Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 4 ‘The Airtight Garage’


This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. This time: Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s 1976 graphic novel
The Airtight Garage.

For an explanation of the choices for this list, see the first entry.

Number 7 of 10: The Airtight Garage (US title, comic, 1976), aka Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius, Le Garage Hermétique de Lewis Carnelian

In the Before Time, in the Long Long ago, in the late 1970s and 1980s, some movie execs decided it might be a good idea to make a few big-budget effects-heavy comic book movies. So we had two classic films based on DC Comics characters. The first was Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, a hammy cheese-fest that nonetheless managed to charm the audience, largely via Gene Hackman’s movie-saving charisma and Christopher Reeve’s unshakable determination to play a ridiculous character as seriously as possible. On the other hand, the producers spent literally one-third of the $60 million budget to hire Marlon Brando in a cameo; and Margo Kidder gave a performance as Lois Lane that should have tipped off any competent psychiatrist that she was suffering from bipolar disorder and needed help.

The other was Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the first superhero film ever to capture the comic book fanboy’s love for the source material (in this case the uncredited Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (1986), but that’s a fanboy rant for another blog post). Burton, following Miller’s lead, showed mainstream audiences that comic books can be dark, intellectual, weird, artistic and funny. And Jack Nicholson was a thespian ruminant, chewing the scenery and then chewing it again. Continue reading

Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 3 ‘Appleseed’

This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. This time: Shirow Masamune’s manga and anime franchise Appleseed.

For an explanation of the choices for this list, see the first entry.

Number 8 of 10: Appleseed (manga: 1985-89; anime: 1988, 2004, 2007)

If there’s one thing modern CG can render with absolute realism, it’s hardware. From modern consumer automobiles, commercial aircraft and military vehicles to futuristic robots, mecha and spacecraft, VFX artists have mastered the art of heavy gear, from 1984’s The Last Starfighter to last year’s Avatar.

But the military hardware, vehicles and spacecraft in modern VFX movies and television shows and video games do not show as much creative variety as one might expect, given the nearly boundless flexibility of CG. Spacecraft usually look much like the USS Sulaco from 1986’s Aliens, which itself isn’t terribly original. The “APUs” in Avatar are nearly identical to the battlemechs from the BattleTech franchise, themselves inspired by anime mecha. And any time you see a BFG (Big “Effin’” Gun) or any other large military prop in a sci-fi film, TV show or video game, it seems to come from the same prop house or 3D model library as all the others.

This isn’t necessarily because production designers and VFX artists are lazy or unoriginal – there are creative and production concerns. If a giant futuristic space blaster looks exactly like what the audience expects a giant futuristic space blaster to look like, a filmmaker need not waste time explaining what it is. The same goes for spaceships – film-goers unfamiliar with sci-fi (are there any of those left?) might be confused by the giant, spherical spaceship at the end of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (they were already confused by the plot); but will instantly recognize the alien ship in 2009’s District 9, given its resemblance to the bastard love child of the giant saucers from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Independence Day (1996). Continue reading

Zoic Studios Blows Up ‘The Crazies’ Fan Premiere

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on 2/26/2010.

eisnerolyphantmitchell_630x354From left: director Breck Eisner and stars Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell take the coming nuclear onslaught quite seriously.

On Wednesday evening, Overture Films held a special fan premier event for its new horror film, The Crazies, which opens today. The movie is a remake of the 1973 George A. Romero classic, and stars Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood, Live Free or Die Hard), Radha Mitchell (Surrogates) and Joe Anderson (Amelia). It tells the story of a small Iowa town devastated by an unknown toxin that causes insanity and death.

