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

Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 2 ‘Erma Felna EDF’

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: the furry animal sci-fi comic Erma Felna EDF.

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

Number 9 of 10: Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)

It took a few decades, but computer graphics engineers have mastered the modeling and rendering of hair and fur. This has allowed a tremendous level of sophistication in CG animals that are realistic (the giant ape in 2005’s King Kong), cartoonish (the new CG Chipmunks films), and somewhere in-between (Aslan the Lion from the Chronicles of Narnia adaptations).

But little has yet been done in the realm of anthropomorphics, what is sometimes referred to as “funny animal” or “furry” animation and comics. These are usually representations of characters with animal heads and other bestial characteristics, but humanoid (“anthropomorphic”) bodies, intelligence and the ability to speak. Such furry characters may or may not wear clothes; may live in their own “furry” world, or in the real world with humans; and may have their own animal-based culture. Such creatures appear in children’s literature (Beatrice Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit; Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 The Wind in the Willows) and in adult stories (Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1980-91); Kirsten Bakis’ 1997 Lives of the Monster Dogs). Continue reading

Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 1 ‘Wings of Honneamise’

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. First up: the 1987 anime feature film The Wings of Honnêamise.

In the 1980s and 90s, effects-centered films and television shows occupied specific niches. In film, an effects-heavy movie like Ghostbusters or Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a summer tentpole release designed to reel in teen audiences of repeat viewers; while a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its $2.5 million an episode budget, was a risky experiment in capitalizing on 1960s nostalgia.

Today, most movies rely heavily on VFX, many of those effects invisible. Greenscreen sets and set extensions, digital makeup, and post-production fixes for on-set mistakes are just a few applications of digital technology used in films and TV shows that the average viewer might think had no effects whatsoever.

But audiences still want “effects-heavy” films, from The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies at the turn of the millennium to the Iron Man films and Avatar today. And for the first time in TV history, shows from Firefly and Battlestar Galactica to V and Human Target are recreating the experience of effects-heavy, action-oriented movies on the small screen.

Two factors have led to this renaissance in effects-driven entertainment. First, technological advances have made it cheaper and cheaper to create top-quality effects. And second, those same advances have made it possible to realistically render visions that were never possible before. Today’s VFX artists can create worlds that just ten years ago producers would have said could only be represented with traditional animation. Rumor said James Cameron abandoned his Spider-Man film project because he was dissatisfied with the realism of the character’s CG web-slinging. Can you imagine the director of Avatar having such a concern today? Continue reading

‘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. Continue reading

Zoic’s Syd Dutton on Mentoring in the Visual Effects Industry

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on3/25/10.

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It’s easy for today’s young filmmakers to forget that the art of the cinema goes back 132 years; television 83 years; and interactive media 23 years. Today’s students might think the latest high tech tools are all they need to succeed in the rapidly-changing visual effects industry; and they’ll be sorely disappointed when their ignorance of time-tested filmmaking technique puts them in the dole queue.

That’s why mentoring is so important to the future success of young VFX professionals. I recently sat down with Zoic Studios’ Syd Dutton to discuss the importance of industry pros passing along their knowledge to the next generation.

Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, 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.

As we spoke, Dutton’s longtime collaborator and Zoic compositing supervisor Fumi Mashimo listened in, and occasionally interjected. Mashimo’s credits include From Hell, Van Helsing and Public Enemies. Continue reading

From ‘2001’ to ‘CSI’: Zoic Studios’ Rik Shorten on Motion Control for VFX

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 3/12/10.

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In cinematography, motion control is the use of computerized automation to allow precise control of, and repetition of, camera movements. It is often used to facilitate visual effects photography.

I spoke with Rik Shorten, visual effects supervisor at Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, about his use of motion control and how the technology has changed since it was introduced over three decades ago. Shorten produces motion-controlled effects for CBS’ visually-groundbreaking forensic drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He recently took home a VES Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program for his work on the “frozen moment” sequence in CSI’s tenth-season opener.

