‘FlashForward’ Flashback: Zoic Studios’ Steve Meyer on the Award-Nominated VFX for the Pilot

Posted by Erik Even in I Design Your Eyes on April 1, 2010

Property of ABC; screencap from the Zoic Television Reel.

Based on the science fiction novel by Robert J. Sawyer, ABC’s FlashForward tells the story of the aftermath of a bizarre global event. For 137 seconds, every person on Earth (except perhaps one) loses consciousness, and experiences visions of their own future.

The pilot episode presents the immediate aftermath of the worldwide disaster, with the consequences of the worldwide blackout – millions of deaths due to traffic collisions, crashed aircraft, and other accidents. Star Joseph Fiennes, portraying FBI agent Mark Benford, survives an auto wreck and looks out over a chaotic Los Angeles cityscape. Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios was tapped to create the disastrous tableau; the company’s work on the episode was nominated for two VES awards, for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program and for Outstanding Created Environment in a Broadcast Program or Commercial.

Zoic VFX Supervisor Steve Meyer discusses the creation of the complex scene, which required a tremendous amount of rotoscoping and motion tracking. The amount of roto was necessary, Meyer says, “because they shot in downtown LA, looking from the 4th St. overpass, over the southbound and northbound 110 Freeway. So naturally you can’t stop all that traffic, or get a greenscreen up.

“There’s a big, swooping hero shot following Joseph Fiennes as he jumps up on a car and looks down, and it’s a huge vista. Then we reverse it and look northbound. Everything in the foreground on that overpass we had to roto out. We had a team of seven or eight people going for weeks, just rotoing that and a bunch of other shots.

“We ended up having to remove all the traffic on the freeway; then added in overturned cars, cars burning, flames, smoke, helicopters crashing, just debris everywhere. We had to build a 3D matte painting in that environment. There’s a lot of detail – you can look at the shot over and over, and always see something new.”

The production brought on an experienced feature film matte painter, Roger Kupelian (2012, Alice in Wonderland) to create a “road map” of the shot. “Kupelian took a still of the freeway overpass shots, and he just dialed it in with Kevin Blank, the VFX supervisor – we want smoke here, we want the helicopter to hit here, we want fire and destruction here, we want this tree burning. They gave us a template – this is what we need it to look like. Kupelian sent us the files, and sometimes we used his elements.

“There are about 45 shots we ended up doing for the pilot, and the majority of them were for that overpass sequence. For most of the shots, nothing was locked off – every shot had some sort of roto, because there was no greenscreen. We had to roto everything to build the shots, and then try to match the smoke, fire, debris, people and other elements from shot to shot.

“We were working with different formats — stock footage, film footage, the Red Camera — trying to mix all these different formats to create one environment.”

All the scenes were tracked in Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes camera tracking software, from which the team was able to build a 3D environment. The artists used this 3D information in Adobe After Effects to rebuild the plate with clean pieces of freeway, overpasses, signs, etc.

“The smoke was a combination of digital photographs, Google images, CG smoke, and moving elements that we had in our vault. Some of the smoke was a dust cloud that we slowed down. One of the smoke passes was a photo of a brush fire I took up by my house with my iPhone. I took the image, gave it to one of my compositors, and said ‘this will look good off in the distance.’ It’s so far off you don’t see it moving, so it fit in fine.

“They shot lots of people on greenscreen, and they all needed to have the right camera lens perspective. They’re way off in the distance; you have to get up close to an HD screen to see them. But we didn’t want any nuances to be overlooked. We don’t want to shoot a person head-on when the camera is going to be looking down at them.

“Another complication with the overpass sequence was that it was shot on a bright day, so we had a lot of technical problems. If you look at someone up against a bright sky, the sun wraps around them a bit, like a halo – and we were trying to put a dark smoke cloud behind them. It just doesn’t work right. We had a lot of technical things to try to work through when we ran into those kinds of problems. Every shot had to be 3D tracked. We took that 3D track into our environment, and we placed things in our 3D world shot by shot by shot.

“We also had a CG tanker in there that blew up. They actually had a real tanker with a big hole in it, and they threw in six gallons of gasoline and lit it and boom! It was huge. We had to put the shell of the tanker on there before the practical explosion; and then we just blew it up in Autodesk Maya and added CG debris, camera shake, heat ripple and dynamic smoke trails; plus glass shattering on the buildings and other background effects.”

Property of ABC; screencap from the Zoic Television Reel.

Wreckage from the tanker explosion strikes an overturned car and knocks it off the overpass onto the freeway below. Zoic created the car in CG. “They shot everybody running up to the guardrail and looking over,” Meyer explains. “We had to remove the railing and put in our own CG railing, so when the car goes down it takes it with it. So we had the complicated roto of recreating the people’s bodies that were behind the railing. We had to rebuild lots of people’s legs and waists. We put in the smoke and stuff that dynamically reacts to the car, so when it gets sucked down it creates a vortex and pulls the smoke down. Also, there’s an orange cart right nearby. We try to get every detail right, so when the car goes down we have a couple of oranges that roll away with it.