Invited guests, who included fandom journalists and horror bloggers, were treated to an immersive experience from the moment they pulled up in their cars. The KCET public television studios in Hollywood were transformed for the evening into beleaguered Ogden Marsh, Iowa. As guests arrived, they were pulled from their cars by military personnel, and marched past army vehicles and through metal detectors to a medical examination area. Nearby, citizens were assaulted, cuffed and herded into pens by soldiers, while moaning bodies lay on gurneys or were stacked in body bags. After guests were checked for contamination, they were issued wristbands indicating whether they were infected or clear, and then herded onto school buses with blackened windows. Military instructions were blared over loudspeakers while the sound of helicopters was heard overhead.

zoic_crazies_3950The after-party on KCET studios’ Stage B.

After being driven around for a while, the guests were released in front of a movie theater, issued rations (popcorn), and taken inside to watch the film.

Afterward, guests were invited back to the KCET lot (despite the bus ride, it was just across the street) to enjoy dinner, music and an open bar, and to hobnob with director Breck Eisner and stars Olyphant and Mitchell. There were also demonstrations from various companies that worked on the film. Guests could watch a stunt show and see a stunt performer set on fire; be turned into Crazies by professional makeup artists; or be strapped into a harness and “hanged” by the neck.

zoic_crazies_3942Eisner, Olyphant and Mitchell pose at the Zoic booth.

Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, which provided visual effects for the film, offered a VFX “before-and-after” reel; and Zoic co-founder Loni Peristere was on hand to answer fans’ questions, along with compositing supervisor Aaron Brown, who flew down from Zoic’s Vancouver, British Columbia studio just for the occasion. Also, guests were invited to pose in front of a greenscreen and get professionally composited into a still shot of a nuclear explosion from the film. A team of Zoic compositors created over 100 images over the course of the evening, which were emailed to fans.

The evening was an incredible success, and fans had to be kicked out when the bar shut down at 12:30am. For more information about The Crazies, visit the official web site.

View all the images from the event below; or follow this link to the Flickr page.

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

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

zoic_cokenascar_1_630x354

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.

AMC’s ‘Mad Men’: Period Perfection and Invisible Effects

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on 2/9/2010.

madmen_004_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

Mad Men, AMC’s award-winning drama, finished its third season in November, and has been renewed for a fourth. Set in the 1960s at the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City, Mad Men centers on creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm, The Day the Earth Stood Still), and those in his life in and out of the office; and depicts the changing social mores of 1960s America.

Mad Men has garnered critical acclaim, particularly for its historical authenticity and visual style, and has won nine Emmys and three Golden Globes. It is the first basic cable series to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series.

Zoic Studios provided visual effects for a number of shots in the third season, including a memorable dream sequence; plus a variety of so-called “invisible” effects, VFX which the audience is usually (and ideally) unaware are VFX.

Zoic visual effects supervisor Curt Miller says most of Zoic’s work on Mad Men enhanced or augmented the efforts of production designer Dan Bishop (Big Love). Executive producer Scott Hornbacher (The Sopranos) and creator Matt Weiner (The Sopranos, Andy Richter Controls the Universe) are committed to staying true to the 1960s period, right down to minor background details. The level of detail is “amazing,” Miller says, and Zoic is “honored and flattered that they trust us to be a part of their team.”

Visual effects producer Christopher M. Wright agrees that authenticity and detail are vital to Weiner and Hornbacher’s vision. “It is nice to work with a client that’s very particular about their level of detail and their level of quality,” Wright says. “It certainly pushes us to make sure things are right. I have never worked with anyone quite as committed to staying true to the art direction of the time as they are.”

madmen_002_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

For the third season premiere, Zoic performed a set extension for a scene in which Don Draper (Hamm) and Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt, Funny People) take a business trip on a Boeing 707 jetliner to Baltimore. The production built a portion of the airplane interior, which had to be duplicated and extended to recreate the complete interior of the passenger cabin.

Zoic artists visited the only vintage Boeing 707 within driving range – the former Air Force One on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California. The Library does not normally allow photographs to be taken inside the plane, but the production obtained special permission to take reference photos one morning before the public was admitted.

A set piece making up the left half (facing the cockpit) of the plane interior, four rows deep, was built – this was shot from a variety of angles, with extras in period costume filling the seats. Then the set piece was flipped around and shot from the other direction, to become the right side of the plane. These elements were stacked one behind the other to create the complete jetliner interior. The main action between the two leads took place on the practical set, while the rest was assembled, composited and rendered digitally.

