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!