‘Doctor Who’: 12 New Rules (and 4 Suggestions) for the Twelfth Doctor

This August, the “new,” revamped Doctor Who returns for its eighth series (or 34th series, if you count the entire show as a whole). Peter Capaldi took over the lead role from Matt Smith in the final moments of the last Christmas Special, and Whovians are excited to see what the man who played Lucius Caecilius Iucundus and John Frobisher will do with the role, apart from gesticulate wildly and talk about his kidneys.

Unfortunately, Doctor Who has run a bit off the rails since show runner Steven Moffat took over from Russell T. Davies in 2010. Moffat wrote all the best episodes of the RTD era; but under his tenure, let’s just say the overall storylines and plotlines have been less than satisfactory. Not terrible, mind you; but it hasn’t been the greatest era in Doctor Who history. There have been problems.

Sure, they’ve pretty much wrapped up shooting the 12 episodes that the BBC magnanimously permitted to be produced for the eighth series. But that doesn’t mean I can’t lay down some new ground rules for the show, which Moffat will be required to follow under the International Treaty for Bloggers to Have Absolute Control of the Things They Love signed in Berne, Switzerland in 1979.

Spoiler alert, by the way. Sweetie. Continue reading

The Ten Worst Science Fiction Films of All Time: ‘Prometheus’

I feel pretty, and witty, and gay!!!

Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus'

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, British filmmaker Ridley Scott made two of the ten best — hell, two of the five best science fiction films of all time: 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner.

In the intervening 30 years, Ridley (now Sir Ridley) made movies about giant-horned devils, suicidal feminists, lady SEALs, historically inaccurate gladiators, charming brain-eating serial killers, and homeless archers. But he did not make another science fiction film.

During those years, I always said I hoped Scott would return to sci-fi. And when I heard that Scott had decided to helm a sequel reboot remake prequel to Alien, I was absolutely thrilled.

Then I saw it. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoic Presents: The Creatures of ‘Fringe’ – Part 1

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/22/09.


Part 2 of this post is now available.

Now in its second season, the Fox Network’s science fiction drama Fringe tells the story of three paranormal investigators for the FBI’s “Fringe Division” in Boston. Created by veteran television producer and feature film director JJ Abrams (Felicity, Alias, Lost; Star Trek), the cult favorite features a variety of bizarre and otherworldly creatures, many created with the help of Zoic studios.

Zoic senior compositor Johnathan R. Banta sat down with IDYE to discuss the creation of some of these monsters. His previous credits include Quarantine, The X Files: I Want to Believe, John Adams and V.

The Heartbug (from episode 1:07, “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones”)

johnathanbanta_300x400In this episode, a strange, other-worldly parasite mysteriously attaches itself to the internal organs of an FBI agent. The creature wraps itself around the man’s heart, and surgery must be performed to attempt to remove it.

Banta says, “We received artwork from production, done by a very good illustrator; and I set about making a maquette of the creature for two reasons. One, because it would help us understand what the form was — it was hard to figure it out from all the drawings, because in the multiple views we didn’t quite see how it meshed together at first. And secondly, it was fun. I just wanted to sculpt something and this seemed to be a prime opportunity for it.

“A couple of people did versions of it, one in [Luxology] modo, one in [Pixologic] ZBrush, just to kind of play around — they weren’t actually anything we used. The final model was made by [Zoic artist] Mike Kirylo.”

A great deal of work was done to allow the creature to move along with the beating heart. Scans of an actual beating human heart, provided by Zygote Media as a morph sequence, were used. “Mike had to figure out how to attach this creature to the heart,” Banta says, “and as it pulsated he would have a ‘softness’ in-between each of the hard shell [segments]. So there’s the hard carapace of the creature, and the soft squishy connective bits. Mike said he was able to find a way to make the bones between the different sections scale as the heart was beating. That way it stayed connected without being stretched.”

Everything we see inside the man’s chest is CG. “They had a prop on set that was over the top of an actor. Oddly enough, it was not in the place where the heart would actually be accessed. So for a wide shot we actually had to cut the actor down by a third of his original height, so that the hole would be in the appropriate spot to get to his heart. But for the close-ups it didn’t really matter. It was a piece of foam rubber with green paint inside of it, and we keyed that out and continued it into the cavity; and put in CG guts and an odd-shaped little bug.”

The Virus Slug (from episode 1:11, “Bound”)

In a lecture hall at Boston College, a biology professor gives a lecture about pathogens. In mid-sentence, he begins to choke and falls over. While his teaching assistant watches in horror, the professor’s throat becomes enlarged, and what looks like a massive slug crawls out of his open mouth. As the slimy creature slithers across the floor, students flee the hall in a panic.