Property of ABC; screencap from the Zoic Television Reel.

“Then we had the falling LAPD helicopter. We took a panoramic image of a building, so we’re working on one frame and can do a pan-and-tilt in post. The helicopter has already crashed into the building, and we needed to have the smoke barreling out through most of the sequence, with the rotor blades still spinning — then we get to a certain point, and there’s an explosion that pushes the helicopter out. It tumbles and it’s scraping the building, tearing it apart and opening it up.

“Roger Kupelian labored intensely on a matte painting of the inside of the building, with what would be exposed – wires, beams, pipes, office equipment. As the CG helicopter was falling down the face of the building and opening it up, our compositor just revealed it with little mattes. At the same time we threw in sparks, debris, dust and smoke. It ended up pretty good. It was tough making an animation that made everyone happy, but in the end it looked great on the big screen at the viewing.

“Some of the shots were fun, because you can really push the envelope — let’s see what happens when we do this or when we do that. It took a lot of planning and careful choreography to between our 2D and 3D teams to keep the action and look continuous. Our teams worked tirelessly to create seamless product because anything out of place would be glaring.

“This isn’t ‘sci-fi’ with spaceships and aliens,” Meyers says, “which allow a bit of imagination – but rather, real-life vehicles, smoke, fire, people and buildings that have to look real.”

More info: FlashForward on ABC.com; the latest Zoic Studios Television Reel on ZoicStudios.com; Steven Meyer on IMDb.

Zoic Breathes Life Into Cartoon Network’s ‘Ben 10: Alien Swarm’

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 11/27/09.

Ben 10: Alien Swarm

This week, Cartoon Network premiered Ben 10: Alien Swarm, its second live-action movie based on the popular animated children’s series Ben 10: Alien Force. Alien Swarm is the sequel to the first live action film, Ben 10: Race Against Time; both were directed by Alex Winter (Freaked, Fever).

Alien Swarm continues the story of ten-year-old Ben Tennyson, an ordinary boy who becomes part of a secret organization called “the Plumbers,” which fights alien threats. He possesses a wristwatch-like device called the Omnitrix, which allows its wearer to take the physical form of various alien species. Ben, now a teenager and played by 23-year-old Ryan Kelley (Smallville), defies the Plumbers to help a mysterious childhood friend find her missing father.

Winter, an experienced director more familiar to fans as an actor from the Bill & Ted films and The Lost Boys, chose effects supervisor Evan Jacobs (Resident Evil: Extinction, Ed Wood) to oversee the movie’s many effects sequences. Jacobs worked with Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios to produce character animation and particle work for a number of key scenes.

Ben as Big Chill, using his freeze breath.
Ben as Big Chill, using his freeze breath.

Zoic worked on three main characters – Kevin “Kevin 11” Levin (Nathan Keyes, Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith), an alien-human hybrid who can absorb properties of matter; Ben’s cousin Gwen Tennyson (Galadriel Stineman, Junkyard Dog), another hybrid who manipulates energy; and Big Chill, one of Ben’s alien forms, a creature that breathes ice.

Zoic’s Executive Creative Director, Andrew Orloff (V, Fringe), says that for the production, the filmmakers chose to stay away from motion capture as “too limiting.” With all the jumping, flying and other stunt work that would be required, performers hanging from wires would not produce as realistic a result as traditional keyframing, in which every frame of a computer animation is directly modified or manipulated by the creator. “All the characters were traditionally keyframed and match moved by hand,” Orloff says.

Orloff collaborated with Winter and Jacobs to turn the Big Chill from the cartoon, an Necrofriggian from the planet Kylmyys, into a 3D, realistic breathing character. Working with a model created by Hollywood, California’s Super 78 Studios, Orloff developed character and motion & flying studies for Big Chill before the filmmakers ever hit the soundstage.

“It was very important to Alex [Winter] that we stay true to the original series, and give it a little something extra for the live action series that’s a real surprise for the viewers, to see their beloved cartoon characters finally brought to life,” Orloff says.

Gwen blasts the alien swarm, as Big Chill hovers nearby.
Gwen blasts the alien swarm, as Big Chill hovers nearby.

“Based on the visual choreography of the scenes, we didn’t really do previsualization as pre-development of the character. We talked about the way that [Big Chill] can fly, the maneuvers it could do; and that allowed Alex to have in his mind at the storyboard phase a good idea of what the kind of movement of the character was going to be.

“He’s a seven foot tall flying alien, so to create that realism was definitely a challenge. To take a two-dimensional character and turn it into a three-dimensional character, you have to maintain the integrity of the two-dimensional design, but make it look as if it’s realistically sitting in the environment. So we added a lot of skin detail, we added a lot of muscle detail and sinews; it was tricky to get the lighting of the skin exactly right. We just had to make sure that the skin had that ‘alien’ quality, so it didn’t look like a manikin or an action figure. We wanted to give a realistic feel to the skin using Maya/mental ray to render that subsurface scattering.”

