Dino-sized effects in Terra Nova

Steven Spielberg’s big-budget dinosaur television series Terra Nova tells the story of a dilapidated Earth in the year 2149, causing humans to look for a new place to inhabit. They discover a portal to a prehistoric dimension and begin carving out an existence in this dangerous new world. fxguide visited the Terra Nova set in Queensland, Australia, a four-acre compound set amongst the rainforest, and also sat down with the key visual effects artists involved to talk about bringing the dinosaurs and environments to life.

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– Click the player to listen to Mike Seymour discuss the production of Terra Nova with overall visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank.

As you’ll hear in the audio interview above, Pixomondo relied on a custom television unit to help make the production of Terra Nova possible. Pixomondo VFX supe Jason Zimmerman explains more.

fxg: Let’s start with the dinosaurs – how were you involved in the creature design?

Zimmerman: We have a creature guy, Dan Katcher, who is our senior modeling supervisor and works in ZBrush, and also happens to be a self-proclaimed dinosaur fanatic. When they started tasking us with the dinosaurs, Dan would do his research and start coming up with what he thought it might look like. They also had Jack Horner, who is the world’s foremost palaeontologist expert, who would help direct how they were supposed to look and what was right and not about them. From concept to getting into a shot it was about a 11 to 12 week turnaround, although early on it probably took a little longer.

– Watch Pixomondo’s breakdown reel for ‘Terra Nova’.

fxg: Were you launching straight into the ZBrush modeling or did you use concept designs?

Zimmerman: Most of it was starting with the ZBrush sculptures. Dan would get an idea of what they were going after and he would start researching and go from there. That way they could interactively change things if they wanted to, such as the textures and the look.

fxg: What was the next step in modeling the dinosaurs?

Zimmerman: Dan modeled and created them in ZBrush and then handed it off to someone who rigged them, and then it was handed off to the animators who worked primarily in Maya. The Maya animation was cached out and we actually did lighting and rendering in LightWave.

Part of the Terra Nova set and a 'Sixer' vehicle in Queensland. Photo by fxguide.
Stephen Lang and Jason O’Mara relax on set. Photo by fxguide.

fxg: For the dinosaurs in the first episode – the Slashers, Brachiosaurs and Carnotataurus – what were some of the considerations you had to think about in terms of muscles, animation and skin?

Zimmerman: Part of the design early on was the notion that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. So their movements had to be quick and agile – they were hunters and although they’re heavy creatures they could still move quickly. A lot of time went into doing some motion capture to get the weighting correct and then keyframe animation. Our animation supervisor Colin Brady spent a lot of time working out how they should move.

fxg: What was being done on set to help with inserting the dinosaurs later on?

Zimmerman: They did the standard things, such as having a dinosaur head on a stick and moving it around. Another thing we did in the animation process was take advantage of any happy accidents, as they would call them, that happened on set. For instance, if they had squibs that would go off during one of the shots, we would try and take advantage of that, or if something fell or a leaf fell, we would incorporate that into our shots.

fxg: There’s one shot where the Slasher jumps out of the trees at the vehicle – how did you accomplish a shot like that given it had to interact directly with foliage and come right at the camera?

Zimmerman: I actually composited that shot, so I can tell you exactly what happened. For that shot they actually had a puppet head that was on a metal barrel that was pulled through the foliage. We had to clean all that up, and then we also had CG foliage in the foreground to blend it even better. Part of the idea of the shot was that Slasher had to launch out of the foliage, and so we had to work out what was the best way to make this big reveal happen. Then we placed the foliage on top of things that were in the way to told the best story in the end.

Slasher attacks.

fxg: There’s a pretty dramatic scene when Taylor (Stephen Lang) faces off against the Carnotataurus which charges him and it kicks up so much dust. How were things like that added?

Zimmerman: We put the over-the-shoulder shot together from several different plates. The element of Taylor was roto’d and then we composited the compound, the ground and all of that and then generated our dynamics primarily in LightWave. We had multiple depth passes, dirt passes, footprints and all sorts of little stuff that helped sell it. Then we put that together and animated the dinosaur.

– Take a walk around the set with two of Terra Nova’s stars. Video by fxguide and courtesy of our friends at The Daily.

fxg: Another shot has the Carnotataurus banging its head against one of the vehicles. How was that done?

Zimmerman: In that shot it actually started with one single vehicle driving over a ramp. The first thing was to go in and painstakingly paint out that ramp and make it look like it was being hit. They animated the dino to make it react to the car being flipped up. There’s a second vehicle that is completely CG, and we had to do a lot of dynamics work to match the practical dust that it kicks up.

fxg: What were some of the compositing challenges for those dino shots, especially in terms of the moving camera and camera shake?

Filming on the Terra Nova set. Photo by fxguide.
Terra Nova's camera crew shooting with the ALEXA. Photo by fxguide.