Banta explains: “It’s a super-sized cold virus – a giant squishy slug with little cilia across its surface. This thing pulled itself out of his mouth, flopped onto the floor and squished away as quick as it could. It’s quite disgusting, and was played for dinnertime theater.

“It was a fairly simple model – a slug with a couple of things sticking out of it. But it had to maintain its volume and look like it was a rubbery object moving around, so there was a lot of finessing in the animation. We didn’t use any form of volume-preserving algorithms — other than Mike Kirylo — so it was all based on a really good animator.

“But the [professor’s] face was the interesting portion of it. This slug is rather large, and begins to distend his throat and pull his face into contorted positions that it wasn’t in originally, as the actor just basically laid there and flopped his head over to the side.

“We had to do an exact match move of the actor. We used our performance transfer system; projected the footage frame-for-frame onto our digital actor; and then we had the ability to push him around anywhere we needed to. Add a little bit of clever compositing, and next thing you know there’s a creature coming out of this man’s mouth.

“His movements were not tracked on stage — no tracking markers on him. They were tracked in post and match moved. Basically, we used every bit of detail that was available on his skin. Unfortunately, most actors don’t have very bad complexions.

“That’s something we’ve been doing a lot of, actually — digital makeup [for Fringe]. That all plays into what we’re doing with the creatures, because most of the time they are interacting directly with humans. They’re not just in the room walking around; they are becoming, or coming out of, or in some way touching people, for the most part.”


Porcuman (from episode 1:13, “The Transformation”)

In an airliner bathroom, a man shudders in pain as a hideous transformation begins. His teeth start falling out — then he screams in agony as giant quills pierce through the back of his shirt. The passengers on the plane react when the bathroom door splinters and a hideous, inhuman beast bursts into the cabin.

Banta: “This man on an airplane should learn not to experiment on himself; as a result he turns into a giant porcupine creature which brings the airplane down.

“It was in very few shots. It is originally modeled in ZBrush and Maya; we import the model, and it is rigged by our animation department and put through its paces. We run the standard passes that you would expect – diffuse, specular, ambient occlusion, fill passes, indirect lighting, those kinds of things, so that we can integrate it in the composite.

“A lot of times we’ll do what is called ‘RGB lighting,’ where every three lights will be either a prime red, a prime green, or a prime blue; and that way we have a lighting matte in every single render that we can use to do some tweaks in the composite. Also, since we’re getting normals rendered from our passes, we can use a plug-in from RE:Vision Effects to re-light the object. Whatever lighting passes that the CG department was not able to get to can be generated at the end.”

Banta notes that because of the nature of the effect, very little of the transformation involves practical, on-set elements. “This is all post at this point. They shoot it as if the creature were there — they just shoot it very naturally.

“Now that [Fringe has] a make-up crew that is known for doing creature work, there is a lot more practical stuff being done. But we have to exactly, precisely match with the practical elements when we do the CG. There are things that practical does so much better than we can do, and vice versa. It’s an all-in equation for me, because whatever works best, works best. There’s something about having a light bouncing off of a card onto a person on set holding this thing, which just gives it a sense of reality that we have to try to recreate.

“Porcuman was a combination of digital makeup with practical elements. It was a close interaction. During the transformation scene, we have a medium shot of the back, and then cut to a tight close-up of the shirt ripping as these giant porcupine spines come through it. They had an inflatable balloon on the back of the actor for the shirt; so we tracked that inflatable balloon; used our performance transfer to get that onto the back of the creature; and then animated spines coming out, and composited that underneath his shirt, which had a greenscreen on it.

“We had to do some warping of the cloth to get it to line up to the actual geometry of the creature. Then for the close-up of the shirt, instead of using the photography directly, we went with a cloth simulation of the shirt, and animated the spines. But we took sections of the torn cloth from the actual photography, and used those to sell that the tear is ripping a piece of fabric. This is a good example where something done practically pays off in spades, because we could just grab that tearing fabric and place it on each of the individual spines, and save ourselves a lot of simulation time.

Read Part 2!

The 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics


Inspired by such mainstays of geek humor as The Laws of Cartoon Physics and The Laws of Anime Physics, I have assembled the following 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics.

This list was in part inspired by my previous post, Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired.

Law of Selective Gravitation: All artificial bodies in space generate an internal gravitational field, equal to one gee, with “down” defined as the “bottom” of the body; this gravitational field somehow terminates exactly at the outer hull of the body, even if it is irregularly shaped.

First Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may travel from a planet’s surface into space in the same manner in which an airplane gains altitude, ignoring the need to achieve escape velocity.

Second Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may fly directly towards or away from a planet or other large celestial body, ignoring the fact that objects in space must describe elliptical orbits about each other.

Law of Inertial Dampening: No matter how much kinetic energy is directed at an inhabited body (in space or on a planet), the resulting disruption will be enough to jostle the inhabitants and cause minor structural damage – nothing more or less.

Law of User Interface Equivalence: When a spacecraft or space station takes damage to any structural component, the computer screen or workstation used to monitor that structure from the bridge or engineering center will explode.

Law of Ethical Xenopolymorphism: While malevolent aliens come in many forms, beneficent aliens are always humanoid.

Law of Sexual Xenopolymorphism: Humanoid alien females will always have mammalian secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, wide hips, full sensual lips), even if they are non-mammalian (lizard, avian, piscine, insectoid, etc.).

Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion: In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.

Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: all motion in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will take place at 22% of the speed it would occur at sea level; this applies to animate persons as well as inanimate objects.

Exception to Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: persons in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment may speak at normal speed.

Allen’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: objects freely floating in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will behave as if suspended from a transparent thread within a full gravity environment.

Law of Sound in a Vacuum: Despite the lack of a medium for transmission, sound will travel in a vacuum, with precisely the same properties as in the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level.

First Law of Combustibility: Anything important – spaceships, planets, robots – explodes when it is critically damaged, whether any combustible material is present or not.

Second Law of Combustibility: When anything explodes, the mass of the resulting ejecta will be less than 2% of the object’s original mass; the remainder of the mass ceases to exist.

Third Law of Combustibility: When objects explode in space, all matter that makes up the object comes to a complete stop relative to the observer, whatever its previous velocity. The explosion will then expand in an equal sphere away from the point where the object stopped.

Fourth Law of Combustibility: All objects that explode in space produce a discrete ring that expands ahead of the main shock wave; this is a fundamental principle of Aesthetic Physics.

Fifth Law of Combustibility: The shock wave of an explosion is confined to the visible fiery ball of the explosion; and both will move at 98% of the speed of anyone attempting to fly, drive or run from the explosion. After a certain distance, the speed of the shock wave will quickly drop off for no apparent reason.

Sixth Law of Combustibility: The destructive force of a nuclear warhead, and the resulting deadly radiation, cannot penetrate the skin of a typical 1950s consumer-grade kitchen refrigerator.

First Law of Practical Stellar Physics: as an observer approaches a star, the brightness of the visible light it gives off diminishes proportionally.

Second Law of Practical Stellar Physics: a star will produce no radiation except for (1) visible light and (2) a variety of heat that behaves identically to heat convection in an atmosphere, despite the lack of a transmission medium.

Third Law of Practical Stellar Physics: the dangerous or destructive region of a stellar body ends abruptly at the outer termination of its photosphere, except for the heat and light described in the Second Law.

Law of Teleportation: the amount of energy produced when converting matter to energy for the purpose of teleporting that matter to a distant location is an insignificant fraction of the amount predicted by Einstein’s mass–energy equivalence equation; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Law of Technological Complexity: No matter how advanced a technology, anyone who needs to use it will be able to deduce its basic functioning within a few minutes – even if the person belongs to an alien or less-developed culture, or comes from the distant past.

First Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: Objects designed to travel solely in space may nonetheless be designed with aerodynamic properties.

Second Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: objects designed to travel in solely in space, and which therefore are highly non-aerodynamic, may still travel in an atmosphere as if they were perfectly aerodynamic.

Corollary to the Laws of Aerodynamic Irrelevance (The O’Brien Rule): any object in space that is not designed to alter its velocity, vector or location, such as a space station, may alter its velocity, vector or location through a minor, previously unrealized engineering trick.

First Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may be ignored at any time, for any reason; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Second Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: when light, or any form of electromagnetic radiation, is employed as a weapon (such as with a laser or blaster), its speed is reduced to approximately 35 miles per hour.

Personal Equivalency Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, the same individuals will be born in the alternate universe as are born in ours, although their life paths may diverge; this is irrespective of any other changes, major or minor, to historical outcomes.

Ethical Determinism Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, historical outcomes are determined by the moral choices of the identical version of the visitor from our universe.

Abrams’ Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: in an alternate universe or timeline, events will conspire to place equivalent persons into the same social groups they occupy in our universe.

The McFly Rule: If a time traveler prevents a key historical event from occurring, he or she has one week to arrange an equivalent event that will restore the timeline.

