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.

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.

nascarconcept_630x354

“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.

A Long Strange Trip: Jeff Suhy’s Journey from Artists & Repertoire to Twitter & Facebook – Part 1

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 12/29/09.

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In 2009 Jeff Suhy joined Zoic Studios, the visual effects house in Culver City, California. How the former A&R executive found himself working alongside the creators of spaceships for Battlestar Galactica and vicious monsters for Fringe is not only the story of one man’s career, but of the trajectory of the entire entertainment industry over the past three decades.

In the first part of this two part interview, Suhy describes the path of his career and how he came to Zoic as Creative Director – Digital Strategy. In the second part, he discusses the current state of the record industry, and what the catastrophic changes there portent for the entertainment industry as a whole.

So, you started out at the 128th best university in the country [Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College].

Is that what it is? [Peals of laughter.] That’s awesome! Out of how many, 150?

I was a track athlete in high school and I was recruited by a number of schools. My only real criterion was that I go to a warm place, and the warmest place that recruited me was LSU. So I went to LSU on a track scholarship.

Where did you grow up?

Chicago area, suburbs of Chicago.

So what was it like going to the South?

It was great. I was born in Tallahassee. So my family is from the South, and we somehow found ourselves in Chicago, because my Dad was transferred a lot via work. … My goal in life was to escape the Midwest; and I really wanted to come west, but I really didn’t have any reasonable scholarship offers out of the West. So I went south into the heart of the beast. And I stayed there for five years.

I ran the college radio station there – I was music director, I should say. I ran it from the industry perspective, as opposed to the actual operation of the station. And I worked at a record store. We bought a bunch of imports, and I started to learn about all these independent and import artists, and started programming that stuff on the radio. We started working with some of the labels to bring the bands through Baton Rouge.

I discovered you could have a record store radio station, and you could promote music and actually turn an artist that no one had ever heard of into something that people actually wanted to see. These bands would come touring through the US, and would have a date in Atlanta, then they’d go to New Orleans, then they’d go to Houston, and maybe they would have a stopover in Baton Rouge for the night. What they’d discover was that the shows in Baton Rouge were bigger than the shows in the major markets… because we were promoting the artists on campus. We ended up creating a successful scene there.

This was the mid-80s, right?

The mid-80s’ yeah – ‘84 to ‘88 would be the time frame. Then I started talking to SST Records, they wanted to bring me out to L.A. I’ll tell you the whole story, even though I know zero of this story should end up on [the blog post.]

So I moved out to L.A. thinking I was gonna work for SST Records, and when I got here they were bankrupt. I had nowhere to work and nowhere to live. I had a couple of hundred bucks in my pocket. And my Dad said “you’re an idiot.” My uncle gave me a place to stay on the floor of his apartment. I was resigned to survive L.A., even though I was having a really hard time.

I took a job at Larry Flynt Publications, as marketing coordinator, because I found it in the newspaper the day I got here and realized I didn’t have a job. [Suhy describes his job censoring pornographic material for ads, with NSFW details.] That was the most glamorous part of that job.

My feeling was, where is the creativity going? I wanted to follow the creativity.

As you might imagine, I was pretty diligent while taking the money from that job — I think $18,500 a year was my salary — taking that money and surviving until I could get myself into the music business, which is why I came out here.

The heavens opened, and I ascended to A&M Records in a miraculous scenario that changed my life. I stayed there ten years, and became vice president of A&R there, during that 10 year period.

And then A&M was acquired by Universal, and they fired everybody including me, even though I was so great. I had about a year-and-a-half on my contract to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, which was fortuitous, because I didn’t have to work. So I spent a lot of time on the Internet. I was really into technology and computers; I had an Apple II Plus when I was in high school in ‘82-‘83. So I was always trying to figure out technology, write programs, and hack things.

Then Napster came along when I was on my hiatus, and I went a week without sleep; I was obsessed. And at the end of that week I realized … I was going in to music & technology.