“I didn’t work on the original 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Shorten says, “or back in the Star Wars days in the 70s when computer-controlled cameras were first developed. But fundamentally, the way the technology works hasn’t changed. The rig I use almost weekly on CSI is the original rig from [David Lynch’s 1984 science-fiction film] Dune. The Kuper controller, the head that controls the rig, runs on MS-DOS. It’s a really old-school programming language that they used for these original systems, that hasn’t really changed because it hasn’t had to. It’s a coordinate-based system, XYZ, and we can write the moves we need. The way we do it today is the same way they would have programmed it 20 years ago. So from that perspective, the technology hasn’t increased.

The way the technology works hasn’t changed. The rig I use on CSI is the original rig from 1984’s Dune

“What has changed is that the rigs have gotten smaller, lighter and quieter. They now have the ability to run silently — they used to be so loud that you couldn’t record dialogue with them. Today we have smaller rigs that can fit through doorways – they’re made out of carbon fiber pieces now, they’re not the behemoths they used to be — and you can have actors delivering dialogue in the same scene as a motion-control move.

“So how we use them hasn’t changed, but slowly but surely they’ve made progress. Some weeks I use the old rigs versus the new ones, because that’s all I need, and the moves are simple enough. We have a system that’s 30 years old that we use side-by-side with a system built three or four years ago. And we interchange them based on the needs of the shot.

“As far as CSI, there are two ways we use motion control. We do stand-alone in-camera shots with the motion-control rig, where we’re flying over a prosthetic, or we’re traveling around a prop, and we need to get a macro shot; we use them a lot for macro photography. We have a couple of different snorkel lenses we use on the systems; one’s an endoscopic lens, and one is a probe lens, and they were both designed for medical photography. They’re both barrel lenses, about 12” long. The endoscopic lens is a fixed lens, sort of a wide-angle lens; it’s a tiny skinny little lens you can stick through a donut hole. If you see any shots where the camera goes in-between something where it seems like it shouldn’t go, that’s the lens we use.

“The probe lens is a little bit bigger, but it has multiple lens sizes, so we can go as wide as a 9mm or 12mm lens, for super-wide shots; right up to your prime lenses, your 22s, 25s, 30s, whatever it is. We use that in the same way, for getting into tight spots, and for getting macro, because the close-focus on these lenses is only about six inches. That’s a lot tighter than a normal lens can get.

“We use these cameras to get that sort of fantastical camera move that a Steadicam or a dolly couldn’t do. So when it’s got to rotate on three axes and fly in, that’s when we’ll program something in motion control. It’s like a 3D rendered camera, but we’re actually shooting it in real life. It frees us up to do more aggressive, creative moves.

motioncontrolcsi_630x354Rik Shorten with Director of Photography David Drzewiecki (center); with unidentified crew member and actress.

“The other way we use motion control is for multiple passes — like in the old days where they did three or four passes of the starship Enterprise with different lighting setups, and combined them all later. We don’t do much of that these days, at least in television; I’m sure they still do it in features. We use it for multiple layering. We’ll do the same scene with different elements in three or four passes, all broken apart with the same repeatable move; then we’ll put them all back together so we can affect the different elements in different ways.

“We do ghost shots every week. We’ll have a production plate without a foreground actor in it, just a background. We’ll track that plate here at Zoic. The data is then converted to XYZ coordinate data — ASCII files that MS-DOS can read off old-school 3½“ floppies — so the Kuper controller on the motion control rig can mimic the camera move from the track plate that we shot in first unit. When I put that data in, and I have my background plate and my video setup, I run them together and they’ll run at the same time. The camera will mimic what the first unit camera did.

“Let’s say a guy is firing a gun in front of the greenscreen, and he’s supposed to be a ghost image superimposed into the scene. I’ll shoot him on greenscreen, with that tracked camera move; and then when I come back here to Zoic, I’ve got a motion control pass on the greenscreen, and I’ve got my first unit plate, and the two line up perfectly. That’s how we get all the stylized transition pieces, and all those layers that CSI uses to great effect, because we have the capacity to translate and then to reshoot at a later date using the motion control system.

Recreating a scene on the greenscreen that was shot in the field is always a challenge…

“The first time I saw this used was in [1996’s] Multiplicity with Michael Keaton – that’s when I saw this tech first exploding, having the same person in the same scene, over and over. There were a lot of production cheats used for years, with locked plates and simple split-screen; but this technology allows you to travel 360 degrees around somebody, and go into the scene and come back out of the scene; and people can cross and interact and do other things, that they could not do without this system. If you’re using live action elements for these high-concept shots, then motion control is the only way to do it.”