First Law of Convergent Evolution: any alien species, regardless of the environment in which it evolved, will morphologically resemble an extant Earth species, albeit with changes in size, color, bodily features and level of intelligence; aliens may also resemble chimera of multiple Earth morphologies.

Second Law of Convergent Evolution: despite the fact that closely-related species from the same planet cannot produce viable offspring, any two humanoid species from different worlds may produce viable offspring that will bear blended traits from both species.

Law of Convergent Visemes: when a technological device is used to translate the speech of a humanoid alien, that alien’s lips and mouth movements will nonetheless appear to match the English speech of the translation.

Omegan Law of Convergent Social Evolution: a humanoid species on a distant planet is likely to pass through exactly the same historical eras, and evolve precisely the same social institutions, as the human civilizations of Earth.

Law of Extraterrestrial Euhemerism: any primitive human superstition is the result of contact with advanced alien technology; this includes psychic powers, magicians, ghosts, angels, fairies, vampires, werewolves, demons, dragons, messiahs and gods.

Law of Technological Trajectory: the more hyper-advanced an alien or future technological artifact, the more likely that it will resemble a large, illuminated crystal.

Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: due to mutations triggered by artificial radiation, animals may grow to enormous sizes normally ruled out by the surface-area-to-volume ratio.

Corollary to the Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: irradiated macrofauna will invariably seek out large human population centers and battle each other.

Influence/Malevolence Relationship in Science: the greater a scientific or technological achievement, the greater the probability that the scientist responsible for it suffers from a mental illness and/or ethical deficit.

Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact.

Anthropocentric Exception to Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact, unless that species is humanity.

Roddenberry’s Law of Cybernetic Omniscience: any sufficiently advanced computer system will contain the sum all of human knowledge down to the most inconsequential detail, even if the computer was constructed by and for aliens.

Gill’s Law of Alien Impressionability: any humanoid alien species will, upon being introduced to some detail of human history or culture, reconfigure its entire society based solely upon the human example; also known as the Iotian Law.

Law of Atmospheric Inexhaustibility: on a spacecraft, space station or other artificial habitat in a vacuum or near-vacuum, no matter how much air is lost when an airlock is opened or the hull is breached, after the air loss is terminated there will still be sufficient atmosphere to comfortably support the survivors.

Doctrine of Human Psychological Infortitude: any human gifted with transhuman abilities by an alien or future intelligence will initially attempt to perform good works with his or her new-found powers, but will be eventually driven insane and commit destructive acts; also known as the Mitchell Effect.

Doctrine of Hostile Alien Tourism: when technologically advanced spacefaring aliens initiate a war or invasion against the Earth, their first strategic maneuver will be to destroy a number of famous human landmarks, usually ones with no strategic or defensive value.

The ForbinCameronWachowski Corollary to Turing’s Test of Machine Intelligence: it is possible to demonstrate that a machine has achieved genuine intelligence or sentience, as its first act upon gaining self-awareness will be to attempt the annihilation of humanity.

The Lucas-Asimov-Herbert Model of Human Galactic Societal Development: any vast, galaxy-spanning interstellar human civilization will resemble in many or all respects the empires of the species’ ancient pre-technological past.

And… number 51:

Even’s Revision to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from lazy writing.

Feel free to add your own Laws of Sci-Fi Physics in the comments below.

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

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

v-screencap-manhattanship_630x354A Visitor mothership hovers over Manhattan.

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

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

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

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

Visual effects and digital production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quiz: Can You Identify These Geek Icons?

Originally posted in 9/06. Images restored 9/14/09.

Can you identify all 12 of these sci-fi, fantasy and geek-culture-related symbols? Anime, comics, gaming and computers have not been overlooked.

Some of them are very easy — others, I hope, are pretty hard. If you’re unfortunate enough to be using Internet Explorer, you can mouse-over the pics for a hint.

Answers follow. Good luck!

Hint:  Kaneda! Tetsuo! Hint: John Smallberries!
1. ____________ 2. ____________ 3. ____________
Hint: Can you form some sort of rudimentary lathe? Hint: Don't say the P-word. Hint: 64.
4. ____________ 5. ____________ 6. ____________
Hint: Waaagh! Hint: Burn the land and boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me. Hint: JRRT
7. ____________ 8. ____________ 9. ____________
Hint: I'd like A Better Tomorrow on VHS, please. Hint: In space, no one can hear you scream. Hint: First great graphic novel?
10. ____________ 11. ____________ 12. ____________

Select the following invisible text for the answers:

