- Founded in 2003 by Andrew Karr, Jeremy Hoey, and Tom Archer, Atmosphere has
quickly grown into an effects studio with more than 20 employees. The facility
was recently honored with VES (Visual Effects Society) and Emmy awards for its
work on Battlestar Galactica. Here, Atmosphere's Brenda Campbell talks about the
series, the award-winning Exodus episode, and the challenges of creating
effects for television.
Tell us about Atmosphere's work on Battlestar Galactica.
Campbell: "Battlestar Galactica is run through the Sci-Fi Channel and NBC
Universal. Our direct clients are Gary Hutzel (VFX supervisor) and Michael
Gibson (VFX producer) from whom we are awarded individual shots and episodes."
What is your role on the show?
Campbell: "At the
time of episode 303 Exodus my role was lead compositor. I've since been
promoted to comp supervisor with Atmosphere."
What does a typical show entail?
"This is our third season working on Battlestar. I honestly can't give you a
total count for how many shows we've worked on... it's been a lot. In our peak
time, we can be delivering upwards to 20-plus shots in just one week. This all,
of course, depends on the episode and how many shots we have been awarded."
What is your pipeline?
"Our pipeline for Battlestar starts off with previz - depending on the show.
Sometimes we do previz and sometimes the in-house team will provide it for us.
The next step is for CG to start breaking down the shots and for comp to start
any prep work. The CG is done in LightWave and Maya. All comp work is done in
Fusion. Once comp starts receiving layers from CG, we slap them together. From
there we get into a lot of back and forth between comp and CG as to 'Ok, this
element is working... this one's not,' etc. For our big space shots we breakdown the CG into multiple
passes for each ship so we have full control in the composite. This is where
Fusion is very powerful; it gives us the ability to handle huge comps with
hundreds upon hundreds of layers. Our final stage is adding all the great
little finishing touches in comp - shakes, flares and a very fat heavy grain to
give it the gritty look the show has."
Atmosphere is one of several effects houses working on Battlestar Galactica.
How tightly do you collaborate with the other studios?
"With multiple shops working on Battlestar Galactica we do need to collaborate
for continuity and time management. Depending on the episode we share models,
elements and previz. For example, sometimes we create the models and share them
with the in-house team and sometimes they provide us with ones they've created.
This happens much more on the 3D end of things rather than in comp. With the
comp side we share elements that have been shot specifically for the show. The
biggest challenge with sharing the elements (models, etc) would be to ensure
that we are all using the same version of the software. Another plus for having
multiple houses working on the show is that if one gets overloaded the other
can usually jump in to help out with a shot or two."
Are there any specific challenges?
"With Battlestar Galactica, we always have a very tight deadline. It's just how
the show is. So keeping that in
mind we know we're always fighting against the clock. Whenever we can do a
master setup for the look of a ship, a particular effect, we will do to get us
90 percent of the way there in a fraction of the time. Some minor tweaking and
finessing is always needed, but having these setups to throw into a slap comp
gets you a lot further along right off the top. This also helps with continuity
among various artists to keep the same look throughout the whole show."
Tell us about the Exodus episode.
"This episode was a large undertaking and we needed the whole Atmosphere team
to pull together to get it done on time. It was a huge effort on everyone's
part, and communication between all departments was key - without that we
wouldn't have met our deadline. As for the compositing side of things, we were
able to create a master setup for the look of an element - be it the sky,
ships, cylons, etc. - and with Fusion we were able to combine any
number of elements and setups into one flow quickly and easily."
What are you using for compositing?
"We chose Fusion as our compositing package for not only this show but for our
entire shop because of its versatility. There are a million and one ways to do
anything in Fusion; some, admittedly are better than others, but the huge
benefit in this is that if something isn't working there's always a work
around. A few of the other reasons
we've chosen Fusion include: capabilities of working in any resolution and
mixing resolutions; working in multiple depths as well as multiple formats; the
Grid Warper; the render nodes; the Particle System; and now the built in 3D
system, among many other features. All of the above features were very
important for us to get the show done."
What has been the most rewarding shot in the series for you to date?
"By far the most rewarding shots for me have been the Pegasus destruction
sequence at the end of episode 303.
It was just sweet explosion eye candy and so much fun to work on. It was
a lot of layers and I was worried that it would be painful to work in but
Fusion held up great.
Unfortunately, because all the elements were so intertwined, I wasn't
able to precomp a whole lot, so I ended up with 250-300 elements in each flow.
Times that by 10 shots and a week and a half to do it all in. When I look back at those shots and
think about everything that went with them, I'm very proud of how they turned
Can you point to any time-saving features?
"Fusion's roto capabilities are extremely vital to us at Atmosphere. The fact
that we can track our object we need to roto and then apply that path to our
poly is huge, it takes a lot of the drift out of the roto and allows us to set
key frames at extreme movement
frames. This saves us from having to frame-by-frame roto in the subtle
movements of the element."
How do film and television effects differ, if at all?
"In my experience, the major differences between creating effects for film vs.
television is definitely the timeframe and budget. Now with most episodic shows
going to HD and a lot of features shooting in HD, there really isn't a huge
difference in regards to resolution, etc.
If you think about how much time you have for a feature - say roughly a
year for 200 or so shots and for an episodic show you have a month and a half
to do 50 shots with a fraction of the budget - maybe, if you're lucky. We aim
to create feature quality effects on the budget and timeline of an episodic.
It's not always easy but that's the standard we've set for ourselves."
What qualities or elements of the Exodus episode do you think made it such a
success, leading to the nominations and eventual awards?
"Exodus was a huge episode involving a massive space battle which had tones of
pyro eye candy, shipyard set extensions, cylons firing upon civilians, ships
jumping out of the sky and everything in between. I think the sheer volume,
variety and quality of the shots that were done for this episode are a large
part of why it's been a huge success."
What can we expect from you in the future?
"Hopefully great things! For myself and for the team at Atmosphere we are
always trying to learn new techniques, advance our skills and keep up with the
latest features and products. This
helps us bring our A game to each and every upcoming show."