rates and composition, adjusting the speed of the moves. A lot of times, even with the track data, we’ll have to make some on-the-fly compensations to get things to sit in there correctly.

“We do surveys on location, as far as distances to camera and understanding where the actors are supposed to be in the greenscreen instance. How far away from the camera is the actor supposed to be in the scene, that’s where we start. When we transfer the data, we have a general idea that the camera’s six feet high, it’s five degrees tilted up, and 22 feet from our subject. But when you get it in the studio and do the A-over-B, you might realize that you need to be zero instead of five degrees, or you need to be four feet closer, or you need to change your lens a little bit. The elements have to line up visually, not just by the numbers, so they’re actually going to work when you look at the images together.”

Shorten says that some problems with matching can be fixed digitally. “There is a lot we can work with digitally. It’s not very often we will shoot something in motion control, come back here and have to throw it out completely. Usually it’s salvageable, even if we’re off for some reason.”

Shorten’s greatest challenge is in helping the television production community become comfortable with motion capture technology. “There is still a fear of using this technology, even though it’s been around for years, because it’s still considered to be the domain of feature films, and commercials and music videos that have more time and money than most productions believe they have.

motioncontrol_shorten_630x354Rik Shorten on the stage.

“There is an education process, that we’ve been quietly working on for a long time. ‘Motion control’ really is a four-letter word for a lot of production managers, who say ‘I don’t have the time, I don’t know the technology, I don’t know how to use it, I don’t know why I need it, and you’re going to kill my one-liner if I have to take five hours to set up a motion control shot. We just won’t do it.’ We run up against this all the time.

“And this is even on shows like CSI, which is comfortable with the technology. Every ninth day we have a motion control day, even if they are simple in-camera things. They understand it, but they will bounce shots. When I suggest taking my motion control off my second unit day, and putting it on set – as soon as I’m doing it with main unit actors, in the middle of the day when there’s 150 crew around, suddenly even shows that are comfortable with the technology get very nervous.

Definitely there’s a lot of apprehension, but it’s such a great technology…

“The hope is that with these smaller and quieter rigs, with the idea that we can do pre-viz and set surveys so that when we show up on set we know exactly where our rig is going to go, we can get in and get set up very quickly, and start rolling video takes to show a director within a couple of hours. We can have our pre-viz and our moves written, if we do our surveying correctly, so that we’re not starting from scratch. We don’t need a week to do a motion control move.

“Definitely there’s a lot of apprehension, but it’s such a great technology. These shots can’t be accomplished any other way, without costing too much. If you don’t shoot it this way, if you try to back into it later, you need all kinds of digital fixes and compromises. You spend money somewhere. Getting it in-camera, and doing as much as you can physically — for a lot of set-ups motion control is head-and-shoulders above any other technique, from a financial standpoint and for the way it’s going to come out for your show.

“It’s about trying to build that trust and that faith with productions. We’re not suggesting motion control because we want to noodle around with computer-controlled cameras; it’s because it really is the best way to achieve your shot, and get the elements we need to make something really dynamic for your show.”

More info: Zoic Studios Wins Big at 2010 VES Awards; Zoic Stops Time, Creates Historic ‘Frozen Moment’ Sequence for CBS’ ‘CSI’ Premiere.

Zoic Studios Blows Up ‘The Crazies’ Fan Premiere

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on 2/26/2010.

eisnerolyphantmitchell_630x354From left: director Breck Eisner and stars Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell take the coming nuclear onslaught quite seriously.

On Wednesday evening, Overture Films held a special fan premier event for its new horror film, The Crazies, which opens today. The movie is a remake of the 1973 George A. Romero classic, and stars Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood, Live Free or Die Hard), Radha Mitchell (Surrogates) and Joe Anderson (Amelia). It tells the story of a small Iowa town devastated by an unknown toxin that causes insanity and death.

Invited guests, who included fandom journalists and horror bloggers, were treated to an immersive experience from the moment they pulled up in their cars. The KCET public television studios in Hollywood were transformed for the evening into beleaguered Ogden Marsh, Iowa. As guests arrived, they were pulled from their cars by military personnel, and marched past army vehicles and through metal detectors to a medical examination area. Nearby, citizens were assaulted, cuffed and herded into pens by soldiers, while moaning bodies lay on gurneys or were stacked in body bags. After guests were checked for contamination, they were issued wristbands indicating whether they were infected or clear, and then herded onto school buses with blackened windows. Military instructions were blared over loudspeakers while the sound of helicopters was heard overhead.

zoic_crazies_3950The after-party on KCET studios’ Stage B.

After being driven around for a while, the guests were released in front of a movie theater, issued rations (popcorn), and taken inside to watch the film.

Afterward, guests were invited back to the KCET lot (despite the bus ride, it was just across the street) to enjoy dinner, music and an open bar, and to hobnob with director Breck Eisner and stars Olyphant and Mitchell. There were also demonstrations from various companies that worked on the film. Guests could watch a stunt show and see a stunt performer set on fire; be turned into Crazies by professional makeup artists; or be strapped into a harness and “hanged” by the neck.

zoic_crazies_3942Eisner, Olyphant and Mitchell pose at the Zoic booth.

Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, which provided visual effects for the film, offered a VFX “before-and-after” reel; and Zoic co-founder Loni Peristere was on hand to answer fans’ questions, along with compositing supervisor Aaron Brown, who flew down from Zoic’s Vancouver, British Columbia studio just for the occasion. Also, guests were invited to pose in front of a greenscreen and get professionally composited into a still shot of a nuclear explosion from the film. A team of Zoic compositors created over 100 images over the course of the evening, which were emailed to fans.

The evening was an incredible success, and fans had to be kicked out when the bar shut down at 12:30am. For more information about The Crazies, visit the official web site.

View all the images from the event below; or follow this link to the Flickr page.