Zoic Studios Works with Tiger Woods, Wieden+Kennedy to Create Moving “Earl and Tiger” Spot

See the “Earl and Tiger” spot on Nike Golf’s official YouTube channel, or on the Zoic Studios site.

There is no need at this late date for a simple VFX blog to recount the recent events in the professional and private lives of golfer Tiger Woods. But as Woods attempts to resume his career, both as an athlete and as a corporate spokesperson, he and sponsor Nike, along with ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, production company Pretty Bird and Zoic Studios, have created a moving, personal and risky 30-second commercial spot. Zoic has worked with Wieden+Kennedy on several spots of late, particularly the ESPN NASCAR campaign out of New York, and Coke NASCAR and now Nike out of Portland. Continue reading

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.

Zoic Brings Photo-real CG to Broadcast TV with ESPN NASCAR “Dominoes”

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 2/2/2010.

ESPN NASCAR "Dominoes" spot

To the opening riffs of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” two NASCAR drivers jostle for position at the front of the pack. One cuts off the other by the wall, and the rear car speeds up, smashing into the front car. As the front car drifts from the wall, the rear car makes its move, attempting an aggressive pass on the right. But it’s no good – he sideswipes the front car and spins out. He’s slammed by another car and flips high into the air, triggering a massive pile-up. And straight through the smoke and chaos of the pileup – a third driver makes his move and takes the lead. “It’s anybody’s race.”

The 30-second spot for ESPN (see it here), promoting the NASCAR Nationwide series, was created by advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy New York and Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios. The commercial is significant because, despite its unique and stylized black-and-white look, it appears to have been shot in live action. In fact, it’s entirely CG.

Zoic co-founder Loni Peristere, who directed the spot, talks about why the commercial was created digitally, and how Zoic was able to create the illusion of perfect realism.

“The question from Wieden+Kennedy was, ‘we have a project, two scripts, which take place on the track, and would require significant action and stunt work. We’re trying to decide whether we should approach this from a live-action standpoint; or should we approach this from an animation standpoint.”

Wieden+Kennedy insisted the final product be photo-realistic; the agency did not want a commercial that looked like a video game.

But Wieden+Kennedy was insistent that the final product must appear perfectly photo-realistic. Peristere says the agency did not want a commercial that looked like a video game. “It was really important to them that it had the energy, grit and testosterone of the track. They were not interested in making a spot that didn’t have the reality of NASCAR.”

The agency was well aware how far CG realism has recently progressed. “Even in the last 12 months it has come a long way,” Peristere says. “With the advent of motion pictures like Avatar or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we are seeing the potential for photo-real characters, photo-real environments, and photo-real action. But could we actually achieve that for a commercial, and could we afford it? What would the timeline be?

“We got boards for both spots, and it became readily apparent why they were even asking this question – they had a 40-car pileup in the middle of the first spot, and a pretty significant crash in the second. Now when you looked at the second spot, you thought ‘well, from a production standpoint you could probably pull that off’; in fact we’d done something similar for Budweiser the year before. But the 40-car pileup featured just an enormous amount of damage to an enormous number of vehicles, which from a production standpoint would be very expensive.

“And the ability to control the lighting and the camera and the art direction would be limited in a live action production. You would be fighting against the sun, making you rush through the shots, allowing you limited control over your color palette. And you would have the expense of wrecking an enormous number of vehicles.”

Peristere discussed the project with other principals at Zoic – fellow co-founder Chris Jones, commercial creative director Leslie Ekker, commercial executive producer Erik Press, and CG supervisor Andy Wilkoff. “We thought it would be fun to rise to the challenge,” Peristere says. “We knew the team we had been building over the last several years had the potential to do incredible photo-realistic work. We’d seen large leaps in the realm of photo-real characters. We came back to Wieden+Kennedy and said ‘yes, yes we can.’”