After the footage was shot, the production discovered that the carpeting on the set was inaccurate for the period, and Zoic fixed the problem digitally. The upholstery, wallpaper, and every other interior feature had to be recreated and rendered faithfully. Mad Men art director Chris Brown and producer Blake McCormick conducted research to guarantee authenticity. Zoic’s Renaud Talon did much of the work on the sequence.

madmen_003_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

In another scene with effects produced by Zoic, a train ride through New York in the fall was created. The attention to detail was meticulous, with digital recreations of passing scenery true to the location, the period, and the season. Like all other work done for the show, the scene had to match Mad Men’s justifiably famous visual style. Zoic’s Suzette Barnett worked on the composites.

In a well-known scene, Zoic’s work was not at all invisible. When Don’s wife Betty Draper (January Jones, Pirate Radio) is knocked out with anesthetic during childbirth, she experiences a surreal hallucination.

madmen_001_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

Jones was shot against a bluescreen, rather than a greenscreen, because it was easier to pull key off of her blonde hair against blue. She walked on a treadmill on the stage, with the intention that she would be composited against a moving background. The background plates were shot at high speed so they could be slowed down to match the actor’s walking pattern, but matching her pace to the background proved difficult. It was decided to keep her movement slightly off-pace from the background, as this contributed nicely to the dreamlike quality of the scene.

“The only tricky part,” Wright says,” was that when she stopped walking, the treadmill still drifted a little. So we had to sort of match up our background to that movement, because in the camera it still looked like she was moving even though the background didn’t move. It looked like she just floated towards us, which was a little over-the-top for what they were going for.”

After Jones stops, a caterpillar enters the frame from above, moving down on a thread of silk. She catches the caterpillar and watches it wriggle on her hand. The caterpillar was created entirely in CG by Zoic as an original creation. Zoic’s Dayna Mauer and Rodrigo Dorsch contributed to the scene.

“It’s a great show to be working on,” Wright says. “It’s high-end stuff, it’s award-winning. Clearly, they are very particular and know exactly what they want. It can be challenging, because with television, there’s a lot of ‘it’s good enough,’ when we get through shots — but with Mad Men it needs to be right.”

More info: Mad Men on AMC, Amazon; AMC’s Mad Men blog.

Why Are Firefly/Serenity Fans So Devoted… Even After All These Years?

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/1/09.

A model of Serenity.

Last month, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott hosted Creation Entertainment’s Salute to Firefly & Serenity, a small but well-attended fan convention featuring appearances by series actors Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, and Morena Baccarin & Alan Tudyk, both also from ABC’s V.

Of course Firefly is the science-fiction dramatic series broadcast on the Fox Network in 2002-2003, created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fame. Canceled after only 11 episodes aired, the show has since engendered a major Hollywood motion picture (2005’s Serenity), a novel, a role-playing game, two comics series, soundtracks, a slew of merchandise & collectibles, and countless hand-knitted orange “cunning hats.”

I stopped by to get an idea of what’s going on with Firefly flans*, and to find out the answer to the question, Why are people still so devoted to a show that had only 14 episodes (and a movie), after nearly a decade?

Here are some answers from convention-goers, from commenters on fireflyfans.net, and from Zoic Studios co-founder Loni Peristere.

The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band.
The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band from St. Louis, Missouri.

Some credited the show’s realism, like Co-Pilot Gary Miller of The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band from St. Louis. “[It’s] because Firefly feels so real. It’s a sci-fi show without aliens. It’s about real people and real-life types of situations — in the future. Not to mention the dialogue, the acting, and the story are all brilliant.”

For me, it was all about the writing. The dialogue, and the way the characters were developed through dialogue, were just brilliant. I especially loved the dialogue for River Tam (Summer Glau of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), the ship’s ultra-violent fugitive waif — she rarely spoke, but when she did, it was always a bizarre window into her disordered mind. And usually either disturbing or hilarious.

