Driving hard : Zoic

Fox presents a new TV show “Drive” featuring visual effects by Zoic Studios. We spoke to co-founder Loni Peristere about work on this and the companies amazing run in cutting edge episodic television effects from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Buffy to Battlestar Gallactica, 24 and now Drive.

Drive is described by Fox publicity as “an action-fueled drama following a diverse group of Americans driving for their lives (or the lives of their loved ones) in a sinister, cross-country road race. Some of them have been coerced into joining The Race; others have sought out The Race themselves, hearing rumors of the $32-million prize. Each has a reason to compete. And each must win.” The problem is that “Drive” features locations all over the USA and the production will never leave Los Angeles. The exterior driving sequences, which take the audience from location to location, will be photographed on a green screen stage. The location-based exteriors will be shot by a second unit and combined in post. Drive will produce over 120 green screen composites per episode (!). At fxguide we characterize Drive as Smokey and the Bandit meets LOST and Google maps!

The pilot features a one-minute opening sequence set in this car race, which moves seamlessly from the open highway into around and through six cars and a motorcycle, leading the audience to the leader and star Nathan Fillion at the front. It combines live action stunt photography, a 220 degree matching highway cyclorama, green screen stage work, CG cars, reflections, and characters. The result is a seamless experience in race photography, which is seen through the eyes of an omniscient camera whose lens is not bound by normal constraints or the laws of physics.

07Apr/zoic/zoic-motorcycle This sequence was made possible through extensive pre-visualization and planning as led by Zoic Studios’ Creative Director Loni Peristere. The production and effects crews followed a meticulous road map, which itemized and scheduled each step in the lengthy and complex process that incorporated several thousand layers. The end result appears to be one layer with very little tech flash. The effect is almost invisible, save for the fact that we the viewers have this improbable omniscient view.

We hope you will consider the visual effects aspect of the show – emblematic of how contemporary television production is moving farther and father into the digital realm. In the podcast Peristere discusses how the company budgets the program and its episodes. In summary, the show has a budget of US$100,000 per episode to pull off around 130 visual effects shots.

Zoic has produced years of high level shots, from hundreds of thousands of vampires attacking Buffy, to lab reconstructions in CSI, but Peristere says Drive is the hardest and most rewarding show he has worked on.

Joss Wheden has worked very closely with the Zoic team from before the company was formed, Peristere describes him as a “creative partner” and it was Wheden who Zoic first pitched the idea of filming CG sequences with real world style camera moves. Something Peristere calls “pioneering practical effects with CG cameras”, he continues “Zoic was positioned from year one to film with new rules in CG,” … “All of our CG cameras are mounted somewhere, all of our CG cameras have a focus to pull, all of our CG cameras has a zoom lens they can use, all of our CG cameras have a lens therefore have flaws… in addition to that we have camera operators who are human beings who don’t operate perfectly every single time they operate a shot”. This new style meant that Zoic won the Emmy for visual effects in their first year, a real post to the then small company. Today Zoic has grown from a staff of 12 to having over 117 in LA and another 36 in Vancouver.

As the cars are filmed on green screen, the problem became how to move one car relative to another, in a believable way on the sound stage. The solution was to mount the cars on air bearings. These are air compressor pad like feet that make the cars “move as if on ice” according to Loni Peristere. This is because the camera in Drive moves seamless from car to car, as the race around the country – without cutting – and all shot in a studio.

The solution to the green screen replacement backgrounds is use multiple 35mm cameras mounted with mirrors to film a 220 degree cyc which can be tracked in to match camera moves. While the production tested HD – only film at the moment provides the level of detail the production requires, although the team is intending to try using the RED cameras for this process in the future. CG cars used to bridge car to car transitions, but not fully CG cars, more overlaid cg panels with the correct reflections that are blended with the studio cars using the air castors. For a full and technical explanation listen to this week’s podcast, which discusses solving the problem in detail. Also see below to a clip from the manufactures of the Air movement system.

The show is composited in AE and Combustion and uses modo, Maya and Lightwave for 3D. Peristere is especially impressed with the rigid body performance of Lightwave and it impressive version 9.0’s motion blur technology.

Zoics work on the rating blockbuster 24

The company credits now include, Buffy, Firefly, Serenity, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Battlestar Gallactica, 24 and many more today not only is the company working on Episode 6 of Drive but also working on several other shows simultaneously including The Sarah Connor Chronicles. This new show is set after the events in ‘Terminator 2’ Sarah Connor and her son John, trying to stay under-the-radar from the government as they plot to destroy the computer network Skynet in hopes of preventing Armageddon. Peristere says that ” The Terminator 888, – when people get to see this – people are going to die! It is unbelievable”.

The show stars Lena Headey, of the film 300 in the title role. Warner Bros. is making the show for the Sc-Fi channel. The production has recently finished shooting in Albuquerque (the pilot was shot – mainly in February). Headey is quoted as saying ” .. it was very intense, because TV is crazy. I mean, it’s long days. It’s like boom, boom, boom. You don’t get any respite. But … I think it’s going to be great. …I learned to shoot many weapons and how to recognize a Terminator. So it was a good experience.”

Production Equipment Side note: Air Casters

If you would like to see the Air lifting system in action, below is a video showing the system (not from Zoic or Drive), – a warning or piece of advice, the video builds from a somewhat serious corporate video to showing the system at use on the Tonight Show. Worth watching all the way through! The last 1/4 is the most entertaining.

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