So I found a couple of guys…, and collectively we started a company that was ultimately called Nine Systems. … We worked with all the entertainment companies, and we built a software platform over a period of seven or eight years; and that was ultimately acquired by Akamai… which is a pretty major tech company, in December 2006. I stayed there for two years, and then escaped the MIT-PhD-math world and came back into the entertainment business, which is where I am now at Zoic. To combine my vast production and content experience with my now vast technology experience, and find ways to help media companies solve the riddle of the digital media era.

Can you talk about what you’re doing right now?

Right now we’re working with ad agencies on everything from banner ads, to other basic web implementations for brands. We’re working with some online brands in the redesign of their web sites and rebranding efforts. We are working with game companies to develop new ways to market their video games to consumers. It’s all little pieces of a big puzzle.

We’re developing original IP right now, which is a product called Media OS. We’re very optimistic that’s something a lot of our clients are going to find very useful to manage and build online media experiences.

But why Zoic?

Good question. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I met [Zoic Studios founders] Loni [Peristere and] Chris [Jones] and [CFO] Tim [McBride], and realized there is a kindred spirit here. There is a support structure here to have that entrepreneurial, “invent-something-new” environment, combined with a stable, thriving creative organization that is very client-focused and very flexible. It isn’t all rigid and CFO-driven — it’s very creative-driven. It has … a start-up kind of vibe, but it’s well-established. Zoic is trying to leverage “visual evolution” into the new age of digital media, and I saw that was a great fit for me, I could help that happen.

Nobody wanted to hear anything about technology; hopefully if you just close your eyes and litigate against it, it will go away, you know?

I spent many years of my life at A&M being very artist- and very creative-driven; creating media, understanding pop culture, and understanding how people respond to media, how to market media; everything that was very media-oriented and entertainment-oriented. And I love that environment, everything being driven from a creative perspective. And I saw it dying in the late 90s, as corporate methodology was coming into a business that was once very naïve and gut-instinct-oriented. If you didn’t have a hit with an artist, it was an artist-development environment, where if everyone in the company believed in the artist, you would keep trying to foster their success, even though they wouldn’t have necessarily have any immediate returns on their first record. I just love that environment.

The record business became sort of a “home-run-or-forget-it,” a hit business. And the economics changed; the value of the art changed; it became much more of a commodity, much more commercialized. It became much less appealing. My feeling was, where is the creativity going? I wanted to follow the creativity. I wanted to use my experience in developing artists…

I had a certain skill set, but I had never had a chance, because of the myopic nature of the record business, to be able to use my technology background and interest in technology, because [the industry] was very phobic. Nobody wanted to hear anything about it; hopefully if you just close your eyes and litigate against it, it will go away, you know? I was doing all kinds of interesting stuff in technology, and it was not a receptive environment to that type of thing.

I also got tired of going to clubs, and I got more interested in sitting in front of my computer. I knew there had to be a future with music online and content online, and I wanted to have a deeper understanding of that, to the root. So I dove from production A&R into software, and let my geek side come out. That was very rewarding, and I enjoy that business and enjoy software and Internet content and digital media, all that stuff. I love what’s happening right now, it’s a very exciting and dynamic time.

I see a lot of companies and people struggling with how to make sense of it, and companies trying to market their artists, or market their media, their brand –I know where these people come from because I was there. It’s tough to wrap your head around these new models. I enjoy combing the new sensibility and contemporary thinking in digital media with an analog state of mind, which used to be and still is in some degree the prevalent way of thinking in the media business.

The best way to do that was to start a company, and develop this software that nobody had and which became really valuable, and was purchased for $160 million by Akamai. I did time at Akamai, which was fascinating, because then I got really deep into the technology. But I also discovered I don’t really want to go there, that’s not really where it’s interesting for me, it’s too much; and I needed to find a place that had an understanding of both [creativity and technology], and that’s why I’m at Zoic. It’s a company that embraces technology but has a traditional understanding of and adoration of creativity. Understanding those things is the future, and I’m in the future now, that’s why I’m here.

Where’s your flying car?

It’s outside. (Laughs.)

Read Part 2.

Syd Dutton: Matte Painting from Traditional to Digital

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/4/09.

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It’s a cliché to call an artist “legendary,” but sometimes the word fits. Syd Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, The Running Man, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Batman Forever, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, The Time Machine, The Bourne Identity, and Serenity.