1. The design on the back of Kaneda’s jacket, “Akira” (1988). 2. Sheeta’s necklace bearing the Laputa crest, Miyazaki Hayao’s “Laputa” aka “Castle in the Sky” (1986). 3. The symbol on the side of Buckaroo Banzai’s jet car, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” (1984). 4. The logo of the NSEA Protector, “Galaxy Quest” (1999). 5. The logo for Network 23, Edison Carter’s evil employer, “Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future” (1985). 6. The Commodore Business Machines “chickenhead” logo; Commodore manufactured the PET and Commodore 64 personal computers. 7. The banner of the Imperium of Man from Games Workshops’ “Warhammer 40,000” series of science-fantasy tabletop wargames, RPGs, and computer games. 8. Logo of the evil Blue Sun Corporation from Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western “Firefly” (2002-03). 9. Runic symbol devised by fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien as a form of signature; formed from the letters “JRRT.” 10. Logo of Tai Seng Video Marketing, major distributors of East Asian cinema in the United States; brought the films of Chow-Yun Fat, John Woo, Jackie Chan and Jet Li to the U.S. 11. Logo patch of the USCSS Nostromo, “Alien” (1979). 12. Blood-spattered “happy-face” pin of the murdered Comedian, Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” (1986-87).

The 8 Dumbest Alien Invasion Plans in Cinema

Look out, alien dude! It's water!

Any reasonable person must agree that there is life in space, even if we haven’t discovered any direct evidence for it yet. And speaking statistically (look up Drake’s Equation), there must be other intelligent, tool-using life forms with whom we could conceivably communicate.

If I were forced to place a bet, I’d say that the human race will never encounter another intelligent species, if only because they will be so remote in space and time. I’d like to be wrong, and I sincerely hope that SETI will identify an artificial radio signal before I die. That would be preferable to actual alien visitors, who may wish to invade, or exploit us, or force their culture on us, or accidentally kill us all off with alien viruses. Or anally probe us.

If the aliens do decide to invade our world, I hope they are as stupid as the aliens in many science fiction films. I guess if you postulate that a species that is technologically far superior to our own wants to kill or exploit us, humanity’s only hope is that the aliens are unaccountably stupid. Of course, a science fiction author can postulate intellectually inferior extraterrestrials who nonetheless make use of advanced space flight technology, a la Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Footfall. But the explanation for the aliens’ cretinousness must be compelling.

The actual explanation for why movie aliens are so dumb? Lazy writing, and/or film producers and studio execs who don’t understand science fiction. Instead of inventing plausible circumstances under which humans could defeat aliens, they cheat.

There is a second option, what I call the Robotech Option – let the aliens win. On Robotech, the scrappy crew of the SDF-1 must protect the Earth from the Zentraedi fleet. How can one ship defeat over a 4.8 million alien warships? The answer – it can’t. The Earth is destroyed. Humanity does eventually eliminate the Zentraedi threat through cultural imperialism (Chinese pop singers as deadly alien-slaying viruses), yet the damage to Earth is done.

But movie studios seem to feel uncomfortable with the Robotech Option, so they make the aliens idiots. Here are the 10 dumbest alien invasions from cinema.

The ground rules:

1.) I’m only doing movies. Stupid alien invasions from novels, television, video games, comic books and the works of Harry Turtledove will have to be dealt with another time.
2.) I’m not reviewing or criticizing the film itself. I am taking its depiction of alien invasion at face value, and mocking the foolishness of the aliens.
3.) The aliens must be invading; idiotic behavior from friendly or neutral aliens will not be covered.
4.) As always, please read the whole damn article before commenting.

That's great, stay in that position. The reception is perfect!

That's great, stay in that position. The reception is perfect!

8. Robot Monster, 1953

The Great Guidance, the leader of an alien world populated by large gorillas wearing diving helmets, decides that humanity must be destroyed. He sends Ro-Man, another large gorilla wearing a diving helmet, to Earth, armed with nothing but a Calcinator Death Ray device and a bubble-making machine.

Ro-Man uses the Calcinator Ray to kill every human being on Earth except for eight – six people hiding in a suburban tract house and two on board an orbiting space station. All eight are immune to the Calcinator Ray because they took a serum developed by the last living scientist. Yes, a serum that protects you from a death ray. Accepting this at face value, shouldn’t the aliens who invented the Calcinator have known it could be defeated with a serum? Instead of a weapon the operation of which depends on the blood chemistry of its targets, perhaps they should have just brought along nuclear warheads.

