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August 2014
Issue: February 1, 2009

VISUAL EFFECTS: 'METEOR' TARGETS EARTH

By: Ken McGorry
LOS ANGELES — LLP Digital is a big, successful content producer that you don’t hear much about, largely because they’re too busy — producing shows for Hallmark, Spike, international distribution and more — but everyone will know about their new production when Meteor airs on NBC this spring.

The four-hour miniseries, starring Jason Alexander, boasts the requisite big-screen VFX, depicting life as we know it being threatened and/or destroyed. But TV budgets for VFX are not big-screen budgets. And the movie was cut on Final Cut. So how do you pull it off?

“How we were going to keep track of the edits and work with the editors was very key here because the edit continues until the delivery,” says Rony Soussan, digital effects supervisor at LLP. “We had to be able to see things in reference and have playback all the time.”

LLP is a Windows house and Eyeon Software’s new system, Generation, which can manage a complex VFX-heavy post production job and also handle creating effects, runs on Windows. Final Cut, obviously, runs on Mac. The editors would first provide the VFX team with EDLs for the VFX sequences, says Soussan (rs@soussan.com).

Meteor, at four hours in length, has over 600 VFX shots and Soussan and crew were happy to learn that Generation can handle big, complex jobs — even miniseries. When they first looked at Generation last summer, Soussan thought, “What we need is something where we can put 600 shots in and look at my shots, look at my artists’ shots, look at all the shots that have been rejected.” Using Generation’s “ability to have multiple cuts within a project that are all just TXT files — there’s no database — we were able to automate through scripting and tell it to do anything we wanted! We could send it a message that says, ‘Create a new cut; display all of Rony’s shots; show all the shots from yesterday to today; and all the shots that aren’t in the timeline.’ In one second, they’re there.”

Soussan and company could take one night of the miniseries and create a playlist from the EDL with a traditional thumbnail-based timeline. “As we started developing each shot, the versions started stacking vertically over each shot.” Using Generation’s thumbnail playback system “everybody just opened it up and hit play and they’ve got three hours of playable video in realtime on their machine.”

Eyeon’s Fusion 5, a full-featured, node-based compositing system, is bundled with the new Generation Suite. Priced at under $10K, Generation Suite is meant to manage projects for a small team of artists or for a large facility employing thousands spread across multiple sites. It offers an array of editing, versioning, annotation and collaboration tools. Generation can display notes on every tile.

Generation Studio (under $6K) has the same tools, sans Fusion, and allows supervisors and artists to improve efficiency by providing project overview and the ability to edit multiple shots, maintain version histories and collaborate with all team members. Generation Player ($695) allows instant review for artists, including playback of single clips or entire Generation projects, which can be viewed (but not edited) in context. Player has collaborative commenting and grease-pencil notation features.

Soussan designed LLP’s in-house pipeline with particular attention to the integration of Generation and acted as liaison with Eyeon. LLP, which has been using Fusion since around 2004, served as a Generation beta site. Chris Reid, LLP’s “internal developer extraordinaire” executed all the coding required.

LLP had about 15 VFX people on Meteor. Ten or 12 used Fusion 5, including 3D artists who used Fusion for pre-comping, and four compositors. Five people were using the five or more Generation licenses at any one time. 3D artists, too — they were able to see how their work looked comped into shots right from their desks by using Generation Player.

THE LATEST VERSION 

Generation uses a proxy or “mirroring” system for local playback. “So,” Soussan says, “you can say, ‘Mirror this entire project to my machine at full HD res!’” If one of the artists adds a clip somewhere, Generation tells you with a little “updated” flag and you then go and update your mirror and replace it with the latest version.

Soussan likes Fusion’s performance within Generation. “If you put a comp on the timeline, instead of a clip, it’ll actually ask you which one of the outputs in that comp is the one you’re referencing as a shot. I can also right-click and say, ‘Show me the contents of the comp.’ It opens a new cut within Generation, splits all the elements that are in the comp as separate loaders so you can look at all the elements that are in a comp.” This is a quick way for a supervisor to track down an element in a shot that may need further work.

“The real key,” he says, “is that it’s open. The whole project is just a TXT file! So we can do anything we want. There’s no ‘lock,’ no secret database we have to program into, just a TXT file with bookmarks. It’s quite clever.” Fusion was historically binary-based; Fusion 5 is TXT-based and that opened the way for Generation.

Soussan particularly appreciates that “we can use a central networked location for the shared proxies. As soon as you load your project, you also have access to it. Everyone is sharing a centralized proxy location. It was an amazing thing for six people to go sit down and have 400 shots to hit play at without any caching, loading, pre-loading, QuickTimes, memory — just go!” 

SPACE SHOTS

In addition to devastating cities, Meteor depicts lots of dangerous action in outer space and LLP made it all happen with CG and comps. CG work, most of it done in NewTek LightWave, includes the titular threatening meteor; lots of smaller meteors ripping through orbiting satellites; a CG model of the International Space Station (which gets in the way); and the Earth itself, seen from space. “Our lighting TD and look-development guy was Enrique Munoz and he used LightWave,” says Soussan. “He did all the modeling, lighting and surfacing on the ISS.” Patrick Murphy was senior VFX producer. Murphy and Soussan did some comping themselves.

Earth, rendered for different shots by different artists using mostly LightWave and some Houdini, needed color continuity. Generation could and did create a new cut of just the 22 or so Earth shots so they could be compared quickly and earmarked for any color tweaking needed.

CONTROL ROOM

In a project like this, you need to launch rockets and set lots of action in a control room HQ. VFX supervisor Ryan Smolarek used Houdini for some of the missile launch sequences.

“There are 114 control room shots that are completely greenscreen,” says Soussan. “Eric Acsel, our lead compositor, was in charge of putting all that action together, including designing all the elements that are in the screen — quite impressive.” Generation was key to making sure the LLP team was always on track with what appears on the screens from shot to shot. Soussan says it was “easy for us to play back all the ‘monitor’ shots and see if the information flowed across them.”

Clay Dale, the project’s particle effects supervisor and LightWave user, was also very important to the effort, Soussan says, acting as an “all around save-our-butt kind of guy.”

LightWave handled hero shots like “destroying the moon,” but Fusion’s particle system handled the majority of the show’s particle shots. “All the non-hero meteors, including major explosions in the sky of thousands of meteors,” says Soussan. “We would not have delivered this movie were it not for Fusion’s full-3D sprite-based particle system.”

Soussan, an old hand at Fusion himself, comped about 100 shots in Meteor — especially Fusion-particle-system shots of meteors traveling through the sky, breaking up and exploding. He worked on some hyper-real explosive hero-shots, too.

A next step, Soussan says, is to really get LLP’s shot-tracker talking with Generation. “You’re really going to know — live — what’s happening with everything through the interface.” It’s no longer a beta test, “it’s a religion now.”