Shorten says that precision is an important issue, just as it was with traditional locked-plate shots. “Sometimes we don’t have the exact lens, we’re off by a few mils. Say they used a 50mm lens and I only have a 45mm, sometimes there’s a little eye matching that needs to happen. To say it’s plug-and-play is disingenuous. You need to understand the limitations of the system.

“Recreating a scene on the greenscreen that was shot in the field is always a challenge. You need to expect there’s going to be some compensation; you’re going to have to do a little eye matching, playing shots back and doing an A-over-B in our video assist, and then adjusting your frame rates and composition, adjusting the speed of the moves. A lot of times, even with the track data, we’ll have to make some on-the-fly compensations to get things to sit in there correctly.

“We do surveys on location, as far as distances to camera and understanding where the actors are supposed to be in the greenscreen instance. How far away from the camera is the actor supposed to be in the scene, that’s where we start. When we transfer the data, we have a general idea that the camera’s six feet high, it’s five degrees tilted up, and 22 feet from our subject. But when you get it in the studio and do the A-over-B, you might realize that you need to be zero instead of five degrees, or you need to be four feet closer, or you need to change your lens a little bit. The elements have to line up visually, not just by the numbers, so they’re actually going to work when you look at the images together.”

Shorten says that some problems with matching can be fixed digitally. “There is a lot we can work with digitally. It’s not very often we will shoot something in motion control, come back here and have to throw it out completely. Usually it’s salvageable, even if we’re off for some reason.”

Shorten’s greatest challenge is in helping the television production community become comfortable with motion capture technology. “There is still a fear of using this technology, even though it’s been around for years, because it’s still considered to be the domain of feature films, and commercials and music videos that have more time and money than most productions believe they have.

motioncontrol_shorten_630x354Rik Shorten on the stage.

“There is an education process, that we’ve been quietly working on for a long time. ‘Motion control’ really is a four-letter word for a lot of production managers, who say ‘I don’t have the time, I don’t know the technology, I don’t know how to use it, I don’t know why I need it, and you’re going to kill my one-liner if I have to take five hours to set up a motion control shot. We just won’t do it.’ We run up against this all the time.

“And this is even on shows like CSI, which is comfortable with the technology. Every ninth day we have a motion control day, even if they are simple in-camera things. They understand it, but they will bounce shots. When I suggest taking my motion control off my second unit day, and putting it on set – as soon as I’m doing it with main unit actors, in the middle of the day when there’s 150 crew around, suddenly even shows that are comfortable with the technology get very nervous.

Definitely there’s a lot of apprehension, but it’s such a great technology…

“The hope is that with these smaller and quieter rigs, with the idea that we can do pre-viz and set surveys so that when we show up on set we know exactly where our rig is going to go, we can get in and get set up very quickly, and start rolling video takes to show a director within a couple of hours. We can have our pre-viz and our moves written, if we do our surveying correctly, so that we’re not starting from scratch. We don’t need a week to do a motion control move.

“Definitely there’s a lot of apprehension, but it’s such a great technology. These shots can’t be accomplished any other way, without costing too much. If you don’t shoot it this way, if you try to back into it later, you need all kinds of digital fixes and compromises. You spend money somewhere. Getting it in-camera, and doing as much as you can physically — for a lot of set-ups motion control is head-and-shoulders above any other technique, from a financial standpoint and for the way it’s going to come out for your show.

“It’s about trying to build that trust and that faith with productions. We’re not suggesting motion control because we want to noodle around with computer-controlled cameras; it’s because it really is the best way to achieve your shot, and get the elements we need to make something really dynamic for your show.”

More info: Zoic Studios Wins Big at 2010 VES Awards; Zoic Stops Time, Creates Historic ‘Frozen Moment’ Sequence for CBS’ ‘CSI’ Premiere.

Perfect “Harmony”: Zoic Creates VFX for Daytona 500 Coca-Cola NASCAR Spot

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 2/17/2010.

