Zoic’s Syd Dutton on Mentoring in the Visual Effects Industry

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on3/25/10.

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It’s easy for today’s young filmmakers to forget that the art of the cinema goes back 132 years; television 83 years; and interactive media 23 years. Today’s students might think the latest high tech tools are all they need to succeed in the rapidly-changing visual effects industry; and they’ll be sorely disappointed when their ignorance of time-tested filmmaking technique puts them in the dole queue.

That’s why mentoring is so important to the future success of young VFX professionals. I recently sat down with Zoic Studios’ Syd Dutton to discuss the importance of industry pros passing along their knowledge to the next generation.

Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, 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.

As we spoke, Dutton’s longtime collaborator and Zoic compositing supervisor Fumi Mashimo listened in, and occasionally interjected. Mashimo’s credits include From Hell, Van Helsing and Public Enemies.

The things I learned gave me the foundation I needed for this business… I try to pass it along as much as I can…

The first assistant I had was Rob Stromberg, a well-accomplished matte painter. I would have hired him immediately, but he was driving a Porsche, lived in Malibu, and had a cell phone at a time when cell phones were still a luxury. So I said this guy’s pretty talented, but I can’t afford him. Then I found out later it was all a façade, and he was poor as a church mouse. But he had tons of talent.

syddutton_188x250So I hired him, and he just really excelled when we switched to computers, which just terrified me — but he really embraced it. It was all Macs at the time, because you could get more bang for the buck from multiple Mac stations rather than from just one SGI machine. Our first creature was a bird that Fumi [Mashimo] generated in a traditional painting, I think the same year Jurassic Park (1993) came out – and our big accomplishment was doing this bird!

Rob was great; and he really wanted to direct, so after a number of years he left. He later went back into matte painting and formed his own company, called Digital Backlot. Then he became a digital art director on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Apparently Rob had learned all the lessons I had learned from [legendary visual effects supervisor and matte painter] Albert Whitlock, that I passed along, like how to compose a shot using light and dark.

Most recently he became a production designer — which is really a jump for a visual effects person — first working for Jim Cameron on Avatar, for which he won an Academy Award [Best Achievement in Art Direction]; and this year he was productions designer on Alice in Wonderland, which is pretty amazing.

Mike Wassel was another one. His background was in design – he went to the Art Center in Pasadena — but he also knew car design, which was fortuitous for him. I got a call from Universal around 2000 saying we have this little movie we want to do on a budget, and we have about 20 shots or so, do you want to do it, it’s for Rob Cohen? I had worked for Rob for years, starting with The Wiz (1978) when he was the producer on the show for Motown.

My partner Bill Taylor and I both realized that Mike was the guy to supervise this. I didn’t know much about cars, but Mike was a complete car fanatic. He knew how cars would bank and all that stuff. Fumi did a wonderful test of a car, and I showed it to Rob Cohen. He said “why are you showing me this?” I said “What do you think it is?” “It’s a sports car turning a corner.” And I said “that’s CG.” We got the job. [laughter]

Bill and I talked Rob Cohen into hiring Mike Wassell as the visual effects supervisor. Now Mike’s working on the fifth edition of Fast & Furious. He was nominated for a VES award on Hellboy II: The Golden Army. So Mike’s having a pretty good career since he left too.

There have been several others; their careers are just beginning. I don’t know if it was so much my mentoring directly. I certainly try to pass on what I learned from Al Whitlock, who taught me everything I know about painting, even though I went to college and I had degrees and stuff like that. But the things I learned from Al gave me the foundation I needed for this business. I try to pass it along as much as I can.

But it was also the environment of Illusion Arts — not just me mentoring, but everyone would help bring up the next person. Do you think that’s fair to say, Fumi?

A good eye is a good eye, whether it’s looking through a whole bunch of glass and a projector, or at a computer monitor…

Fumi: It was a really nice environment.

There’s a couple more people, but I really don’t want to mention them until they achieve something. [laughter]

Fumi’s probably the most unsung person; now he’s compositing, but Fumi can do anything. Fumi did CG birds on The Bourne Identity (2002)…

fumimashimo_188x250Fumi: Oh God.