Anyway. Ro-Man tries to kill the last humans, but their tract house is defended by an invisible force field – so invisible in fact, that the filmmakers felt no need to represent it using special effects. The obvious question is, why does Ro-Man care that there are still six humans left on Earth? What could those six humans possibly do to harm him? They’re trapped behind their force field, stuck in a tract house!

In the end, Ro-Man falls in love with the last hot chick, despite the fact she’s a nearly hairless alien primate who doesn’t have the decency to wear a diving helmet. This is a common theme in stories about unsuccessful alien invasions – the aliens fall in love with humans because we’re so darned irresistible (see Robotech and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica). For some reason, it’s okay for Max to sleep with Miriya, or Helo to sleep with Athena, or Winona Ryder to sleep with Sarek – but if that guy in Clerks 2 bangs a donkey, it’s disgusting. Why is inter-species sex okay if it’s with aliens?

The Great Guidance is disgusted with this xenophilia, and destroys the Earth — humans, Ro-Man and all. This raises two questions. One, if you’re willing to destroy the Earth, why bother to selectively wipe out humans first? And second, if The Great Guidance can blow up the Earth from his throne room on the alien home world, then why send Ro-Man in the first place?

If you’ve seen this movie, you know that at the end it all turns out to have been a dream, Bobby Ewing/St. Elsewhere style, which cinema experts all agree if the worst possible way to end a movie. Well, except an ending where you gratuitously kill off Book and Wash.

No, I'm not too busy to flirt with you! I'm just running the whole damn Borg Collective!

No, I'm not too busy to flirt with you! I'm just running the whole damn Borg Collective!

7.) Star Trek: First Contact, 1996; Star Trek, 2009

While probably the best of the Next Generation films, First Contact is riddled with silly plot elements. The only one we’ll worry about here is the Borg plan to finally defeat humanity once and for all. (No other species had been able to withstand the Borg – humans are just that special.)

The Borg, apparently frustrated that resistance has in fact not been futile, decide to attack the Earth directly. There are millions, maybe billions of Borg Cubes out there, but the Borg are feeling economical and decide to send only one. Despite their far superior scientific and technical knowledge, the Borg have apparently forgotten that Jean-Luc Picard, the former Locutus of Borg, can psychically locate all the defensive weaknesses in a Borg Cube. (It was established in the first Borg episode that Borg Cubes are too undifferentiated to have defensive weaknesses, but whatever.)

The Enterprise-D destroys the Cube, so the Borg go to Plan B – travel back in time and assimilate Earth in the 21st Century. Time travel in the Star Trek universe is ridiculously easy, so one wonders why no one ever tried this before. Picard and his crew go back in time and, taking advantage of certain long-standing tactical weaknesses on the part of the Borg, save humanity.

What tactical weaknesses?

1.) Well, there’s the aforementioned only bringing one Cube, instead of two, or 20, or 10,000. That’s a biggie.

2.) The Borg ignore any individual alien who isn’t currently threatening them, which means you can beam onto a Borg Cube and walk around freely, as long as you don’t touch anything. This is a very poor security philosophy.

3.) The Borg need only to destroy Zephram Cochrane’s warp ship. Yet they waste time and resources invading the Enterprise and assimilating its crew, trying to assimilate Commander Data, and building a transmitter to phone home. Here’s a tip for the Borg Queen: blow up the Phoenix, blow up the Enterprise, and then spend the next 500 years leisurely doing whatever else you feel like.

This explains why Admiral Janeway is able to single-handedly destroy the Borg Collective in the last episode of Voyager. Apparently, one of the things the Borg assimilated from thousands of conquered races across the galaxy was the ubiquitous humanoid trait of bone-headedness.

Lots of starship captains have scepters!

Lots of starship captains have scepters!

Note: Star Trek (2009), Watchmen (2009) spoilers ahead!

On a side note, in J. J. Abrams’ generally excellent film Star Trek, the Romulan Nero takes advantage of an accidental time travel incident to try to destroy the Federation. He makes several idiotic errors that doom his scheme:

1.) He waits around for 25 years until Spock arrives from the future, as Nero wants Nimoy/Spock to witness the obliteration of the planet Vulcan. One assumes that Nimoy/Spock would have been just as unhappy with his home world’s destruction if Nero had destroyed it at once. Anyway, this is a common supervillain blunder, requiring the hero to be present at the moment of triumph. Nero should have taken notes from Ozymandius.

2.) Nero seems to think that you can’t destroy a planet with a black hole unless you drill a hole to the planet’s core first. Believe me, just toss a singularity in the general direction of a planet and a few minutes later, you won’t have a planet anymore. Compare Nero to Gran Moff Tarkin – when Tarkin wants a planet destroyed, he just destroys it. No gloating, no fuss.