The Emmy-Award winner co-founded Illusion Arts in 1985, which created thousands of shots and matte paintings for over 200 feature films over 26 years. When Illusion Arts shut its doors earlier this year, Dutton and Zoic embraced the opportunity to collaborate, and Dutton became part of the team.

When I sat down to interview Dutton over coffee, it was with the intention of putting together some kind of grand post about the history of matte painting. But it’s far more interesting to let Syd speak for himself.

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When I looked over your credits, I saw you worked on one of my favorite movies, Real Genius (1985).

That’s one of my favorites too. We did a practical matte for the B-1 bomber. [Val Kilmer and Gabe Jarret sneak onto a B-1 bomber on a military base.] In those days it was still paint on glass, and to get a sharp line for what was supposed to be the underbelly of the bomber, it had to be really sharp. But we were shooting at night. In order to black out the film, to do an original negative – you know what original negative work is, we needed two exposures — to get a real sharp line the matte had to be 50 feet out and 40 feet long. We spent several hours making it, putting cardboard where the belly had to go, making sure people would be underneath that line all the time. It was pretty fun.

But that was the coldest night of my entire career. I’ve been to some cold places, like Prague, but on that Van Nuys tarmac, that was the coldest ever.

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You also worked on David Lynch’s original Dune (1984). Can you tell me about the matte painting of the Harkonnen city on Giedi Prime?

Basically this was just a big painting. The people who are moving around were shot in a parking lot at Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City. Just one smoke and fire element was used over and over again. And then a car on a cable goes through the shot. The car was created by model maker Lynn Ledgerwood (The Bourne Identity), and measured about 8″ long.

The difficult thing about that was my partner and Al wanted to keep [film] as much as possible from being duplicated… we wanted to keep the painting on original film. So [we were] shooting the painting and making a very crude motion control frame-by-frame move; taking the film into an optical printer, trying to match the move through the optical printer; and then we put the people in and the smoke and the cable car. So we had to do a lot of adjustments, and we found that it had to be so exact, if we waited to shoot in the afternoon, the concrete floor had expanded. We had to shoot at a certain time in the morning, before the expansion occurred. So it was complicated, but we seemed to have lots of time in those days, and it was a fun painting to work on.

David Lynch would come by when I was painting it, and he would say “I like it, I want it dirtier.” He was always a nice guy, really a gentleman.

In your experience, what is the difference between working with traditional mattes versus digital?

There was a wonderful thing about doing original negative matte shots. You had to prepare the shot, and then you had to be committed to a matte line.

You had a whole bunch of test footage, and when the painting was completed you had to re-expose the same film, and hope that light bulbs didn’t burn out when you were shooting, or that the glass didn’t break. But it had a completeness to it, and so when you finished a matte shot, and when it came out like the ones in Real Genius — I thought they came out pretty well — there’s a great sense of completeness.

You made a long matte, you worked out the problems, you’ve been cold, you’ve endured that process, and you’ve gone through the photochemical process of developing the pieces of film, and working the matte line until it has disappeared. And finally you take a deep a breath and expose the two or three good takes that the director likes. And you put the worst one through first to make sure everything is working well, show it to the director, and then put the hero take through. Of course nobody had seen any footage unless they were shooting a B-cam, which they never did; and so it was kind of like the Catholic Church, where the director had to trust you that in two months or so you would have a finished product they would approve and like.

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Did you ever experience any disasters in that realm?

The only near disaster was when Tony Perkins — we were the first shot up on Psycho III (1986), that he was directing, and he was a real nice guy — and the first shot was this girl leaving a nunnery, and there was a piece of string that she had to follow so she would be on the [right side of the matte line].

And we had everything ready, the camera blocked off, and Tony Perkins came on the set. He came over to the camera, he looked through the lens and said “that’s perfect,” and then put all his body weight on the camera to lift himself up. And we said “we can roll in a few seconds!” I didn’t want to say “oh, you just [expletive deleted] up the shot!” We said, “oh, we need just a few more minutes of adjustment.” So we lied – we had to reset the matte, readjust the camera. If we had told him he had just screwed up the first shot of his movie, it was really bad luck. But that’s another shot that turned out well, I liked that shot a lot.

