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.

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.