John, you'd better check that e-meter...

John, you'd better check that e-meter...

6.) Battlefield Earth (2000)

I have already dissected and ridiculed Battlefield Earth in great detail here. But to recap – if you’re going to invade the Earth and enslave its population, don’t leave advanced alien military technology lying around unguarded. Also, if the atmosphere of your home world can be destroyed by a single nuclear explosion, don’t put warheads and interplanetary teleport devices where humans can get at them. Also, don’t put Vinnie Barbarino in charge.

Ziggy Stardust meets "V."

Ziggy Stardust meets"V."

5.) The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a funky 70s cult adaptation of Walter Tevis’ classic sci-fi novel. Although far, far better than Robot Monster, it follows the same idea that aliens would send a single individual to invade the Earth.

There are certainly differences. The alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, is attempting to bring to Earth the last remnants of his ancient race, which is just a few hundred people. The aliens don’t really intend to “invade” the Earth, except insofar as they want to colonize Earth secretly and without permission. Then they hope to live in peace with humanity.

Also, there is a good reason they only send one invader – they don’t have the ability to send anyone else, as their civilization has collapsed. Newton’s plan is to patent advanced alien technology, make a billion bucks, and then build a spaceship that can fly home, pick everyone up, and bring them back.

Unfortunately, Newton blows the whole scheme by letting his friends know he’s an alien. His girlfriend (inter-species sex again!) freaks out and dumps him, and his supposed best friend Judases him out to the Feds.

The government kidnaps Newton and “accidentally” blinds him, leaving him powerless to complete his mission. It was a weak and pathetic plan that fails weakly and pathetically.

I bring you a message from the White People of the galaxy!

I bring you a message from the White People of the galaxy!

4.) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Here’s another so-called classic that I have already eviscerated. But to recap: A single alien invader named Klaatu, accompanied only by his giant robot friend Gort, has a message to deliver to the nations of the world, preferably through the United Nations. So of course he lands in Washington, DC, which is not where the UN is located. The US government thinks he’s a Communist, and won’t listen to him. Nor has Klaatu apparently ever heard of television.

Instead of delivering his message, perhaps by flying around the world in his saucer and speaking to individual leaders, or by showing up at the actual UN, or by using television (did I mention that in 1951, people had television? They also had this advanced technology called radio. And telephones. And the US Postal Service…), Klaatu spends most of the movie hanging out with a widow and her young son. Why? I don’t know.

Klaatu gets killed and brought back to life, and at the very end of the movie delivers his message, which is that the Earth is to be monitored by giant alien robots, and will be destroyed if humans show any signs of hostility. Then he leaves. The end.

The invasion plan (send giant alien robots to rule over humanity) actually goes without a hitch, as there’s nothing humanity can do to stop it. But the rest of the plan is just stupid. Klaatu never had to land or leave his saucer. He could just broadcast a message, and then pull the whole “cancel all the Earth’s electricity” trick to prove he’s serious. No one gets hurt, and Patricia Neal gets to marry her evil dick boyfriend.

Which brings us to…

Dude, I was totally supposed to bring you this message, but now I totally forgot what it was. Are you holding?

Dude, I was totally supposed to bring you this message, but now I totally forgot what it was. Are you holding?

3.) The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

If there was any film that could benefit from a remake, it was The Day the Earth Stood Still. Unfortunately, the new version is just a dumb as the old one, albeit in different ways.

This time, Klaatu actually lands in New York, near the UN. He is kidnapped by the government, where he meets Jennifer Connelly. With her help, Klaatu escapes and meets with an alien spy. Gort gets locked in a missile silo. Grey goo threatens the world. Klaatu stops the goo and dies.

Um.. what?

The only part of the plan that makes sense is the hanging out with Jennifer Connelly part. Even a cloned space alien portrayed by a closeted gay actor would want to date Jennifer Connelly.

The alien plan is this: humans are destroying Earth’s precious ecosystem, and this upsets the aliens, so the aliens decide to annihilate the ecosystem — all of it, rendering Earth uninhabited. Yes, really.

Sure, afterward they will recreate Earth’s biosphere using samples collected by Klaatu. But seriously, kill every living thing on Earth in order to save every living thing on Earth (except humans)? Why not just kill the humans?

Once again, Earth is saved by human-alien bumpty-humpty. Well, not really — Klaatu and Jennifer Connelly never do it, because Keanu Reeves is no longer permitted to film sex scenes after Matrix Reloaded. But Klaatu decides to save humanity because Jennifer Connelly was so nice to him. And somehow, this failure to destroy the Earth is going to be accepted by the other aliens? But dudes, Jennifer Connelly is smoking hot! Whoa!

