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

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.

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