They were great. Hundreds of birds. I don’t think you will watch The Bourne Identity and notice any of our work in it. And we did dozens and dozens of shots. We always, especially in a contemporary movie, try to be as invisible as possible – I guess that’s what everybody tries to do. In science fiction it’s impossible. In historical dramas, sometimes you can get away with it, if people don’t think too hard. But most of the time in contemporary films, invisibility is what you want.

Erik: Fumi, do you have anything to say about Syd as a mentor?

Fumi: Oh, I mean, I learned everything from him. I didn’t know much about filmmaking when I was hired by him. I can respect him as a boss and also I can respect him as a person. That’s why I have been working with him for the past 23 years.

We found Fumi when he came from Canada with Randy Cook, who’s an Academy award-winning animator (for The Lord of the Rings trilogy). At that time Randy was working on a film called The Gate (1987), and Fumi was working as his assistant for no money, because he wanted the experience; and Fumi didn’t speak very good English either. [Fumi scoffs] But we could tell from his work ethic that he would fit in. So when Randy’s film finished, we asked if he could stay on. He learned English and all sorts of things, and when the computer came along he learned that too.

The old-fashioned optical printer guys, once they learned the computer, they became at that time the very best compositors; because a good eye is a good eye, whether it’s looking through a whole bunch of glass and a projector, or at a monitor. A good eye is what it takes.

Erik: Can you talk about mentoring, as far as personal relationships?

I think mentoring is a pretty intense relationship. You try to give that person all you know and hope they will take it to another level.

Erik: Based on my own chequered experience in this industry, it might be different on the creative side, but I’ve run into a lot of “I’m not going to teach anyone anything, because they might compete against me in the future.”

That’s exactly what happens – but that doesn’t help anybody. There’s always going to be somebody competing against you. If you own a business and don’t teach your people how to do good work, then your company doesn’t do good work. There are a lot of people who won’t give away their quote-unquote “secrets,” and that just isn’t me. I like working with young people. If it’s the right person, I like mentoring.

Fumi: There are a lot of young people CG artists, they don’t want to hear it. We have so many of them passing through.

Yeah, if they didn’t work out, they didn’t stay. I wasn’t cruel about it, I didn’t fire people and embarrass them, but if they didn’t work out, they just didn’t stay. It really was a family, and if a person didn’t fit in that family, it really didn’t matter. It was just a dysfunctional family.

Fumi: It was really nice, though.

If you own a business and don’t teach your people how to do good work, then your company doesn’t do good work…

I’m proud, especially with Rob and Mike, that they have done so well. It reflects well on me [laughter], and it passes on something important. When I first started working with Al, I had artistic experience and I had degrees, but I didn’t know how to apply it to movies. Al was very patient with me, and taught me all his tricks, and all of [legendary special effects creator and matte painter] Peter Ellenshaw’s tricks, because he worked with Ellenshaw.

Al made me aware of how people like W. Percy Day worked, who was a production designer in England in the 30s. I was introduced to all sorts of production designers; most of them are long gone. It was wonderful. It connected me all the way back to the 1920s and 30s. I felt I really learned a lot on how to do things, how to be economical with your vision.

Erik: It sounds like a lot of what you learned translates into the new technology.

Oh, it all translates. People just don’t necessarily know about it. If you hadn’t been exposed to it, and talked to people who worked on these movies that were classics — it’s not in books, it has to be learned firsthand.

Erik: Do you get people who think that knowledge from before the digital revolution can’t translate?

Yeah, sure. They can’t believe it would work. Some simple — what we used to call “gags” – these tricks that are effective, they say couldn’t possibly translate into the digital age, and they can.

Erik: What about the environment at Zoic, as far as mentoring and education?

I think the training program here is really very good. It’s a wonderful way to find out who’s going to work out, and it’s certainly wonderful for young people to be around this environment.

