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

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

Ben 10: Alien Swarm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoic Stops Time, Creates Historic ‘Frozen Moment’ Sequence for ‘CSI’ Premiere

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 10/6/09.

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On September 24th, CBS broadcast the premiere episode of the 10th season of its venerable crime procedural drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation . The episode cold opened with a lengthy, two-and-a-half minute long “frozen moment” sequence, showing us a single moment in a robbery attempt involving the main characters. This sequence, which made broadcast television history, and was created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios.

The camera starts in the morgue, flying through a water spray over a number of corpses on gurneys. The environment is in total disarray, with bodies falling out of the coolers, and smoke and debris floating in midair. We travel past a coroner screaming into a phone and around a corner, to find Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall, Starship Troopers) in mid-leap as he whacks one of the robbers in the head, sending the man’s weapon flying. The camera swoops through floating medical instruments past the first tableau and up into the ceiling. One floor up, we find the same chaos in the Lab, with the CSIs and lab techs frozen in mid-motion.

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The camera continues past a book case tipping over, with falling curios, books and antiques suspended in shattered glass. Panning right and heading into the DNA Lab, the camera flies past one of the lab techs with a bullet exploding out of her shoulder, as she crashes through plate glass while suspended three feet off the ground. Wiping past her into the Lab proper, the camera finds Dr. Raymond Langston (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix, Pee Wee’s Playhouse) kicking a second robber Morpheus-style through plate glass, while several rounds of ammunition leave trails of disturbed air in their wakes.

Flying smoothly past Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger, Species, Species II) and over an exploding lab experiment, the camera continues down the hall past David Hodges (Wallace Langham, Weird Science) and Wendy Simms (Liz Vassey, The Tick), who hang suspended horizontally in midair as they leap to avoid gunfire, and into the muzzle flash of the gun of another robber.

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We transition from the muzzle flash to the glare of a flashlight held by yet another robber, and the camera trucks backwards out of a van with bullet holes and impact sparks all around. Pulling back the camera passes a robber firing at our last two CSIs, Nicholas Stokes (George Eads, ER) and Sara Grissom (Jorja Fox, ER, The West Wing), who fire back attempting to stop the theft of a body. The sequence finishes with the camera panning around to reveal Nick and Sara’s faces.

Naren Shankar, CSI’s executive producer, was impressed by a short film released in April, 2009 to promote Philips Cinema 21:9 LCD televisions. The short, entitled Carousel and produced by Adam Berg and London’s Stink Digital, was a two-minute, 19-second frozen moment sequence of police battling bank robbers dressed as scary clowns.

At CSI’s season nine wrap party, Shankar approached Zoic visual effects supervisor Rik Shorten, and asked if a similar scene could be created for the show. Shorten replied, “you write it, I’ll shoot it.”

The sequence was created as the cold open for the show’s 10th season premiere episode, “Family Affair.” Zoic had produced frozen moment shots for CSI before, but never a sequence of such complexity and length (it clocks in at two minutes, 17 seconds). The sequence was three script pages long, and required three full days of shooting on the main first unit stages, involving the primary cast members. Add to that a prep day, and an additional half-day to shoot the van tableau. The Philips spot had much greater resources – but CSI had an entire season of television to shoot. Shorten says that the producers provided Zoic with all the time, resources and support that could possibly be spared.

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The main three-day shoot employed four main motion control setups. A great deal of expense and effort went toward keeping the actors comfortable, and minimizing the time that talent would spend holding still will suspended in harness rigs.

The first portion to be shot, on days one and two, was the sequence in the DNA Lab. It was the largest and most complex set piece. Shorten and the Zoic team wrote and mapped out the shots on the prep day, giving them time to experiment on the day of the shoot, with blocking, track placement, lenses, the placement of practical elements and extras, etc. What the team learned on the first day was instrumental in making sure the rest of the sequence could be completed in the remaining days allowed.

The morgue tableau and hallway sequence were shot on day three. The hallway tableau featured Doc Robbins attacking a robber (called an “MIB” on set). Actor Hall was propped up on apple boxes and suspended by wires, while the camera moved slowly past on a track. While this one tableau sequence makes up about 20 seconds of the final product, the camera move took about three minutes to shoot.

For each shot, Shorten and his people wrote and planned out the shot with stand-ins; consulted with and got approval from the episode’s director, executive producer Kenneth Fink; ran a test shot on video; and then brought in the actors to shoot the real footage.

Some actors, like Helgenberger and Fishburne, only had to spend 10- to 15 minutes rigged up for their sequences. Other actors spend as long as a half hour held up by wires, stunt harnesses, boxes, greenscreen stands and articulated pads. Shorten says these rigs are never comfortable; and of course it’s not easy to hold perfectly still for minutes at a time. But everything possible was done to keep the actors in the rig for as brief a time as possible.

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The final tableau, of Nick and Sara firing on the van, was shot separately, taking a half a day. This scene was the most difficult and time-consuming to produce, as it was shot without motion control – no track, just a crane shot, and no clean plates. The paint-out and stilling of the actors for this sequence was an incredible amount of work. In fact, dozens of still photos of actors Eads and Fox were taken, and blended and morphed together to create motionless 3D elements of the two actors. These elements were then composited into the shot.

Shorten says that he is immensely proud of the work that he and Zoic did to create this unique and amazing sequence. “This could not have been accomplished without the incredible talents of every department on the show. Our production crew really came through, exceeding my expectations. Our excellent team of artists here at Zoic gave up their summer to create this fantastic sequence.

“I’m so grateful to everyone for their contributions. Most importantly, the show and the network are thrilled with the sequence, and the fan websites are still discussing the premier two months later – that’s the best compliment we could get!”

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More info: CSI on CBS.com ; Zoic Studios website; CSI on Hulu.

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

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

v-screencap-manhattanship_630x354A Visitor mothership hovers over Manhattan.

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

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

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

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

Visual effects and digital production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Halloween Serenity O’ Lantern [UPDATE]

I have learned today that having the audacity to wear a Firefly costume to work at Zoic Studios for Halloween will get you little but eye-rolls. (It’s the same costume I wore in 2006.)

But my first attempt at a Serenity O’ Lantern has received rave reviews.


My Serenity O’ Lantern in the “living room” at Zoic, with a slightly more accurate model in the background.


And a shot with the lights on.


And.. the original.

UPDATE


Me as Jayne Cobb, with the Serenity O’ Lantern .


And me as Jayne Cobb, posing in an actual door from the set of the film Serenity.