As a new model for production Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is a very interesting model, both from a production/virtual production standpoint and distribution.
Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is a prequel to the recent Battlestar Galactica series. Distribution of Blood & Chrome began as a 10-episode online series in conjunction with Machinima.com last November (finishing at the start of December), but it will also air as a TV movie in February 2013 on SyFy. But even before it airs on SyFy, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is scheduled to be released on Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand and Digital Download also on February 19, 2013. The only difference between the DVD and the Machinima version is about 7 minutes of unseen material. The online version is not a teaser nor a massive cut-down. The online version is the TV show.
Thus a show will air while having already been sold on DVD and been free online for months.
Originally the show was going to be an ‘original Xbox’ show – at lower resolution – but quickly it was clear this version would be full HD. After about a year the show morphed into the plan we see today. But even as the production first moved from pre-production it was still possibly going to be just original online content, but right about the time of production starting it was decided it could also be seen as a sort of ‘back door’ pilot for a possible series.
Online there have been reports the whole 95 min final film cost only $2 million. This is not correct. “That is a myth I’d like to dispel,” says visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel. “Originally when it first came out as a concept yeah someone said we’d like to do this for $2 million, but after a few weeks of talking about it that simply wasn’t enough to put together a proper crew. For that it would have to literally be shot in someone’s backyard,” he jokes. “That figure may have been where the studio started out but that was quickly not seen as an adequate budget.”
Set in the tenth year of the First Cylon War, the story follows William Adama, a young pilot just graduated from the Academy, assigned to the newest battlestar in the Colonial fleet: the Galactica. But unlike the highly successful revamp of the show, this new series was shot almost entirely on greenscreen without major sets.
Gary Hutzel is the visual effects supervisor on the project. At 57, born in Michigan, he is already the winner of four Emmys from some 18 nominations and a veteran of Battlestar Galactica and before that Star Trek. “My theme going into the show was completely a new paradigm in doing an action show,” he says. “That was my plan executing it the way we approached it – doing it all green screen, in other words I wasn’t trying to to say ‘OK we going to completely fool you and you’ll never know that it was on a virtual set’ – that wasn’t the plan. The plan was to entertain people and really to try and do a new style of entertainment that freed the writers to write anything they wanted.”
This point should not be over looked – unlike many other writing positions, writers of episodic science fiction often have to write with shot count in mind, they can’t just write anything, sometimes shows must be written ‘VFX-light’ to balance with heavier shows, and always the writing is influenced by strict budget and schedule issues where VFX is concerned, until very recently. Since Forrest J Ackerman started using the term sci-fi at UCLA in 1954, and television producers started making episodic sci-fi shows, effects have been a limiting factor: expensive, time consuming and a real limit to what could be done. In recent times however a new approach has started to emerge, the idea of a virtual backlot, or a digital sandbox where greenscreen would allow greater freedom without a heavy handed shot count filtering the story. Taking this to its logical conclusion – if every set was digital and there was no need for a vfx shot count as the whole show was vfx, writers could start to expand the stories and not pre-censor their ideas.
After years of episodic sci-fi this approach really appealed to Hutzel and the show’s producers. “Part of my job used to be sitting around saying could we do the scene with 5 shots or cuts instead of say 15. By going all greenscreen we eliminate all those issues – it is now that the entire design falls into my court, and I am able to bring on a team of people who can pull that together in post, and do any kind of action sequence, any kind of set, anything, instead of having to deal with those limits.”
But even with a fully digital show, asset creation alone still limited production. In the past, models took so long to build and texture that digital set reuse was still a major issue. Not so, Hutzel says: “It is not something I consider when I design for a show or work on a show. What we represent is a bunch of employees, just as the art department comes in and designs and builds things – that’s exactly who we are, we are in-house, I don’t own this, I have assembled this through NBC. The only thing we are focused on is what is best for the scene and how to get it done. Quite honestly if we have already build a model and it is not playing well in a new scene we will rebuild it – because we can. We are more cost effective than farming out to an outside facility, we have proven that.”
Central to making this idea work is that Hutzel was in the room from the beginning. He is there when the writers pitch ideas, when the first scripts come out, and the VFX team all joined at the start of the first script appearing and not as a post-production team or a team involved later in the process as so often happens. From the second there was a real script there was a real and fully functioning VFX team working on the production with the creatives on the show. “That is a new way to make television,” says Hutzel.
