Zoic Presents: The Creatures of ‘Fringe’ – Part 2

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/24/09.

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This is second part of a two-part interview with Zoic Studios senior compositor Johnathan R. Banta, about creatures designed for the Fox sci-fi drama Fringe. Be sure to read part one.

The Lionzard (from episode 1:16, “Unleashed”)

In this first-season episode, anarchists opposed to animal testing ransack a research laboratory, but get more than they bargain for when they unleash a ferocious transgenic creature. Later, Walter faces off against the creature in the sewers.

Banta says, “It was a lion-lizard combination, a chimera of a bunch of different creatures created in a lab. This also went through the ZBrush pipeline. There were no maquettes done for this particular one.

“This was a full-digital creature; luckily it did not interact too tightly with any of the actors. It was rigged up and had a muscle system that allowed for secondary dynamics. The textures and displacement maps were painted locally. There was some post lighting to add extra slime, with everything done inside the composite.

“It was actually very straightforward in its approach. The challenge of course was getting it to be lit properly and integrated in the shot. Compositing was a heavy challenge, as there was lot of haze on the set, a lot of lens flares – not direct flares, but gradients from different lights and so forth. We did our best to match the color space of the original photography. I think it was very effective.

“Another challenge was the bits of slime; it had to have slobber coming off of it. So we actually shot some practical elements; we did some digital cloth elements, a combination of things.”

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The Hand (from episode 1:12, “The No-Brainer”)

A seventeen-year-old is working at his computer and chatting on the phone, when a mysterious computer program executes. Strange images flash before his eyes, and the teen is drawn in, mesmerized. Something protrudes from the middle of the screen and impossibly takes the form of a hand. The unearthly appendage reaches forward without warning and grasps his face.

Banta explains: “This boy spends a little too much time on the computer, and a hand reaches out of the computer, grabs his face, and begins to jostle him around and melt his brain. Which is not unlike my experience as a youth.

“We made a series of maquettes and we photographed them, just different positions of the hand coming out; and we composited them into a couple of shots. At the same time the animation was being worked on in CG, so we could start previsualizing it and then composite it.

“A cloth simulation was used for the screen. The hand was coming out, and we would create several different morph targets based on that cloth simulation. There was a bone rig in there, so we could animate it grabbing the kid’s head. That’s some very effective work, especially when projecting the textures on. The side view of the hand coming out of the monitor is one of my favorite shots.

“What they had on set was a monitor made of plastic, and a greenscreen fabric with a slot in it [where the screen would be] – and they had some poor guy in a greenscreen suit shove his hand through and grab the kid on the head, and the kid wiggled around.

“So we had to paint back and remove the actor, whenever he was touching the kid; otherwise we would use a clean plate. But whenever he was touching the young actor, we would remove that hand and replace it.

“They were also flashing an interactive light on the young actor that was not accurate to what we were rendering. When the hand got close it would actually light up his face, because the hand was illuminated with television images. So we came up with a way of match-moving his animation, and using that to relight his performance. We had to match his animation for the hand to interact with him, but we also used that match move to relight his performance.“

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The Tentacle Parasite (from episode 2:09, “Snakehead”)

A wet, shivering man frantically combs the streets of Boston’s Chinatown. Gaining refuge, he suffers incredible stomach pains. His rescuer puts on heavy gloves and uses shears to cut his shirt away. The man’s abdomen is distended and wriggling as something crawls around inside him. A squid-like parasite crawls out of the man’s mouth, and rescuer retrieves it.

“Recently we just did yet another thing coming out of a poor guy’s mouth,” Banta says. “This time it wasn’t just nice little potato-shaped slug — it was long and tentacled, had sharp bits and just looked pretty nasty to have shoved down your throat.”

But there was an additional challenge on this effect. “You were seeing the creature moving underneath the actor’s skin; the actor’s shirt was off, and he was wiggling around on the ground as he probably would if this were happening, like a dead fish. He was shifting all over the place, his skin was moving all over the place, and we had to actually take full control of that.

“So we did match move. We went to our performance transfer system, which essentially takes tracking information from the original plate and assigns is to the match move. There are no specific camera set-ups; it’s just whatever they give us, and we grab every bit of information from the plate that we can, and use that to modify the 3D performances. These were then projected onto animation that we used to distend the belly and so forth, and up into the throat.

“The creature had 18 tentacles. Ray Harryhausen, when he did an octopus, decided to take two of the tentacles off, because he wouldn’t have to animate those, it would take less time. We didn’t have that luxury. There was no way to procedurally animate these things, and it had to interact with the guy’s face. So we had the exact same challenge we had with the slug coming out of the mouth, that we had to take this actor and pull his face apart as well, and make his lips go wider. But this actor was moving a lot more, so the performance transfer and animation tracking was more challenging.

But I’m very pleased with the results. We used fabric simulations for the different bits of slime again.

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Razor Butterflies (from episode 1:09, “The Dreamscape”)

A young executive arrives late to give a presentation. After he has finished and the boardroom empties, he collects his things, and spots a butterfly. It alights on his finger — and unexpectedly cuts him. The insect flutters by his neck — and cuts him again. After attacking a few more times, the creature disappears into an AC vent. The man peers into the vent just as a swarm of butterflies pours out. They surround him, cutting him all over his body — he runs in a mad panic, crashing through a plate glass window and falling to his death.

Banta says, “We tracked every camera in the scene and laid it out into one common environment, so we could reuse any lighting in any point in the scene. That gave us the ability to put the flock of razor-winged butterflies into the appropriate spot.

“A big challenge on its own was volume — controlling and dictating the flocking behavior, so the swarm would follow the actor, intersect with him in the appropriate parts and not intersect in others, and eventually chase him through the window where the would fall to his horrible demise.

“There was one close-up of a butterfly resting on his finger — it flew into frame and landed, it was brilliant – that was pretty straightforward in its execution. More often than not the hard part was controlling the sheer number of flocking butterflies, especially given our standard turnaround time.”

Banta is thrilled to be creating otherworldly monsters for JJ Abrams’ Fringe. “I like doing these creatures; I hope we get to do more!”

Read Part 1

Zoic Presents: The Creatures of ‘Fringe’ – Part 1

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/22/09.

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Part 2 of this post is now available.

Now in its second season, the Fox Network’s science fiction drama Fringe tells the story of three paranormal investigators for the FBI’s “Fringe Division” in Boston. Created by veteran television producer and feature film director JJ Abrams (Felicity, Alias, Lost; Star Trek), the cult favorite features a variety of bizarre and otherworldly creatures, many created with the help of Zoic studios.

Zoic senior compositor Johnathan R. Banta sat down with IDYE to discuss the creation of some of these monsters. His previous credits include Quarantine, The X Files: I Want to Believe, John Adams and V.

The Heartbug (from episode 1:07, “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones”)

johnathanbanta_300x400In this episode, a strange, other-worldly parasite mysteriously attaches itself to the internal organs of an FBI agent. The creature wraps itself around the man’s heart, and surgery must be performed to attempt to remove it.