ESPN NASCAR "Dominoes" spot

Deciding to do the spot in CG led to the first question – should the drivers’ faces be represented in the spot? Human characters are the most difficult thing to create realistically in CG. “From a directorial standpoint,” Peristere says, “I felt it was absolutely essential to see the drivers, to understand who they were, and to know what their motivations were so we had a personal connection to the race. I had the ever-present voice of [Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly series creator] Joss Whedon in my head, who says ‘it’s all about the story; it’s all about the people.’

“We enlisted the help of some incredibly talented artists, including Brad Hayes, Brian White, and Michael Cliett.” Hayes and White had worked at Digital Domain on Benjamin Button and more recently on Tron Legacy, and had been a part of the development of a character-based VFX pipeline.

The technique used for “Dominoes” involved projecting the actual NASCAR drivers’ faces onto CG characters, allowing Peristere complete control over movement and lighting while still getting full, photo-realistic facial performances.

“Andy [Wilkoff] and I went to the very last race at Daytona, and after race day we met with the eight stars of our two commercials. We ran them though some technical setups, which involved a three-camera shoot against a greenscreen. I directed them through a series of emotions and actions that related to the story we were telling. We then took those performances back to Zoic, made editorial selects based on those performances, and gave them to Brad and Andy and the smart people to make something cool with.”

Dmitri Gueer, founder and senior editor of Zoic Editorial, was involved in the “Dominoes” spot from the pre-viz stage through the final product. He describes the editorial process as “non-stop,” and uses the facial performances as an example of Editorial’s involvement at each step.

“The pre-viz had the drivers, but we didn’t see their faces,” Gueer explains. “So the drivers were just a placeholder in the cut. When we later got the driver plates, we started picking the selects and placing them in the cut. Since the pre-viz already existed, you needed to find takes that worked for the placeholders.

“When you have the drivers’ faces mapped in the shots, it becomes apparent when we need to give them a little bit more time, or take a little time from them, because something’s not working out; and once you have a set of almost-final shots, the edit takes on a different spin. You need to pick the sweetest spots in the shots; you need to reestablish the pacing; you need to make sure there’s continuity from shot to shot; and that the edit comes together not just as a story, but also that it gels with the music and is captivating to watch.”

“We had the added complexity of a 40-car pileup,” Peristere says, “which involved extensive damage to CG vehicles, but which had to happen organically. That was hand-developed and designed by Brian White, another Digital Domain veteran with an intimate knowledge of physics and kinetics, who was able to use both animation-by-hand and procedural techniques to bring these cars into collision. You’ll see that every vehicle reacts and behaves just as a real car would as it impacts. When we have our big moment where we t-bone the hero car, you actually see it break where it should break, and that’s because Brian White made it so.”

I was looking to invoke the German Expressionist period, so I wanted these incredibly long shadows, with crushed blacks.

The spot also required an enormous smoke simulation. “Whenever these cars spin they generate tons of smoke. We worked closely with Zoic Vancouver, and a number of technical directors up in that office who specialize in smoke; they did the phenomenal nuclear explosion scene in the forthcoming movie The Crazies, for which they developed a lot of the pipeline for this — which involves Maya fluid dynamics, along with some techniques in RF4 Real Flow — so they could generate authentic smoke elements that gave the illusion and sense of a full-scale car accident on a NASCAR track.

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“Kevin Struckman, Mike Rhone, and Trevor Adams all put in an incredible number of hours to make these smoke simulations incredibly spectacular, concluding with the hero car penetrating the giant smoke cloud, creating those beautiful little vortices that you see. That’s something that’s pretty tricky in a fluid simulation, and they were able to do a really nice job with that.”

In order for the spot to come together organically, there was an immense amount of compositing. “We brought in real smoke, spark, and pyro elements to underline the CG elements. Also, every single one of the 27 shots in this 30-second spot had upwards of hundreds of passes– lighting, reflections, highlights, lens flares, vignettes, grain – all of this stuff that had to be added as a secondary layer.”