I can’t remember who the production designer was, I think it was Henry Bumstead [it was]. Everyone should know who Henry Bumstead was. He just died a while ago; he worked until 90, and died when he was 91 [in 2006]. He was Clint Eastwood’s favorite production designer, and in his 80s he designed Unforgiven — beautiful production design. Henry always made everything easy. Of course he had worked on Vertigo (1958).

According to IMDb, your first movie was Family Plot with Alfred Hitchcock?

Well, that was uncredited. I was hired by Albert Whitlock to work on The Hindenburg (1975) as a gopher, primarily, but then I came up with some ideas of my own, and Al liked them; so after Hindenburg Al made me his assistant. And Family Plot was again Henry Bumstead. Al really didn’t want to do the matte shot because he felt that it was – Hitchcock just wanted to show [actress] Karen Black what a matte shot was. It was a police station in San Francisco, a pretty easy matte shot; adding a second story, putting some what I would call “intelligent nonsense” in the background. So I painted that.

You had a fine art background?

Yeah. I went to Berkeley. Had a master’s degree. Had a wonderful time. Everything I learned, except for a sense of color, was totally useless when it came to matte painting. But it was still good to have that background. The best thing about going to Berkeley in those days was everyone wanted to be in San Francisco in the ‘60s. So I met people like Mark Rothko, pretty famous painters.

So what was it like to transition to digital, to have to train?

Oh, for me it was really hard. Rob Stromberg (2012, Avatar) was working for me at the time, and he embraced it really fast. I was just sort of afraid of it. I got used to it – it took me a while.

The people I know who were able to make the transition faster were people who like to draw things out. Bob Scifo (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Abyss) for example is a wonderful matter painter. He has worked here for Zoic a couple of times. He came from the school where you drew everything out, and then painted it in. But he still got this incredible emotional result.

The way I learned to paint was the way Al Whitlock painted and Peter Ellenshaw (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Black Hole) painted — you just started painting. Sometimes you didn’t know what you were going to paint, exactly; you knew what the subject matter was going to be — it might be a castle — but you just push paint around, and you start seeing things materialize – oh! I can see it now – and you let it dry, and try to bring all of it out of the fog. And that was a wonderful way to paint.

And in Photoshop, at least in the beginning, I couldn’t paint that way. I couldn’t make a big mess – it just stayed a big mess, I couldn’t refine it. The only way I could discover things and make a big mess was with Corel Painter; you can blend colors together and have accidents happen. And then at that point I usually finish the work in Photoshop.

When painting matte backgrounds now, you’re painting a painting, but there’s also the approach where you’re creating a 3D environment and making a 2D image from that.

Yeah. And there’s also projection – projecting a 2D painting onto objects. That’s another way to get camera movement. There’s no such thing anymore as a locked-down shot — that’s what matte paintings used to be. You would do everything in the world to make sure the camera didn’t move. And now people consider it a locked-off shot if they just hold the camera steady.

In the early days, you got to go out on location, sometimes to some really adventurous environments – a rock in the middle of some bay in Mexico; on a hillside in Europe somewhere. It was very physical, so you had that physical part. That part is now gone. Now I have to exercise to stay in shape, rather than just work. It was kind of dangerous, really – I didn’t think about it at the time.

There are no circumstances where they want you to go out and see the original location?

Not anymore. The visual effects supervisor will go to the locations, take photographs. He becomes the point man for every other department.

Does that feel like less involvement on your part?

Well, that’s the trade-off. The trade-off is that we can do now what we used to dream about doing. Which was, wouldn’t it be great if we could paint a grand, futuristic city and loop through it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a huge crowd running towards us in that shot? Rotoscope in a thousand people or something?

Things that we used to dream about, we can do now, but the trade-off is we don’t get to be as involved in the production as we once were. I talked to [Zoic co-founder] Loni [Peristere] about that. I said I feel bad for some of the kids here, that they’ll never be on the stage. It’s fun to be on location. He said the trade-off was they have all the tools to make their own movies. So, everything has a trade-off.

More info: Syd Dutton on IMDb.

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.”