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

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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.

Over time, Hollywood gave us films of all the superheroes the mainstream public, unfamiliar with comic books, would surely recognize; after a steadily declining series of Superman and Batman films, we had Marvel’s Spider-Man and The Hulk. Then the studios churned out films based on properties familiar to comic book fans but new to the general public; The X-Men, Iron Man, Hellboy, Blade, and The Fantastic Four amongst the box office successes; Howard the Duck, Judge Dredd, Mystery Men, The Punisher, Catwoman, Elektra, and Daredevil amongst the rest.

The next phase – comic book movies that weren’t about superheroes. Some were still science fiction or fantasy – 300, 30 Days of Night, Constantine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Others took place in the real world — Art School Confidential, From Hell, Ghost World, A History of Violence. But now the comic book world was completely wide open to film and TV adaptation – stories didn’t have to feature Warren Ellis’ “underwear perverts.”

This was good news, because those comic book titles that are the most visually striking are usually not hero titles. Of course there have been great artists working in that medium, from Jack Kirby and Will Eisner back in caveman times to… I dunno, I stopped regularly reading superhero comics when they brought Jean Grey back from the dead in 1986. Yes, I am a grumpy old man. I like J. Scott Campbell, Kevin O’Neill and Howard Chaykin, off the top of my head.

For this series I have chosen an artist who has never worked in the traditional hero genre (except once, briefly), but made his name drawing Western serials in France. His art has influenced generations of artists and production designers, but has never been used as the basis for an entire film.

Jean Giraud became a working artist at age 18, in Paris in 1956. His most famous Western comic book, Blueberry, ran from 1962 to 1974 and earned Giraud his face on a French postage stamp. But he is best known in America for his science fiction and fantasy stories and art, done under the pen name “Moebius.”

In 1974, Moebius and three others founded the seminal adult comics magazine Métal Hurlant; an American version was launched in 1977 called Heavy Metal, which is accidentally displayed in bookstores’ music sections to this day.

One segment of the 1981 Canadian animated anthology film Heavy Metal, containing stories from the magazine, was “Taarna,” inspired by Moebius’ “Arzach” fantasy stories; but the art style was not based on his. (This is the segment parodied in the 2008 South Park episode “Major Boobage.”)

He contributed to several feature film projects. The most notable were Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted 1976 project to bring Frank Herbert’s novel Dune to the screen as a ten-hour feature, with Moebius and Alien artist HR Giger doing original production art; and Luc Besson’s 1997 The Fifth Element, perhaps the only live action film in which Moebius’ elements (the Mondoshawan ships, the Flying Noodle Boat) appear recognizably as he designed them. Other films on which Moebius worked: Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982, uncredited), Tron (1982), Masters of the Universe (1987), Willow (1988) and The Abyss (1989).

His most famous creation is a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness science-fantasy graphic novel originally called Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius, released in the US as The Airtight Garage by Marvel under the Epic Comics imprint. The Airtight Garage was written, drawn and colored by Moebius, four pages at a time, as a game with himself to introduce irreconcilable plot strands in each segment, and then reconcile them later. As a result, the “story” does not exist as such, at least not until the final 15 pages, which were drawn all at once to bring the tale to a conclusion that parodies superhero comics and leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

In rough outline, the Hermetic Garage of the title is a large asteroid containing a much larger artificial world on the inside (“hermetic” in this case is used to mean both “airtight” and “esoteric”). The Garage was created by Major Grubert, an immortal human from Earth who is locked in ceaseless battle against another immortal, Lewis Carnelian. Eventually, these mortal enemies must join forces to prevent the destruction of the Hermetic Garage by an evil alien known as The Bakalite.

Nearly every panel of the comic contains characters, images, references, jokes and invented words that hint at entire worlds, civilizations and conspiracies just beyond the frame’s edge. Hardly anything is explained, not even the backgrounds or motivations of the two main antagonists.

An animated feature adaptation of The Airtight Garage, to be produced by legendary Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa Akira (!!!) and directed by Otomo Katsuhiro of Akira (1988) fame, fell through in the mid-1990s.

So why on Earth would you use The Airtight Garage as the basis for a big-budget, live action VFX film? Three reasons.

First, the non sequitur storyline provides a blank slate for the filmmakers, who are free to fill in the blanks however they wish; or, a la JJ Abrams, just leave the blanks blank. The Airtight Garage provides a firm skeleton on which to hang a dramatic sci-fi high adventure with a good dollop of comedy.

Second, The Airtight Garage is a cult classic with a large fan base. In 1999 the Metreon shopping mall in San Francisco opened with an Airtight Garage-themed attraction, which was hugely popular until the mall was shut down in 2007 (probably a Bakalite trick!).

