VFX For TV: 'CSI: Cyber'
Issue: April 1, 2015

VFX For TV: 'CSI: Cyber'

CSI: Cyber recently premiered on CBS, bringing with it storylines set deep in the bowels of the Web, where hackers and criminals prey anonymously and crimes are often untraceable. Patricia Arquette stars as Special Agent Avery Ryan, who heads up the Cyber Crime Division of the FBI. In just the first few episodes of what is scheduled to be a 13-program series, her team has dealt with baby abductions using common nanny-cam technology, and the murder of those who use popular ride-sharing applications.

Brad Powell is the show’s visual effects supervisor. Powell operates LA’s BLP Visual Effects, which contributes VFX services to a number of television programs, including CBS’s Elementary and Fox’s The Mindy Project. For CSI: Cyber, his team is considered part of the crew, and works directly with the show’s writers and producers.

“I bring them the creative ideas,” he explains. “We deal with writers and producers directly. In order to get the job, we gave them a ‘look book’ of what we thought the direction of the show should go in and the way we saw the effects going: how to visualize encryption, how to visualize hacking, and how it flows through the Internet.”

On average, each episode involves 120 visual effects, and of those 120, ten are typically “cyber” shots. “The approach I took was, we see it as deep space or the ocean,” says Powell of the Internet, “where it’s an infinite sea of openness, and not the traditional ‘90s version of the Internet, which was a tube of 1s and 0s.”
BLP Visual Effects’ main tools are Maxon’s Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects, running on a mixture of MacPros and PCs. The show is shot on Arri’s Alexa — though an iPhone or GoPro may be used on occasion — and is edited with Avid systems.

“Most shows like to pull DPX frames,” explains Powell of the VFX process. “We like to pull Apple ProRes 4444. We get the full camera master out of the Alexa and we deliver 4444 ProRes. It really simplifies the whole workflow because when a cut changes, we have the camera master, and don’t have to re-order DPX frames. For me, it’s a great workflow thing. We get an EDL from Avid and go into Premiere to generate our VFX cuts.” That Premiere project is then brought into After Effects. “It’s a very smooth workflow,” he continues.

At press time, the entire first season of 13 episodes had been delivered. The BLP team worked on anywhere from six to eight episodes at once, ultimately delivering 1,920x1,080 HD content at 23.976.