Furthermore, shots in space are fully CG so there is not even a greenscreen component. Shots with the actors need to be camera tracked and keys pulled, but once again the team made no differentiation between the two types of shots, fully CG or greenscreen – they could both be considered equal in terms of schedule. “Did we care about how many minutes of full CG vs greenscreen were in the show? No,” notes Hutzel.
To make this a reality the keys needed to be well lit and the tracking clear and well planned, since a truck load of roto was not allowed for or planned. Hutzel did not want to use camera encoding (a system of reverse semi-motion control). Firstly he has been moving away from this for many years and much of Blood & Chrome was shot hand held on long lenses so the process would have been unlikely to work. Instead they post camera tracked every shot. On set the greenscreen had a grid of illuminated dots (LEDs) that were both on the back wall and sitting in front of the greenscreen (for parallax). “We used SynthEyes for 3D tracking for our principal tracking,” says Derek Ledbetter, visual effects compositor. The team spent a lot of time setting up the tracking markers and streamlining the system as they never knew what could be shot in the run and gun nature of the shoot. “That way they could point the cameras whereever they wanted to.”
The full virtual greenscreen approach also aided in the amount of time to shoot the actors on stage. The shoot was not a standard 22 day shoot, which would have been normal for a show this size, it was only a 15 day shoot. Normally one allows a page a minute so a 92 minute movie would be about 92 pages. For this 92 minute production the script was 114 pages. So instead of an already tough 4+ pages per day shoot schedule, the team hit an amazing 7.5 pages shot per shoot day.
The show was shot by Lukas Ettlin (The Lincoln Lawyer, Battle: Los Angeles) who was not known for TV or episodic work but who comes from more of a feature film background. The shoot was done on RED One 4K cameras (rated at 320 ISO) and on most days it was a three camera shoot. The set was lit with green tube kinoflos. The DP used quite a lot of primary colors, including LEDs, but primarily the foreground was shot Tungsten. As the show required many dark and moody scenes inside the various ships, a series of tests were carried out at the outset.
The greenscreen levels were constantly adjusted on set to match the foreground. You might think that a full greenscreen stage would be “light well – evenly and forget” but this was not the approach. Hutzel played the greenscreen down if the foreground was dark to the lowest level he could, lifting it when the scenes allowed. This meant that the edges were good and that the green did not overpower the foreground, but Hutzel fully credits the green tube kinoflos with enabling this approach. He adamantly believes that with just white light illuminating the green they would not have gotten keys anywhere near as good as they did.
“It was actually pretty outstanding,” adds Ledbetter. “We did a bunch of tests with the exposure settings to see what would key the best, and the beauty of shooting with the RED cameras is that we can take the .r3d files and there is so much range in that. There is so much data to pull from it gave us really good keys even in low light.” Post production was HD down-res’d from 4K capture, sometimes push-ins were needed and the original 4K files were used 4K or slightly larger 2K format to allow for a zoom.
I see a lot of things shot for television where there is no real visual rhythm to the backgrounds
On set the shot design was heavily influenced by the most recent Galactica sets, but as the director wanted an even larger scale, these original dimensions from the first series were expanded and enlarged to the scale seen in the new set. These virtual sets were on set for reference and alignment and to allow the actors to better understand their environments. The sets were made in LightWave, then on set walls and virtual set elements were marked on the floor of the stage to give everyone the scope of the sets to work within. The action was then staged in those spaces, but these were just rough models – the actors and director were not locked into this, and if a door was needed for the scene to work, one was instantly ‘added’ and the blocking could continue. It made filming and blocking much faster and more flexible of course as a result. “The computer and LightWave give us a lot of freedom; we can experiment to our hearts’ content without the constraints of budget and building physical sets,” comments CG supervisor Doug Drexler.
Drexler and his team of ten CG artists used LightWave to retrofit the Galactica, including the Battlestar’s interior sets. “Because the show was all greenscreen, we had an opportunity to expand the ship and give it greater scope,” he says. He and the artists pushed back walls and raised ceilings, but stayed true to the original Galactica design and layout. “If you actually have a set, and the clock is ticking, the director goes in and he has an idea how he wants to shoot it but you know he’d like more time to think about it and he just can’t, so they do the best they can. But in a situation like this Gary has given him a basic idea of what the set will be like but he is free to concentrate on the actors, but when we get the footage we can really line things up so say, the lines of force might be working the way he’s lined up the characters, it is really a much more dynamic and dramatic way to shoot these things.”