And third, Moebius’ artwork is beautiful, original, and unique. Many artists and filmmakers are inspired by him, but no one has produced an entire feature film that takes place in a Moebius universe. At one time, his vision could only have been realized through traditional animation, whether one was the director of The Seven Samurai or not. But with modern VFX, that has changed.

The mind-bending, multidimensional layout of the three levels of the Hermetic Garage; its vast alien vistas and retro-futuristic architecture; Grubert’s trusty starship, the Ciguri; the Star Billiard, a colossal green humanoid robot that the Ciguri crew uses as an exploratory vehicle; the bizarre lifeforms of the Garage, such as the pink riding animals called Melvils – all of these could come to life.

And not only would Moebius’ actual drawings provide inspiration for artists – I think that the incomplete nature of The Airtight Garage would give CG and VFX professionals an unprecedented world-building opportunity.

Jean Giraud is 72 years old, and hopefully has many years ahead of him, thanks to French cuisine and Socialized medicine. But it would be nice to finally produce an Airtight Garage adaptation that he would be alive to enjoy.

Previous: Wings of Honnêamise (anime, 1987); Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005); Appleseed (comic, 1985-89)

Next: Warhammer 40,000 game franchise (1987-present)

See a set of The Airtight Garage art on Flickr.

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

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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).

Furthermore, the use of preexisting assets can save a production a great deal of money; and looking to previous films, shows and games for inspiration can save time and effort. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Artists make artistic choices, referencing other artists for storytelling purposes. When director David Twohy introduced the evil Necromonger religious zealots in 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, their ships and armor intentionally referenced those of similar sci-fi characters in 1984’s Dune and the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Likewise, the iconic city-destroying giant saucers in Independence Day are so recognizable because they are based on the nearly-identical ships in the 1980s TV miniseries V.

And finally, so many of these hardware designs resemble each other because of common science fiction tropes that artists often are not even aware they are perpetuating. I have already gone into this in detail elsewhere. But a few that apply here include: spacecraft designed according to a nautical paradigm, or to resemble an office building; the idea that while every other technological advance makes devices smaller, military technology will just get bigger and bigger – today’s hardware on steroids; and that human spaceships should be blocky and covered in devices, while alien ships are biologically-inspired and spiky.

So how can VFX artists and production designers break out of the sci-fi hardware design rut? Allow me to make one very specific suggestion. Dig into your manga collection (admit it, you have one), and pull out the collected works of Shirow Masamune.

One of the most popular and talented mangaka to see his work adapted during the anime renaissance of the 1980s, Shirow is known for many things – his trademark character design, bizarre humor, complex cyberpunk storylines, and (especially recently) ribald eroticism (NSFW). But he is best known for his hardware; aircraft, armored vehicles, military and police gear, and mecha; and two concepts he in particular created and popularized, the biological robot “bioroid,” and the child-like intelligent robot tanks, the “Fuchikoma.”

The best thing about Shirow’s hardware design is that it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Indeed, Shirow’s designs have not been widely copied in the anime and manga world, precisely because the plagiarism would be so obvious. His vehicles and weapons have a decidedly biological inspiration; but this is tempered with the sensibility of a serious mechanical, industrial and military engineer.

Every detail of a Shirow creation serves a particular purpose. If an object transforms, then each of its pieces would genuinely fit together. If the device is a vehicle, then an operator would actually fit inside. He draws cut-away schematics of many of his creations, to prove they are thought-out and fully realized. Just as a realistic portrayal and a deep backstory make an audience care more for a human character, so the same principle can be applied to production design to make the viewer care about a world. James Cameron accomplished this in Avatar, and Shirow does the same with his futuristic environments.

For the purposes of a live-action CGI film, I propose an adaptation of Shirow’s 1985-89 manga Appleseed. This might surprise most Shirow fans, who would expect me to choose his most popular creation, the dark cyberpunk manga, film, television, toy and game franchise Ghost in the Shell, which stars the sexy cyborg police Major Kusanagi Motoko and the lovable Fuchikoma.

Appleseed, on the other hand, was Shirow’s first major success, a post-apocalyptic love story set in a utopian city-state. Deunan Knute, a sexy ex-LAPD SWAT member and Landmate (military exoskeleton) pilot, is in love with her partner, Briareos Hecatonchires, a faceless cyborg who has lost most of his original body to military replacement parts, but has not given up his soul or his love for Deunan. Together they roam the ruins of Los Angeles until they are recruited to police Olympus, a hyper-advanced city populated by bioroids.

