COVER STORY: 'TERMINATOR - THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES'
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.