On fireflyfans.net, hughff says: “I agree that the writing is the key. Too frequently today, television and especially film concentrate on the visual image. However, great films/shows recognize that it’s a synthesis of both visual images and dialogue.

“There was never any doubt from the very start that Firefly had the dialogue right. More than what it told us about the characters per se, I liked what it showed about their interrelationships. The verbal exchanges between Mal and Inara; the way Jayne treated Kaylee like a little sister, the way that Mal’s trust and respect for Simon grew incrementally — these were important to the flavor of the show.

“The show didn’t avoid complexity — these were real people living in a messy (i.e. real) world (alright, worlds) and as such, things were never simple.

“Finally, and Zoic can take more than a little credit for this, the show did have some great visual images: the Reaver ship sliding past in absolute silence; Crow disappearing through the air intake; Serenity rising up the cliff after the bar fight. The off-center and shaky ‘hand held’ camera work, even in the CGI, began a trend that has become everyday (Bourne Ultimatum, Battlestar Galactica) but broke new ground for me. When I first saw the first episode I thought, ‘How could they be so amateur?’ But by the end I was hooked into the vision and never let it go.”

Firefly-themed collectibles on sale in the dealer’s room.
Firefly-themed collectibles on sale in the dealer’s room.

One of the most interesting answers came from Dwight Bragdon, Board Member of the California Browncoats, a San Diego-based non-profit that promotes Firefly and Serenity fandom through charity. Since 2007 they have raised over $100,000 for charities like Equality Now and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “We are still in love with Firefly ten years later because of the type of people the show attracts. We’re smart, funny and caring, and we took our energy and enthusiasm for the ‘Verse and turned it into a community of giving….

“We can also see how much the cast and crew cared about the ‘Verse too… They lead by example too with their charity. [Actor] Nathan [Fillion] co-founded Kids Need to Read with author P.J. Haarsma; [actor] Adam Baldwin shows great support to the Marine Corps – Law Enforcement Foundation; Joss [Whedon] is a great supporter of Equality Now; and the list goes on.

“These guys and girls are people that I am proud to call friends, proud to call family and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

For Beth Nelson, Chairman of the Austin Browncoats, another charitable non-profit based in Texas, the message of Firefly is hope. “People want to root for the underdog, because for many of us, we’re the underdogs right now. Firefly gives us that hope and inspiration. Firefly and Serenity tell the story of people who might have been forgotten, left behind, taken for granted — but if they work together, they can accomplish anything…

“So much of it has to do with how well the characters were developed and how sincere and believable the dialogue was – which is something Joss is known for… We’re all flawed; we can all identify with characters who… sometimes pick the wrong path, even with the best intentions.

“In the end, though, I think we all love what Firefly has become. Firefly went from being this amazing space western to so much more. Outside of the ‘Verse itself, the fans have become a family, a movement that got together to do more than just love a television show or a movie. Numerous fans are working towards charitable goals – ending violence and discrimination or making sure every kid has the wealth of knowledge literature can bring them.”

The dealer’s room.
The dealer’s room.

Loni Peristere was directly involved in the production of Firefly and Serenity, as visual effects supervisor. He created the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity, along with Whedon and production designer Carey Meyer. “When Joss first told me about the new show,” Peristere said, “he told me to read The Killer Angels,” the 1974 historical novel by Michael Shaara, which tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the Confederate perspective. The novel inspired Whedon to create Firefly.

Firefly is about not fitting in, about finding a place for yourself in a world where you don’t fit, finding a family and making a living,” Peristere explained. “There are very few shows out there where the stars are outcasts, who join together as a family, which as Joss says is what ‘makes them mighty.’ None of the characters fit in – Nathan is a Browncoat [stand-in for Confederate]; Morena [Baccarin’s character] is a whore; there’s the fugitive; the tomboy; the interracial couple; the weary shepherd; the mercenary who’s incapable of doing anything else. They would all be loners, if they didn’t band together.

