Iconic characters, both fictional and historical, and a tale from suspense master Stephen King have come alive on the small screen with help from VFX studios. From creating digital environments, futuristic transports and retro inventions to crafting supernatural beings and otherworldly events, VFX enhance the stories of superheroes, pirates, retail magnates, time travelers, small-town Americans and the world’s most famous vampire.
AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.
ABC’s new Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s first venture in live-action television, features the Avengers storyline and characters coupled with extensive VFX by lead vendor FuseFX (www.fusefx.com). With such iconic characters at the core of the series there are frequent references to their incarnations in the comics and on the big screen — ILM has even shared assets created for the films — so consistency is critical. But FuseFX has been able to create and interpret a number of new elements, which make the world of the agents larger-than-life.
The series is shot in Culver City, CA, where show VFX supervisor Mark Kolpack is on-set. FuseFX’s artists work from the company’s Burbank office; their numbers have swelled to deliver the large volume of complex shots, which 22 episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. demand. With a highly efficient custom pipeline management system and nearly 60 employees, FuseFX has managed to deliver VFX for the series while continuing VFX work on many other shows and projects, including American Horror Story, Hell on Wheels and Criminal Minds.
“We have staffed up and reallocated resources so we have two independent teams working on different episodes of S.H.I.E.L.D. with creative supervision overlapping,” explains FuseFX CEO/VFX supervisor, David Altenau. The company also upgraded to a 300TB Isilon cluster, which doubled its storage capacity, added render nodes to its render farm, and more workstations and software. The chief software tools are Autodesk 3DS Max, Chaos Group’s V-Ray and The Foundry’s Nuke.
One of the signature elements in the show is The Bus, a modified C17 military transport plane outfitted with S.H.I.E.L.D. technology. It acts as the agents’ mobile HQ and can travel anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. FuseFX contributed significant design input to the plane, building “vertical take off and landing into the design from the pilot, although those capabilities weren’t revealed until Episode 8,” says Altenau.
“A very complex rig controls every aspect of the plane: the landing gear, engine transformation, doors opening, lighting — even the wings have flex controls for the animators to sell the weight of this massive aircraft. When the engines are in vertical flight mode, they have several degrees of rotation, which give the jet a lot of maneuvering ability.”
For Lola, the classic 1962 Corvette that appears on the show, FuseFX added hover capabilities, turning its wheels to a horizontal position and exposing hidden jet-engine ducts. Once again, FuseFX led the collaborative design process with Kolpack and production for Lola’s undercarriage and jet engines. Sometimes the real Corvette is shown transitioning to its hover mode with Sitni Sati’s FumeFx adding volumetric dust and exhaust, and Side Effects’ Houdini particle effects. Sometimes FuseFX is required to use a fully-digital model of the car, which matches the real vehicle precisely.
On the human side, FuseFX provides robotic leg replacement for Mike Peterson, or Deathlok, and digital doubles for augmenting stunts and performing fully-digital stunts. In a dramatic one-off stunt sequence, two of the main characters jumped out of the back of The Bus with only a single parachute; the sequence included 30 shots and was a combination of a fully-digital environment, digital doubles for wide shots and actors shot on greenscreen with a gimbal rig.
In another one-off shot, the team battles one of the key villains, Ian Quinn, who creates a massive machine that harnesses the exotic substance, gravitonium. The episode culminates with Dr. Franklin Hall falling into and getting consumed by the gravitonium — giving FuseFX the opportunity to help visualize the genesis of one of Marvel’s classic characters, Graviton.
One of the keys to doing VFX for TV successfully is “client-VFX chemistry” and constant close communications, Altenau says. “You need to head toward the target as quickly as possible creatively. On features you have the luxury of taking a detour to try something new, but on TV you don’t. Everyone has to be on the same page in terms of creative direction so you can get to the end game on as direct a path as possible. Marvel has been really great at collaboration and working constructively with us to achieve that. We’re very excited to be working on the show. We couldn’t imagine a better series to be involved with.”
Dracula’s back and he’s never looked so good. In the guise of American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson, the iconic vampire, elegantly played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is alive (or undead) and well in Victorian London, surrounded by lush locations and beautiful costumes. Little wonder that the woman who appears to be a reincarnation of his long-dead wife falls under his spell.