Banta says, “We received artwork from production, done by a very good illustrator; and I set about making a maquette of the creature for two reasons. One, because it would help us understand what the form was — it was hard to figure it out from all the drawings, because in the multiple views we didn’t quite see how it meshed together at first. And secondly, it was fun. I just wanted to sculpt something and this seemed to be a prime opportunity for it.

“A couple of people did versions of it, one in [Luxology] modo, one in [Pixologic] ZBrush, just to kind of play around — they weren’t actually anything we used. The final model was made by [Zoic artist] Mike Kirylo.”

A great deal of work was done to allow the creature to move along with the beating heart. Scans of an actual beating human heart, provided by Zygote Media as a morph sequence, were used. “Mike had to figure out how to attach this creature to the heart,” Banta says, “and as it pulsated he would have a ‘softness’ in-between each of the hard shell [segments]. So there’s the hard carapace of the creature, and the soft squishy connective bits. Mike said he was able to find a way to make the bones between the different sections scale as the heart was beating. That way it stayed connected without being stretched.”

Everything we see inside the man’s chest is CG. “They had a prop on set that was over the top of an actor. Oddly enough, it was not in the place where the heart would actually be accessed. So for a wide shot we actually had to cut the actor down by a third of his original height, so that the hole would be in the appropriate spot to get to his heart. But for the close-ups it didn’t really matter. It was a piece of foam rubber with green paint inside of it, and we keyed that out and continued it into the cavity; and put in CG guts and an odd-shaped little bug.”

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The Virus Slug (from episode 1:11, “Bound”)

In a lecture hall at Boston College, a biology professor gives a lecture about pathogens. In mid-sentence, he begins to choke and falls over. While his teaching assistant watches in horror, the professor’s throat becomes enlarged, and what looks like a massive slug crawls out of his open mouth. As the slimy creature slithers across the floor, students flee the hall in a panic.

Banta explains: “It’s a super-sized cold virus – a giant squishy slug with little cilia across its surface. This thing pulled itself out of his mouth, flopped onto the floor and squished away as quick as it could. It’s quite disgusting, and was played for dinnertime theater.

“It was a fairly simple model – a slug with a couple of things sticking out of it. But it had to maintain its volume and look like it was a rubbery object moving around, so there was a lot of finessing in the animation. We didn’t use any form of volume-preserving algorithms — other than Mike Kirylo — so it was all based on a really good animator.

“But the [professor’s] face was the interesting portion of it. This slug is rather large, and begins to distend his throat and pull his face into contorted positions that it wasn’t in originally, as the actor just basically laid there and flopped his head over to the side.

“We had to do an exact match move of the actor. We used our performance transfer system; projected the footage frame-for-frame onto our digital actor; and then we had the ability to push him around anywhere we needed to. Add a little bit of clever compositing, and next thing you know there’s a creature coming out of this man’s mouth.

“His movements were not tracked on stage — no tracking markers on him. They were tracked in post and match moved. Basically, we used every bit of detail that was available on his skin. Unfortunately, most actors don’t have very bad complexions.

“That’s something we’ve been doing a lot of, actually — digital makeup [for Fringe]. That all plays into what we’re doing with the creatures, because most of the time they are interacting directly with humans. They’re not just in the room walking around; they are becoming, or coming out of, or in some way touching people, for the most part.”

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Porcuman (from episode 1:13, “The Transformation”)

In an airliner bathroom, a man shudders in pain as a hideous transformation begins. His teeth start falling out — then he screams in agony as giant quills pierce through the back of his shirt. The passengers on the plane react when the bathroom door splinters and a hideous, inhuman beast bursts into the cabin.

Banta: “This man on an airplane should learn not to experiment on himself; as a result he turns into a giant porcupine creature which brings the airplane down.

“It was in very few shots. It is originally modeled in ZBrush and Maya; we import the model, and it is rigged by our animation department and put through its paces. We run the standard passes that you would expect – diffuse, specular, ambient occlusion, fill passes, indirect lighting, those kinds of things, so that we can integrate it in the composite.

“A lot of times we’ll do what is called ‘RGB lighting,’ where every three lights will be either a prime red, a prime green, or a prime blue; and that way we have a lighting matte in every single render that we can use to do some tweaks in the composite. Also, since we’re getting normals rendered from our passes, we can use a plug-in from RE:Vision Effects to re-light the object. Whatever lighting passes that the CG department was not able to get to can be generated at the end.”

Banta notes that because of the nature of the effect, very little of the transformation involves practical, on-set elements. “This is all post at this point. They shoot it as if the creature were there — they just shoot it very naturally.

“Now that [Fringe has] a make-up crew that is known for doing creature work, there is a lot more practical stuff being done. But we have to exactly, precisely match with the practical elements when we do the CG. There are things that practical does so much better than we can do, and vice versa. It’s an all-in equation for me, because whatever works best, works best. There’s something about having a light bouncing off of a card onto a person on set holding this thing, which just gives it a sense of reality that we have to try to recreate.

“Porcuman was a combination of digital makeup with practical elements. It was a close interaction. During the transformation scene, we have a medium shot of the back, and then cut to a tight close-up of the shirt ripping as these giant porcupine spines come through it. They had an inflatable balloon on the back of the actor for the shirt; so we tracked that inflatable balloon; used our performance transfer to get that onto the back of the creature; and then animated spines coming out, and composited that underneath his shirt, which had a greenscreen on it.

“We had to do some warping of the cloth to get it to line up to the actual geometry of the creature. Then for the close-up of the shirt, instead of using the photography directly, we went with a cloth simulation of the shirt, and animated the spines. But we took sections of the torn cloth from the actual photography, and used those to sell that the tear is ripping a piece of fabric. This is a good example where something done practically pays off in spades, because we could just grab that tearing fabric and place it on each of the individual spines, and save ourselves a lot of simulation time.

Read Part 2!

The 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics

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Inspired by such mainstays of geek humor as The Laws of Cartoon Physics and The Laws of Anime Physics, I have assembled the following 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics.

This list was in part inspired by my previous post, Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired.

Law of Selective Gravitation: All artificial bodies in space generate an internal gravitational field, equal to one gee, with “down” defined as the “bottom” of the body; this gravitational field somehow terminates exactly at the outer hull of the body, even if it is irregularly shaped.

First Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may travel from a planet’s surface into space in the same manner in which an airplane gains altitude, ignoring the need to achieve escape velocity.

Second Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may fly directly towards or away from a planet or other large celestial body, ignoring the fact that objects in space must describe elliptical orbits about each other.

Law of Inertial Dampening: No matter how much kinetic energy is directed at an inhabited body (in space or on a planet), the resulting disruption will be enough to jostle the inhabitants and cause minor structural damage – nothing more or less.

Law of User Interface Equivalence: When a spacecraft or space station takes damage to any structural component, the computer screen or workstation used to monitor that structure from the bridge or engineering center will explode.

Law of Ethical Xenopolymorphism: While malevolent aliens come in many forms, beneficent aliens are always humanoid.

Law of Sexual Xenopolymorphism: Humanoid alien females will always have mammalian secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, wide hips, full sensual lips), even if they are non-mammalian (lizard, avian, piscine, insectoid, etc.).

Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion: In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.

Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: all motion in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will take place at 22% of the speed it would occur at sea level; this applies to animate persons as well as inanimate objects.

Exception to Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: persons in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment may speak at normal speed.

Allen’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: objects freely floating in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will behave as if suspended from a transparent thread within a full gravity environment.

Law of Sound in a Vacuum: Despite the lack of a medium for transmission, sound will travel in a vacuum, with precisely the same properties as in the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level.

First Law of Combustibility: Anything important – spaceships, planets, robots – explodes when it is critically damaged, whether any combustible material is present or not.

Second Law of Combustibility: When anything explodes, the mass of the resulting ejecta will be less than 2% of the object’s original mass; the remainder of the mass ceases to exist.

Third Law of Combustibility: When objects explode in space, all matter that makes up the object comes to a complete stop relative to the observer, whatever its previous velocity. The explosion will then expand in an equal sphere away from the point where the object stopped.

Fourth Law of Combustibility: All objects that explode in space produce a discrete ring that expands ahead of the main shock wave; this is a fundamental principle of Aesthetic Physics.

Fifth Law of Combustibility: The shock wave of an explosion is confined to the visible fiery ball of the explosion; and both will move at 98% of the speed of anyone attempting to fly, drive or run from the explosion. After a certain distance, the speed of the shock wave will quickly drop off for no apparent reason.

Sixth Law of Combustibility: The destructive force of a nuclear warhead, and the resulting deadly radiation, cannot penetrate the skin of a typical 1950s consumer-grade kitchen refrigerator.

First Law of Practical Stellar Physics: as an observer approaches a star, the brightness of the visible light it gives off diminishes proportionally.

Second Law of Practical Stellar Physics: a star will produce no radiation except for (1) visible light and (2) a variety of heat that behaves identically to heat convection in an atmosphere, despite the lack of a transmission medium.

Third Law of Practical Stellar Physics: the dangerous or destructive region of a stellar body ends abruptly at the outer termination of its photosphere, except for the heat and light described in the Second Law.

Law of Teleportation: the amount of energy produced when converting matter to energy for the purpose of teleporting that matter to a distant location is an insignificant fraction of the amount predicted by Einstein’s mass–energy equivalence equation; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Law of Technological Complexity: No matter how advanced a technology, anyone who needs to use it will be able to deduce its basic functioning within a few minutes – even if the person belongs to an alien or less-developed culture, or comes from the distant past.

First Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: Objects designed to travel solely in space may nonetheless be designed with aerodynamic properties.

Second Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: objects designed to travel in solely in space, and which therefore are highly non-aerodynamic, may still travel in an atmosphere as if they were perfectly aerodynamic.

Corollary to the Laws of Aerodynamic Irrelevance (The O’Brien Rule): any object in space that is not designed to alter its velocity, vector or location, such as a space station, may alter its velocity, vector or location through a minor, previously unrealized engineering trick.

First Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may be ignored at any time, for any reason; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Second Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: when light, or any form of electromagnetic radiation, is employed as a weapon (such as with a laser or blaster), its speed is reduced to approximately 35 miles per hour.

Personal Equivalency Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, the same individuals will be born in the alternate universe as are born in ours, although their life paths may diverge; this is irrespective of any other changes, major or minor, to historical outcomes.

Ethical Determinism Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, historical outcomes are determined by the moral choices of the identical version of the visitor from our universe.

Abrams’ Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: in an alternate universe or timeline, events will conspire to place equivalent persons into the same social groups they occupy in our universe.

The McFly Rule: If a time traveler prevents a key historical event from occurring, he or she has one week to arrange an equivalent event that will restore the timeline.

First Law of Convergent Evolution: any alien species, regardless of the environment in which it evolved, will morphologically resemble an extant Earth species, albeit with changes in size, color, bodily features and level of intelligence; aliens may also resemble chimera of multiple Earth morphologies.

Second Law of Convergent Evolution: despite the fact that closely-related species from the same planet cannot produce viable offspring, any two humanoid species from different worlds may produce viable offspring that will bear blended traits from both species.

Law of Convergent Visemes: when a technological device is used to translate the speech of a humanoid alien, that alien’s lips and mouth movements will nonetheless appear to match the English speech of the translation.

Omegan Law of Convergent Social Evolution: a humanoid species on a distant planet is likely to pass through exactly the same historical eras, and evolve precisely the same social institutions, as the human civilizations of Earth.

Law of Extraterrestrial Euhemerism: any primitive human superstition is the result of contact with advanced alien technology; this includes psychic powers, magicians, ghosts, angels, fairies, vampires, werewolves, demons, dragons, messiahs and gods.

Law of Technological Trajectory: the more hyper-advanced an alien or future technological artifact, the more likely that it will resemble a large, illuminated crystal.

Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: due to mutations triggered by artificial radiation, animals may grow to enormous sizes normally ruled out by the surface-area-to-volume ratio.

Corollary to the Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: irradiated macrofauna will invariably seek out large human population centers and battle each other.

Influence/Malevolence Relationship in Science: the greater a scientific or technological achievement, the greater the probability that the scientist responsible for it suffers from a mental illness and/or ethical deficit.

Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact.

Anthropocentric Exception to Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact, unless that species is humanity.

Roddenberry’s Law of Cybernetic Omniscience: any sufficiently advanced computer system will contain the sum all of human knowledge down to the most inconsequential detail, even if the computer was constructed by and for aliens.

Gill’s Law of Alien Impressionability: any humanoid alien species will, upon being introduced to some detail of human history or culture, reconfigure its entire society based solely upon the human example; also known as the Iotian Law.

Law of Atmospheric Inexhaustibility: on a spacecraft, space station or other artificial habitat in a vacuum or near-vacuum, no matter how much air is lost when an airlock is opened or the hull is breached, after the air loss is terminated there will still be sufficient atmosphere to comfortably support the survivors.

Doctrine of Human Psychological Infortitude: any human gifted with transhuman abilities by an alien or future intelligence will initially attempt to perform good works with his or her new-found powers, but will be eventually driven insane and commit destructive acts; also known as the Mitchell Effect.

Doctrine of Hostile Alien Tourism: when technologically advanced spacefaring aliens initiate a war or invasion against the Earth, their first strategic maneuver will be to destroy a number of famous human landmarks, usually ones with no strategic or defensive value.

The ForbinCameronWachowski Corollary to Turing’s Test of Machine Intelligence: it is possible to demonstrate that a machine has achieved genuine intelligence or sentience, as its first act upon gaining self-awareness will be to attempt the annihilation of humanity.

The Lucas-Asimov-Herbert Model of Human Galactic Societal Development: any vast, galaxy-spanning interstellar human civilization will resemble in many or all respects the empires of the species’ ancient pre-technological past.

And… number 51:

Even’s Revision to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from lazy writing.

Feel free to add your own Laws of Sci-Fi Physics in the comments below.

Ripomatics and Animatics: Storyboards for the 21st Century

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/11/09.

A screenshot of a “test” animatic produced by Zoic.