“How Zoic was part of that, is we made the viewer a ‘welcome voyeur.’ The camera followed the emotional beats. By using a handheld camera on-set and a ‘handheld’ camera effect for the CG exteriors, we put the viewer in the emotional center of the story. The viewer is a voyeuristic participant – another outcast, a part of the crew.”

Peristere also feels a special kinship with the Firefly cast and crew. “We knew it was important. We fell in love with it because it was a great story to tell. The show was made by creative people we loved and respected for their bravery, because they embraced the outcast. All the creative people I respect the most come from the cast and crew of Firefly. It was a moment that’s impossible to recapture.”

One last reason the flans and Browncoats stay devoted – because Firefly died too soon. From Jaydepps on fireflyfans.net: “Another reason it is still relevant is because of how abruptly it was cut [off], and it never received closure. We’ve been thirsting for more. A good TV series goes for a decent amount of seasons until the story is filled in, mostly. Then the series leaves TV… Firefly was never given the chance to do this.”

More info: Creation Entertainment; the discussion on fireflyfans.net; The Browncoats website and on MySpace; California Browncoats; Austin Browncoats.

If you want to know why they call us “flans,” just read this aloud: “Firefly fan.”

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.

Zoic Stops Time, Creates Historic ‘Frozen Moment’ Sequence for ‘CSI’ Premiere

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 10/6/09.

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On September 24th, CBS broadcast the premiere episode of the 10th season of its venerable crime procedural drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation . The episode cold opened with a lengthy, two-and-a-half minute long “frozen moment” sequence, showing us a single moment in a robbery attempt involving the main characters. This sequence, which made broadcast television history, and was created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios.

The camera starts in the morgue, flying through a water spray over a number of corpses on gurneys. The environment is in total disarray, with bodies falling out of the coolers, and smoke and debris floating in midair. We travel past a coroner screaming into a phone and around a corner, to find Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall, Starship Troopers) in mid-leap as he whacks one of the robbers in the head, sending the man’s weapon flying. The camera swoops through floating medical instruments past the first tableau and up into the ceiling. One floor up, we find the same chaos in the Lab, with the CSIs and lab techs frozen in mid-motion.

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The camera continues past a book case tipping over, with falling curios, books and antiques suspended in shattered glass. Panning right and heading into the DNA Lab, the camera flies past one of the lab techs with a bullet exploding out of her shoulder, as she crashes through plate glass while suspended three feet off the ground. Wiping past her into the Lab proper, the camera finds Dr. Raymond Langston (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix, Pee Wee’s Playhouse) kicking a second robber Morpheus-style through plate glass, while several rounds of ammunition leave trails of disturbed air in their wakes.

Flying smoothly past Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger, Species, Species II) and over an exploding lab experiment, the camera continues down the hall past David Hodges (Wallace Langham, Weird Science) and Wendy Simms (Liz Vassey, The Tick), who hang suspended horizontally in midair as they leap to avoid gunfire, and into the muzzle flash of the gun of another robber.

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We transition from the muzzle flash to the glare of a flashlight held by yet another robber, and the camera trucks backwards out of a van with bullet holes and impact sparks all around. Pulling back the camera passes a robber firing at our last two CSIs, Nicholas Stokes (George Eads, ER) and Sara Grissom (Jorja Fox, ER, The West Wing), who fire back attempting to stop the theft of a body. The sequence finishes with the camera panning around to reveal Nick and Sara’s faces.

Naren Shankar, CSI’s executive producer, was impressed by a short film released in April, 2009 to promote Philips Cinema 21:9 LCD televisions. The short, entitled Carousel and produced by Adam Berg and London’s Stink Digital, was a two-minute, 19-second frozen moment sequence of police battling bank robbers dressed as scary clowns.

At CSI’s season nine wrap party, Shankar approached Zoic visual effects supervisor Rik Shorten, and asked if a similar scene could be created for the show. Shorten replied, “you write it, I’ll shoot it.”