He can’t escape his blood-soaked past (and present), but NBC’s Dracula draws the line at excessive gore. In fact, its London-based producers, Carnival Films, are the folks behind Downton Abbey. “They bring a Downton aesthetic to the show,” notes the show’s VFX supervisor Kent Johnson, who serves as VFX supervisor/producer at LA’s Stargate Studios (www.stargatestudios.net). “The violence in Dracula is very subtle; they didn’t want it to be in your face.”
The challenges for this new interpretation of Dracula concerned inventing his world, says Johnson. “We had to answer a lot of big questions and determine the visual aesthetic.”
He spent six-and-a-half months in pre-pro and production in Budapest, which doubles for Victorian London. He met early on with the producers to discuss some very “high-concept ideas,” including how to visualize the mystic visions of vampire seers and Dracula’s own point of view, which manifests itself when the blood-starved vampire sees people’s pulsing hearts and veins as he walks down the street.
But first Stargate had to transform the 400-year old corpse of Dracula into the young and vital Alexander Grayson. “That effect took a great deal of development,” Johnson recalls. “There was a puppet Dracula corpse at the start and Jonathan in make up at the end; using hundreds of photos of the puppet and Jonathan, we constructed a 3D model to transition between the two.”
VFX were key in Dracula’s fight to the death with a vampire huntsman on a London rooftop. Stargate created a cityscape from 3D models and matte paintings, which acted as the backdrop for stunt performers and actors rigged on flying harnesses. A CG arrow pierced Dracula’s leg and CG swords were extended from practical hilts to ensure safe combat.
“They went to great lengths for an accurate recreation of Victorian-era London,” says Johnson. “The producer had done the two Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films, so he knew where to go to shoot the architecture of the period. We did a big VFX location shoot in London — I took about 15,000 stills from rooftops and church steeples. A cherry picker took me up in the middle of a bridge over the Thames to get the perfect shot of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. And I was 45 feet in the air at dawn over Trafalgar Square.” Johnson’s vast library of stills was used to create photographic matte paintings that were projected onto 3D geometry.
Grayson’s resonator, which generates wireless electricity, went through a lot of creative R&D. “We started with steampunk-esque Tesla coils, but Carnival’s aesthetic kept wanting it to be more subtle so as not to distract from the dialogue and action,” says Johnson. “This wasn’t Frankenstein’s lab.”
Grayson’s demonstration of the technology elicited “countless discussions” among the creatives. Hundreds of spectators were shown holding clear light bulbs in their hands, illuminated by the wireless power of the resonator. “Because the producers wanted to see the filaments in the bulbs, it was important that they be regular incandescent bulbs,” Johnson explains. “So they ran electrical lines to every bulb and did the effect in camera. Although it took us a great deal of time and labor to paint out the electrical lines to 300 extras holding bulbs in a ballroom, it was still less expensive than hiding wires in clothing and sets. And the lights are so close to people’s faces that they’re part of the lighting for the scene and create a warm glow captured by the camera.”
Stargate was also responsible for some organic VFX. When Dracula is infused with Van Helsing’s serum to allow him to stay out in the sunlight, his CG veins appear engorged as the serum flows through his body. But the treatment doesn’t work exactly as hoped and Dracula’s skin begins to redden and burn after more than a few minutes of exposure to the sun.
“The make up department started the process on Jonathan, and we stepped in when his skin blackens, chars and smokes,” says Johnson. “We had hundreds of photos of Jonathan to work with. We used [Autodesk] Maya and [NewTek] LightWave [3D] to get the look in 3D, and integrated it with his moving body with [Imagineer Systems’] Mocha and [Adobe] After Effects. Later, when Dracula feeds and heals, we filmed Jonathan with make up and without, and transitioned between the two to create a sense of the skin growing back as he heals.”
Johnson admits it was “a bit of a challenge to be in Budapest and supervise artists in LA,” but lots of video conferencing with Stargate VFX producer Tyler Foell and remote access to the artists’ work-in-progress helped to close the geographical gap.
In the end, Dracula is not really a VFX show, Johnson says. “It’s more love story than supernatural thriller.”
London-based DNeg TV, the television division of Double Negative Visual Effects (www.dneg.com), completed VFX for Season 2 of Mr. Selfridge, a co-production of ITV Studios and Masterpiece, which is currently being broadcast in the US on Sunday nights on PBS’s Masterpiece.
