The ever-mysterious television series Lost recently came to an end after six seasons. For the show’s last season, LOOK Effects was brought on to complete more than 1000 shots over 18 episodes, 350 of them in the finale. We talk to visual effects supervisor Adam Avitabile about some of the key sequences.
fxg: One of the most significant effects in the final series is the Smoke Monster. Can you talk about coming on board to work on that ‘creature’?
Avitabile: I was actually a fan of the show before coming on board so I thought I knew what to expect, but it turned out to be a lot more than I expected it to be. Going into it, I knew it had been done in a certain way by the other companies who preceded us, and in a totally different package too. We’re primarily a Maya house and we had to reverse engineer how it was done. We spent two months getting up to speed on Smokey, as we lovingly refer to him. When I first had a talk with the show’s producers, I said that I always felt Smokey was a very mysterious character but that we could always take him a little further. I knew full well I couldn’t re-invent the wheel and have him say with arms and legs, but the way we tried to approach it was to give a little more intent in his animation. In past seasons he’d come into a room and kill everyone, but I pitched that now he should come into the room, check everything out first, then kill everyone! So we tried to give him a bit more of a personality as much as we could. Once we got a handle on that, it became pretty fun. We were big on controlling his ‘turbulence’ – how fast the particles would be emitted. As he was about to strike something, he would get faster and the individual cloud elements would move about more to show that he was building up energy.
fxg: What was your technical approach to Smokey?
Avitabile: We developed it as a bone chain in Maya with particle emitters attached that you could animate like a snake. The producers asked us to do things that Smokey had never done before. He would come into a room and actually split into two. He’s done the tendrils thing before when he’s attacked people but in this series there’s a shot where he comes around the corner and knocks over this pillar and which has a bunch of torches on it and lights everything on fire. At first the way we shot it was that Smokey was going to come over the pillar and brush the pillar to knock it over. But the producers wanted him to split in two and go around the pillar, continuing his forward momentum but splitting his mass.
In Episode 9 there was a shot where the Black Rock ship had been beached in the middle of the jungle and Smokey was killing all these people on the top decks. There’s a shot where the ship’s captain looks up at a grate and we had to make Smokey go through that. As he went through he split up into these little tendrils and then coalesced on the other side. There were some challenges in working out how to break him up. It’s one thing to render our a bunch of tiny little Smokeys and coalesce him into one big mass using a 2D process, but that gets a little wonky. The producers also wanted a lot of roiling in the smoke, and when he hits things wanted to have part of the smoke release with him. We actually had a render malfunction when Smokey became really wispy and left these particles everywhere. It was kind of a screw up but we liked the result. So we had to reverse engineer something that looked cool but that was a mistake to begin with, just to get that right look.
fxg: What kind of things did you do on location or on set to help integrate Smokey?
Avitabile: Well, I would use the chrome ball and grey ball on set just to get some lighting references. We did that for a while, but about half way through our animators and CG guys said, ‘Well, you know, we’re not actually using that information.’ So I stopped doing it and we relied on our existing setups. We learned right away that Smokey looked better at night than he did during the day. When you’re dealing with nighttime shoots, you have very sourcey lights. We’d be in temple and have these torches lighting up the room. Or you’d be outside and you’d have a very direct or strong moon going on. The play of light on Smokey’s surface had a much better effect when it wasn’t such an ambient lighting scenario. So I always pitched indoor or nighttime shoots for Smokey. It was more important to show what he was damaging. We’d have tonnes of guys on wires being tossed around. We’d eventually animate a tendril from Smokey to match the wire work. We’d have pillars being thrown over or doors busting open done by our practical effects. We never wanted to get into the route of having CG objects for him to pick up because at the end of the day we had a fully CG character on a TV show time and budget constraint.
fxg: Let’s talk about some other effects work for the final series. What kind of set extensions work was involved?