The sequence was created as the cold open for the show’s 10th season premiere episode, “Family Affair.” Zoic had produced frozen moment shots for CSI before, but never a sequence of such complexity and length (it clocks in at two minutes, 17 seconds). The sequence was three script pages long, and required three full days of shooting on the main first unit stages, involving the primary cast members. Add to that a prep day, and an additional half-day to shoot the van tableau. The Philips spot had much greater resources – but CSI had an entire season of television to shoot. Shorten says that the producers provided Zoic with all the time, resources and support that could possibly be spared.

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The main three-day shoot employed four main motion control setups. A great deal of expense and effort went toward keeping the actors comfortable, and minimizing the time that talent would spend holding still will suspended in harness rigs.

The first portion to be shot, on days one and two, was the sequence in the DNA Lab. It was the largest and most complex set piece. Shorten and the Zoic team wrote and mapped out the shots on the prep day, giving them time to experiment on the day of the shoot, with blocking, track placement, lenses, the placement of practical elements and extras, etc. What the team learned on the first day was instrumental in making sure the rest of the sequence could be completed in the remaining days allowed.

The morgue tableau and hallway sequence were shot on day three. The hallway tableau featured Doc Robbins attacking a robber (called an “MIB” on set). Actor Hall was propped up on apple boxes and suspended by wires, while the camera moved slowly past on a track. While this one tableau sequence makes up about 20 seconds of the final product, the camera move took about three minutes to shoot.

For each shot, Shorten and his people wrote and planned out the shot with stand-ins; consulted with and got approval from the episode’s director, executive producer Kenneth Fink; ran a test shot on video; and then brought in the actors to shoot the real footage.

Some actors, like Helgenberger and Fishburne, only had to spend 10- to 15 minutes rigged up for their sequences. Other actors spend as long as a half hour held up by wires, stunt harnesses, boxes, greenscreen stands and articulated pads. Shorten says these rigs are never comfortable; and of course it’s not easy to hold perfectly still for minutes at a time. But everything possible was done to keep the actors in the rig for as brief a time as possible.

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The final tableau, of Nick and Sara firing on the van, was shot separately, taking a half a day. This scene was the most difficult and time-consuming to produce, as it was shot without motion control – no track, just a crane shot, and no clean plates. The paint-out and stilling of the actors for this sequence was an incredible amount of work. In fact, dozens of still photos of actors Eads and Fox were taken, and blended and morphed together to create motionless 3D elements of the two actors. These elements were then composited into the shot.

Shorten says that he is immensely proud of the work that he and Zoic did to create this unique and amazing sequence. “This could not have been accomplished without the incredible talents of every department on the show. Our production crew really came through, exceeding my expectations. Our excellent team of artists here at Zoic gave up their summer to create this fantastic sequence.

“I’m so grateful to everyone for their contributions. Most importantly, the show and the network are thrilled with the sequence, and the fan websites are still discussing the premier two months later – that’s the best compliment we could get!”

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More info: CSI on CBS.com ; Zoic Studios website; CSI on Hulu.

Zoic Brings Visitors to Earth for ABC’s ‘V’

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 10/2/09.

v-screencap-manhattanship_630x354A Visitor mothership hovers over Manhattan.

Tomorrow evening (11/3/09), ABC will broadcast the premiere episode of its highly anticipated new sci-fi series V, which updates and re-imagines the original 1983 miniseries of the same name. The visual effects for the new V were created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, known for providing VFX for a number of well-loved science fiction franchises.

Scott Peters, creator of The 4400, brings fans a modern take on the classic V that pays loving homage to its 80s inspiration. Written by Peters and directed by Yves Simoneau, the pilot episode stars Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost), Morris Chestnut (Kung Fu Panda 2), Joel Gretsch (The 4400, Taken); and Firefly alumni Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk.

