Primetime: ABC's 'Once Upon A Time'
Issue: November 1, 2014

Primetime: ABC's 'Once Upon A Time'

Since its premiere in 2011, ABC’s highly-successful series Once Upon A Time (OUAT) has been bringing some of Disney’s most beloved story- book characters — including Snow White, Prince Charming, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Rumplestiltskin — to the small screen, working overtime to turn even the most jaded viewers into believers of magic and fairy tales.

The show’s central plotline is based around the premise that these characters, who live near the fabled Enchanted Forest, were placed under a curse by the Evil Queen and transported into current day Storybrooke, Maine, where they would lose their memories and live life as ordinary people. Only the Evil Queen, who herself lives in Storybrooke as the town’s mayor Regina Mills, knows the truth behind everyone’s true identities (and also retains her magical powers). It’s when Mills’ adopted son Henry leaves Storybrooke in search of his birth mother (Emma Swan, who turns out to be the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming) and brings her back to Storybrooke, that the real magic starts to happen. And that’s where Zoic Studios steps in and raises the bar for primetime VFX.

With the show shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Arri Alexa cameras, Zoic Studios (Vancouver) is working with ProRes 4444 files and creating anywhere from 350 to sometimes 500 VFX shots per episode. Zoic's ( co-founder Andrew Orloff, VFX supervisor on OUAT and president of the Vancouver office, speaks with Post about some of the series’ most challenging effects and the show’s most ambitious plotline yet, bringing the phenomenon of Frozen, along with its lead characters Anna and Elsa, to Storybrooke.

How did Zoic Studios become involved with Once Upon A Time?

“Zoic has a long-standing relationship with ABC. The genesis of this particular show started back when we did the reboot of V, which aired on ABC and was a Warner Bros. show. It was shot in Vancouver, and had some of the same producers attached to it. For that show, for the spaceship interiors, we developed a system that we call Zeus, which is our proprietary virtual environment technology. When that show ran its course, I was contacted by Steve Pearlman, one of the executive producers, and Adam [Horowitz] and Eddy [Kitsis], who are the executives, to talk to them about a brand-new show, Once Upon A Time, which is a very different genre, but they wanted to utilize the same virtual set technology and really take it to a new level. They wanted to create considerably more lavish environments, more environments and with more complicated lighting and blocking and variety of sets.

"It was a good fit right off the bat. We started before the pilot got picked up — working with them to help them get the green light. Once the show was picked up, we were on a race track ever since.”

Zoic's Andrew Orloff

What was the initial goal for the VFX? What kind of look did the producers want for the show?

“Well, of course there’s the fairy-tale land where everybody came from, that needs to look like it’s a fantastic environment; like nothing that exists in our reality. But it also needs to be consistent to itself and be grounded and create its own world. We were truly building a new reality here of what does Storybrooke look like? What does Wonderland look like? What does Oz look like? What does Arendelle look like? And we’ve gone into this amazing idea that basically, what Adam and Eddy are saying in the show is that every piece of literary fiction that we have in our world is a representation of some alternate universe that exists on its own but not just as a two-dimensional representation of it, but it has its own set of intricacies and problems, just like our world does. So, we have to give it that scope, feeling and sense of magical realism.” 

You want the viewers at home to believe that they’re real.

“Exactly — and connect with them as if they’re real. That’s the biggest goal for the visual effects. We never do trick shots where we’re zooming and zipping around the castle or for long shots around these fairy-tale environments, saying, look at how beautiful and majestic this is. We shoot it just like we would shoot anything else.”

Can we talk about the Frozen storyline that's part of the current season and some of the new effects you’re creating for these new characters?

“This storyline, more than any other, since Frozen is so new and fresh in everybody’s mind and beloved by everybody who has seen it, we really feel a big responsibility here at Zoic to translate that world of Frozen that was in the movie, faithfully into OUAT.

"So, when we look at the design for grandpappy the rock troll, or the docks in Arendelle, or the way Elsa shoots ice out of her hands, we really are looking very closely at the movie to be true to the intention of the art direction and design. It’s really important to us that we are truly bringing Frozen to Storybrooke and I think it shows in the success in the ratings and the viewers responding very favorably.

"One of the questions we had to ask ourselves, for instance, was, what would Grandpappy look like if he were really here? He has to look like grandpappy and be instantly recognizable to people who have seen Frozen, but if we made him look exactly like how he was in the movie, he would look like a CG animated version in a real space. So the big challenge for us is to stay true to it and create that sense of magical realism that we feel like the live-action characters are integrated with.”

Were there other VFX that were more challenging that you thought would be tough to pull off?

“Yes, one of the biggest challenges was the opener of Season 4. The beginning, those first minutes where you grab viewers is often the most important part of any TV show. The first scene in the premiere starts off with Anna and Elsa’s parents on the stormy sea. And we had to make sure our ocean was realistic, our boat was realistic. We had people on a boat set on green screen, with tons of water being dumped. 

"Water is especially challenging for CG, the dynamics of the water, it always has been. It’s something that’s been relegated to features mostly because it takes so much time to get it right. For us to do it on a television budget and schedule, is something that we’re really proud of. It’s one thing when you’re doing a virtual environment inside a castle, where the walls are stationary, and a much bigger bulls eye when your virtual environment is a ship on the ocean during a storm. 

"We partnered with a company called Fusion IO that specifically does water effects for film and television shows, and they helped us with the simulations. It was rewarding to see it all together and people responding so well to the premiere.”

What are some other tools you use?

“We’re using fairly standard tools for the visual effects industry. For our models, characters, and sets we’re using [Autodesk] Maya and rendering in [Chaos Group’s] V-Ray, and for compositing we’re using [The Foundry’s] Nuke exclusively. We do a lot of our own water and smoke simulations using a variety of software like [Thinkbox Software’s] Krakatoa and RealFlow, and we’re using Zbrush [from Pixelogic] for our character modeling, so it's a good suite of tools. I think the most exciting thing we do here relates to our proprietary virtual set system, Zeus. We have an iPad application that allows our clients to take a virtual tour through the sets, and to create cameras and save cameras and save animation, put characters down in the sets and do storyboards so it takes the place of a tech scout for the virtual set process. It’s a great previs and visualization tool.”

Does the show have any signature VFX?

“Yes, there are a few. For example, the main favored form of transportation in fairy-tale land is what we lovingly refer to as the 'smoke poof.' And the smoke poof is when one of the characters needs to get somewhere quickly, they wave their hand, smoke wraps around them, and they disappear. We’ve seen it in every Disney movie (laughs). That was something we really had to develop specifically for the show because in our world it has to look like real smoke. So we have been working on that effect and evolving that effect. We started out with Maya Fluids, then we went to software called Phoenix and now we’re finally using Krakatoa, but we’re constantly evolving that effect.” 

How important are the VFX to the storytelling and storylines of the show?

“More than any other show I’ve worked on. We are completely integrated with the production cycle. Visual effects is not an afterthought. The design and the implementation of the visual effects have implications on story lines, budgetary concerns, so we’re right there. We take the challenge very seriously. If the visual effects don’t work, the show doesn’t work.”