Star Trek: Picard is a web television series featuring Captain Jean-Luc Picard, (Patrick Stewart) from the Star Trek: The Next Generation, (ST:TNG) now as a retired Admiral coming out of retirement. The show was created on CBS All Access. The show has been a major success with the second and third seasons ordered before the first season debuted. The first season consisted of ten episodes and featured many themes and storylines linked to ST:TNG. One of the main plot devices is related to Picard’s relationship with the Borg and this required an elaborate high-resolution digital Borg cube to be built. Pixomondo did the initial work on the cube but as with many similar projects, they did so knowing that it would be used by other visual effects facilities. We spoke to Dan Smiczek, CG Supervisor from Pixomondo’s LA office, who led their CG team.
Pixomondo came on board before principle photography and “we had an early asset team embedded and working with the production art department, helping develop their drawings into actual 3d assets” Smiczek explains. “We fleshed out the Borg cube, La Sirena – the main ship, a lot of the new Romulan ships,.. it was really nice coming on that early and establishing things for the season”
The Borg Ship in Picard presented some interesting design challenges, as it was now a Romulan base. The underlying aesthetic of the vast ship was Borg in nature, but there were other sections such as a Hanger area, which had new Romulan technology and docked Romulan ships. In the backstory of Star Trek: Picard any Borg design is affected by the culture of the various races that the Borg have assimilated over time. Thus by Trek canon, this ship would always need to look slightly different from other Borg cubes the audience may have seen.
The Borg cube is a remarkable 4.7 kilometers across (~3 miles), “trying to bring scale to that was definitely a challenge,” says Smiczek. The team started with art department drawings and traditionally modeled out the main superstructure in Maya. The team then added another shell on top of that with different cut-outs to provide more three-dimensionality in the larger shapes, “so that you could see-through and there would be some depth to the cube” he adds. These larger pieces created the impression of pipelines that go along trenches, along with an array of Borg scaffolding. The team then added the more Romulan influenced hangar area. “We went the route of greeble,” commented Smiczek referring to the small and prominent detailing that makes the surface appear more complex and thus gives the audience an impression of increased scale. We added pieces that we could instance on the geometry. We used a library of 23 different borg pieces,…and then we instanced that onto all the different surfaces of the cube. At one point we had almost 9 million instances of these little pieces all across the surface to give it detail,” Smiczek recalls.
At the end of the modeling cube process, the asset had grown to a massive size, with about 82.7 billion polygons. Pixomondo rendered their Borg shots in Arnold, with the cube having started in Autodesk Maya and the instancing was done in Houdini. The team extensively used Arnold’s ‘stand-ins’ feature, “because everything was so heavy…, we’d never have been able to work with it otherwise…we even had stand-ins in stand-ins”. One side of the Borg Cube in the major pullout shot was a stand-in which held a quarter of a million smaller stand-ins of these different objects. “So, in the end, the Maya file was only 2 Megabytes for the lighters (TDs) to deal with, if they wanted” he explained. This worked extremely well for Pixomondo but given the way the entire series was scheduled, that was not the end of the story for how Smiczek’s team had to work with the massive geometry.
“One of the things we had to do was to make this asset able to be used by other vendors,” points out Smiczek. “We created the asset and then we had to break it into raw instancing and set it up so that other studios could work with it, – and they were using a completely different renderer.” Pixomondo worked together with the other vfx teams to get to a base language for the orientation of the instancing and all the various pieces that are used. From that base, the other teams were able to recreate and match what Pixomondo had produced, but using their own renderer. DNEG, for example, did some 60-70 shots of the cube in the later episodes and Ghost VFX did the Borg cube being destroyed by the Orchid defenses near the end of the series.
As this project was started some time ago, USD was not an option. For Picard, Pixomondo embraced the use of stand-ins and the methodology of not having live geometry in a file. “I have done a lot of projects where we’ve been referencing Alembic files and they can get kind of heavy,” he commented. Smiczek also worked on the last season on Orville which also had huge space battles. “We were referencing a lot of Alembics and it was a huge problem. But now, because of our work on the Borg Cube, we’ve definitely moved to a much more streamlined workflow which has the lightest files as possible for the artists to be able to open and work with, especially the Lighters.”
Smiczek supervised not only the cube but Picard’s new ship, the La Sirena, and many other smaller ships. The new series begins 20 years after Jean-Luc Picard’s last appearance in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), and in a flashback there is an appearance of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D. Interestingly, Smiczek took on this challenge not long after having worked on another detailed model of the Enterprise, …in this case the USS Enterprise in Midway (Dir. Roland Emmerich, 2019).
(Note: DNEG modeled the Starship Enterprise in Picard).
Colloquially called “The Big E”, the USS Enterprise was the sixth aircraft carrier of the United States Navy, and it featured heavily in the Battle of Midway. The USS Enterprise that Pixomondo modeled also had been designed for sharing, although in that case, the complex model needed to be shared internally among the various Pixomondo offices. It was just one of many very heavy assets that the team modeled for the 2019 Midway film.
Smiczek, as the CG Supervisor on Midway, shared assets over six separate Pixomondo facilities. This proved to be the perfect proving ground for sharing. “One facility would make an asset, there were always other facilities that needed to use them, and the models on that show were huge,” he explains. Pixomondo has an excellent internal organization and their facilities share the same general backbone pipeline, however “everybody does things a little bit differently”. Smiczek and their team worked hard so that no matter where an artist might be “they would have everything they needed to be able to just open up the asset and render it” he explains. Continuing on from this approach, Smiczek has been pushing their team to be looking and evaluating USD. He is very keen to see if USD can become a base interchange between a host of high-end facilities. “USD will be a huge boost to simplicity. Because there is a real cost of having to figure out how another facility is going to be able to use an asset. And then for that other facility, receiving the model, having to adapt it to their workflow. It would just benefit all of us to have this base language that we can all work together with”.
Smiczek is also very aware as a CG Supervisor that this problem is only going to explode further with virtual production. He has been involved with some recent projects in this regard, that are yet to be released, but moving forward he would factor in getting an asset into a real-time engine such as UE4 as a key part of any new project that the Pixomondo team would look at. “It can be a challenge getting assets and textures in and out of virtual production…but it is definitely something that we have to be prepared for. It’s important now to have those skill sets in-house and be able to really successfully help with a virtual production set up.”
The Pixomondo team won an Oscar for VFX on Hugo and multiple Emmys for its dragon work on Game of Thrones. Pixomondo provided VFX for Westworld Season Three and Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island. Most recently it provided VFX for the HBO series Perry Mason.