The second season of the popular show, about the retail empire of the American-born founder of London’s Selfridge’s department store, takes place in 1914. DNeg TV was charged with recreating the exterior of the store and updating the look of Oxford Street, which had changed dramatically since Season 1, set five years earlier.
“The exterior is like another character in the show,” says Hayden Jones, VFX supervisor and one of the founders of DNeg TV with Jonathan Privett and Louise Hussey. “It’s such an iconic building that we knew it had to look correct; viewers would know instantly if it wasn’t right.”
Exterior shots typically show “the tapestry of life” on Oxford Street, with “people walking down the street, chatting as they go into the store, workers preparing for a royal visit by rolling out the red carpet. All sorts of action takes place outside.”
A small section of the exterior was built as a set on Chatham Docks, says Jones. “It’s one-story high and covers three windows and one set of double doors. We built the other four floors and the other half of the building. Everything beyond the greenscreens on set is all digital — cars, horse-drawn buses, carriages, people, street lamps, buildings,” Jones says. “It’s an amazing challenge.”
In the interest of “matching CG down to the millimeter” of the exterior set, DNeg TV did a LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) scan of the set to facilitate an accurate digital recreation. “It allowed us to make sure the set extension model fits perfectly to the set,” Jones explains. “It can’t be a millimeter off.”
The exterior of Selfridge’s features “so many vertical uprights that it’s very unforgiving to do match moves,” he notes. “One of the joys of working here is our fantastic R&D department, so a lot of our tracking tools are bespoke. They produce excellent results on shots that normally would be extremely difficult to track.”
DNeg TV had to recreate different day parts for Oxford Street, too. “Now [World War I] is upon us and they’ve dimmed down lights for blackouts.” In one shot, “the DP left all the lenses wide open for a short depth of field, giving a nice textural feel to the out of focus areas of the image,” says Jones. “We had to match that, even to the model and the optical quality of the lenses. It’s a subtle effect, achieved primarily by using Nuke, but it adds so much.”
Maya is the main animation tool for the show, with rendering done in Pixar’s RenderMan.
Once the producers of Mr. Selfridge saw how quickly DNeg TV could turn around shots, Jones found the company advising on new shots for episodes, one of which also ended up in the title sequence. “We went up five stories on the building opposite with the camera then tilted down for a super-high wide shot where Selfridge’s looks almost like the prow of a ship,” Jones says. “We weren’t sure it could be done within the budget, but we were confident in our tracking tools and delivered the shot on-time and on-budget. It looked so great that they decided to put it in the title sequence, too.”
Although barely 10 months old, DNeg TV has a host of other credits: all three seasons and the forthcoming season four of the mystery series Death in Paradise for the BBC; a new Sunday-night family drama series for BBC One; a new drama series for Sony/Starz; and a pilot for NBC/Universal. And DNeg TV will be back adding more details and texture to c. 1919 Oxford Street for Season 3 of Mr. Selfridge.
UNDER THE DOME
The CBS summer 2013 hit, Under The Dome, gave viewers a look at the personal and political dynamics of a small American town that’s suddenly covered by an impermeable, transparent dome, which isolates them from contact and communication with the outside world. Based on the novel by Stephen King (who is an executive producer, along with Steven Spielberg), the series returns this summer — possibly with some explanations of the dome’s secrets, and definitely with more mysteries.
Since the dome plays such a big role in the show, developing its look was a crucial part of the VFX work. “When Episode 5 was filming, I was still creating looks for the dome on my laptop and showing them to the executives,” says Stephan Fleet, executive creative director at Encore (www.encorepost.com) and VFX supervisor for Under The Dome. “We couldn’t see it in every shot or the whole show would be a VFX shot. But when we got close to it we had to know what it looked like, what it felt like when people touched it.”
Some properties of the dome were pre-established. “We always knew it would slice through things,” Fleet says. “It had to be hard, not wobbly. It was semi-magical but had to be believable — it couldn’t look like ice or be too supernatural. And it couldn’t be reflective because that would pose huge production issues” for an episodic show. Fleet put up pieces of plastic for the actors to interact with on set but avoided any complicated props that would require a lot of time in post to remove. “For TV, you aim for as little footprint as possible on the set,” he notes.
