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.