It’s never going to be the same as the world I came up in. I was exposed to this whole backlot world, and the old movie stars and everything. In this environment you aren’t exposed to sets, and all those things I found really interesting working for a big studio.

When I had my own business at Illusion Arts, we did go to the sets. We went on locations, too. What we did on glass was something very few people could do. But as times changed and everything became computer-oriented, this became the type of environment that people would have to learn to work in. And of all the places I’ve seen, Zoic by far has the best environment. It’s the friendliest, it’s the most open.

I told one of my client producers, you’d be hard put to know who to kill to take over the company, because there’s no obvious boss walking around smoking a cigar or something. Everybody seems to know their jobs, and they just collaborate with one another. I’ve never seen people yelling at each other – maybe I haven’t stayed around long enough to see that. [laughter]

It’s a good environment, and it’s actually one of the reasons I came here. It didn’t seem to have a whole bunch of pressure – there’s time pressure, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of alpha dogs going around screaming at each other!

More info: Syd Dutton, Fumi Mashimo, Robert Stromberg and Mike Wassel on IMDb; see also “Syd Dutton: Matte Painting from Traditional to Digital.”

Perfect “Harmony”: Zoic Creates VFX for Daytona 500 Coca-Cola NASCAR Spot

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 2/17/2010.

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Eleven top NASCAR drivers are having a bad day, grumbling into their car radio mics. But once in the crew pit, each driver is offered a cold, refreshing bottle of Coca-Cola. Back on the track, the drivers are so exhilarated they begin singing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” as bewildered fans listen in over headphones.

The 60-second commercial, which also has two 30-second versions, premiered this last Sunday, Valentine’s Day, during the broadcast of the Daytona 500 on ESPN. It hearkens back to the 1971 commercial “Hilltop,” probably the most famous Coke commercial in history, which introduced the song. The new spot, entitled “Harmony,” features NASCAR drivers Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, David Ragan, Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart.

See the “Harmony” spot here, at the end of a feature about the making of the commercial; the spot begins at 4:10.

The commercial does not appear to be effects-heavy, but appearances can be deceiving. It was assembled from a number of separate elements, including CG cars and digitally-altered stock footage. The VFX were created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, which produces effects for commercials, feature films and episodic television, such as ABC’s V, FOX’s Fringe and CBS’ CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

“The agency went to the NASCAR archives and pulled stock footage,” says Zoic executive producer, commercials Erik Press, “and they cut together what they envisioned as a race.

“Then they filled it in with close-ups of the actual drivers, which were shot on the racetrack in Charlotte, North Carolina. Those were inserted in the edit. [Commercial creative director] Les Ekker shot back plates for footage outside of the vehicles. Our task was to take stock footage, interiors of drivers, and plates of driving shots, and mix them all together and make them appear as one entire race.”

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“Mostly the work consisted of taking their ‘hero’ celebrity drivers, and generating driving plates,” explains Neil Ingram, a Zoic producer.

“They wanted us to make these moments inside of the car to feel like ‘found’ footage, like you’re tapping into the live feed while they’re driving. Part of a NASCAR race is that you can rent headphones, and listen to the realtime exchanges of the drivers and the crews. The spectators that we cut away to are listening to the radios, and they’re bewildered by the fact that these drivers are all singing together.

“First we had to make the interior driving spots look realistic. Then we had to work on a degradation look, to make the shots match the practical realtime images that are actually from the cars; there are some of those shots in the spot.

“We had some CG augmentation on shots, and then ran it through compression. The cameras they use in the cars are ICONIX — they shoot back realtime images to a broadcast tower. They’re true HD cameras, but they get compressed with MPEG-2 compression. So we did some experimentation with different levels of MPEG and JPEG damage, to match the look. But these are celebrity drivers and these are product shots, so we had to find a balance between not getting too much degradation, but making them still feel ‘found.’”

“It was a fun job,” says Zoic co-founder Chris Jones, who was creative director for the VFX. “It has all the good elements for a visual effects spot: full-CG cars; full-CG dynamics; full-CG tracks; a lot of clean-up and footage matching; a lot of greenscreen; live-action plates; stock footage integration – it runs the whole range of VFX. It came together well – it’s a really satisfying piece. I’m pleased with it.”

