Heroic Vfx : Stargate Digital and NBC’s Heroes

With over 1000 effects in the first season, Stargate Digital has just finished the first season of the NBC smash hit Heroes. We look behind the heroes to their visual effects artists and discover how the shows characters fly, regenerate, stop time and more.

In a flash to one possible future NY is destroyed

Heroes is shot nearly entirely in Los Angeles with the exception of a small hand full of shots, yet the shows characters travel from India to NY – both now and in the future. To achieve this the production worked with Stargate Digital. In this week’s podcast we speak with VFX Supervisor Mark Kolpack and Supervising Producer Mark Spatny about Stargate Digital’s work on the NBC television series Heroes.

Claire before
Claire after

As discussed in the podcast, one of the most challenging shot sequences in the whole series so far was the burning and regeneration of the character Claire. Originally planned as a multiple actress sequence, on set it was decided that the shots would only work if only Hayden Panettiere played the role at all times.

Claire Before
Claire After

Hayden Panettiere, only 17 in real life, was scanned and a digital double was perfectly matched over the plate of her performance. This allowed the After Effects compositors at Stargate Digital to both burn and regenerate the hero Claire.

Original Green Screen
BG plate

The final flying shot

Early on, the show had to deal with flying characters. VFX Supervisor Mark Kolpack wanted to produce feature film level effects and to improve on the normal solutions for flying. While some wire work is still done as in the shots above, they worked on new approaches. The show started doing full body scans and producing digital doubles to allow for more believeable flying sequences in the show. While initally considered a gamble, many of the actors have now been scanned and digital doubles are used as a standard part of the visual effects tools at the team’s disposal.

This rooftop matte painting encompasses a 270 degree view it was placed in a 3D cube in After Effects that can be matched with Boujou tracking to the blue screen elements focal length and angle of view
Steam elements airplanes birds and moving people in windows were added during compositing

The final composite - one of many shots done on this set

The destruction of New York City was always going to be a very senstive issue. On the one hand the images from the real 9/11 are so well known, the audience knows what to expect from collapsing building. But the team wanted to be respectful to New York City. Luckily the audience has responded to the show and its depiction of a possible New York City tragedy. They have separated the real life events from the fantastic world of the fictional Heroes and the fans have responded very well to the visual effects shots of NY destruction.

To achieve the effect of frozen time special rigs were used
To achieve this effect the crew had to make sure even the wind was not blowing the tree leaves

In “bullet time” or the classic multiple camera shoot, all action is frozen and the path of the cameras cannot be very complex. Without either the shooting time nor the resources for a computerized camera rig, the team needed to be inventive. The solution was to produce special frozen mounts and rigs to allow for actors to just act still and frozen while filmed by a normal camera.

To make the effect work there is also filmed a semi clean plate. While this plate is not motion control, it provides enough textures for the team to project onto dummy geometry and make a convincing final shot. The finishing touches are added by having some CG objects seamingly suspended in the air. This approach allowed the character Hiro to actually interact with the set and ‘walk’ the visual effect in the same pass as the main plate photography solving both eyelines and removing the need for any motion control.

For many locations in the show Stargate Digital uses what it called the Digital Backlot
The show is filmed in LA but it is often required to be set in remote locations

Stargate Digital is often called upon to produce digital backlots for a variety of shows, not just Heroes. The company did the huge Ferry crash in Grey’s Anatomy and similar environments in shows such as Ugly Betty.

To create this memorial service from the epicenter of the explosion that devasted Manhattan
The plate was extended from the green screen with cg cranes and elevators and up to 10 video plates of construction workers

The final composited shot a clear reference to 9 11 real ground zero

Stargate digital has been invited back for Heroes series two. Listen to the podcast for more great behind the scenes discussion of the show and explanation of the effects used.

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