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!