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October 2014
Issue: March 1, 2008

COVER STORY: 'TERMINATOR - THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES'

By: Ann Fisher
LOS ANGELES — I think it’s fair to say that most people are familiar with the Terminator character from the film franchise of the same name. So the challenge for LA’s Zoic Studios (www.zoicstudios.com) was to put a new, cooler and even more menacing spin on a classic for the small screen: Fox’s new television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Zoic VFX supervisor Jim Lima, along with Zoic consulting VFX supervisor Andrew Orloff’s team recently finished the visual effects for nine episodes for client Warner Bros. Television Studios. (The writers’ strike put three more episodes originally contracted on hold.) The series premiered in January and stops airing this month.

Zoic created over 400 visual effects shots for the two-part pilot and between 25 to 100 visual effects shots per episode, including the new T888, or “triple 8” for short.

Lima likened his job to standing on the shoulders of Jim Cameron, creator of the iconic character, and building upon the brand. T888 is a feat of engineering, with pistons and pulleys and intricate machinery that visually works; it’s not a “Hollywood-designed object,” says Lima.

SUBTLE CHANGES

Clad in chrome, this Terminator is a riveting figure. Lima, a designer by nature was hired as visual effects supervisor and given great latitude to upgrade the character, which has evolved from a body builder to a “life fighter.”

“Think of it as a bi-pedal tank,” he describes. “The pilot is in that skull case. Instead of one CPU, I put in three CPUs so if he gets wacked on one side of his head he still has this redundancy system that allows him to keep operating. Those are the very subtle things.

“Then there’s the expression,” he continues. “When the Terminator loses its skin, the ‘character’ has to act with a puppetry attitude; it really doesn’t have any kind of facial or muscle expression. So I built into the design some character abilities with its eyes in terms of how it frowns more or how the nose is a little bit different when it smells. Or a weird thing, which is a little disturbing, is the teeth design. If the Terminator’s tooth gets knocked out, it’s easy to replace — it just has to find a human and rip its teeth out. So the new Terminator’s face has that skeletal scary aspect to it… because you now see the root of the teeth.”

TOOLS

Zoic mainly used Autodesk Maya 8.5 to model T888. The studio has a mixed pipeline that includes Maya and NewTek LightWave running on custom-made workstations with Nvidia 8800GTS cards running Windows XP. Maya’s strengths on this show, says consulting supervisor Orloff, were its character  animation and character rigging functions. Specific Maya scripting, the set-driven keys and Maya expressions were quite helpful for the preprogrammed secondary animation, since it would have been too laborious to individually animate the various moving gears, pistons and pivots necessary to, in just one example, raise the Terminator’s arm. Texturing and rendering of the T888 was done in LightWave, however many particle effects for the pilot were rendered in Maya.

Zoic set up two different rigs for T888, one an animator’s rig that the artists could move easily and naturally, the other a motion-capture rig that took mocap data and tweaked it on top of the original animations. Qball, Zoic’s proprietary translation software between Maya and LightWave, allowed them to transfer not only the modeling and texturing data from Maya into LightWave, but the cameras, all the animations and dynamics so they could work concurrently in both packages in the same scene, synced up at all times. CueBall also optimized the huge Terminator model, well in the three-million polygon range.

Clearly, this is a show driven by its visual effects. The complexity of the character and its integration into the scenes required constant conversations between Zoic and the producers about what was doable within a television timeframe and budget. Lima did concept art that became a visual language for the VFX team, producers and writers who could previsualize a shot as they were writing it. Lima also used it with the DP and gaffers to discuss lighting, an absolutely critical element because this gleaming machine reflects everything in its primary, secondary and tertiary animations. Lima supervised all work on set, providing crucial info, like lighting data, that Orloff and his team back in the studio used to put the CG pieces into the environment.

“This is a really good showcase for us to show how our pipeline doesn’t just stop at the doors of Zoic,” explains Orloff. “It extends onto the set. ” Orloff and Lima, helped build a photography rig that allowed them to gather HDR imagery in a nearly 360-degree environment. It took less than five minutes for Lima to run on set and get what he needed.

HDR IMAGERY

Click on the Fox Website and check the opening scene in episode three, “The Turk,” with its ring of seven Terminators aiming for Sarah Connor. That’s a lot of chrome and the challenges included compositing them into their environments and rendering them.

 “We’re not able to do some of the things that you can do on other shows, like use stock reflection maps or stock high dynamic range images to fake our way through this, we have to get the real thing,” says Orloff. “Since the T888 and other Skynet materials are based so much on their reflective properties, we need that high dynamic range and we need to be able to dial these things into the composite. So we take these custom HDRs for every scene and, in some cases, every single angle of that scene, put them together, and use it as a reflection map. We also render out as HDR images and get a composite in a much higher bit map than the final show delivery so we have that ability to really tweak out the reflections and really give that shine because it’s something that’s difficult to achieve in CG without the right background materials.”

Zoic also did a tremendous amount of invisible visual effects work on each episode, cleaning up things not done in production to the optimum level, a by-product of television series’ truncated shooting schedule, says Lima. One of the more interesting aspects of this project, he adds, was the constant scrutiny on all the updated assets in addition to the Terminator, which were vetted by lawyers, Fox and Warner Bros. All had to be updated from technology that existed in previous versions.