Zoic Brings Visitors to Earth for ABC’s ‘V’

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 10/2/09.

v-screencap-manhattanship_630x354A Visitor mothership hovers over Manhattan.

Tomorrow evening (11/3/09), ABC will broadcast the premiere episode of its highly anticipated new sci-fi series V, which updates and re-imagines the original 1983 miniseries of the same name. The visual effects for the new V were created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, known for providing VFX for a number of well-loved science fiction franchises.

Scott Peters, creator of The 4400, brings fans a modern take on the classic V that pays loving homage to its 80s inspiration. Written by Peters and directed by Yves Simoneau, the pilot episode stars Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost), Morris Chestnut (Kung Fu Panda 2), Joel Gretsch (The 4400, Taken); and Firefly alumni Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk.

The remake hews closely to the story of the original: mile-wide alien motherships appear above the major cities of the Earth. The aliens call themselves “The Visitors,” and appear to be identical to humans. They claim to come in peace, seeking to trade advanced technology for resources. But the Visitors are not what they seem, and hide sinister intentions. While much of humanity welcomes the Visitors, a resistance movement begins to form.

Four episodes will air this month; the show will return from hiatus after the 2010 Olympics.

Visual effects and digital production

Zoic is handling all of the visual effects for V, under the oversight of creative director and VFX supervisor Andrew Orloff (FlashForward, Fringe, CSI) and visual effects producer Karen Czukerberg (Eleventh Hour). Work on the pilot was split between Zoic’s Vancouver studio, which handled greenscreen and virtual sets, and the Los Angeles studio, where the motherships and other effects were created.

Zoic began work in February 2009 on the pilot, which featured about 240 effects shots, 125 of which involved live actors shot on greenscreen in Vancouver where the series is filmed. Another three episodes now in post-production have some 400 effects shots overall, half of which involve digital compositing of actors on greenscreen.

v-screencap-mothership_630x354A more detailed view of a Visitor mothership.

Orloff worked in collaboration with the show’s creators – Peters, Simoneau, and executive producers Steve Pearlman and Jace Hall – to design the motherships. The enormous, saucer-shaped Visitor mothership is one of the original V’s iconic images (along with a certain hamster), and visually represents the Visitors’ technological superiority and their domination over humanity. In addition, Orloff says, the creators were dedicated to realism and internal consistency and logic in the design of the alien technology and culture.

Orloff created the mothership on his laptop, working through numerous iterations with input from Peters and Simoneau. He wanted a design that was “freaky and menacing,” and would be emotionally impactful when it made its first momentous appearance onscreen.

v-screencap-mothership2_630x354The underside of a Visitor mothership begins its transformation. Buildings in Vancouver were supplemented with 3D models of real Manhattan skyscrapers from Zoic’s library.

Because the mothership itself is enormous, the 3D model used to represent it is huge and highly detailed. Zoic CG supervisor Chris Zapara (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pathfinder) modeled the “transformation” effect, in which the ventral surface of the ship changes, causing the frightened humans below to fear an imminent attack. In fact, the ship is deploying an enormous video screen, displaying the greeting message of Visitor leader Anna (Baccarin). After many rounds of pre-visualizations, a design was chosen with large, movable panels and a grid of smaller panels arranged in a snakeskin pattern. The mothership was created in NewTek’s Lightwave 3D.

v-screencap-snakeskin_630x354The “snakeskin” panels underneath the mothership flip over to reveal a video projection surface.

Digital artist Steve Graves (Fringe, Sarah Connor Chronicles) was responsible for filling in the copious detail that gives the mothership the impression of immense scale. After the pilot was picked up by ABC, the dorsal surface was remodeled to add photorealism. The model initially was detailed only from the angles at which it was shown in the pilot, due to the many hours of work necessary. As shots were created for the second through fourth episodes, Graves created detail from new angles, and now the mothership model is complete.

v-screencap-reflection_630x354Our first view of the alien mothership, reflected in the glass of a skyscraper.

The mothership design was not the only way the Visitors’ arrival was made to seem momentous and frightening. As businessman Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut) looks to the skies for an explanation of various alarming occurrences, he first sees the mothership reflected in the glass windows of a skyscraper. Although a relatively simple effect (Zoic took shots of real buildings in Vancouver, skinned them with glass textures, and then put the reflected image on the glass), the effect on the viewer is chilling.

v-screencap-shipinterior_630x354Visitor leader Anna (Baccarin, seated left) is interviewed by Chad Decker (Scott Wolf, seated right) on board the Manhattan mothership. The “set” was created virtually, with the actors shot on a greenscreen stage.