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Eleven top NASCAR drivers are having a bad day, grumbling into their car radio mics. But once in the crew pit, each driver is offered a cold, refreshing bottle of Coca-Cola. Back on the track, the drivers are so exhilarated they begin singing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” as bewildered fans listen in over headphones.

The 60-second commercial, which also has two 30-second versions, premiered this last Sunday, Valentine’s Day, during the broadcast of the Daytona 500 on ESPN. It hearkens back to the 1971 commercial “Hilltop,” probably the most famous Coke commercial in history, which introduced the song. The new spot, entitled “Harmony,” features NASCAR drivers Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, David Ragan, Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart.

See the “Harmony” spot here, at the end of a feature about the making of the commercial; the spot begins at 4:10.

The commercial does not appear to be effects-heavy, but appearances can be deceiving. It was assembled from a number of separate elements, including CG cars and digitally-altered stock footage. The VFX were created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, which produces effects for commercials, feature films and episodic television, such as ABC’s V, FOX’s Fringe and CBS’ CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

“The agency went to the NASCAR archives and pulled stock footage,” says Zoic executive producer, commercials Erik Press, “and they cut together what they envisioned as a race.

“Then they filled it in with close-ups of the actual drivers, which were shot on the racetrack in Charlotte, North Carolina. Those were inserted in the edit. [Commercial creative director] Les Ekker shot back plates for footage outside of the vehicles. Our task was to take stock footage, interiors of drivers, and plates of driving shots, and mix them all together and make them appear as one entire race.”

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“Mostly the work consisted of taking their ‘hero’ celebrity drivers, and generating driving plates,” explains Neil Ingram, a Zoic producer.

“They wanted us to make these moments inside of the car to feel like ‘found’ footage, like you’re tapping into the live feed while they’re driving. Part of a NASCAR race is that you can rent headphones, and listen to the realtime exchanges of the drivers and the crews. The spectators that we cut away to are listening to the radios, and they’re bewildered by the fact that these drivers are all singing together.

“First we had to make the interior driving spots look realistic. Then we had to work on a degradation look, to make the shots match the practical realtime images that are actually from the cars; there are some of those shots in the spot.

“We had some CG augmentation on shots, and then ran it through compression. The cameras they use in the cars are ICONIX — they shoot back realtime images to a broadcast tower. They’re true HD cameras, but they get compressed with MPEG-2 compression. So we did some experimentation with different levels of MPEG and JPEG damage, to match the look. But these are celebrity drivers and these are product shots, so we had to find a balance between not getting too much degradation, but making them still feel ‘found.’”

“It was a fun job,” says Zoic co-founder Chris Jones, who was creative director for the VFX. “It has all the good elements for a visual effects spot: full-CG cars; full-CG dynamics; full-CG tracks; a lot of clean-up and footage matching; a lot of greenscreen; live-action plates; stock footage integration – it runs the whole range of VFX. It came together well – it’s a really satisfying piece. I’m pleased with it.”

Press says the production was a very positive experience for everyone involved. “It is really sort of an iconic Coca-Cola spot, with ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.’ They haven’t brought that theme back for some time.

“It was a really smooth production, it went really well. The agency was very happy. It was smooth for them as well — we were always right behind them, providing for them. A really positive experience.”

The spot was directed by Mike Long for Epoch Films; and edited by Matthew Hilbert of Joint Editorial House, Portland.

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More info: “Coca-Cola Harmony – Behind The Scenes With The New Ad” on the Coca-Cola Conversations blog; Coca-Cola “Harmony” on Youtube; Coca-Cola “Hilltop” on Youtube.

AMC’s ‘Mad Men’: Period Perfection and Invisible Effects

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on 2/9/2010.

madmen_004_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

Mad Men, AMC’s award-winning drama, finished its third season in November, and has been renewed for a fourth. Set in the 1960s at the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City, Mad Men centers on creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm, The Day the Earth Stood Still), and those in his life in and out of the office; and depicts the changing social mores of 1960s America.

Mad Men has garnered critical acclaim, particularly for its historical authenticity and visual style, and has won nine Emmys and three Golden Globes. It is the first basic cable series to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series.