Much of the footage with Big Chill involved the character flying and fighting inside a warehouse. It wasn’t possible to shoot plates that would track exactly with the as-yet unrendered character, and the filmmakers could only guess how the character would move, and how quickly. So Jacobs provided Zoic with a variety of plates of a number of different moves, plus some very high resolution 360° panoramas of the warehouse interior. Zoic then used these materials to produce its own plates, rebuilding the warehouse from the set photos and creating the shots needed to flesh out the sequence. This process was time-consuming and difficult, as much of the blocking and choreography was highly detailed.

In addition to designing the character’s movements and rendering his actions, Zoic created the freeze breath effects for Big Chill. The character’s power required two kinds of effects. First, Zoic used heavy-duty particle and fluid simulations in Maya and mental ray to create the chunks of ice, smoke and liquid nitrogen that blast from Big Chill’s mouth. Then Zoic produced quite a bit of matte painting work to encase objects in ice, icicles and frost. These include the chip swarm tornado; the interior of the warehouse; and the villain, Victor Validus (Herbert Siguenza, Mission Hill).

Kevin, having taken on the properties of the metal girder, attacks the alien swarm.
Kevin, having taken on the properties of the metal girder, attacks the alien swarm.

The main antagonist in Alien Swarm is the alien swarm itself, a cloud of thousands of intelligent, flying alien chips that work together to harm the good guys.

The alien swarm was also created in Maya and mental ray. According to Orloff, “there needed to be thousands of chips that swarmed with a random yet directed attack. The idea that the chips were learning, so they would group together – first they try to go at Gwen and the kids, and Gwen blasts them away — then they reconfigure into a buzz saw and try to attack the kids that way — then they configure into a large tornado – you have to give a personality, but an evolving personality, to a swarm of objects.” In predevelopment, Zoic looked at fish schooling and insect swarming behaviors in nature, to give the swarm movement that felt organic without seeming contrived.

Zoic also produced the effects for Kevin, who absorbs the properties of matter from objects. “Kevin was a big challenge,” Orloff says, “because what we ended up doing was scanning the actor; as he touched something we would put a CG version of the model over the top of him; rotoscope those few frames where the transition occurs; take that model and map it with whatever the material was – a rusty metal beam, a wood desk, a concrete floor. We rotoscoped the CG version over the top until the transformation was done, and then we transitioned from the rotoscoped animation, based on the actor’s performance, to a fully CG character animation.”

The energy manipulation effects for Gwen were “a ‘two-and-a-half-D’ effect, using 3D particle generators and 3D scene-tracked cameras in Adobe After Effects to create the energy bolts and energy fields that Gwen uses. We wanted to give it a ‘Jack Kirby’ kind of energy feel to it. So it has a lot of character to it, it looks very organic, and it affects the background objects and produces heat ripple effects.”

Frost effects in the warehouse. All of the frost and ice are VFX.
Frost effects in the warehouse. All of the frost and ice are VFX.

While Zoic was providing visual effects for the movie, Zoic’s Design Group worked directly with Vincent Aricco and Heather Reilly from Cartoon Network’s On-Air department, developing both the show and promo packaging for Ben 10: Alien Swarm. The package was used to promote the film both on-air and online – as well as in the Comic-Con preview this past summer.

Design Group Creative Director Derich Wittliff worked with Zoic’s internal production team, lead by Producer Scott Tinter and Designer Darrin Isono, creating 3D environments and models based on the movie’s 2D logo and other references from the film. Elements were created in Maxon Cinema 4D, Autodesk Maya and Adobe After Effects. The final product was a show open and modular promo toolkit which allowed Cartoon Network’s in-house team to create custom endpages, IDs, bumpers, and other elements.

Because the Zoic Design Group worked under the same roof as the team that produced effects for Alien Swarm, they had access to the best elements available from the show, like the “swarm” effect itself, as soon as they were created, allowing for an efficient process which produced finished elements for special uses – like Comic-Con – far in advance of customary production schedules.

Zoic Design Group Executive Producer Miles Dinsmoor says Zoic was excited to have the opportunity to work directly with Cartoon Network, acting as both a visual effects and digital production studio for the main production, and as a creative design shop for the promotional package, exploiting Zoic’s fully integrated media and design department. His goal is to offer Zoic’s in-house design and creative expertise industry-wide, and not just to Zoic’s existing VFX clients.

Orloff says he is proud of the work Zoic did on Ben 10: Alien Swarm, and looks forward to future collaboration with everyone involved – and hopefully, another Ben 10 movie.

More info: Ben 10: Alien Swarm at Cartoon Network; on Amazon.