Press says the production was a very positive experience for everyone involved. “It is really sort of an iconic Coca-Cola spot, with ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.’ They haven’t brought that theme back for some time.

“It was a really smooth production, it went really well. The agency was very happy. It was smooth for them as well — we were always right behind them, providing for them. A really positive experience.”

The spot was directed by Mike Long for Epoch Films; and edited by Matthew Hilbert of Joint Editorial House, Portland.

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More info: “Coca-Cola Harmony – Behind The Scenes With The New Ad” on the Coca-Cola Conversations blog; Coca-Cola “Harmony” on Youtube; Coca-Cola “Hilltop” on Youtube.

Halex GT, Holistic Marketing and the Future of Advertising

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/26/2010.

Halex GT robots in a cornfield

In the midst of a vast Midwestern corn field, a friendly yellow industrial robot is on the hunt. Searching between rows of tall, green stalks of healthy corn, the robot discovers its prey, a single weed — tiny and innocent, but if it spreads the entire crop is in danger. The robot strikes, ripping the offending plant from the ground with its steel fingers. The corn is safe once again.

There aren’t really industrial robots prowling the cornfields of America. This is a 30-second commercial spot for Halex GT, a weed-control herbicide produced for corn farmers by Switzerland’s Syngenta AG. The number of businesses that might use Halex is relatively small, compared to most commercial brands – but it’s a lucrative product, and Minneapolis-based creative agency Martin|Williams was tasked with reaching those consumers through a television spot and Internet advertising.

Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios created the spot, directed by co-founder Loni Peristere. But there’s more to the story. Zoic was able to use the original assets it created for the broadcast commercial to create web ads and interactive landing page components, providing the client with Internet content that was much higher in quality than that usually created for online, and at a considerable cost savings.

Zoic commercial creative director Leslie Ekker explains that from the outset the studio pitched the idea of a holistic approach: including the creation of interactive assets as part of the broadcast VFX pipeline. “It’s more and more the case lately when we’re doing commercials, we ask during the bidding, ‘are you interested in an online dimension to this work?’ And the word gets around the agency, and they realize, yes, we need to get these resources from the spot; we can build on this work, and expand on it without very much extra effort and expenditure.”

Creating the Commercial Spot

The Halex commercial (see it here) came to Zoic on a short schedule and with a tight budget. “This job was awarded on a Wednesday,” Ekker says, “and we shot the following Monday, in Florida — after the production company found a location; the agency determined which robot they wanted to use; we sourced and acquired a robotic end effector; designed and machined the actual fingers; and worked out a way to puppeteer it live on-screen for the shoot. All of this in a very few days.

“In fact, regarding the end effector, we acquired the machine Sunday morning, and over breakfast I designed the fingers. During the day I supervised the machining of the fingers at a custom machine shop, while simultaneously running out with the live-action producer and getting a compressor and the air hardware, tools and supplies necessary to create all the physical effects. By 8:30 that evening we had a set of fingers for the machine, fully motivated and ready to go in the morning.

“It’s seldom that we do things with practical effects, but because of my background – I was a model maker for 20 years — it was not very challenging. The schedule is what was challenging. And that end effector is now being used in trade shows by the client, attached to an actual robot, performing weed-pulling demonstrations, live at their promotional booth at agricultural shows.”

The robot was this character, an iconic image they wanted to carry through all of the Halex branding.

Despite the fantasy aspect of the commercial, the spot required a high degree of technical accuracy, as far as the depiction of the product. “We learned a lot about farming on this job,” Ekker says. “The reason we went to Florida was we needed to show a certain height of corn, because this chemical is used on plants of a certain age. Also the fields there are very neat, very clean.”

The commercial had to be very accurate in its depiction of the cornfield, the plants themselves and how they grew, because the farmers to whom the spot was targeted would notice any inaccuracies. “Apart from those limitations,” Ekker says, “the client was wide open to creative suggestions. In fact Loni [Peristere], the director, had pretty much free reign with the storytelling.”