Avitabile: There was this temple built as an exterior set piece. It was two stories tall and we had to extend it to about six stories. If it was a feature film, I guess I would have had tons of bluescreen on top of the set piece because you’re out in the jungle and you’re always going to have foreground tree elements getting in your way. On a TV show, you don’t have time to do that. So I had to make some concessions in terms of production, but part of my job is to make sure shooting goes as smoothly as well. It was a credit to the artists to be able to integrate the temple in those scenes given the hurdles we had to jump through. We also had a lighthouse set that just had a base and we extended it another four storeys. In the premiere, Jack, Kate, Sawyer and Jin were down below the temple and they had Sayid in a stretcher and they’re going through this underground area and they come to this hole in the ground. It’s the hole that Ben fell through in the season prior to this. When we shot it, all it was was a rock lip with a green floor. We ended up extending this corridor beneath it to make it look like it was another ten feet below. Some people when they saw it said, ‘Oh, you had a two level set – that’s really cool,’ and I would say, ‘No, that’s just a green piece of cloth on the ground!’. At a certain point, Kate puts her torch over the hole and we had the interactive light hitting the CG floor below.
fxg: What about some of the CG-heavy work?
Avitabile: We did a bunch of underwater submarine shots for episode 14. We had to build full CG environments and get the whole depth of field thing underwater right. There was also the particulate matter, hull damage and bubbles in the water. We actually had some artists who worked on U-571, which had mostly been shot practically with some CG augmentation, so the artists had a really good eye for the right look. The one thing about Lost, as fantastical as the island is, the producers always wanted to base the visuals in some kind of reality. There’s a big rule that we would never go down the flashy or wavy or pixie dust kind of effects route. We had to always make it look fantastic, but real. How do you do that? Well, you scratch your head and go and cry in the corner! But then, in the finale, there was this underground cavern which had a pool that was representative of the heart of the island – where all the energy came from – and they actually asked for it to have light rays and magical effects! So it was fun for our artists who were like, ‘Oh, finally!’, because they’d been working in a cool fantasy land and they hadn’t been able to do anything fantastical. We played around with it earlier when they put Desmond into this shack with coils around it and that was meant to be a test to see if he could survive this electromagnetic energy. We did an effect on that with heat ripples. We took that approach and put that into the cavern, and took things out like the flashes which was meant to be electricity being conducted between the coils. It was supposed to be more of a natural phenomenon. But it was still a lot more over the top than Lost usually does.
fxg: How did you realise the CG plane?
Avitabile: Actually, it was funny because when I interviewed for the supe position, they show me a previous sequence when the Ajira plane landed in the fifth season and they asked me what I would have done to make it look better. And then when this CG plane came up they said, ‘Hey, remember all those months ago when you said you could do this and that…’. For some of the other episodes, they had built a plane set piece out there on the north shore of Oahu which was just the cockpit, about half the fuselage, one wing, and that was it. Every time you saw those establishing shots before the finale and during the finale, we had to extend the rest of the plane with its tail and the rest of the wing. It was usually a locked-off digital matte painting or projected onto digital objects if the shot was moving. One of the issues was they built this plane out of wood, and it sometimes looked like a 737 built out of wood. So when we built a CG version and textured it, we were fighting with the textures and the lighting and the environment based on a plane that didn’t really look real in the first place.
For the shots of the plane taking off, well, I’m a big fan of shooting as much as real and I wanted to shoot as much of the exteriors as possible. It was supposed to be this earthquake-like environment with rain and moving trees. We took some big fans out there and blew the trees around and shot those as elements. I was up on a truck shooting about 15 feet up in the air. We had a very short parking area just made of gravel and I was up there shooting plates just running the car up and down. It was nowhere near as long we needed it to be. I shot lots of different angles so we could populate the views through the window. So everything was doctored up. The runway was gravely but they wanted it to be all sandy and weed-ridden. We tracked in a digital matte painting to the moving footage and colour-corrected everything. And we had also shot the finale in beautiful Hawaiian weather but it was supposed to be rainy and gross for at least half the episode, so that involved a lot of sky replacements and a mountain range in the background.
fxg: I think Lost is another great example of effects helping tell some great TV series stories. Do you have any thoughts on VFX in television these days?
Avitabile: Well, there are very few TV shows out there that don’t rely in some way on visual effects. I think a good example was the submarine shots we did. Originally that was supposed to be just one shot. But when they cut it together, they called us in and said, ‘Here’s the cut so far. We think we need seven more shots.’ And after looking at the cut I agreed that maybe they did need more. Just maybe not seven! I think on Lost we were in an interesting position because we were the new kids on the block. We only worked on this final season and they really wanted to go out with a bang so we were able to really up the level of expectation for the show.