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December 2014
Issue: November 1, 2008

VISUAL EFFECTS: 'BATTLESTAR GALACTICA'

Emmy winner Aurore de Blois discusses her work on the visual effects for Battlestar Galactica, including the use of Eyeon's Fusion compositing application.

Can you give us a bit of background on how and when Battlestar's VFX came about?
Aurore de Blois: Season One's VFX was all completed by vendors. VFX supervisor Gary Hutzel had the in-house VFX deptartment under way at the beginning of Season 2. By early Season 3, the in-house VFX department handled 100 percent of the work.

What are recent and current productions that have gone through Battlestar VFX?
de Blois: We focus entirely on BSG's VFX, although we have also done a few pilots between seasons.

What is your role on the show at Battlestar VFX?
de Blois: I am senior VFX compositor. My work is primarily the matchmoving, set extensions, centurion shots, and FTL jump shots. The remainder of my work would be all-CG spaceship shots, but not really so much of those as I primarily work on the shots integrating live action and CG.

What is your basic pipeline configuration?

de Blois: We've had an all 64-bit hardware pipeline from the beginning, so having all 64-bit applications like Fusion, SynthEyes and LightWave just allows us to use everything our equipment has. All our CG is done in LA, and compositing is shared between LA and Vancouver.

Can you approximate the amount of shots that BSG VFX has completed for the series? What is the average weekly shot count?

de Blois: That is difficult to estimate! Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds... We have had single episodes with over 120 shots, and we have done episodes with 12 shots. I think Razor was 164 shots, maybe more. I suppose an average episode would be 40 or 50 shots. I have always considered a 'small show' to be 20 shots, and we have done very little that size so you can guess it from there.

We use all-new VFX for each episode as well, not a mass of re-use. I don't recall seeing any re-use on BSG at all; we create new shots for each show.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on this project?

de Blois: They shoot everything to look cool, not to make our work simple. What that generally translates to are shots that may require extensive roto, such as shots with multiple Cylon models, or set extensions that require complex matchmoving. This also means that, in the end, we have exciting shots that took some effort to pull off instead of simple shots that aren't terribly groundbreaking.
Other than that, the tight deadlines have always made things interesting. Our most difficult show had two compositors complete 100 shots in a week, so you can get an idea from that how intense the schedule had been at times. It became easier on us all with a larger team and a more robust render farm.

Battlestar Galactica is an effects-heavy weekly series. Tight deadlines and large shot counts put a lot of pressure on the artistic team. Tell us about your use of Fusion?

de Blois: We don't concern ourselves with how long renders might take, or compromise anything based on the amount of time we have [such as Radiosity renders, for example]. I love that aspect of our pipeline. It's the main reason why we manage to make things look the way we do. We haven't made sacrifices of any kind in order to get the work out faster.  If we need radiosity or HDRI renders, we'll do it properly rather than fake radiosity. The render times are longer, but in the end the difference is night and day, and allows for more control in the final print and ultimately, a superior image. Having a powerful 64-bit renderfarm makes considering a compromise on render quality a no brainer.

Fusion's interface allows me to produce results at a greater speed than in any other application, and I much prefer to have a program that can keep up with me instead of having to work slower. Tech support has always been great! I have always found their ability to quickly respond to questions or problems far above others. I have had macros written for me next day to get around things, and my feature requests appear in updates. I found that tech support wants to help the artists, instead of us being an inconvenience to them.

In your experience, what are major differences between producing effects for film vs. effects for broadcast?
de Blois: Deadlines! In episodic television, you have to work significantly faster because you have that much less time to get it done. We don't cut corners in our work, so we have to make the most out of what little time we do have. We don't have six weeks to do a single shot, for example.
 
What has been the most rewarding shot in the series for you to date? Was there a particular shot that was more complex than usual, or turned out better than you could have hoped that you want to highlight?
de Blois: With several hundred shots behind me, it isn't easy to pick the favorites because I am very proud of all my work. However, a few come to mind.

I had a big motion control shot [1,800 frames] in Season 2 comprising four plates that were not aligned at all for some reason. I am uniquely happy with that shot because of all the effort you don't see that went into it.

I had to animate transforms, morphs and speed ramps on three plates just to get all the plates to be in register. This misalignment was mostly evident in a fine metal lattice fence along a balcony, and all the actors' legs appear through this screen. In HD the metal grid work is plainly visible, so there were very fine details that had to line up solidly. Any misregistration of the plates would have been very plain to see. That was where all the work in that shot really was, but most would assume the real work was just roto, as there are a number of duplicate Cylons on the balcony watching Caprica Six and D'anna as they walk by. There was a great amount of roto involved, but that was minor compared to the preparation work involved beforehand.

Another is the skydiving sequence from Razor, when the young Adama fights a classic Centurion in hand-to-hand combat high in the atmosphere of a frozen planet, plummeting to the ground. When I first saw the previs and learned I was printing that sequence I was floored because it is such an exciting part of Razor.

What are some of your favorite tools in Fusion, and how do they help in production?

de Blois: I do a lot of matchmoving on BSG, and one of my favorite features in Fusion would be the 3D tools. They allow me to complete more on my own without bothering the CG team for elements.

Anytime I can ease their workload somehow is a good thing. Being able to import my own starfield or other background into a 3D comp helps to speed things up.

I use Fusion's 3D to check my matchmoves for accuracy by importing the models into a slapcomp. But for the larger matchmove shots I also provide a previs render to the CG team to demonstrate the track is solid.

I use imported matchmoves to clean up plates in Fusion's 3D instead of trying to achieve the same thing with a 2D track, which does not work so well if your camera is zooming or has a perspective shift.

How capable is Fusion as a compositing application in the broadcast industry?
de Blois: I would recommend it to anyone.