That the dome could slice through things was evident from the start, when one of its edges came down on a farm, cleaving a cow in two. The first proposal called for a stuffed cow prop, sweetened with VFX blood and gore. When that didn’t work as well as desired, it was ultimately recreated in CG. “And the half-cow became the icon of the show: It’s on T-shirts and posters,” Fleet exclaims.
A truck and plane crash from outside into the dome were also CG. The truck crash was initially planned as a practical effect. “It almost worked, but when we blended in CG enhancements, it read too fake, so we went with 100 percent CG,” he says.
Monarch butterflies were a recurring motif. A flock of them first appeared inside the dome wall, fanned out in all their glory. Later in the episode, a nuclear missile failed to breach the dome (the complete destruction on the other side was full CG environment replacement by Encore). Then, a single monarch reappeared and landed on the dome. The butterfly also played a key role in the season finale.
“We didn’t know that the monarchs would be a huge theme in the show” at the outset, says Fleet. “We built about 14 quality butterflies for that opening sequence on the dome wall and a detailed butterfly for the very end of the show. An individual butterfly model is fairly easy to execute, but we needed to use particle simulations to multiply them. It took a lot of math and horsepower to make them realistic.”
Encore also created VFX for the mini dome, which formed around a mysterious egg found in the woods. The mini dome turned white before it exploded and dissolved to dirt — all VFX shots. Encore enhanced the egg itself, which typically appeared as a prop, creating “pink stuff” that crawled up its surface and a caterpillar that transformed into the hero monarch butterfly, which appears to select a leader from the town’s supernaturally gifted young residents.
Fleet, and Encore’s other VFX supervisor, Adam Avitabile, opted for practical solutions whenever possible. “I’m a big fan of practical effects,” says Fleet. “We use a process of elimination to determine what will be VFX shots. I’m not a fan of up-selling people.”
For the long-awaited pink falling stars — referenced in the first episode and finally visualized at the end of Season 1 — Encore had few specifics to guide them. The team initially created pink stars that “looked more like fireworks,” Fleet says. Then he and his artists suggested having them shoot up the sides of the dome in otherworldly straight lines — a hauntingly-cool image that everyone loved.
The stars were a mix of particles composited with treetops and other natural elements captured by Fleet with his Canon 5D camera and used as plates. Autodesk 3DS Max was the show’s main 3D software, with Nuke the primary compositing tool and Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes the tracking software. Encore handled post for the series as well.
Fleet notes that creating VFX for TV “gets harder every season because the stakes are raised with every show.” He approaches a series with a sense of restraint, however. “We have an honest dialogue about what I think is feasible and what isn’t. I want shows to look good with quality VFX — I’ve seen too many with too much stuff going on, and the VFX suffer.”
Revolutionary War soldier Ichabod Crane has awakened in present-day Sleepy Hollow, but he’s still pursued by The Headless Horseman in Fox’s new hit series that mingles eras, history and mystical practices. Synaptic VFX, which has offices in Burbank and New Orleans (www.synapticvfx.com), provided a wide range of VFX for Season 1, including the villainous Headless Horseman, digital environments and a demonic possession.
“For a number of VFX, my brother Shahen did the concept art,” says Shant Jordan, a 3D artist and compositor who founded Synaptic VFX with Shahen Jordan and Ken Gust. “Synaptic provided a complete solution for the show, from concept to execution.”
Jordan notes that the company’s roots “are in TV and film. In TV we expect to do feature-level VFX for smaller budgets and faster turnarounds. But we can do 300 shots in seven days instead of four months because we have an established pipeline that can be tailored to a show’s needs. The most important part of the process, though, is communication. Without that, even the most refined pipeline falls apart.”
Synaptic already had close ties to longtime friend and show VFX supervisor Jason Zimmerman, who worked on-set in North Carolina for the duration of Season 1. “We could ask him questions at any point in the day” as live-action plates were funneled to Synaptic, says Jordan. “It’s what defined the success of the show.”
The Headless Horseman, a key recurring player in Sleepy Hollow, was performed by several stuntmen wearing green masks. For his sequences, Synaptic removed his head, replaced it with a bloody stump and painted in the background. In one scene, for which Shahen did the concept art, The Headless Horseman gallops through the woods as the environment catches fire around him, embers flying in the air.