In the beginning was the storyboard, a series of illustrations displayed in sequence to pre-visualize a screenplay or teleplay, and to map out such elements as camera moves, blocking and effects. The modern storyboard was pioneered by one of the entertainment industry’s greatest innovators, Walt Disney, specifically for traditional cel animation. But the technique soon moved into feature film production, and later television, commercials, interactive media and video games — even web site design.

The next evolution in previsualization also came from animation. An animatic is a series of storyboard illustrations arranged on film or video, incorporating timing, simple movement, and sometimes dialogue and music. By making editing and story decisions at the animatic stage, animators can avoid the wasteful process of animating scenes that would eventually have been edited down or cut entirely.

More recently, ripomatics have evolved to help filmmakers design and express the look and feel of a project before any shooting or animating takes place. Originally developed in the commercial production industry, ripomatics are like animatics, but assembled from elements of previous films, television shows, and commercials; plus still images and other preexisting assets. A ripomatic for a television commercial might be composed entirely of clips from other commercials for similar products, combined with new music and messaging. They are often used to pitch projects to clients.

Zoic Studios is pioneering the next phase in storyboard evolution, offering a new kind of animated storyboard that lives halfway between existing animatics or ripomatics and a full 3D animated previsualization.

Zoic Studios compositor Levi Ahmu says “ripomatics were originally designed to make a moving storyboard. And when I got here [to Zoic], I thought it would be cool if we could enhance it a little bit.

bullet_630x354A screenshot of an animatic created by Zoic for a commercial,
for Guerrilla Games’ Killzone 2, entitled “Bullet.”

“The problem with storyboards and making them move [is] the storyboard is very flat. By cutting up the storyboard into layers, you can give 3D motion to it, which is what you’re eventually going to be doing anyway. It gives artists and clients a better sense of what’s going to happen. It also helps you time things out better; you have actual motion in the storyboards, so you can get a more relative frame count of what the product will be.”

But even these animatics gave only what Ahmu calls a “vague representation” of the final product. “So what we ended up doing was creating these 3D environments in a 2D setting. We’re taking 2D cards and arranging them so they’ll represent a room or a street or any kind of environment; then having a virtual camera move through that environment. You can take the 2D actors from the storyboard and put them in this environment; and the advantage of doing it this way is you’ll be able to have a [virtual] camera, with lens properties and animation curves that are more easily equated to what the 3D artists will wind up having to do.

“It’s all being done in Adobe After Effects, which is not at all what the software makers were intending. But the cool thing about doing it in After Effects is that you can put in particles, stuff you would never get in traditional previz, that enhance the experience. “

Some more elaborate ripomatics prepared by Zoic have included 3D vehicle models composed from 2D drawings; rough motion capture; and dialogue, sound effects and music.

Zoic executive producer Aaron Sternlicht, head of the studio’s Games Division, has supervised Ahmu in the production of a number of advanced ripomatics for a variety of clients over the last several years.

saboteur_630x354A screenshot of a ripomatic created for Pandemic Studios’ The Saboteur.

“It’s kind of like a 2½D ripomatic or animatic,” Sternlicht says. “We actually do all of our storyboards so that they’re laid out in layers, which actually allows us to get into production a lot more easily. We’re able to have an edit that is exciting, entertaining and really good to look at, for our clients to view within a few days, as opposed to having a rudimentary gray-shaded previz or just edited storyboards.

“The big reason we like working this way is that we’re able to have clients pretty much sign off on shot design, composition and pacing of camera work in 2D before we ever go to 3D. That allows us to be a lot more efficient once we go to 3D, and [to] give our artists a real clear path of what they’re supposed to be doing once we start building the scenes. So it’s a tremendous tool for us.

“Clients love it because they quickly get to see a massive leap from looking at storyboards to really understanding what the quality of the piece is going to be, the timing, and how exciting it might end up being. So we’re pretty psyched by the whole process.”

Ahmu agrees that clients are benefiting from the new technique. “As opposed to a traditional previz, which is all gray-shaded, and doesn’t have very much ambiance to it, a ripomatic the way we’ve been doing it can have stylized textures, rough animation, that will get the point across in such a way that it’s not like previz where it’s the first step. This is our goal, to have this motion, with these effects on top of it. You can get a rough idea of what the whole thing is supposed to be.”

falling1_630x354Another screenshot of a “test” animatic produced by Zoic.

Sternlicht is quick to point out that advanced ripomatics not only better represent the final product, but also save both Zoic Studios and its clients time and money. Even a complex animatic composed of multiple, animated elements can be produced in only a few days. And because the client is able to sign off on so many elements of the final product while still in the 2D stage, Zoic saves time and effort, and can pass that savings along to the client.

Zoic has applied the technique to video game and commercial projects, and plans to offer advanced ripomatics to its feature film and television clients where appropriate. “We have just had more opportunities for video games to implement it,” Sternlicht explains, “because we often are responsible for direction and creative.

“I think it’s already being used [in TV and feature work]. The technique we’re using is a little more advanced than what is commonly done. But we’re really pushing our ripomatics more towards motion comics, than necessarily your standard edited storyboard. So, full animation of characters, full animation of vehicles, full animation of camera, full animation of effects. It’s really kind of the whole package.

“It’s part of our service. It’s part of working with Zoic and being creative.”

Syd Dutton: Matte Painting from Traditional to Digital

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/4/09.

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It’s a cliché to call an artist “legendary,” but sometimes the word fits. Syd Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, The Running Man, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Batman Forever, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, The Time Machine, 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. When Illusion Arts shut its doors earlier this year, Dutton and Zoic embraced the opportunity to collaborate, and Dutton became part of the team.

When I sat down to interview Dutton over coffee, it was with the intention of putting together some kind of grand post about the history of matte painting. But it’s far more interesting to let Syd speak for himself.

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When I looked over your credits, I saw you worked on one of my favorite movies, Real Genius (1985).

That’s one of my favorites too. We did a practical matte for the B-1 bomber. [Val Kilmer and Gabe Jarret sneak onto a B-1 bomber on a military base.] In those days it was still paint on glass, and to get a sharp line for what was supposed to be the underbelly of the bomber, it had to be really sharp. But we were shooting at night. In order to black out the film, to do an original negative – you know what original negative work is, we needed two exposures — to get a real sharp line the matte had to be 50 feet out and 40 feet long. We spent several hours making it, putting cardboard where the belly had to go, making sure people would be underneath that line all the time. It was pretty fun.

But that was the coldest night of my entire career. I’ve been to some cold places, like Prague, but on that Van Nuys tarmac, that was the coldest ever.

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You also worked on David Lynch’s original Dune (1984). Can you tell me about the matte painting of the Harkonnen city on Giedi Prime?

Basically this was just a big painting. The people who are moving around were shot in a parking lot at Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City. Just one smoke and fire element was used over and over again. And then a car on a cable goes through the shot. The car was created by model maker Lynn Ledgerwood (The Bourne Identity), and measured about 8″ long.