Shirow’s Major Kusanagi is a bioroid, and her story explores the typical cyberpunk themes of human identity and machine consciousness. But for the most part, she looks human – she would be portrayed by an actress (Angelina Jolie, probably) with a bit of occasional digital makeup.

But Appleseed’s Briareos would be a challenge for VFX artists – a fully thinking, feeling, and emotional character without a human face. He’s the ultimate hardware as a character. And his relationship with Deunan (Charlize Theron?), and her acceptance of him in his inhuman form, is key to the story.

It should be noted that much of the preliminary work for a live-action VFX adaptation of Appleseed has already been done, for Aramaki Shinji’s 2004 and 2007 CG animated films Appleseed and Appleseed EX Machina. The Appleseed universe was 3D modeled for these films, although the final animation was cel-shaded. But they serve as a proof-of-concept that Shirow’s unique and compelling take on the world of the future could serve as the foundation for a successful movie experience.

Previous: Wings of Honnêamise (anime, 1987); Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)
Next: The Airtight Garage (comic, 1976-80)

See a set of Appleseed art on Flickr.

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

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

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

The spot was unveiled April 7th, and discussion of the commercial has spread across the Internet and the media, as fans and pundits argue over how the spot will affect the career of the most famous golfer in history. Entitled “Earl and Tiger,” the spot features a close-up of Woods standing on a golf course, listening to words spoken by his late father Earl Woods, who passed away in 2006. The spot was shot on black & white film with a gritty realism, complete with dust, grain, developer streaks and an authentic roll-out at the end.

Zoic Studios’ creative director Les Ekker discusses Zoic’s involvement in the creation of the spot. “We were approached on a Tuesday for a bid,” Ekker says, “and I ended up flying out to Orlando that afternoon (in record time!).

“On Wednesday we spent the whole day rehearsing, because we would only have Tiger for one hour on Friday morning. The shot would be done with both a steadicam and a technocrane.” Max Malkin (Nailed) directed the spot, and acted as director of photography as well.

“On Friday, Tiger came in from 8-9 am. We used black & white stock, and switched at the last minute to one with a slower film speed and finer grain structure. It was important to the director that the spot convey authenticity and honesty, and visual effects were added in post to restore and enhance these qualities. In fact, the shot of Tiger that was eventually chosen for the final spot (in record time!) was the final roll-out take that didn’t even have the complete camera move that was rehearsed. But the director, Nike and Tiger himself loved it and felt this take best complemented the sincerity of the message.

“Tiger was shot against a white screen with tracking markers, to make things cleaner for roto. But the screen couldn’t completely cover the background because of the angle of the sun. We did a super-fast turnaround on the roto, and extracted a 3D track of the selected take (in record time!).

“We created a multi-plane background matte painting, inspired by the sliver of actual background glimpsed in the selected take. After the background design was approved (in record time!), we rendered the multi-plane to the camera. The matte painting included some subtle animation, like twinkling reflections on the water.

“The original negative had a lot of dirt and streaks in the white areas from the developer bath, and we reproduced these in the composite and matched the original grain quality. Then we added some sun glare over Tiger and degraded the image slightly, all of which were added to match the authenticity of the original film. This was done to support the goal of the spot, to create a sense of ‘powerful humble sincerity.’

“In the end, we turned around the spot in three days – the take was chosen on a Thursday, and we delivered the final spot the next Monday morning (in record time!).

“We worked very closely with the creative director, Hal Curtis, to ensure all of his detailed visual goals were achieved. Wieden+Kennedy, Joint Editorial and Zoic worked in tight coordination with a uniformly focused sense of purpose, and that made the job a real pleasure, despite having to do it ‘in record time!’”

The freelance VFX producer who was brought on to run the project, Karin Joy, has extensive feature film experience, most recently on The Forbidden Kingdom and Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Les worked with Joy at Boss Films in the late 1980s, and says it was fun to be reunited with her on this project.

Zoic Studios worked with the advertising agency, Wieden+Kennedy and Joint Editorial, and Ekker, along with Zoic commercial executive producer Erik Press, say that both firms were utterly professional, and dedicated to producing an important, meaningful and controversial spot that is of great importance to both Nike and to Tiger Woods.

More info: See the “Earl and Tiger” spot.

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.

Zoic Studios Blows Up ‘The Crazies’ Fan Premiere

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on 2/26/2010.

eisnerolyphantmitchell_630x354From left: director Breck Eisner and stars Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell take the coming nuclear onslaught quite seriously.

On Wednesday evening, Overture Films held a special fan premier event for its new horror film, The Crazies, which opens today. The movie is a remake of the 1973 George A. Romero classic, and stars Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood, Live Free or Die Hard), Radha Mitchell (Surrogates) and Joe Anderson (Amelia). It tells the story of a small Iowa town devastated by an unknown toxin that causes insanity and death.