The practical effects in the spot are the end-effector and several attached hoses, and the actual weed that is grabbed by the end-effector. Ekker acted as puppeteer for the practical effect, operating the end-effector from the end of a pipe with counterweights attached to a pulley. “They changed the species of weed after we shot it,” Ekker admits, “but it passes well enough.” Everything else in the spot – the yellow robots, the cornfield, the weed as it grows — is CG.

One of the creative challenges involved digitally reproducing a time-lapse effect, showing the CG corn moving in the breeze as the weather changed and the sun moved through the sky. “We developed some very effective ways to show the translucency of leaves,” Ekker explains, “since we’re seeing them primarily back-lit; and to show the kind of animation that people expect to see from time-lapse plant growth — that kind of nervous, random weaving action.

“The background plate was supposed to be time-lapse, but it was at a very specific angle. Rather than dedicate a digital video camera to this one shot all day, I took our digital still camera, with an intervalometer, and set it up in a 5-gallon bucket buried in a corn field adjacent to where we were shooting. I lined up a shot with a very wide-angle lens pointed up at the sky at an angle.

“I framed it in such a way that we could take those high-resolution frames, and move another frame inside of it with some added distortion to give it the look of a camera pan-and-tilt, so that we could have a feeling of craning down and tilting up as this weed grows in the foreground. The move was created in that larger plate, adding a certain amount of keystoning for lens distortion, and it felt very much like a 3D camera move in time lapse, which would have to be motion-controlled in a normal situation. Luckily, because it was such a macro shot, we could do it with a single frame and a single camera position.

“That proved to be quite successful; we got several hours of time-lapse out of the way, with very low impact on the production. I would just go out and occasionally monitor the camera, change the battery, and make sure everything was okay.”

The practical end effector designed by Les Ekker.The practical end effector designed by Les Ekker.

Creating the Interactive Experience

While Ekker and his team were shooting the spot, and designing and rendering the CG, Zoic Creative Director – Digital Strategy Jeff Suhy and his group coordinated the web banner and landing page campaigns in support of the Halex marketing campaign.

“Martin|Williams came to us to build on the development of the 30-second spot,” Suhy explains, “which involved creation of the online assets. We worked in partnership with Martin|Williams in creating some particularly interesting banners, and modeled the robot for those banners; and we created the landing page, an educational experience which conveyed the attributes of the Halex herbicide, how it’s beneficial and its advantages over the competitors.

“The robot was this character, an iconic image they wanted to carry through all of the Halex branding. We animated the robot doing various things — pulling weeds, knocking a tractor off the screen, and other things.

We’re not just envisioning effects… we’re talking about designing the architecture of a fully integrative experience.

“The pipeline here is at Zoic pretty good for this sort of thing, so there weren’t any real technical issues. Les [Ekker] and his team designed the actions, and we on the interactive side designed the experiential elements around that, and how they interacted with the navigation. It’s a pretty seamless experience and I think it worked out pretty well for the client.

“It was cost effective, because we already had the assets; we already had 90% of the heavy lifting done, to get those assets ready for the web.”

Ekker was impressed with the final products produced by Zoic’s interactive team. “We did these little mini-cuts of the spot, in frames that were 75×300 pixels, tall narrow slices of the image. We would just use the essential shots to tell the broad story, and do some close moves within those frames on the greater-sized hi-def shot frame; and we wound up with some very artistic, very effective little story moments that require very narrow bandwidth, so they’re easy to stream online. It proved to be a really clean, elegant way to reuse existing assets.

“We adapted those animations for the landing page, and created some very interesting little interactive demos, with mouse-overs, triggers and hold cycles at the end, so the robot wouldn’t just sit there idly. It would sort of look around and wait for what’s next. And we managed to get a lot of personality into the animation. It was a lot of fun. A very quick, very efficient project.”