The difficult thing about that was my partner and Al wanted to keep [film] as much as possible from being duplicated… we wanted to keep the painting on original film. So [we were] shooting the painting and making a very crude motion control frame-by-frame move; taking the film into an optical printer, trying to match the move through the optical printer; and then we put the people in and the smoke and the cable car. So we had to do a lot of adjustments, and we found that it had to be so exact, if we waited to shoot in the afternoon, the concrete floor had expanded. We had to shoot at a certain time in the morning, before the expansion occurred. So it was complicated, but we seemed to have lots of time in those days, and it was a fun painting to work on.

David Lynch would come by when I was painting it, and he would say “I like it, I want it dirtier.” He was always a nice guy, really a gentleman.

In your experience, what is the difference between working with traditional mattes versus digital?

There was a wonderful thing about doing original negative matte shots. You had to prepare the shot, and then you had to be committed to a matte line.

You had a whole bunch of test footage, and when the painting was completed you had to re-expose the same film, and hope that light bulbs didn’t burn out when you were shooting, or that the glass didn’t break. But it had a completeness to it, and so when you finished a matte shot, and when it came out like the ones in Real Genius — I thought they came out pretty well — there’s a great sense of completeness.

You made a long matte, you worked out the problems, you’ve been cold, you’ve endured that process, and you’ve gone through the photochemical process of developing the pieces of film, and working the matte line until it has disappeared. And finally you take a deep a breath and expose the two or three good takes that the director likes. And you put the worst one through first to make sure everything is working well, show it to the director, and then put the hero take through. Of course nobody had seen any footage unless they were shooting a B-cam, which they never did; and so it was kind of like the Catholic Church, where the director had to trust you that in two months or so you would have a finished product they would approve and like.

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Did you ever experience any disasters in that realm?

The only near disaster was when Tony Perkins — we were the first shot up on Psycho III (1986), that he was directing, and he was a real nice guy — and the first shot was this girl leaving a nunnery, and there was a piece of string that she had to follow so she would be on the [right side of the matte line].

And we had everything ready, the camera blocked off, and Tony Perkins came on the set. He came over to the camera, he looked through the lens and said “that’s perfect,” and then put all his body weight on the camera to lift himself up. And we said “we can roll in a few seconds!” I didn’t want to say “oh, you just [expletive deleted] up the shot!” We said, “oh, we need just a few more minutes of adjustment.” So we lied – we had to reset the matte, readjust the camera. If we had told him he had just screwed up the first shot of his movie, it was really bad luck. But that’s another shot that turned out well, I liked that shot a lot.

I can’t remember who the production designer was, I think it was Henry Bumstead [it was]. Everyone should know who Henry Bumstead was. He just died a while ago; he worked until 90, and died when he was 91 [in 2006]. He was Clint Eastwood’s favorite production designer, and in his 80s he designed Unforgiven — beautiful production design. Henry always made everything easy. Of course he had worked on Vertigo (1958).

According to IMDb, your first movie was Family Plot with Alfred Hitchcock?

Well, that was uncredited. I was hired by Albert Whitlock to work on The Hindenburg (1975) as a gopher, primarily, but then I came up with some ideas of my own, and Al liked them; so after Hindenburg Al made me his assistant. And Family Plot was again Henry Bumstead. Al really didn’t want to do the matte shot because he felt that it was – Hitchcock just wanted to show [actress] Karen Black what a matte shot was. It was a police station in San Francisco, a pretty easy matte shot; adding a second story, putting some what I would call “intelligent nonsense” in the background. So I painted that.

You had a fine art background?

Yeah. I went to Berkeley. Had a master’s degree. Had a wonderful time. Everything I learned, except for a sense of color, was totally useless when it came to matte painting. But it was still good to have that background. The best thing about going to Berkeley in those days was everyone wanted to be in San Francisco in the ‘60s. So I met people like Mark Rothko, pretty famous painters.

So what was it like to transition to digital, to have to train?

Oh, for me it was really hard. Rob Stromberg (2012, Avatar) was working for me at the time, and he embraced it really fast. I was just sort of afraid of it. I got used to it – it took me a while.

The people I know who were able to make the transition faster were people who like to draw things out. Bob Scifo (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Abyss) for example is a wonderful matter painter. He has worked here for Zoic a couple of times. He came from the school where you drew everything out, and then painted it in. But he still got this incredible emotional result.

The way I learned to paint was the way Al Whitlock painted and Peter Ellenshaw (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Black Hole) painted — you just started painting. Sometimes you didn’t know what you were going to paint, exactly; you knew what the subject matter was going to be — it might be a castle — but you just push paint around, and you start seeing things materialize – oh! I can see it now – and you let it dry, and try to bring all of it out of the fog. And that was a wonderful way to paint.

And in Photoshop, at least in the beginning, I couldn’t paint that way. I couldn’t make a big mess – it just stayed a big mess, I couldn’t refine it. The only way I could discover things and make a big mess was with Corel Painter; you can blend colors together and have accidents happen. And then at that point I usually finish the work in Photoshop.

When painting matte backgrounds now, you’re painting a painting, but there’s also the approach where you’re creating a 3D environment and making a 2D image from that.

Yeah. And there’s also projection – projecting a 2D painting onto objects. That’s another way to get camera movement. There’s no such thing anymore as a locked-down shot — that’s what matte paintings used to be. You would do everything in the world to make sure the camera didn’t move. And now people consider it a locked-off shot if they just hold the camera steady.

In the early days, you got to go out on location, sometimes to some really adventurous environments – a rock in the middle of some bay in Mexico; on a hillside in Europe somewhere. It was very physical, so you had that physical part. That part is now gone. Now I have to exercise to stay in shape, rather than just work. It was kind of dangerous, really – I didn’t think about it at the time.

There are no circumstances where they want you to go out and see the original location?

Not anymore. The visual effects supervisor will go to the locations, take photographs. He becomes the point man for every other department.

Does that feel like less involvement on your part?

Well, that’s the trade-off. The trade-off is that we can do now what we used to dream about doing. Which was, wouldn’t it be great if we could paint a grand, futuristic city and loop through it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a huge crowd running towards us in that shot? Rotoscope in a thousand people or something?

Things that we used to dream about, we can do now, but the trade-off is we don’t get to be as involved in the production as we once were. I talked to [Zoic co-founder] Loni [Peristere] about that. I said I feel bad for some of the kids here, that they’ll never be on the stage. It’s fun to be on location. He said the trade-off was they have all the tools to make their own movies. So, everything has a trade-off.

More info: Syd Dutton on IMDb.

Sauron’s Blog Gets New URL and WordPress Theme

I just received this mysterious press release, left under the door. The hallway is filled with a foul odor and sticky hoofprints.

The Mouth of SauronGreetings, foul subcreature. I am The Mouth of Sauron, Lieutenant of Barad-dûr, Herumor’s Heir, and Rightful Chief of the Dúnedain. It is my task to communicate to you the commands of Sauron, Lord of the Earth, as well as to share news and recent happenings.

First — there is a new URL for Sauron’s Blog. Although http://kunochan.com/sauron will still work, the proper address is now http://www.sauronsblog.com. Use this URL. The Eye commands it.