“The challenge for this character is that he’s always moving,” notes Shant Jordan. “He’s riding, swinging an axe or other weapons — there’s a lot of animation. We have tracking markers on his head and around his collar; we put in a CG collar to anchor the neckpiece.”
Episode 4 flashed back to the Boston Tea Party, with a Synaptic digital matte painting depicting the harbor and ships. “We used projected matte painting techniques along with 3D geometry to achieve the desired look, just like we do with films,” says Jordan. Reference material helped create authentic geography.
For the horrifying demonic possession of a teenage girl, Synaptic replaced her arms with CG limbs and altered her already distorted face. “When the make-up wasn’t scary enough, we built a model of her face, warped it and replaced it,” Jordan explains. Earlier, the company augmented the make-up for Serilda the witch, adding fire and glow under her skin.
Synaptic’s toolset includes LightWave 3D, 3DS Max and Maya, with Nuke and After Effects for compositing and Science D-Visions’ 3DEqualizer for match moving.
As Sleepy Hollow heads into its second season, Jordan tells fans to “look for more” VFX as the plot lines of the cliffhanger season finale are explored. By operating with a different paradigm, with “teams of multifaceted artists who understand a sense of urgency,” Synaptic will prepare for Season 2 as it crafts VFX for a “very demanding” Fox pilot, Hieroglyph.
The new eight-episode Starz series, Black Sails, tells the tale of early 18th-century pirates in what’s now Nassau, The Bahamas, and their quest for gold from the legendary Urca de Lima. Crazy Horse Effects, Inc., in Venice, CA (www.chevfx.com), was one of the lead VFX vendors for Season 1, creating the environments for Nassau and nearby islands.
“Production had a clear idea of what they wanted: the shape of the bay and Hog Island (now known as Paradise Island) that protects the bay, the beach with shacks below the fort, the rocky area with shipwrecks,” says Crazy Horse VFX supervisor and creative director Paul Graff. “This wasn’t Pirates of the Caribbean. Starz wanted it to be realistic. Previs from the VFX department and a few sketches from the art department helped direct the look of our work, but our creative team also ran ideas by them. It was a very collaborative process.”
The panoramic view of Nassau and the bay was a big Photoshop matte painting with CG models, created in Maxon Cinema4D, embedded with After Effects. When Graff thought the shot needed real water plates, he flew to The Bahamas to direct a live-action shoot and compile a library of water plates, palm trees and other native vegetation to populate the 3D environments. The series is shot in Capetown, South Africa, where show VFX supervisor Erik Henry was busy on-set. Paul Graff and Crazy Horse VFX executive producer Christina Graff had previously worked with Henry on the award-winning John Adams series.
“We got as much for the library as we could — shots of beaches, surf from all angles, water from the perspective of a tall ship and low from a skiff,” he explains. “We still created some CG water with 3DS Max, but CG water tends to look a bit repetitive while real water is infinitely random.”
Graff notes that with freeways in close proximity to the Capetown location, it was hard to get the camera any distance from the set. “So whenever there was a shot in the bay looking back at Nassau, we had to patch together images from the set with plates of our own.” Crazy Horse did a roof replacement on a real Capetown farmhouse to change its architecture. The company also built out the big fort from “a bit of raised set with a turret and a few crenellations,” says Christina Graff. The fort was seen in a number of shots: big reveals of the island terrain, crane moves and approached from behind by a character walking up a hillside. A spectacular high-angle view from the fort over the bay showed CG ships, beaches and Hog Island. Paul’s real water plates were combined with water-tank plates that were rotoscoped and painted below the surface to give the look of greater transparency.
Paul Graff observes that many VFX shots were “creative journeys” for the Crazy Horse team and the production. A night shot of Nassau by torchlight evolved to versions overlooking the bay and a view of a gloomy area on the edge of town. “Then the matte painter said, ‘Let’s lose the background of the town and the island, and focus on the silhouette of ships, like in a graveyard,’” he recalls. “The shot went from defining territory to being a vehicle to tell the story.”
All of the VFX for Black Sails went through Crazy Horse’s LA office, which was also working on the features White House Down and Vice. The New York office was busy with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and the feature The Wolf of Wall Street.
“There’s no difference in our workflow for a movie or a TV series,” says Paul Graff. “There’s only one way to work: as good as we can. This is never factory work. Every shot offers new possibilities and a new learning experience.”