Because the motherships are enormous, it only makes sense that they would feature enormous interior spaces. These sets would be too large to build, so half the effects shots on V involve actors filmed on a greenscreen stage with tracking markers. These virtual sets, based on Google Sketch-Up files from V‘s production designers (Ian Thomas (Fringe, The 4400) for the pilot; Stephen Geaghan (Journey to the Center of the Earth, The 4400) for later episodes), were created at Zoic’s Vancouver studio in Autodesk Maya and rendered in mental images’ mental ray.

The ship interiors were created before the related greenscreen shots were filmed. For the episodes shot after the pilot, Zoic provided the production with its new, cutting edge proprietary Zeus system, which allows filmmakers to see actors on a real-time rendered virtual set, right on the greenscreen stage. The technology is of immeasurable aid to the director of photography, crew, and especially the actors, who can see themselves interacting with the virtual set and can adjust their performances accordingly. Zeus incorporates Lightcraft Technology’s pre-visualization system.

After actors are filmed on the Vancouver greenscreen set and the show creators are happy with the pre-visualized scenes in Zeus, the data is sent south to Zoic’s Los Angeles studio, where the scenes are laid out in 3D. Then the data goes back up to Zoic in Vancouver, where the virtual set backgrounds are rendered in HD.

v-screencap-london_630x354An alien mothership inserted into a stock shot of London.

v-screencap-riodejaneiro_630x354A mothership composited into a stock shot of Rio de Janeiro, with matched lighting and atmospheric effects.

Other alien technology was created for the series, including shuttlecraft and a “seek & destroy” weapon used to target a resistance meeting.

v-screencap-shuttle_630x354A Visitor shuttle docks with a mothership.

The alien shuttle and the shuttle docking bays were created in Los Angeles by visual effects artist Michael Cliett (Fringe, Serenity), digital compositor Chris Irving and freelance artist James Ford.

v-screencap-atrium_630x354The “Atrium,” a city in the interior of a Visitor mothership.

The “Atrium,” a massive interior space inside the mothership, was created for Zoic by David R. Morton (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Serenity). The complex 3D model served essentially as a matte painting. It was incorporated into a complex composited shot, with actors on the greenscreen stage inserted into virtual sets of a corridor and balcony by the Vancouver studio; the camera pulls out to reveal the Atrium, which was created in LA. Extras in Visitor uniforms were shot on greenscreen and composited into the Atrium itself.

v-screencap-f16crash_630x354An F-16 fighter, its electronics disrupted by a Visitor mothership, crashes onto a city street.

An F-16 fighter crash, featured in the first few minutes of the pilot, was done by the Los Angeles studio. The airplane, automobiles, taxis, and Manhattan buildings in the background, and of course the explosion, smoke and particles, are all digital. All the components came from Zoic’s library. The actor was shot on a Vancouver street.

v-screencap-eye_630x354FBI Agent Erica Evans (Mitchell) examines a wounded Visitor and makes an alarming discovery.

A scene involving an injured Visitor, which gives the viewer one of the first clues to the aliens’ true nature, was shot entirely with practical effects (including the blinking eye). But Zoic used CG to enhance the wound, merge human skin with reptile skin, and add veins and other subcutaneous effects.

v-zoomout_469x630Visitor leader Anna looks out over her new dominion.

According to Czukerberg, one of the more difficult shots to pull off was the final scene in the pilot. It involves the alien leader, Anna (actress Morena Baccarin on the greenscreen stage), in an observation lounge on the mothership (virtual set); the camera pulls out (practical camera move) past the mothership windows to reveal the entire ship hovering over Manhattan (CG mothership over an original shot of the real Manhattan created for this production). The shot required cooperation between the LA and BC studios, and took a great deal of time and effort – “it was crazy,” Czukerberg said, but she adds that everyone involved is tremendously satisfied with the finished product.

Zoic Studios looks forward to doing more work when V returns next year, and helping the series become a ratings and critical success. “Rarely do you get an opportunity to redefine a classic series,” Orloff said. “Everyone at Zoic put their heart and soul into this show, and it shows on the screen.”

For more information: V on ABC; the first nine minutes of the pilot on Hulu; original series fan site.

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