Second — Sauron’s Blog has a new WordPress theme, one much more severe and imposing than the previous theme. In fact, the Orcs and Wild Men responsible for the previous theme have been tortured and sent to the mines.

Third — by making purchases via Amazon links from this site, you support not only Lord Sauron’s blogging activities, but also His efforts to destroy the corrupt Elves and Men of the West, and unite all The Earth in peace and prosperity. Even if you do not plan to purchase any of Tolkien’s books of Elvish lies, you can click through from Sauron’s Blog any time you plan to purchase from Amazon.

Needless to say, The Eye commands it.

Now, get back to work! Where there’s a whip, there’s a way!

Visit Sauron’s Blog here. Start from the first post here. By the way, those same Amazon links support kunochan.com as well!

Why Are Firefly/Serenity Fans So Devoted… Even After All These Years?

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/1/09.

A model of Serenity.

Last month, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott hosted Creation Entertainment’s Salute to Firefly & Serenity, a small but well-attended fan convention featuring appearances by series actors Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, and Morena Baccarin & Alan Tudyk, both also from ABC’s V.

Of course Firefly is the science-fiction dramatic series broadcast on the Fox Network in 2002-2003, created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fame. Canceled after only 11 episodes aired, the show has since engendered a major Hollywood motion picture (2005’s Serenity), a novel, a role-playing game, two comics series, soundtracks, a slew of merchandise & collectibles, and countless hand-knitted orange “cunning hats.”

I stopped by to get an idea of what’s going on with Firefly flans*, and to find out the answer to the question, Why are people still so devoted to a show that had only 14 episodes (and a movie), after nearly a decade?

Here are some answers from convention-goers, from commenters on fireflyfans.net, and from Zoic Studios co-founder Loni Peristere.

The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band.
The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band from St. Louis, Missouri.

Some credited the show’s realism, like Co-Pilot Gary Miller of The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band from St. Louis. “[It’s] because Firefly feels so real. It’s a sci-fi show without aliens. It’s about real people and real-life types of situations — in the future. Not to mention the dialogue, the acting, and the story are all brilliant.”

For me, it was all about the writing. The dialogue, and the way the characters were developed through dialogue, were just brilliant. I especially loved the dialogue for River Tam (Summer Glau of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), the ship’s ultra-violent fugitive waif — she rarely spoke, but when she did, it was always a bizarre window into her disordered mind. And usually either disturbing or hilarious.

On fireflyfans.net, hughff says: “I agree that the writing is the key. Too frequently today, television and especially film concentrate on the visual image. However, great films/shows recognize that it’s a synthesis of both visual images and dialogue.

“There was never any doubt from the very start that Firefly had the dialogue right. More than what it told us about the characters per se, I liked what it showed about their interrelationships. The verbal exchanges between Mal and Inara; the way Jayne treated Kaylee like a little sister, the way that Mal’s trust and respect for Simon grew incrementally — these were important to the flavor of the show.

“The show didn’t avoid complexity — these were real people living in a messy (i.e. real) world (alright, worlds) and as such, things were never simple.

“Finally, and Zoic can take more than a little credit for this, the show did have some great visual images: the Reaver ship sliding past in absolute silence; Crow disappearing through the air intake; Serenity rising up the cliff after the bar fight. The off-center and shaky ‘hand held’ camera work, even in the CGI, began a trend that has become everyday (Bourne Ultimatum, Battlestar Galactica) but broke new ground for me. When I first saw the first episode I thought, ‘How could they be so amateur?’ But by the end I was hooked into the vision and never let it go.”

Firefly-themed collectibles on sale in the dealer’s room.
Firefly-themed collectibles on sale in the dealer’s room.

One of the most interesting answers came from Dwight Bragdon, Board Member of the California Browncoats, a San Diego-based non-profit that promotes Firefly and Serenity fandom through charity. Since 2007 they have raised over $100,000 for charities like Equality Now and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “We are still in love with Firefly ten years later because of the type of people the show attracts. We’re smart, funny and caring, and we took our energy and enthusiasm for the ‘Verse and turned it into a community of giving….

“We can also see how much the cast and crew cared about the ‘Verse too… They lead by example too with their charity. [Actor] Nathan [Fillion] co-founded Kids Need to Read with author P.J. Haarsma; [actor] Adam Baldwin shows great support to the Marine Corps – Law Enforcement Foundation; Joss [Whedon] is a great supporter of Equality Now; and the list goes on.

“These guys and girls are people that I am proud to call friends, proud to call family and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

For Beth Nelson, Chairman of the Austin Browncoats, another charitable non-profit based in Texas, the message of Firefly is hope. “People want to root for the underdog, because for many of us, we’re the underdogs right now. Firefly gives us that hope and inspiration. Firefly and Serenity tell the story of people who might have been forgotten, left behind, taken for granted — but if they work together, they can accomplish anything…

“So much of it has to do with how well the characters were developed and how sincere and believable the dialogue was – which is something Joss is known for… We’re all flawed; we can all identify with characters who… sometimes pick the wrong path, even with the best intentions.

“In the end, though, I think we all love what Firefly has become. Firefly went from being this amazing space western to so much more. Outside of the ‘Verse itself, the fans have become a family, a movement that got together to do more than just love a television show or a movie. Numerous fans are working towards charitable goals – ending violence and discrimination or making sure every kid has the wealth of knowledge literature can bring them.”

The dealer’s room.
The dealer’s room.

Loni Peristere was directly involved in the production of Firefly and Serenity, as visual effects supervisor. He created the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity, along with Whedon and production designer Carey Meyer. “When Joss first told me about the new show,” Peristere said, “he told me to read The Killer Angels,” the 1974 historical novel by Michael Shaara, which tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the Confederate perspective. The novel inspired Whedon to create Firefly.

Firefly is about not fitting in, about finding a place for yourself in a world where you don’t fit, finding a family and making a living,” Peristere explained. “There are very few shows out there where the stars are outcasts, who join together as a family, which as Joss says is what ‘makes them mighty.’ None of the characters fit in – Nathan is a Browncoat [stand-in for Confederate]; Morena [Baccarin’s character] is a whore; there’s the fugitive; the tomboy; the interracial couple; the weary shepherd; the mercenary who’s incapable of doing anything else. They would all be loners, if they didn’t band together.

“How Zoic was part of that, is we made the viewer a ‘welcome voyeur.’ The camera followed the emotional beats. By using a handheld camera on-set and a ‘handheld’ camera effect for the CG exteriors, we put the viewer in the emotional center of the story. The viewer is a voyeuristic participant – another outcast, a part of the crew.”

Peristere also feels a special kinship with the Firefly cast and crew. “We knew it was important. We fell in love with it because it was a great story to tell. The show was made by creative people we loved and respected for their bravery, because they embraced the outcast. All the creative people I respect the most come from the cast and crew of Firefly. It was a moment that’s impossible to recapture.”

One last reason the flans and Browncoats stay devoted – because Firefly died too soon. From Jaydepps on fireflyfans.net: “Another reason it is still relevant is because of how abruptly it was cut [off], and it never received closure. We’ve been thirsting for more. A good TV series goes for a decent amount of seasons until the story is filled in, mostly. Then the series leaves TV… Firefly was never given the chance to do this.”