The spot was rendered in full color, but the end product was always intended to be in a highly-stylized black-and-white. “That was a choice we made with Wieden+Kennedy, to create a style, a more graphic look. For me it was heading towards the films Alfred Hitchcock made in the 40s and 50s, and looking back even further to F.W. Murnau and Sunrise, and Fritz Lang and Metropolis. I was looking to invoke the German Expressionist period, so I wanted these incredibly long shadows, with crushed blacks. You’ll see a low sun – I call that the Ridley Scott sun, because Ridley Scott shoots at the magic hour all the time, and we wanted to put that in every shot. You’ll see these incredibly long film-noir shadows with bright brights, and black blacks.

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“Then we wanted to include the branding of Nationwide; so we applied the Nationwide presence as a design element. We had an illustrator, Eytan Zana, who did a phenomenal job setting the tone and palette.” Zana worked with Wieden+Kennedy, and with Derich Wittliff and Darrin Isono of Zoic’s design department, applying the Nationwide Pantone color to the stickers, the cars, and the track.

Peristere says, “I think overall, this black, white and blue we put together in the compositing really lends an original look to this spot that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

Zoic VFX supervisor Steve Meyer handled the final finish, color grading and color treatment. “We wanted to have sort of a Raging Bull kind of look, high contrast black-and-white. So the compositors left things a little bit more on the flat side to give range; and then I took that, got the style Loni [Peristere] was looking for, and added some of those little nuances like the road rumble, the extra shake when something flies by camera, that kind of overall stuff.

“It’s a stylized look that you could attribute to real photography. I’ve been in the business for a bit, and it blows me away when I see it. Wow, that’s frickin’ all CG? It’s a very impressive spot. I was glad to be a part of it, because I think it’s going to have some legs.”

In the end, it was up to editor Gueer to assemble the finished shots into the final product. “It was a non-stop editorial process, from the beginning when Loni was assembling the story, to the time when we had all the final shots on the Flame. One of the things Steve [Meyer] did was add camera shakes to the shots, which made them look much better; but it changes the nature of what you’re seeing, even the slightest shake. You go well, wouldn’t it be better if we cut a few frames from this, or extended it by a few frames? When we had the final shots on the Flame, we literally did editorial on the Flame, making it better and better and tighter and tighter.”

“With this giant team of 40 some-odd people who worked on this spot, it’s certainly one of Zoic’s finest hours,” Peristere says, “and we’re incredibly proud to have put it together.”

People look at this spot and say “where did you guys shoot this?” Well, we didn’t shoot it!

Press is thankful to Wieden+Kennedy for trusting Zoic with the production of such an innovative and risk-taking spot. “They had faith in us and patience with us, and that was really great, because it really took that to produce this spot. It was a great experience on both sides. They gave us a lot of creative freedom, to really bring out the best in us. We pushed ourselves really hard to the level of realism and level of detail.

“I mean this kind of work, this animation, the quality level, is something very new for broadcast,” he says. “The extent to which we have gone to produce this spot in a visual style, in CG animation, has really never been done before. It’s a full 100% photo-real CG spot.

“NASCAR is very concerned about representing their world accurately, which was a big challenge for all of us, both from an agency side and a production side. Down to the decals on the cars, and the physics of the accidents, what would really get damaged and what wouldn’t, where would skid marks be made on the track… So people look at this spot and say ‘where did you guys shoot this?’ Well, we didn’t shoot it!

“The music was Metallica – my understanding is they’ve never licensed their music for broadcast commercials before. That was exciting from the get go — definitely a driving force creatively, no pun intended, the kind of energy that brings to the spot.”

Press says the spot has exceeded everyone’s expectations. “We’ve seen that response all the way around, from the agency, from our colleagues in the advertising world, and from ourselves as well – it’s really some of our best work. We’ve really set the bar anew; there’s a new target for us now, which is fantastic.”

More info: ESPN NASCAR “Dominoes” on Zoic Studios; Wieden+Kennedy.

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.

ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS: Leslie Ekker on VFX for ‘2010’ – the Movie, Not the Year

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/12/2010.

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Well, it’s finally 2010. As you know, Pan Am currently offers commercial flights to all the major space stations; every family has pet dolphins in their specially-converted cetacean-friendly homes; computer graphics have finally hit 16-bits, displayed on futuristic CRT monitors; and the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of war.

