World-building: making the TV series Defiance

Syfy’s new television series Defiance was developed in conjunction with game company Trion Worlds, which recently released Defiance as a MMO third-person shooter. The TV side of this ‘transmedia’ project was filmed mostly in Toronto with an in-house visual effects team overseen by Gary Hutzel fleshing out the worlds and creatures of Defiance. We go behind the scenes and showcase before and afters images from the show.

– Above: watch the trailer for Syfy’s Defiance.

The series is set in the not distant future, when ‘Votans’ and humans have clashed on Earth. The result of fierce fighting has led to terraforming events and a new mix of native and alien animal species. In the former city of St. Louis, a group of humans inhabit a town they call Defiance – led by Chief Lawkeeper Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler).

Hutzel had most recently been the visual effects supervisor on Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, a series that relied heavily on virtual sets (see fxguide’s coverage here). This time around, although digital extensions and virtual sets were still a large component of the show, Hutzel had the chance to also supervise extensive creature work – from the automaton and mechanical-like race of aliens known as the Volge to the mutant Hellbugs.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

The final shot count was close to 1100 shots for 13 hours of television, with half of those being full virtual environments. The work was completed with team that varied from 10 to 17 artists, who also delivered hundreds of previs shots throughout production to help cut the show and allow for revisions and notes.

The show demanded a strong mix between practical and digital sets. “From the very beginning they wanted to build a backlot which really surprised me,” admits Hutzel. “I have never heard of that much construction for a television show. That was a huge undertaking by the production designer (Stephen Geaghan). The big discussion development-wise was, there’s the town, what’s the rest of the world look like?”

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Much of that work fell to Hutzel’s visual effects team, as the original look of Defiance went from having a ‘post apocalyptic Hong Kong feel’ to something much more ‘friendlier’. “This was because the environment on the game became more lush and more colorful,” explains Hutzel, “so Defiance the TV show became more colorful too. In the end, I realized that made the show much more accessible and interesting and multi-layered.”

The backlot was constructed as a series of streets, each representing certain sections of the town. Since the areas were built nearby to each other, the visual effects teams had to enhance shots with extensions or building removals. In addition, several sequences made use of partial sets or greenscreen shoots that required comp work and digital backgrounds and matte paintings.

The Volge.
The Volge.

In terms of creatures, the Volge proved most challenging since its design changed from the original game version to a final, more-threatening look. Hutzel’s team was able to reference Trion’s Maya assets and re-texture and articulate them for the purposes of the show (Trion even made an eleventh hour change to their Volge characters in the game to more closely match the series).

The show’s Hellbugs are ‘all-teeth’, according to Hutzel, which made them difficult to animate, while a Saberwolf – which appears in the TV show but not the game – presented its own challenges with the design reference being bear and insect-like with a lion’s mane.

A saber-wolf.
A Saberwolf.

With such a range of creatures, and environments, to craft for the series, Hutzel settled on a defined workflow that would also allow for the inherent hand-held nature of the show. Here’s how that workflow broke down:

1. Shooting – all of the visual effects plates are shot First Unit during the normal production schedule with the episode Director. Basic camera and set configuration data is manually collected on set.

Original plate showing illuminated tracking markers.
Original plate showing illuminated tracking markers.
Final shot.
Final shot.

2. Tracking – Hutzel relied on an illuminated tracking marker system that works in conjunction with SynthEyes to “produce a post 3D tracking solution for all of the virtual extensions, full environments, and virtual characters in the show,” he says.

3. HDRIs – these are collected (where required) by a direct imaging camera and lens combination that shoots a 210 degree fish-eye image. A 14 stop range of images are collected and converted into a .hdr image in Photoshop.

4. Creature work – creatures such as the Hellbugs were modeled in ZBrush then translated into LightWave for animation and final renders.

5. Virtual sets – Again, LightWave was used here. After breakout and render, the shot’s individual layers were delivered to comp, where After Effects was mostly relied upon.

The nature of the TV show proved a unique experience for the visual effects team. “Defiance is an unusual show in that it consisted of a 2 hour pilot and 11 one hour episodes with a direct tie-in to a video game,” notes Hutzel. “The game was still under development as we filmed the show. This meant that the pilot continued to evolve as we rolled into series.”

“In fact,” he adds, “the pilot was actively worked on in post until we were well into final delivery of the first 5 episodes. As an ‘in house’ VFX facility, we were engaged to work the new designs and concepts into every episode as we went, for instance, we were delivering revised virtual environments in Ep 2 even as we worked in Ep 12!”

Bonus Gallery

Befores & afters
























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