Suhy says this kind of holistic marketing effort provides more than mere convenience for the client. “The techniques used to develop this character and to animate this asset would normally have been prohibitively expensive for such a niche marketing campaign. If it were not for the efficiencies of Zoic’s pipeline, this would be reserved only for large budget, big campaigns that could afford to invest the money.

“The real message here is that, even for something as niche as Halex, we can do something that’s really high-end CG.”

Holistic Marketing and the Future

Erik Press, Zoic executive producer, commercials, believes this kind of holistic marketing is the next step in the evolution of advertising. “It’s not just about broadcast anymore. Fewer and fewer eyes are remaining on what we all have known as standard broadcast television, and now they’re moving to the Internet, and that’s what the future is. Part of the conversation at the front of any job is, what are the plans for integrated content? Clients have been really warming to that.”

As Zoic has expanded from its roots as a VFX house, with its own editorial, design and interactive departments, it has been able to offer services that are more encompassing and can meet a wider variety of client needs. “I think people are waking up to the understanding, as we put out who we are at Zoic, that we are problem solvers and educators because of the depth of our resources. There’s a little spark going off in people minds now, and Halex was a great example. There was an ‘aha!’ moment for them, where they said ‘oh, you guys can do that?’

“We want to look at projects strategically. There’s a financial advantage to approaching projects at the outset, knowing the different kinds of media platforms we’ll be creating assets for. It’s a new paradigm in commercial production. We’re not just envisioning effects for a 30-second spot, it’s much bigger than that. We’re talking about designing the architecture of a fully integrative experience. That’s new advertising at its core – the experience.

“I think for us as a company, our goal is to be at the leading edge of that kind of creativity and technology. Zoic is poised so well to have a great comprehensive, strategic view of what it’s going to take to get there.”

More info: Syngenta Halex GT page; Martin|Williams web site.

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

Why I Dislike ‘Babylon 5’

Well, my story on Best and Worst Sci-Fi TV Openings got FARKed, and my blog got slammed with hits, which is a very good thing. I originally wrote it for GGL – but our new editorial direction is to get away from “Gamer/Geek Lifestyle” stories, and stick to “professional gaming” stories. Which is fine – I’ll just write for my blog.

Lots of people had suggestions for the best and worst list. Some of them were even polite. After reading them all, my only regret is that I did not consider the original opening sequence for Red Dwarf for the best list.

I was surprised to learn that some Firefly flans don’t like the Firefly theme song. That’s crazy. I hate Country music as much as the next intelligent person of taste; but that theme is great. (Please note: Firefly fans are referred to as “Browncoats” or “flans.” If you don’t understand why we say “flans” or “flanvention,” please read the following two words aloud: “Firefly fan.”)

Of course, I got slammed for hating on Babylon 5. That was my point about why B5 fans are so annoying. It’s not that people enjoy B5 – knock yourself out. It’s that they get so incredibly upset when you point out the fact that their show is mediocre.

I watched the first episode of B5 when it first aired. Wanna know why I stopped watching? An alien is murdered when a poisonous skin patch is applied – to his environmental suit. Not to his skin, but to his spacesuit. That’s when I stopped watching.

But some of my friends went on about how great the writing was, how the overarching storyline was so cool (although they admitted that often, the individual episode stories were quite lame). But I couldn’t get over the disconnect between the expensive CGI exteriors (which were often so busy, you couldn’t tell what was going on – see BSG, or even late-season DS9, to learn how to do space battles properly) and the CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP “sets.” I mean, we’re talking Buck Rogers-level sets.

Now Doctor Who has always gotten by on great writing with cheap production values. But Doctor Who’s production values were consistently cheap, and the writing was consistently great. So was the acting, as the show had the entire stable of classically-trained British actors to choose from. Even die-hard B5 fanatics will admit that the acting was a mixed bag.

B5 was not a bad show. But it was not a great show. It was not the fantastic touchstone of modern sci-fi its fans want you to think it was. Again, if you’re a fan, good for you. But stop trying to convince me that B5 is worth my time. It’s not.