Okay, so maybe the film 2010, Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, got a few details wrong. And it’s not really on the same level as its classic predecessor. But it’s still a fun, smart, great-looking sci-fi adventure that deserves a second look.

Roger Ebert said it better:

Once we’ve drawn our lines, once we’ve made it absolutely clear that 2001 continues to stand absolutely alone as one of the greatest movies ever made, once we have freed 2010 of the comparisons with Kubrick’s masterpiece, what we are left with is a good-looking, sharp-edged, entertaining, exciting space opera…

Just as the year 1984 spurred interest in the novel 1984, so 2010 has created renewed interest in the film – Google searches for “2010 movie” have spiked sharply in the last two months, and the film is up 413% in popularity this week on IMDb.

To satisfy those succumbing to the current 2010 mania, I spoke to Zoic Studios commercial creative director Leslie Ekker, who was a member of the miniatures crew for the film.

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“The first thing we had to do on 2010 was to build the spaceship Discovery from 2001. Unfortunately, in England, where the ship was built and shot and stored, an accountant had decided years before not to pay for the storage of the ship anymore; drew a line through a number on a list; and all the models were destroyed. There was literally nothing surviving. But we had to reproduce the ship as exactly as possible so that people would recognize it. And the only way we could do it – none of the drawings existed, no information, no photographs—was to rent a laserdisc of the film; freeze-frame it; take photographs of those frames; enlarge them to the point where they were useful for me; and do overlays, tracing the edges of all the details onto a drawing. Then I did a perspective analysis, and created six orthographic views that could be used as construction drawings. I had to do that with the entire Discovery, front-to-back, in order to be able to reproduce it.

“The production was in touch with the original people. In fact, all the visual effects were being produced by Doug Trumbull, who was one the principle people on the team for 2001. He knew all the people involved, and got in touch with the right folks — but nobody had anything left. Pretty sad, considering what a classic 2001 was.

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“So first I had to do these construction drawings, and it was challenging, because the shots [in the original 2001] are actually fairly scarce. There aren’t a lot of things from different angles, and of course the image quality was pretty poor. So there was a lot of interpretation. Ultimately, we got it pretty close.

“We made two different scale models of the Discovery, and one large-scale model of the front end of the ship. One model was about 10 feet long, much smaller than the original ones they built in England. They built huge miniatures due to the shorter depth of field of lenses in those days! Ours was designed to rotate, as well. In the scenes where they come upon the Discovery still orbiting, it’s tumbling end-over-end because of precession, the physical force on a rotating body (its gravity carousel) that is 90 degrees to any other forced applied to it.

“The Discovery is dusted down with sulfur, because it’s orbiting around [Jupiter’s moon] Io, which has sulfur volcanoes that erupt into space. So that got stuck to the body of Discovery, it’s all sulfur yellow — so naturally our models were painted yellow, unlike the original.

“The Boss Film model shop supervisor was Mark Stetson, an Oscar-winning feature film VFX supervisor now. In his model shop in Marina Del Rey, we built a lot of different miniatures for the movie. Some were of the Leonov, the Russian ship, and the Discovery; but also of the moons’ surfaces. We built a few models that were pretty interesting.

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“One of the ideas they explored in 2010, that actually had a lot of controversy surrounding it, was the concept of life under the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa. They have since found there is most likely liquid water under that ice, and it possibly could have enough warmth to support life; and it may actually harbor life, maybe in bacterial form. It’s hard to say. That was kind of interesting. One of my jobs on the movie was to help make that life.

“We built the surface of Europa, a small section of it, and filled it with some water, sections of ice, and strange looking plants. We used Madagascar palms for some of the plants, because they’re so strange looking already; they look quite alien. In the shallow water of the pond, built into the tabletop of the model, we had some invisible rigging that could move some very fine feathery plants in an intelligent way, as if they were motivated, under the surface of the water. That’s what you see in the film when you see something moving under the water — it’s actually a very fine dried plant getting pulled around by an invisible rig.”