More info: Creation Entertainment; the discussion on fireflyfans.net; The Browncoats website and on MySpace; California Browncoats; Austin Browncoats.

If you want to know why they call us “flans,” just read this aloud: “Firefly fan.”

Zoic Breathes Life Into Cartoon Network’s ‘Ben 10: Alien Swarm’

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 11/27/09.

Ben 10: Alien Swarm

This week, Cartoon Network premiered Ben 10: Alien Swarm, its second live-action movie based on the popular animated children’s series Ben 10: Alien Force. Alien Swarm is the sequel to the first live action film, Ben 10: Race Against Time; both were directed by Alex Winter (Freaked, Fever).

Alien Swarm continues the story of ten-year-old Ben Tennyson, an ordinary boy who becomes part of a secret organization called “the Plumbers,” which fights alien threats. He possesses a wristwatch-like device called the Omnitrix, which allows its wearer to take the physical form of various alien species. Ben, now a teenager and played by 23-year-old Ryan Kelley (Smallville), defies the Plumbers to help a mysterious childhood friend find her missing father.

Winter, an experienced director more familiar to fans as an actor from the Bill & Ted films and The Lost Boys, chose effects supervisor Evan Jacobs (Resident Evil: Extinction, Ed Wood) to oversee the movie’s many effects sequences. Jacobs worked with Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios to produce character animation and particle work for a number of key scenes.

Ben as Big Chill, using his freeze breath.
Ben as Big Chill, using his freeze breath.

Zoic worked on three main characters – Kevin “Kevin 11” Levin (Nathan Keyes, Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith), an alien-human hybrid who can absorb properties of matter; Ben’s cousin Gwen Tennyson (Galadriel Stineman, Junkyard Dog), another hybrid who manipulates energy; and Big Chill, one of Ben’s alien forms, a creature that breathes ice.

Zoic’s Executive Creative Director, Andrew Orloff (V, Fringe), says that for the production, the filmmakers chose to stay away from motion capture as “too limiting.” With all the jumping, flying and other stunt work that would be required, performers hanging from wires would not produce as realistic a result as traditional keyframing, in which every frame of a computer animation is directly modified or manipulated by the creator. “All the characters were traditionally keyframed and match moved by hand,” Orloff says.

Orloff collaborated with Winter and Jacobs to turn the Big Chill from the cartoon, an Necrofriggian from the planet Kylmyys, into a 3D, realistic breathing character. Working with a model created by Hollywood, California’s Super 78 Studios, Orloff developed character and motion & flying studies for Big Chill before the filmmakers ever hit the soundstage.

“It was very important to Alex [Winter] that we stay true to the original series, and give it a little something extra for the live action series that’s a real surprise for the viewers, to see their beloved cartoon characters finally brought to life,” Orloff says.

Gwen blasts the alien swarm, as Big Chill hovers nearby.
Gwen blasts the alien swarm, as Big Chill hovers nearby.

“Based on the visual choreography of the scenes, we didn’t really do previsualization as pre-development of the character. We talked about the way that [Big Chill] can fly, the maneuvers it could do; and that allowed Alex to have in his mind at the storyboard phase a good idea of what the kind of movement of the character was going to be.

“He’s a seven foot tall flying alien, so to create that realism was definitely a challenge. To take a two-dimensional character and turn it into a three-dimensional character, you have to maintain the integrity of the two-dimensional design, but make it look as if it’s realistically sitting in the environment. So we added a lot of skin detail, we added a lot of muscle detail and sinews; it was tricky to get the lighting of the skin exactly right. We just had to make sure that the skin had that ‘alien’ quality, so it didn’t look like a manikin or an action figure. We wanted to give a realistic feel to the skin using Maya/mental ray to render that subsurface scattering.”

Much of the footage with Big Chill involved the character flying and fighting inside a warehouse. It wasn’t possible to shoot plates that would track exactly with the as-yet unrendered character, and the filmmakers could only guess how the character would move, and how quickly. So Jacobs provided Zoic with a variety of plates of a number of different moves, plus some very high resolution 360° panoramas of the warehouse interior. Zoic then used these materials to produce its own plates, rebuilding the warehouse from the set photos and creating the shots needed to flesh out the sequence. This process was time-consuming and difficult, as much of the blocking and choreography was highly detailed.

In addition to designing the character’s movements and rendering his actions, Zoic created the freeze breath effects for Big Chill. The character’s power required two kinds of effects. First, Zoic used heavy-duty particle and fluid simulations in Maya and mental ray to create the chunks of ice, smoke and liquid nitrogen that blast from Big Chill’s mouth. Then Zoic produced quite a bit of matte painting work to encase objects in ice, icicles and frost. These include the chip swarm tornado; the interior of the warehouse; and the villain, Victor Validus (Herbert Siguenza, Mission Hill).

Kevin, having taken on the properties of the metal girder, attacks the alien swarm.
Kevin, having taken on the properties of the metal girder, attacks the alien swarm.

The main antagonist in Alien Swarm is the alien swarm itself, a cloud of thousands of intelligent, flying alien chips that work together to harm the good guys.

The alien swarm was also created in Maya and mental ray. According to Orloff, “there needed to be thousands of chips that swarmed with a random yet directed attack. The idea that the chips were learning, so they would group together – first they try to go at Gwen and the kids, and Gwen blasts them away — then they reconfigure into a buzz saw and try to attack the kids that way — then they configure into a large tornado – you have to give a personality, but an evolving personality, to a swarm of objects.” In predevelopment, Zoic looked at fish schooling and insect swarming behaviors in nature, to give the swarm movement that felt organic without seeming contrived.

Zoic also produced the effects for Kevin, who absorbs the properties of matter from objects. “Kevin was a big challenge,” Orloff says, “because what we ended up doing was scanning the actor; as he touched something we would put a CG version of the model over the top of him; rotoscope those few frames where the transition occurs; take that model and map it with whatever the material was – a rusty metal beam, a wood desk, a concrete floor. We rotoscoped the CG version over the top until the transformation was done, and then we transitioned from the rotoscoped animation, based on the actor’s performance, to a fully CG character animation.”

The energy manipulation effects for Gwen were “a ‘two-and-a-half-D’ effect, using 3D particle generators and 3D scene-tracked cameras in Adobe After Effects to create the energy bolts and energy fields that Gwen uses. We wanted to give it a ‘Jack Kirby’ kind of energy feel to it. So it has a lot of character to it, it looks very organic, and it affects the background objects and produces heat ripple effects.”

Frost effects in the warehouse. All of the frost and ice are VFX.
Frost effects in the warehouse. All of the frost and ice are VFX.

While Zoic was providing visual effects for the movie, Zoic’s Design Group worked directly with Vincent Aricco and Heather Reilly from Cartoon Network’s On-Air department, developing both the show and promo packaging for Ben 10: Alien Swarm. The package was used to promote the film both on-air and online – as well as in the Comic-Con preview this past summer.