Zoic Studios provided visual effects for a number of shots in the third season, including a memorable dream sequence; plus a variety of so-called “invisible” effects, VFX which the audience is usually (and ideally) unaware are VFX.

Zoic visual effects supervisor Curt Miller says most of Zoic’s work on Mad Men enhanced or augmented the efforts of production designer Dan Bishop (Big Love). Executive producer Scott Hornbacher (The Sopranos) and creator Matt Weiner (The Sopranos, Andy Richter Controls the Universe) are committed to staying true to the 1960s period, right down to minor background details. The level of detail is “amazing,” Miller says, and Zoic is “honored and flattered that they trust us to be a part of their team.”

Visual effects producer Christopher M. Wright agrees that authenticity and detail are vital to Weiner and Hornbacher’s vision. “It is nice to work with a client that’s very particular about their level of detail and their level of quality,” Wright says. “It certainly pushes us to make sure things are right. I have never worked with anyone quite as committed to staying true to the art direction of the time as they are.”

madmen_002_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

For the third season premiere, Zoic performed a set extension for a scene in which Don Draper (Hamm) and Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt, Funny People) take a business trip on a Boeing 707 jetliner to Baltimore. The production built a portion of the airplane interior, which had to be duplicated and extended to recreate the complete interior of the passenger cabin.

Zoic artists visited the only vintage Boeing 707 within driving range – the former Air Force One on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California. The Library does not normally allow photographs to be taken inside the plane, but the production obtained special permission to take reference photos one morning before the public was admitted.

A set piece making up the left half (facing the cockpit) of the plane interior, four rows deep, was built – this was shot from a variety of angles, with extras in period costume filling the seats. Then the set piece was flipped around and shot from the other direction, to become the right side of the plane. These elements were stacked one behind the other to create the complete jetliner interior. The main action between the two leads took place on the practical set, while the rest was assembled, composited and rendered digitally.

After the footage was shot, the production discovered that the carpeting on the set was inaccurate for the period, and Zoic fixed the problem digitally. The upholstery, wallpaper, and every other interior feature had to be recreated and rendered faithfully. Mad Men art director Chris Brown and producer Blake McCormick conducted research to guarantee authenticity. Zoic’s Renaud Talon did much of the work on the sequence.

madmen_003_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

In another scene with effects produced by Zoic, a train ride through New York in the fall was created. The attention to detail was meticulous, with digital recreations of passing scenery true to the location, the period, and the season. Like all other work done for the show, the scene had to match Mad Men’s justifiably famous visual style. Zoic’s Suzette Barnett worked on the composites.

In a well-known scene, Zoic’s work was not at all invisible. When Don’s wife Betty Draper (January Jones, Pirate Radio) is knocked out with anesthetic during childbirth, she experiences a surreal hallucination.

madmen_001_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

Jones was shot against a bluescreen, rather than a greenscreen, because it was easier to pull key off of her blonde hair against blue. She walked on a treadmill on the stage, with the intention that she would be composited against a moving background. The background plates were shot at high speed so they could be slowed down to match the actor’s walking pattern, but matching her pace to the background proved difficult. It was decided to keep her movement slightly off-pace from the background, as this contributed nicely to the dreamlike quality of the scene.

“The only tricky part,” Wright says,” was that when she stopped walking, the treadmill still drifted a little. So we had to sort of match up our background to that movement, because in the camera it still looked like she was moving even though the background didn’t move. It looked like she just floated towards us, which was a little over-the-top for what they were going for.”

After Jones stops, a caterpillar enters the frame from above, moving down on a thread of silk. She catches the caterpillar and watches it wriggle on her hand. The caterpillar was created entirely in CG by Zoic as an original creation. Zoic’s Dayna Mauer and Rodrigo Dorsch contributed to the scene.

“It’s a great show to be working on,” Wright says. “It’s high-end stuff, it’s award-winning. Clearly, they are very particular and know exactly what they want. It can be challenging, because with television, there’s a lot of ‘it’s good enough,’ when we get through shots — but with Mad Men it needs to be right.”

More info: Mad Men on AMC, Amazon; AMC’s Mad Men blog.

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

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/12/2010.

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

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

Roger Ebert said it better:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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