Hey, have you seen my contact lens?

Hey, have you seen my contact lens?

2.) The War of the Worlds (1953), The War of the Worlds (2005), Independence Day (1996)

When H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898, the way in which the aliens were defeated was novel and clever. Now, not so much.

In the 1953 film, Martians send hundreds of their Tripod killing machines to Earth, and start systematically wiping out cities. Humanity tries nukes, but the Tripods have impenetrable force shields. That’s the whole plan, really.

Unfortunately, it never occurs to the Martians that they might be vulnerable to Earth diseases, so they fail to wear space suits, or seal the airlocks on their tripods, or filter their air, or get vaccinations; and all the aliens die from a virus. Through an incredible stroke of luck, the aliens don’t bring with them (intentionally or unintentionally) any Martian viruses, so humanity is saved. Hooray!

After falling in love with a human, the second most popular example of alien invader stupidity is forgetting to invent the space suit.

The film also suggests that prayer helped defeat the aliens, which is total bullshit.

Must... have... Nyquil Cold & Sinus...

Must... have... Nyquil Cold & Sinus...

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version, which I enjoyed quite a bit, is pretty much the same, which is why it doesn’t get its own entry on this list. This time the Martian tripods have been buried in the Earth’s crust for thousands of years. This weirdness is never explained, although I guess we could come up with a variety of ways to retcon it.

In this film the aliens bring along H.G. Wells’ Red Weed, although apparently this rapidly-growing plant requires human blood in order to grow. How amazing that something which evolved to feed on human blood did that evolving on Mars. (I know, it could have been genetically engineered. But when all the humans are dead, how will the Martians feed it?)

Again, the aliens forget to invent the space suit, and Earth viruses kill them and their Red Weeds. The film possibly hints at a reason – when we see the actual Martians, they look and act like children. Are the invaders the descendants of a once proud but fallen race, like Thomas Jerome Newton? Have they forgotten to wear space suits, or maybe they just can’t read the instructions? Or perhaps those were highly intelligent, adult Martians with giant eyes, who idiotically forgot about communicable diseases.

Now, when I say "go," you press Apple+Shift+V...

Now, when I say "go," you press Apple+Shift+V...

The 1996 alien invasion film Independence Day attempts a clever riff on the War of the Worlds’ defeat-by-virus theme, but in this case, instead of never inventing space suits (the aliens do have those), they never invent Norton Anti-Virus. Somehow, genius cable repairman Jeff Goldblum is able to create a computer virus that shuts down the aliens’ force shields. Yes, Goldblum had access to decades worth of alien research from Area 51, but still – infecting the alien computer system with a virus using a Mac Powerbook?

A note to all alien invaders – update your virus definitions and employ a decent firewall. A decent IT department is the key to any interplanetary invasion. And for chrissakes, get vaccinated!

I am sure glad God is going to save us from these evil aliens He created...

I am sure glad God is going to save us from these evil aliens He created...

1.) Signs (2002)

The alien invasion plan in M. Night Shyamalamahammy’s Signs is the granddaddy of all idiotic alien invasion plans. (No, I am not making fun of Indian people and their names. I am making fun of M. Night Shamalamadingdong and his stage name – his real name is Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan.)

Let me just say that I really enjoyed Signs. Seriously. I enjoyed it so thoroughly in fact, that I was out of the theater before I realized hey wait a minute – that made no sense whatsoever!

Here’s the alien plan:

Step 1: Communicate our plans for invasion by creating crop circles. Everyone knows that cerealogical communication is far superior to such primitive methods as radio waves.

Step 2: Jump around on people’s roofs, and disturb their birthday parties.

Step 3: Be completely unaware of how to open a door. Make sure you have no weapons, or other devices that might help you open a door. Breaking windows is also taboo.

Step 4: Knock humans unconscious with the gas our alien bodies produce, and drag them to our invisible saucers, presumably to eat them. Or probe them anally. Or suck out their blood and feed it to the Red Weed. Whatever.

Step 5: ???

Step 6: Profit!

But the most important part of the aliens’ plan is this: Our bodies react to water as if it were acid. So when invading a planet which is 70% covered with water, the atmosphere of which contains water, so much so that the water forms clouds and precipitation, absolutely do not wear any protective clothing or gear whatsoever. I’m sure that if humans ever visited a planet with methane seas and a methane atmosphere, they’d just run around naked like we’re doing.

Be sure to check out my series on the Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time!