V was a popular science-fiction TV series that debuted in 1983. Audiences were drawn to its potent mixture of alien invasion and fascist allegory. The “Visitors” initially claim to be a peaceful humanoid race with advanced, space faring technology intent on helping mankind. The resistance, a small group of renegade scientists and ordinary people ultimately discover their true reptilian nature and evil plot to eradicate humanity. In 2009 V has returned.
V has returned as a re-imagined, 9/11-infused update on ABC with groundbreaking new visual effects provided by sci-fi veterans, Zoic Studios (Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and District 9).
Zoic began its work on V in February 2009 for the series’ debut in November. (ABC initially aired 4 episodes with the remainder of the first season to follow later in 2010.) “We started with lots of conceptual artwork going back and forth with series creator Scott Peters and director Yves Simoneau,” recalls Zoic visual effects supervisor, Andrew Orloff. “We created many different versions of the Visitors’ mothership to initially determine how closely we wanted to replicate the look of the original series. The trick was designing something that looked like a peaceful transport ship while giving off a menacing edge lurking below the surface.”
The final design evokes a vaguely serpentine appearance, giving another visual hint to the Visitors’ secrets. “We added lots of reptilian motifs and references to scales,” says CG supervisor Chris Zapara. “The motherships have an overlapping tiled surface that opens up to reveal more hexagonal shapes in the pilot episode. These turn out to be a large video display for addressing the people of Earth and helping to maintain a more benign appearance, for now.”
Ship exteriors are modeled and rendered in LightWave. “Our hard surface spaceship crew of LightWave artists is the same team that we’ve worked with on shows ranging from Firefly to Serenity to Battlestar Galactica,” says Orloff. “The work is typically huge amounts of polygonal, hard surface and ray traced radiosity details. We have a very large LightWave render farm at Zoic to handle the effort.”
Although V is shot in Vancouver it’s set in New York City, obliging Zoic to place Visitor motherships and their support shuttles into convincingly real-world environments. “For the pilot we started with stock footage of New York but found it severely limiting in terms of space within the frame to fit our giant motherships,” observes Orloff. “So, we went to New York with [executive producer] Steve Pearlman and shot for several days to build up our own custom stock library.”
“A lot of those hard surface mothership and shuttle shots need HDRI reflections to tie them into the live-action plates,” says Zapara. “We’ve done a few tricks to make facsimiles of the lighting whenever on-set surveys aren’t available. For night shots, we use dusk shots timed down to night, otherwise we’d be faced with excessive noise from camera gain. We’ve also created some completely synthetic shots of New York whenever plates weren’t available for a specific angle.”
“Our on-set supervisor Robert Biagi is with the camera crew at all times,” says Orloff. “In a given exterior scene, he’ll look out for a real Vancouver building that can play as a cut line for the background. Then put we can put our CG Manhattan architecture behind it and avoid a lot of roto.”
In addition to spaceships, the Visitors also employ Seeker Balls– small, floating globes capable of seeking and destroying unsuspecting pockets of resistance. “Those went through a lot of different design concepts as well,” recalls Zapara. “Initially it was more of a compact mechanical device like the remote Luke trains with in Star Wars. Then we played with ferrofluids to give it a more viscous appearance. That evolved into a more crystalline look with deadly flechette projectiles that shoot out.”
“The Seekers help maintain the V’s clandestine nature by exploding very cleanly and leaving no trace of their existence.” According to Zapara, shots are tracked using SynthEyes and boujou. Compositing is handled mainly in Nuke with some After Effects.
For interior views on board the Visitor motherships, Zoic, the production team and Warner Bros. Television agreed on a bold plan for 100% virtual environments. “When the characters go inside the ships, everything is shot completely green screen with no real props except for the pieces of furniture that actors interact with,” explains Orloff. “We use Lightcraft Technology’s Previzion system in conjunction with our own ZEUS (Zoic Environmental Unification System) to track and composite shots in real-time for pre-visualization on the set.”
“Initial set designs are generated by production designers Ian Thomas and Stephen Geaghan using Google SketchUp. A lot of this methodology comes out of our videogame division and enables us to create a real-time renderable version of the interior sets with baked in lighting and geometry. It gives us a live composite with a rendered 3D background of the virtual set. The resulting temp shots go directly into the cut for editorial.”
This image above shows the greenscreen stage rigged with Intersense optical tracking markers overhead; Zoic used these markers to measure the camera’s position. One can see one of the Previzion Portable units on the table where the Zoic team are sitting. This photo was taken during setup; in production the Previzion system was located back next to the DIT and video village.
“We log all of the production’s ARRI D-21 1080p HD digital camera data into our proprietary database,” Orloff continues. “The tracking happens in real-time with a tiny lipstick camera mounted on the ARRI that shoots up into the lighting grid and captures preset tracking markers. ZEUS gives excellent feedback both to the actors and to the DP and gaffers because they can really see what the final shots will look like as they work.”
“The quality is very high and usable for the editorial temps but in a few years I think we’ll be able to final shots in real-time like this. For now we model the sets in Maya, pre-render in mental ray and composite in Nuke. Maya’s interaction with Python really helps us write scripts to translate the incoming ZEUS data. We also use Maya’s lighting profiles to give the DP’s lighting and color values they’re used to working with in live-action cinematography.”
Virtual sets glimpsed on the Visitors’ mothership have included several different corridors, hangar bays, an engine room, control centers, and a massive open living space referred to as the Atrium. “That involves a lot of 2D card-based matte painting onto full geometry,” notes Zapara. “The V’s are trying to present this idyllic/utopian appearance with lots of gleaming white archways, cathedrals and buttresses. There’s a bit of Logan’s Run in there too with its steel and green open areas. For a lot of people that sort of ‘70s sci-fi vision of the future still communicates a credible vision of utopia.”
Orloff estimates that each episode features more than 100 shots using the synthetic interior environments alone. When combined with the spaceship and enhanced location exteriors they generate a massive shot count for episodic television. The workload is divided between Zoic Studios in Culver City, which handles the spaceship shots and its counterpart in Vancouver, which tackles the virtual interiors. The facilities are connected via a high-speed fiber optic link that enables near real-time transmission of full resolution high definition shots.
In addition to spaceships and interiors, Zoic also lent a hand to the prosthetics which reveal the Visitors’ true reptilian nature. “Most of the work is handled with traditional prosthetics, including a shot an exposed Visitor’s face and his blinking eye,” says Orloff. “Our work comes when we push in close to see details, enhancing the practical makeup with CG veins and smoothing the blends between human and reptile skin. It’s mostly Maya 3D particle and organic animation with Nuke compositing.”
Now that V’s initial fall run has ended, Zoic is settling in to tackle the remainder of the series first season. “Projects like V enable us to leverage a lot of our knowledge,” observes Orloff. “We pour a ton of R&D into our pipeline and we seek out diversification both creatively and technologically to create techniques like ZEUS. A lot of episodic and feature effects houses are known for a particular specialty like great matte paintings, characters, creatures, virtual sets or hard surface modeling. We’ve focused on developing our different departments and optimizing communication and data management. That enables us to concentrate on getting every shot to look good, regardless of a project’s scale or deadline.”
Author Noah Kadner is a contributing writer for American Cinematographer and recently completed the book, RED: The Ultimate Guide to Using the Revolutionary Camera. Listen out for Noah on our Red Centre podcast in January 2010.
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