The remake hews closely to the story of the original: mile-wide alien motherships appear above the major cities of the Earth. The aliens call themselves “The Visitors,” and appear to be identical to humans. They claim to come in peace, seeking to trade advanced technology for resources. But the Visitors are not what they seem, and hide sinister intentions. While much of humanity welcomes the Visitors, a resistance movement begins to form.

Four episodes will air this month; the show will return from hiatus after the 2010 Olympics.

Visual effects and digital production

Zoic is handling all of the visual effects for V, under the oversight of creative director and VFX supervisor Andrew Orloff (FlashForward, Fringe, CSI) and visual effects producer Karen Czukerberg (Eleventh Hour). Work on the pilot was split between Zoic’s Vancouver studio, which handled greenscreen and virtual sets, and the Los Angeles studio, where the motherships and other effects were created.

Zoic began work in February 2009 on the pilot, which featured about 240 effects shots, 125 of which involved live actors shot on greenscreen in Vancouver where the series is filmed. Another three episodes now in post-production have some 400 effects shots overall, half of which involve digital compositing of actors on greenscreen.

v-screencap-mothership_630x354A more detailed view of a Visitor mothership.

Orloff worked in collaboration with the show’s creators – Peters, Simoneau, and executive producers Steve Pearlman and Jace Hall – to design the motherships. The enormous, saucer-shaped Visitor mothership is one of the original V’s iconic images (along with a certain hamster), and visually represents the Visitors’ technological superiority and their domination over humanity. In addition, Orloff says, the creators were dedicated to realism and internal consistency and logic in the design of the alien technology and culture.

Orloff created the mothership on his laptop, working through numerous iterations with input from Peters and Simoneau. He wanted a design that was “freaky and menacing,” and would be emotionally impactful when it made its first momentous appearance onscreen.

v-screencap-mothership2_630x354The underside of a Visitor mothership begins its transformation. Buildings in Vancouver were supplemented with 3D models of real Manhattan skyscrapers from Zoic’s library.

Because the mothership itself is enormous, the 3D model used to represent it is huge and highly detailed. Zoic CG supervisor Chris Zapara (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pathfinder) modeled the “transformation” effect, in which the ventral surface of the ship changes, causing the frightened humans below to fear an imminent attack. In fact, the ship is deploying an enormous video screen, displaying the greeting message of Visitor leader Anna (Baccarin). After many rounds of pre-visualizations, a design was chosen with large, movable panels and a grid of smaller panels arranged in a snakeskin pattern. The mothership was created in NewTek’s Lightwave 3D.

v-screencap-snakeskin_630x354The “snakeskin” panels underneath the mothership flip over to reveal a video projection surface.

Digital artist Steve Graves (Fringe, Sarah Connor Chronicles) was responsible for filling in the copious detail that gives the mothership the impression of immense scale. After the pilot was picked up by ABC, the dorsal surface was remodeled to add photorealism. The model initially was detailed only from the angles at which it was shown in the pilot, due to the many hours of work necessary. As shots were created for the second through fourth episodes, Graves created detail from new angles, and now the mothership model is complete.

v-screencap-reflection_630x354Our first view of the alien mothership, reflected in the glass of a skyscraper.

The mothership design was not the only way the Visitors’ arrival was made to seem momentous and frightening. As businessman Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut) looks to the skies for an explanation of various alarming occurrences, he first sees the mothership reflected in the glass windows of a skyscraper. Although a relatively simple effect (Zoic took shots of real buildings in Vancouver, skinned them with glass textures, and then put the reflected image on the glass), the effect on the viewer is chilling.

v-screencap-shipinterior_630x354Visitor leader Anna (Baccarin, seated left) is interviewed by Chad Decker (Scott Wolf, seated right) on board the Manhattan mothership. The “set” was created virtually, with the actors shot on a greenscreen stage.