In post-production the team worked hard to match the lighting designs from on set by DOP Ettlin. “We will get the footage and take a look at it and discuss what is the mood of the scene and what are we trying to get across,” explains Drexler. “We have more freedom than if we had had sets on the stage.” Drexler took a still from each take and composited it with a background and then the team would look at the basic composition and discuss from the still how the shot could be enhanced. “We make a file for every single scene with the background setup basically how we want it, then we can look at all of them together and see if there is a sequential rhythm that is happening through the sequence – a visual rhythm in the background which really makes a lot of difference. I see a lot of things shot say on television where there is no real visual rhythm to the backgrounds. “In a lot of the classic films like a Hitchcock or a Robert Wise picture the movies were highly highly storyboarded and they had an idea of the visual rhythm of all the shots before they got to the stage. That isn’t done so much anymore and I think it really hurts and the drama of the show, so in my opinion Blood & Chrome is like an old style movie, you can feel that rhythm.”
Most LightWave artists tend to be lone wolves – they think quickly on their feet. A person like that does not live in Maya…they’re rebellious, nutty, wacky people!
The bulk of the VFX shots for Blood & Chrome were created using LightWave 3D with a majority of the artists having 10 or more years experience working with the software. CInema 4D was used to a much smaller degree for example on the “Ice Caves” using camera mapping. The show was primarily composited in After Effects and a little in Digital Fusion. As with all the Battlestar shows, Blood & Chrome has a lot of atmospheric effects. As part of that the team also worked hard to have action or interactions in the background. “We are looking at Battlestar in its heyday which allowed us to have a lot going on in the frame. It helps it from looking like CG – it can make or break it.”
Hutzel really likes using LightWave, not only because of the program itself but because he feels the artists who use LightWave are more often generalists and not specialists, and in his very fast pipeline he needs speed. “Most LightWave artists tend to be lone wolves, so to speak. They think quickly on their feet. A person like that does not live in Maya, they live with something that can allow them to show their ideas really quickly,” Hutzel says. “Rebellious, nutty, wacky people,” the team collective jokes. Hutzel calls most Maya pipelines a long thin pipeline, while their pipeline is short and thick. But a lot has changed since the team started using LightWave on the Galactica franchise. They used to have to almost go to lunch when they opened a large file, today the program is much faster, they can use it from previs to postvis to final. Plus on the latest show they used the newest version which rendered much faster and allowed the team to actually finish on time. There was some overtime weekend work with comp, but overall the team worked a straight Monday to Friday, 5 day week, even with the huge shot count and the amount of assets and animation required.
In the original series most of the screens that the cast interacted with were back light transparencies, which was cost effective, but only key screens had moving graphics. This time the screens are much more interactive, and they needed to illustrate the huge size and complexity of the ships this time. “I said they are like the fifth busiest airport in the colonies,” recalls Drexler. “You don’t just have one person directing Vipers coming in, this Galactica doesn’t launch 25 vipers, it launches thousands. It was designed to go toe to toe with Basestars.” To underline this the team had a vast number of screens with a dedicated staff member making the “CIC” graphics (Combat Information Center).
In all there were only 12 compositors on Blood & Chrome and a maximum of 36 3D artists including the team that worked on set. Surprisingly, while the team had access to all the assets from the earlier shows, almost all the digital sets were new, or built on the concepts only from the other series rather than actually models used on earlier shows.
The editing team had to cut the final show down by one hour to get it to length. The VFX team were actually rostered off while a decision was made whether to turn the show into a 3 hour piece, but in the end the team returned and finished the show as a single 95 minute TV movie, recut into the 10 online eps.
Hutzel believes doing Blood & Chrome was a whole different way of working. Most of the same team is now working on Defiance for SyFy (connected with the video game property) coming on air soon in the USA. While the team are using many of the same techniques it is not a direct full application of the Blood & Chrome pipeline. Hutzel is now looking for new projects that can use this new full greenscreen approach as a template to enable new projects that previously would have been cost prohibitive.
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