Zimmerman: We used Nuke and After Effects for compositing. One of the fun parts of it was that Kevin Blank [the overall visual effects supervisor] was very comfortable with moving the camera around and doing post moves in comp. We were able to do a lot with camera shake, additional lens flares – anything to give it that less than perfect look. We’d move the camera to catch up with the dinosaur – things like that – to give it a real feel instead of a perfectly staged shot which sometimes doesn’t do the CG justice. In comp we might start with a locked off plate, comp the dinosaurs in and then say, ‘What can we do to make this better? What can we do to make this look realistic?’.

fxg: For the future world of 2149, were you creating the wider shots as completely digital environments or were they matte paintings, or a combination?

Zimmerman: It’s a little bit of all of that. In the opening shots a lot of them are completely CG, the opening shot being one of them until it ties up with the practical plate following over Jim’s shoulder when we get inside the apartment. We did do some full-CG shots with digital doubles and animation.

The opening shot that starts on the moon and comes down into Chicago – that was a shot done by our CG lead Eric Hance. He basically started with Chicago and went with the concept that it’s got to be polluted, run-down and dilapidated and a place they want to escape from.

fxg: Can you talk about the bridge and portal environment – the centrifuge – and how it was shot and what you added?

Zimmerman: That was a bluescreen stage they shot on. They had flashing lights and a little bit of smoke there. We modeled the entire centrifuge environment and rendered CG versions so it could be used from various angles.

Jim runs through the Terra Nova portal.

fxg: When they go through the portal, what were some of the tools and techniques you were using for that effect?

Zimmerman: That in particular had several iterations back and forth with production in terms of trying to figure out what does it look like when someone goes through the portal and back in time. There were different ideas thrown around. I believe Steven Spielberg even had some comments about what he would like to see, and then Kevin Blank dealt with the production quite a bit. One of senior compositors, Ben Campanaro, did a really great job of interpreting what it was supposed to be. Where it landed was something having to do with ‘light rapids’ – those were the words used to describe what they were looking for.

One of the Sixer vehicles. Photo by fxguide.
Production detailing in the marketplace set. Photo by fxguide.

Essentially we took the practical plate of the area they are standing on, and everything else around it had added lens flares and additional atmosphere. The portal effects were done in After Effects. Half-way through the portal was a series of displacements and fractals to sell that we were going back in time.

fxg: How was that shot of Jim [Jason O’Mara] running straight through the portal to the prehistoric world done?

Zimmerman: It was shot as two plates. The first part was shot on the bluescreen stage on the practical gang plank into the portal. They did have practical smoke on one end and we enhanced that a little bit on the portal effect. The ‘B’ plate was essentially Jim running in the jungle and we married those two together. The portal effect is the transition with the light effect between the two.

fxg: In the Terra Nova world there are some epic landscape shots of the jungle and waterfalls, and then extensions to the compound. Can you talk about that work?

Zimmerman: For that we used Terragen 2, the scenery generator, to create these grandiose mountainous environments. We had to have something unique to Terra Nova that people hadn’t seen before. We had some renders that took three or four days just to get single frames out in some instances. Then we used RealFlow for the waterfalls. There were certain shots up to 1200 frames that we had to drop out Terragen mountain tops into as backgrounds, and then combine them with practical plates.

Terragen 2 was used for the environment work at the beginning of this clip.

fxg: I understand the F-35 was used for the pilot and the ALEXA for the rest of the series. How did that digital footage fit into your workflow?

Zimmerman: The F-35 and ALEXA both were a joy to work with and put out footage that had little or no artifacts. The clean footage allows us to spend less time trying to get the technical aspects to work. We got match clips in terms of the look-up tables we were going to be using to match the look, as well.

fxg: Terra Nova is such a large production, but obviously it’s a TV show that needs to deliver week to week. How is a TV schedule different to working on other productions?

Actors Allison Miller, left, and Naomi Scott in the Terra Nova marketplace set. Photo by fxguide

Zimmerman: Yes, it’s literally a new episode week in and week out. The key to Terra Nova was them shooting it early and giving us enough time. I think we had about six weeks per episode from the time they shoot to when we get plates and start working on things, and the creature work actually starts in advance of that because we need time to properly build texture and get the model out. But we did have a little more time than maybe is usual – it was almost like a short film turnaround rather than a TV turnaround, because having six weeks to do a TV episode is definitely more time than I’m used to working on. Being able to get roto and tracking done and all the preparatory stuff so we can drop our animation into the shots goes a long way to meeting our deadlines.

fxg: What can we expect from future episodes?

Zimmerman: Well I can’t say too much but there is definitely creature work in every episode. We worked out a lot of the pipeline and methodology for what’s coming up in the season in the pilot to make it sustainable.

Images and clips copyright © 2011 Fox.