Because the motherships are enormous, it only makes sense that they would feature enormous interior spaces. These sets would be too large to build, so half the effects shots on V involve actors filmed on a greenscreen stage with tracking markers. These virtual sets, based on Google Sketch-Up files from V‘s production designers (Ian Thomas (Fringe, The 4400) for the pilot; Stephen Geaghan (Journey to the Center of the Earth, The 4400) for later episodes), were created at Zoic’s Vancouver studio in Autodesk Maya and rendered in mental images’ mental ray.

The ship interiors were created before the related greenscreen shots were filmed. For the episodes shot after the pilot, Zoic provided the production with its new, cutting edge proprietary Zeus system, which allows filmmakers to see actors on a real-time rendered virtual set, right on the greenscreen stage. The technology is of immeasurable aid to the director of photography, crew, and especially the actors, who can see themselves interacting with the virtual set and can adjust their performances accordingly. Zeus incorporates Lightcraft Technology’s pre-visualization system.

After actors are filmed on the Vancouver greenscreen set and the show creators are happy with the pre-visualized scenes in Zeus, the data is sent south to Zoic’s Los Angeles studio, where the scenes are laid out in 3D. Then the data goes back up to Zoic in Vancouver, where the virtual set backgrounds are rendered in HD.

v-screencap-london_630x354An alien mothership inserted into a stock shot of London.

v-screencap-riodejaneiro_630x354A mothership composited into a stock shot of Rio de Janeiro, with matched lighting and atmospheric effects.

Other alien technology was created for the series, including shuttlecraft and a “seek & destroy” weapon used to target a resistance meeting.

v-screencap-shuttle_630x354A Visitor shuttle docks with a mothership.

The alien shuttle and the shuttle docking bays were created in Los Angeles by visual effects artist Michael Cliett (Fringe, Serenity), digital compositor Chris Irving and freelance artist James Ford.

v-screencap-atrium_630x354The “Atrium,” a city in the interior of a Visitor mothership.

The “Atrium,” a massive interior space inside the mothership, was created for Zoic by David R. Morton (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Serenity). The complex 3D model served essentially as a matte painting. It was incorporated into a complex composited shot, with actors on the greenscreen stage inserted into virtual sets of a corridor and balcony by the Vancouver studio; the camera pulls out to reveal the Atrium, which was created in LA. Extras in Visitor uniforms were shot on greenscreen and composited into the Atrium itself.

v-screencap-f16crash_630x354An F-16 fighter, its electronics disrupted by a Visitor mothership, crashes onto a city street.

An F-16 fighter crash, featured in the first few minutes of the pilot, was done by the Los Angeles studio. The airplane, automobiles, taxis, and Manhattan buildings in the background, and of course the explosion, smoke and particles, are all digital. All the components came from Zoic’s library. The actor was shot on a Vancouver street.

v-screencap-eye_630x354FBI Agent Erica Evans (Mitchell) examines a wounded Visitor and makes an alarming discovery.

A scene involving an injured Visitor, which gives the viewer one of the first clues to the aliens’ true nature, was shot entirely with practical effects (including the blinking eye). But Zoic used CG to enhance the wound, merge human skin with reptile skin, and add veins and other subcutaneous effects.

v-zoomout_469x630Visitor leader Anna looks out over her new dominion.

According to Czukerberg, one of the more difficult shots to pull off was the final scene in the pilot. It involves the alien leader, Anna (actress Morena Baccarin on the greenscreen stage), in an observation lounge on the mothership (virtual set); the camera pulls out (practical camera move) past the mothership windows to reveal the entire ship hovering over Manhattan (CG mothership over an original shot of the real Manhattan created for this production). The shot required cooperation between the LA and BC studios, and took a great deal of time and effort – “it was crazy,” Czukerberg said, but she adds that everyone involved is tremendously satisfied with the finished product.

Zoic Studios looks forward to doing more work when V returns next year, and helping the series become a ratings and critical success. “Rarely do you get an opportunity to redefine a classic series,” Orloff said. “Everyone at Zoic put their heart and soul into this show, and it shows on the screen.”

For more information: V on ABC; the first nine minutes of the pilot on Hulu; original series fan site.