‘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.

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.”