What qualities or elements of the Razor episode do you think led to the VES and Emmy awards it received?
de Blois: We push the envelope for a weekly series. We go big, don't hold back and create exciting VFX shots that you don't expect to see on television. We have never let long render times scare us away from achieving what we wanted to get in any shot, never compromised that way. I think that alone has set us apart. We have an exceptional team that works great together. It was very rewarding for Razor to receive a VES Award because of the sheer amount of work that went into it. That was a show with over 60 shots cut out as well. It was going to be much bigger originally.

How vital were Fusion's roto and masking capabilities on Razor?

de Blois: Roto plays a huge role in BSG. We couldn't do the split screen, multiple Cylon duplicates shots without it.  I find the masking in Fusion to be great to work with. Having masks act as a separate node tool is a great addition. You get a wide range of control, plus instancing masks helps out as well.

In Razor, the mask paint tool was especially helpful when I had to insert a Centurion behind smoke and falling sparks in a corridor on the Pegasus. It made a shot that might have appeared impossible into a shot that turned out great with a small effort. Roto would not have worked, as there were subtleties in the smoke that masking alone simply would not have achieved.

Are there any new features in 5.3 that you feel will further help you in your pipeline?
de Blois: The stickies are great and I am enjoying the additional options within the masking tools. More than anything though I am enjoying having my entire computer's power available to me with the 64-bit Fusion.

What can we expect from you in the future?

de Blois: I wish I could discuss the upcoming project I will be working on; it is very exciting but top secret.

Are there any new features in Fusion 6 that you are excited to use and feel will further help you in your pipeline?
de Blois: The Region of Interest tool will certainly help with some of more intensive shots, but I think the new 3D features will be a great asset. I am especially excited to be playing with those.

How does it feel to be recognized for your work with an Emmy award?

de Blois: That is difficult to put into words, actually. It's humbling and exciting at the same time. I guess most of us at some point imagine what it might be like, hope for it, wish for it - but for it to actually happen is different. It was a surreal experience for me in some ways, how it happened so fast. It is incredibly rewarding. When I began work on BSG over three and a half years ago, I knew it was a tremendous opportunity to be on board and I've been grateful for it.  Not just being part of such an exciting show - I have considered myself very fortunate to be part of the BSGVFX team itself because of who is on our team, and what we accomplish on a daily basis. It is a distinctive prospect to be involved in something like that. They do not come along too often, so to be part of it is something not to be missed.

To have received an Emmy was a great honor, but to have shared that honor with my friends and co-workers just made it even greater for me. I recently learned that Galactica is the first broadcast series to win back-to-back Emmys for best VFX. That is extraordinary and something to be very proud of. When the Skydiving sequence from Razor picked up a special class Emmy Award, I was particularly happy because that part of Razor was always my favorite sequence.

How does working behind the scenes affect your view of the show?

de Blois: You can't enjoy a novel when you read the end first... This is essentially where I am with trying to watch the show.  I have discovered that I actually have a hard time watching it and that began for me early on. Somehow it is difficult for me to just enjoy experiencing it since I am 'behind the scenes', as you put it.  I know too much about it so the mysteries are gone for me, I suppose. Despite this, I still think it is easily one of the best things out there, and it will hold up beautifully years from now. Gary actually made a great point during his Emmy acceptance speech he made - about how BSG is a drama and not sci-fi. One day all those who have been avoiding the show because of this misconception will give it a try and they'll be stunned to realize that they were passing it up based on an assumption that was very wrong.

Do you often find yourself breaking down shots in your mind that you see in other productions, be it film or broadcast and trying to figure out how they were created, or how you would create them?
de Blois: Yes, all the time. It is a hard-wired response with me and I would guess that anyone else working in VFX does the same thing. It is a habit I enjoy getting lost in. However, when you are captivated with the work as much as I am this is too difficult to avoid. At times it can make it hard to enjoy things because I find myself just studying the VFX instead of getting into the stories. I tend to see films more than once anyway, just so that eventually I do watch a film instead of studying it. Watching Harryhausen or Pal films always helps to ground me. I see them over and over again constantly and just enjoy the picture each time. Perhaps this has something to do with a masterpiece that can't be merely scrutinized and studied.

What differences, if any, do you find when compositing shots in a space environment as opposed to a land-based environment? Are there any specific problems that present themselves in post?
de Blois: Live action shots require matchmoving, keying, roto, plate cleanup, rig removal, speed ramping, grid warping, transformations, joining plates, matching film grain... the list goes on. Any number of things, and sometimes all of them at once and getting the CG in the shot to match the plate seamlessly. More work no matter how you look at it, but incredibly rewarding. I think my favorites have been the Centurions because they always look different in each environment they are in, so it allows me to play with a new look for them.

All-CG spaceship shots are a great deal of fun to work with. Due to the inherent differences between all-CG shots and live action shots, the all-CG shots do not feel like work at all, more like fun time. Our animators devise exciting and dynamic shots that are a pleasure to print. The FTL jumps require additional time and effort to and insert the jumps though, but are still tremendously enjoyable for me. I have had shots where the entire fleet jumps in or out, so whipping up 40 or 50 jumps and making them distinct - yet maintaining the established look - requires a lot of effort but is still enjoyable to do. I always make sure each one has uniqueness to it so it clearly isn't re-using, especially in how the ships themselves are being affected as they jump.

The fire effects from explosions are extremely realistic. Can you shed some insight on how those are created?
de Blois: I wish I could take credit for that but it is the ingenious work of Sean Jackson. He is BSG's firebug. It's all a blend of LightWave particles and his sorcery. He is also a very accomplished compositor so he understands how to make the most out of his elements so that they can be utilized to their greatest benefit.