Design Group Creative Director Derich Wittliff worked with Zoic’s internal production team, lead by Producer Scott Tinter and Designer Darrin Isono, creating 3D environments and models based on the movie’s 2D logo and other references from the film. Elements were created in Maxon Cinema 4D, Autodesk Maya and Adobe After Effects. The final product was a show open and modular promo toolkit which allowed Cartoon Network’s in-house team to create custom endpages, IDs, bumpers, and other elements.

Because the Zoic Design Group worked under the same roof as the team that produced effects for Alien Swarm, they had access to the best elements available from the show, like the “swarm” effect itself, as soon as they were created, allowing for an efficient process which produced finished elements for special uses – like Comic-Con – far in advance of customary production schedules.

Zoic Design Group Executive Producer Miles Dinsmoor says Zoic was excited to have the opportunity to work directly with Cartoon Network, acting as both a visual effects and digital production studio for the main production, and as a creative design shop for the promotional package, exploiting Zoic’s fully integrated media and design department. His goal is to offer Zoic’s in-house design and creative expertise industry-wide, and not just to Zoic’s existing VFX clients.

Orloff says he is proud of the work Zoic did on Ben 10: Alien Swarm, and looks forward to future collaboration with everyone involved – and hopefully, another Ben 10 movie.

More info: Ben 10: Alien Swarm at Cartoon Network; on Amazon.

Zoic Stops Time, Creates Historic ‘Frozen Moment’ Sequence for ‘CSI’ Premiere

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 10/6/09.

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On September 24th, CBS broadcast the premiere episode of the 10th season of its venerable crime procedural drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation . The episode cold opened with a lengthy, two-and-a-half minute long “frozen moment” sequence, showing us a single moment in a robbery attempt involving the main characters. This sequence, which made broadcast television history, and was created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios.

The camera starts in the morgue, flying through a water spray over a number of corpses on gurneys. The environment is in total disarray, with bodies falling out of the coolers, and smoke and debris floating in midair. We travel past a coroner screaming into a phone and around a corner, to find Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall, Starship Troopers) in mid-leap as he whacks one of the robbers in the head, sending the man’s weapon flying. The camera swoops through floating medical instruments past the first tableau and up into the ceiling. One floor up, we find the same chaos in the Lab, with the CSIs and lab techs frozen in mid-motion.

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The camera continues past a book case tipping over, with falling curios, books and antiques suspended in shattered glass. Panning right and heading into the DNA Lab, the camera flies past one of the lab techs with a bullet exploding out of her shoulder, as she crashes through plate glass while suspended three feet off the ground. Wiping past her into the Lab proper, the camera finds Dr. Raymond Langston (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix, Pee Wee’s Playhouse) kicking a second robber Morpheus-style through plate glass, while several rounds of ammunition leave trails of disturbed air in their wakes.

Flying smoothly past Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger, Species, Species II) and over an exploding lab experiment, the camera continues down the hall past David Hodges (Wallace Langham, Weird Science) and Wendy Simms (Liz Vassey, The Tick), who hang suspended horizontally in midair as they leap to avoid gunfire, and into the muzzle flash of the gun of another robber.

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We transition from the muzzle flash to the glare of a flashlight held by yet another robber, and the camera trucks backwards out of a van with bullet holes and impact sparks all around. Pulling back the camera passes a robber firing at our last two CSIs, Nicholas Stokes (George Eads, ER) and Sara Grissom (Jorja Fox, ER, The West Wing), who fire back attempting to stop the theft of a body. The sequence finishes with the camera panning around to reveal Nick and Sara’s faces.

Naren Shankar, CSI’s executive producer, was impressed by a short film released in April, 2009 to promote Philips Cinema 21:9 LCD televisions. The short, entitled Carousel and produced by Adam Berg and London’s Stink Digital, was a two-minute, 19-second frozen moment sequence of police battling bank robbers dressed as scary clowns.

At CSI’s season nine wrap party, Shankar approached Zoic visual effects supervisor Rik Shorten, and asked if a similar scene could be created for the show. Shorten replied, “you write it, I’ll shoot it.”

The sequence was created as the cold open for the show’s 10th season premiere episode, “Family Affair.” Zoic had produced frozen moment shots for CSI before, but never a sequence of such complexity and length (it clocks in at two minutes, 17 seconds). The sequence was three script pages long, and required three full days of shooting on the main first unit stages, involving the primary cast members. Add to that a prep day, and an additional half-day to shoot the van tableau. The Philips spot had much greater resources – but CSI had an entire season of television to shoot. Shorten says that the producers provided Zoic with all the time, resources and support that could possibly be spared.

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The main three-day shoot employed four main motion control setups. A great deal of expense and effort went toward keeping the actors comfortable, and minimizing the time that talent would spend holding still will suspended in harness rigs.

The first portion to be shot, on days one and two, was the sequence in the DNA Lab. It was the largest and most complex set piece. Shorten and the Zoic team wrote and mapped out the shots on the prep day, giving them time to experiment on the day of the shoot, with blocking, track placement, lenses, the placement of practical elements and extras, etc. What the team learned on the first day was instrumental in making sure the rest of the sequence could be completed in the remaining days allowed.

The morgue tableau and hallway sequence were shot on day three. The hallway tableau featured Doc Robbins attacking a robber (called an “MIB” on set). Actor Hall was propped up on apple boxes and suspended by wires, while the camera moved slowly past on a track. While this one tableau sequence makes up about 20 seconds of the final product, the camera move took about three minutes to shoot.

For each shot, Shorten and his people wrote and planned out the shot with stand-ins; consulted with and got approval from the episode’s director, executive producer Kenneth Fink; ran a test shot on video; and then brought in the actors to shoot the real footage.

Some actors, like Helgenberger and Fishburne, only had to spend 10- to 15 minutes rigged up for their sequences. Other actors spend as long as a half hour held up by wires, stunt harnesses, boxes, greenscreen stands and articulated pads. Shorten says these rigs are never comfortable; and of course it’s not easy to hold perfectly still for minutes at a time. But everything possible was done to keep the actors in the rig for as brief a time as possible.

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The final tableau, of Nick and Sara firing on the van, was shot separately, taking a half a day. This scene was the most difficult and time-consuming to produce, as it was shot without motion control – no track, just a crane shot, and no clean plates. The paint-out and stilling of the actors for this sequence was an incredible amount of work. In fact, dozens of still photos of actors Eads and Fox were taken, and blended and morphed together to create motionless 3D elements of the two actors. These elements were then composited into the shot.

Shorten says that he is immensely proud of the work that he and Zoic did to create this unique and amazing sequence. “This could not have been accomplished without the incredible talents of every department on the show. Our production crew really came through, exceeding my expectations. Our excellent team of artists here at Zoic gave up their summer to create this fantastic sequence.

“I’m so grateful to everyone for their contributions. Most importantly, the show and the network are thrilled with the sequence, and the fan websites are still discussing the premier two months later – that’s the best compliment we could get!”

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More info: CSI on CBS.com ; Zoic Studios website; CSI on Hulu.