Invited guests, who included fandom journalists and horror bloggers, were treated to an immersive experience from the moment they pulled up in their cars. The KCET public television studios in Hollywood were transformed for the evening into beleaguered Ogden Marsh, Iowa. As guests arrived, they were pulled from their cars by military personnel, and marched past army vehicles and through metal detectors to a medical examination area. Nearby, citizens were assaulted, cuffed and herded into pens by soldiers, while moaning bodies lay on gurneys or were stacked in body bags. After guests were checked for contamination, they were issued wristbands indicating whether they were infected or clear, and then herded onto school buses with blackened windows. Military instructions were blared over loudspeakers while the sound of helicopters was heard overhead.

zoic_crazies_3950The after-party on KCET studios’ Stage B.

After being driven around for a while, the guests were released in front of a movie theater, issued rations (popcorn), and taken inside to watch the film.

Afterward, guests were invited back to the KCET lot (despite the bus ride, it was just across the street) to enjoy dinner, music and an open bar, and to hobnob with director Breck Eisner and stars Olyphant and Mitchell. There were also demonstrations from various companies that worked on the film. Guests could watch a stunt show and see a stunt performer set on fire; be turned into Crazies by professional makeup artists; or be strapped into a harness and “hanged” by the neck.

zoic_crazies_3942Eisner, Olyphant and Mitchell pose at the Zoic booth.

Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, which provided visual effects for the film, offered a VFX “before-and-after” reel; and Zoic co-founder Loni Peristere was on hand to answer fans’ questions, along with compositing supervisor Aaron Brown, who flew down from Zoic’s Vancouver, British Columbia studio just for the occasion. Also, guests were invited to pose in front of a greenscreen and get professionally composited into a still shot of a nuclear explosion from the film. A team of Zoic compositors created over 100 images over the course of the evening, which were emailed to fans.

The evening was an incredible success, and fans had to be kicked out when the bar shut down at 12:30am. For more information about The Crazies, visit the official web site.

View all the images from the event below; or follow this link to the Flickr page.

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.

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

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 12/29/09.

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

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

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

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

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

Where did you grow up?

Chicago area, suburbs of Chicago.

So what was it like going to the South?

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

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

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

This was the mid-80s, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why Zoic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s your flying car?

It’s outside. (Laughs.)

Read Part 2.

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

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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!

Why Are Firefly/Serenity Fans So Devoted… Even After All These Years?

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/1/09.

A model of Serenity.

Last month, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott hosted Creation Entertainment’s Salute to Firefly & Serenity, a small but well-attended fan convention featuring appearances by series actors Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, and Morena Baccarin & Alan Tudyk, both also from ABC’s V.

Of course Firefly is the science-fiction dramatic series broadcast on the Fox Network in 2002-2003, created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fame. Canceled after only 11 episodes aired, the show has since engendered a major Hollywood motion picture (2005’s Serenity), a novel, a role-playing game, two comics series, soundtracks, a slew of merchandise & collectibles, and countless hand-knitted orange “cunning hats.”

I stopped by to get an idea of what’s going on with Firefly flans*, and to find out the answer to the question, Why are people still so devoted to a show that had only 14 episodes (and a movie), after nearly a decade?

Here are some answers from convention-goers, from commenters on fireflyfans.net, and from Zoic Studios co-founder Loni Peristere.

The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band.
The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band from St. Louis, Missouri.

Some credited the show’s realism, like Co-Pilot Gary Miller of The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band from St. Louis. “[It’s] because Firefly feels so real. It’s a sci-fi show without aliens. It’s about real people and real-life types of situations — in the future. Not to mention the dialogue, the acting, and the story are all brilliant.”

For me, it was all about the writing. The dialogue, and the way the characters were developed through dialogue, were just brilliant. I especially loved the dialogue for River Tam (Summer Glau of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), the ship’s ultra-violent fugitive waif — she rarely spoke, but when she did, it was always a bizarre window into her disordered mind. And usually either disturbing or hilarious.

On fireflyfans.net, hughff says: “I agree that the writing is the key. Too frequently today, television and especially film concentrate on the visual image. However, great films/shows recognize that it’s a synthesis of both visual images and dialogue.

“There was never any doubt from the very start that Firefly had the dialogue right. More than what it told us about the characters per se, I liked what it showed about their interrelationships. The verbal exchanges between Mal and Inara; the way Jayne treated Kaylee like a little sister, the way that Mal’s trust and respect for Simon grew incrementally — these were important to the flavor of the show.

