When the film version of Limitless starring Bradley Cooper was released in 2011, fxguide explored the fractal zooms and other effects involved. Now we talk to visual effects supervisor Jason Zimmerman who delves into his work on the pilot for CBS’ Limitless TV show, which involved capitalizing on and taking forward several similar effects to show the influence of the powerful NZT drug.

fxg: It feels like the effects fit right into the show – can you talk about the style of effects Limitless requires?

Zimmerman: I think the one thing that’s unique about the project when I was approached about it is that it really is about visual effects that are in front of your face, but used in a different way to tell the story – it’s not like a CG creature or a car. It’s graphical, dynamic things that help you understand what’s going on inside the head of a person.

fxg: When Brian first takes the pill and you enter into his eye and go through the brain – how was that all accomplished?

Zimmerman: That was an idea that was thought up by the director Mark Webb who had pitched that as Brian placed this drug we zoom in on the eye and go into this synaptic view. We had to create a full CG synaptic environment of the brain. We did as much research as we could to see what that would look like. Then we imagined what it would look like for a person going from using the normal amount of brain power to a person using 100% of their brain power.


We shot the plates necessary of the push-in on Jake and then we shot a macro of the eye to get a dilation of the pupil and then the hand-off between the two is handled in comp, along with the hand-off to the brain interior itself which was constructed by Origin Digital Studios.

fxg: For the library scene, how did you handle the multiple Brians?

Zimmerman: We did motion control for this. There were 12 different Brians in there. We shot that as part of a second unit day as part of several moco shots to represent what his brain was seeing as it fired off all cylinders. I worked with the second unit director Rich Lee. The challenge was co-ordinating the action of multiple versions of the same person say picking up a file or closing a door after the other one has opened it. There’s a lot of choreographing it with different stand-ins and getting the timing exactly right. After that we went through each of the passes with Jake – a couple of them were greenscreen or some were roto if they were quick crosses, and then we had to composite all 12 passes.


fxg: There’s also some stop motion type effects when folders are piling up.

Zimmerman: They were also motion control rig shots. There’s a shot where he’s sitting at the desk and we push in on him as the files are going from one side of the desk to the other to represent that he’s gone through all those files in short order. We had a split-screen happening with a person literally moving a file to the other side for every files, about 60 or 70 files. So some of those shots comprised 50 or 60 passes just to get each file to move over, making sure the stacks were perfectly straight. There’s another shot where the files were changing before your eyes with the camera just above it and that was actually a cheat in editorial as a time lapse shot.

fxg: The fractal zooms are in the TV show, as they were in the film – how did you achieve them?

Zimmerman: The first thing I did was my research – the effect had been done so well in the film, and that was an intimidating part of working on the show. I reached out to a couple of the compositors and artists who had helped developed the process on the feature and picked their brains as to how they did what they did. From there I worked with the DP Jonathan Sela who was very helpful getting the camera rig setup. I think they walked 19 miles in two days to shoot the plates for those.

The fractal zooms were realized with a 3 camera array of ARRI Alexas using wide, medium and long lenses, with shooting taking place at one location, then moving forward and Origin digitally zooming between them.
The fractal zooms were realized with a 3 camera array of ARRI Alexas using wide, medium and long lenses, with shooting taking place at one location, then moving forward to a new location, with Origin digitally zooming between the captured views.

fxg: What about the shots where we see the time-slice Brians as he foresees where he’s heading?

Zimmerman: We called it the Muybridge effect but it was based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photography tests from the early 1900s. The idea was that as Brian is being chased he has multiple options in front of him, again because his brain is firing on all cylinders. So it was the idea was that he has all these options and each have consequences, either good or bad. So we shot several plates locked off and essentially removed frames in between to represent multiple versions of him. Then we we could cut away to another shot. We’d shoot a clean frame too to make the final shot possible.


fxg: How was that family tree sequence created?

Zimmerman: Brian’s going through his family albums and trying to figure out his dad’s medical condition. As he’s doing that the camera pulls back and reveals a huge family tree of his family and shows certain genetic things that his family have. We actually shot the camera pull back at one frame a second. They did a pullback of 15-20 feet but over five minutes, and there was a timer. So we’d pull back for five minutes, pause briefly – then switch the camera to 24 frames and then do a push in at speed. When you play it back at 24 fps and you get that very cool motion blur effect. We did it there and also under the bridge checking the text messages on the phone.

fxg: How were the subway shots done?

Zimmerman: We had several shots in there that are full CG subway trains, as well as a couple that are train extensions. We built the front of a subway train onto Chevy that was put on a track and would drive into the subway station. We did an extension of that plus CG versions. We also did tunnel extensions either side too.


fxg: There’s the x-ray money clip shots too – can you talk about those?

Zimmerman: Right after the fractal zoom that takes him the carousel in Brooklyn, he’s looking at the money clip that has blood on it, and as he does, the blood animates. We see in reverse what happened in the murder of his friend Eli. It then plays back again forward. We had the idea that there’d be an x-ray into his pocket and see the blood – playing out forward and reverse. It was a lot fun stylistic things that we did that are a little bit different than your standard VFX, I had a lot of fun working on it.

All images courtesy CBS. Limitless airs Tuesdays 10/9c on CBS.

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