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The design of the Russian spaceship, the Leonov, had to differ from the “American” design of the Discovery. “The common wisdom was that Russian technology looks heavier, and feels clunkier, and has more exposed detail, kind of a brutal design style. [Legendary industrial designer] Syd Mead was employed to design the Leonov, and did some beautiful drawings.

“Peter Hyams, the director of the film, scrutinized the drawings very closely to make sure every single line from the drawing was on our model; to the point where, in a perspective construction drawing, if a sketched line ran off the corner of an object, he wanted a little wire glued onto the object to represent that line. It was kind of strange, but we did it.

“I spent about six weeks just building plumbing in the hub of the rotating section. If you look carefully at the Leonov, there’s this really intricate rat’s nest of pipes of all different sizes, weaving in and out and going off in different directions. And there was one on each side, so they had to match. I had to make matching sets of this very intricate piping, melting and bending pieces of plastic model piping by hand. It took weeks and weeks to do. Then I had to make a miniature version, half that size, for the smaller scale Leonov. It was a lot of fun, but it was also really challenging.

“One of the other things I did was to create the Cyrillic typeface you see on the side of the Leonov, and the other graphics that go on the ship. We had a translator create all the different words we needed, and then went to a type house and had wax transfers made — these were rub-downs we used to use in the graphic days before computers. I had sets and sets of them made in both the different scales, applied them to the ship, and then we painted them into the overall paint scheme of the ship. It’s the only time I’ve had to work in Russian!

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“There’s a sequence in the film where the Leonov has to execute an aerobraking maneuver. That’s when a spacecraft just grazes the outer atmosphere of a planet, using aerodynamic friction to slow itself down, rather than burning fuel. It does this with a device called a ballute, which is a half-balloon half-parachute. We were had to make ballutes that were deployed from the core of the aft-end of the Leonov, and they were big inflatable airbags — gas bags, really. I had to develop a way to create airtight bags that were of a very specific shape. The surface pattern on them looked like some kind of fiber-reinforced textile. We had to be able to stow them in a very small volume, from which they would inflate very quickly to a certain size on camera. And then we made a separate set of those same ballutes that were fully inflated to a rigid shape.

“We also needed to make another set of ballutes, coated with pyrotechnic powder, and light them on fire, send them down a wire and film them, to be composited with the rest of the spacecraft for the actual moments of high friction and heat. So it was quite a project, and I was assigned the task of designing and producing these things.

“I had to learn pretty fast how to make airtight structural bags out of very tough, heat-resistant materials. I used very thin Mylar, like space-blanket material; and thin double stick tape to make the seams. I made screen prints of the graphic pattern on the surface. And we ended up using a leaf blower to inflate them. Leaf blowers are great, because they pump huge volumes of air at low pressure. You can inflate something very large without a lot of force behind it, so when it reaches the end of its inflation capacity it doesn’t burst a seam. After about five weeks of effort, that actually worked.

“Then we set about sculpting the rigid versions, which were just foam sculptures that were hard-coated, and painted and stenciled with the same graphic pattern as the airbags. Then we made copies in fire-resistant epoxies, in order to pyro-coat them and do the actual burning sequences. All this work was done at Boss Films’ Glencoe model-making facility, where there’s nothing but condos now. In those days Glencoe was all shipyards and industrial facilities; that’s all gone now.”

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Ekker remembers 2010 as a fun, if challenging, experience. He also related an anecdote on how his work on the film helped him in another way:

“When you’re in the union, you have a card in a file that tells what your specialties are. And in the union system, if a model shop is putting together a union crew, they have to just call the union and say ‘send me five model makers,’ and hope they get good people. A lot of people, who say they’re model makers, really are not model makers.

“The workaround was, you would go and request someone who had a skill that was very specific to that person. A lot of us had skills that were very unique-sounding, but they were legitimate, because we had to be able to do the skill. After 2010, my skill card said, “pneumatic inflatable structures,” and “foreign language typesetting for model making” — skills so esoteric, it could only be me. So if, say, someone wanted to hire me, they could call up the union hall, and say “I need a guy who can make an airbag,” and they’d send me up!

For more info: 2010 on Wikipedia, IMDb, Amazon; Roger Ebert’s review.