“The show didn’t avoid complexity — these were real people living in a messy (i.e. real) world (alright, worlds) and as such, things were never simple.

“Finally, and Zoic can take more than a little credit for this, the show did have some great visual images: the Reaver ship sliding past in absolute silence; Crow disappearing through the air intake; Serenity rising up the cliff after the bar fight. The off-center and shaky ‘hand held’ camera work, even in the CGI, began a trend that has become everyday (Bourne Ultimatum, Battlestar Galactica) but broke new ground for me. When I first saw the first episode I thought, ‘How could they be so amateur?’ But by the end I was hooked into the vision and never let it go.”

Firefly-themed collectibles on sale in the dealer’s room.
Firefly-themed collectibles on sale in the dealer’s room.

One of the most interesting answers came from Dwight Bragdon, Board Member of the California Browncoats, a San Diego-based non-profit that promotes Firefly and Serenity fandom through charity. Since 2007 they have raised over $100,000 for charities like Equality Now and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “We are still in love with Firefly ten years later because of the type of people the show attracts. We’re smart, funny and caring, and we took our energy and enthusiasm for the ‘Verse and turned it into a community of giving….

“We can also see how much the cast and crew cared about the ‘Verse too… They lead by example too with their charity. [Actor] Nathan [Fillion] co-founded Kids Need to Read with author P.J. Haarsma; [actor] Adam Baldwin shows great support to the Marine Corps – Law Enforcement Foundation; Joss [Whedon] is a great supporter of Equality Now; and the list goes on.

“These guys and girls are people that I am proud to call friends, proud to call family and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

For Beth Nelson, Chairman of the Austin Browncoats, another charitable non-profit based in Texas, the message of Firefly is hope. “People want to root for the underdog, because for many of us, we’re the underdogs right now. Firefly gives us that hope and inspiration. Firefly and Serenity tell the story of people who might have been forgotten, left behind, taken for granted — but if they work together, they can accomplish anything…

“So much of it has to do with how well the characters were developed and how sincere and believable the dialogue was – which is something Joss is known for… We’re all flawed; we can all identify with characters who… sometimes pick the wrong path, even with the best intentions.

“In the end, though, I think we all love what Firefly has become. Firefly went from being this amazing space western to so much more. Outside of the ‘Verse itself, the fans have become a family, a movement that got together to do more than just love a television show or a movie. Numerous fans are working towards charitable goals – ending violence and discrimination or making sure every kid has the wealth of knowledge literature can bring them.”

The dealer’s room.
The dealer’s room.

Loni Peristere was directly involved in the production of Firefly and Serenity, as visual effects supervisor. He created the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity, along with Whedon and production designer Carey Meyer. “When Joss first told me about the new show,” Peristere said, “he told me to read The Killer Angels,” the 1974 historical novel by Michael Shaara, which tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the Confederate perspective. The novel inspired Whedon to create Firefly.

Firefly is about not fitting in, about finding a place for yourself in a world where you don’t fit, finding a family and making a living,” Peristere explained. “There are very few shows out there where the stars are outcasts, who join together as a family, which as Joss says is what ‘makes them mighty.’ None of the characters fit in – Nathan is a Browncoat [stand-in for Confederate]; Morena [Baccarin’s character] is a whore; there’s the fugitive; the tomboy; the interracial couple; the weary shepherd; the mercenary who’s incapable of doing anything else. They would all be loners, if they didn’t band together.

“How Zoic was part of that, is we made the viewer a ‘welcome voyeur.’ The camera followed the emotional beats. By using a handheld camera on-set and a ‘handheld’ camera effect for the CG exteriors, we put the viewer in the emotional center of the story. The viewer is a voyeuristic participant – another outcast, a part of the crew.”

Peristere also feels a special kinship with the Firefly cast and crew. “We knew it was important. We fell in love with it because it was a great story to tell. The show was made by creative people we loved and respected for their bravery, because they embraced the outcast. All the creative people I respect the most come from the cast and crew of Firefly. It was a moment that’s impossible to recapture.”

One last reason the flans and Browncoats stay devoted – because Firefly died too soon. From Jaydepps on fireflyfans.net: “Another reason it is still relevant is because of how abruptly it was cut [off], and it never received closure. We’ve been thirsting for more. A good TV series goes for a decent amount of seasons until the story is filled in, mostly. Then the series leaves TV… Firefly was never given the chance to do this.”

More info: Creation Entertainment; the discussion on fireflyfans.net; The Browncoats website and on MySpace; California Browncoats; Austin Browncoats.

If you want to know why they call us “flans,” just read this aloud: “Firefly fan.”