Putting the word 'Special' in SFX
Zoic Studio on working for T:SCC
From executive producers Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) and David Nutter (Supernatural, Smallville) comes The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The series picks up Sarah and John's life from the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as they now find themselves in a very different world. Have they changed the future by destroying Sky Net or have they just evaded the inevitable? The series stars an outstanding cast, familiar to both television and film viewers, which includes Lena Headey (The Cave, 300) as Sarah Connor, Thomas Dekker (Heroes) as John Connor and Summer Glau (Serenity, Firefly) as Cameron, and behind the show... Zoic Studio.
Zoic Studio has gathered an array of accomplished artists and creators in all aspect of visual effects and remains at the top of their field and demand. As such, they draw the attention of major studios who want to bring Zoic's talent to their productions. Their tallents span the spectrum from digital compositing, CG animation, special visual effects and motion graphics, whether it's in episodic television (Cold Case, Battlestar Galactica, Eureka) or feature films (Day After Tomorrow, Serenity, Zathura). And with a number of Emmys, VES and LEO awards to prove it. While Zoic is the studio behind the creative force bringing The Sarah Connor Chronicles to Fox, one of the many talents behind Zoic is Andrew Orloff, head of episodic television and the creative director of Zoic Studios who has been in the mix since the company began. His reputation precedes him as the supervisor on many award winning series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami, and he was the man we went to for all the internal aspects and stunning effects fans are looking forward to in the most anticipated series of 2008.
We first had to congratulate Andrew and Zoic and landing such a prestigious and coveted project as The Sarah Connor Chronicles. "Thanks, it's a great show and we're really exciting about being a part of such a temple of movie history. It's one of the greatest movie monsters of all time and it's really exciting for us to be involved with it." Andrew begins by recalling how Zoic got involved in the project, "We heard about it early, we've been doing a lot of work for Fox in the TV arena starting out with Buffy and Angel, working on Firefly and a bunch of other pilots throughout the year. We have a really good relationship with Fox television and when they decided to commission the script we started talking to Josh, the executive producer and creator, and James, the producer who was involved with the Terminator franchise for a long time, getting them over here to talk to us about what it would take to do this kind of show even before it was fully green-lit."
To determine whether is was possible to bring the Terminator franchise to the small screen was the question on everyone's mind as Andrew explains, "What it would take to create the Terminator as a character for TV on a TV budget and a TV schedule. We started out very early (Oct, Nov of '06) just in the idea phase, before the fully fleshed out script, before the director was involved. We had James and Josh come down and we staged a little test where we shot some footage at Zoic and showed them through some motion-capture technology and some real-time compositing and pre-visual. How they could really do a Terminator on set with real interactions with real people. We had a guy in a green-suit and we had a model that was real-time superimposed over the top of him." Andrew admits, "We haven't used this technology to this extent yet in the series but we have used motion-capture on the show so far. This was to show them that we have a relationship with House of Moves, a very reputable motion-capture house, we know how to do this stuff, we know how to work the CG and we know we can take you to that level, however far you want to go with integrating this character into the environment and into the world of shop photography. That was pretty successful and that really spurred a lot of ideas."
A lot of fans got a chance to see the Pilot for SCC at the San Diego International Comic Con this past summer and the response to the new Terminator was amazing. "Once the show got green-lit and we found out that we were going to be involved, Jim Lima, our visual effects supervisor, who's dedicated to the show - also a very well known production designer - started right away on the design of the T-888 which is the specific Terminator endoskeleton model that we designed specific for the show." Andrew is proud of the fact that, "Our show has a new Terminator that's never been seen before, based off the T-800 which was the original Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator skeleton. There's been a couple of other ones: the T-1000 in Terminator 2 with the morphing Terminator, then there was the TX which was the female Terminator from Terminator 3. We based it off the original model which is really good because it's the classic, iconic Terminator from the original James Cameron film and we updated that as if they had taken that model and upgraded it - which makes sense because our universe, the branch of the alternate history if you will, starts between Terminator 2 and Terminator 3."
It's been long time coming for a series of The Terminator and perhaps that wait has allowed technology to catch up, visual effects technology that is, for what a show like this needs or wants to be. Andrew agrees, "The short answer is yes, absolutely. The biggest revolution in computer generated visual effects for television, in the last five years even, has been the exponential increase in the power of the hardware coupled with the decrease of the cost. We're able to harness the power that would have been inconceivable during the first Terminator film and harness that energy towards a visual effects series." He goes on to explain, "Television is our core business, we do a lot of big television shows so we are specifically geared to crank out high volume CG shots that also allows our artists to work more on the artistic side and not worry so much about the practical concerns of rendering time. We have a large server room and we carry just under a thousand render processors during the course of the season and we'll go up to almost double that during pilot season. So the fact that we have so much iron behind us, so much horsepower, allows our artist to sit down and really concentrate on the aesthetics as far as lighting and shading go, and the performance as far as character animation goes." And behind every good machine is a better man or woman! "That's a lot of not just machine power, but people power too. We dedicate a lot of resource to technical concerns; building our own proprietary tools that make sure the renders go through the pipe a lot faster and also just good old people power of having a team that's dedicated to wrangling all the data that comes through. They make sure overnight that all the 3D renders are ready and all the frames are patched for the compositors in the morning. Just being the kind of facility that can crank through 150 high-def shots a week means that we are well suited to take on a project the scale of The Sarah Connor Chronicles." Don't let the high-tech babble confuse you, if you're under 35-years old, we're sure you'll following along just fine. More good news is that SCC is being shot on film and transferred to high-def and delivered in high definition for all you HD fanatics.
A few years back one of the big effects Zoic was mastering was the Matrix style 3D Tracking shot. Everyday new technologies are created and Zoic will be sure to apply this to the series? "We have a lot of new technology that relates to integrating motion-capture, which is a process of capturing an actor's performance in 3D and integrating that onto our CG characters and putting the CG characters into a real environment" Andrew recalls, "You can see that in the pilot with the performance of the person with the Terminator disguise on and after the façade gets burned off we see the endoskeleton. There's the same level of performance on the endoskeleton that there is on the actual characters who's being shot First Unit. The reason why is we're shooting that person - actually we're shooting the stunt actor who taught that person to walk and act like a Terminator - but we're shooting that person for real, recording their movements in a frame-by-frames basics and applying that to our Terminator model. So we're utilizing real human performance in conjunction with highly realistically rendered models to get this Terminator to live and breath inside the world of The Sarah Connor Chronicles." He goes on to offer, "We're also doing a lot of work creating virtual sets and virtual backgrounds, putting our characters into places we can't go to shoot. There's always a signature of the Terminator series, the dream sequence and the flash-forward of the post-apocalyptic, Sky Net becomes sentient days, the dark future that Sarah and John are trying to keep the world from and we'll be creating that world as the series goes on and fleshing that out more. You'll be seeing that in much more detail than you would in any of the films so far."
The big 'how did they do that' question from the pilot would be the nuclear explosion in Sarah's dream sequence and the vaporizing of the terminator, buildings, etc. One technique which Zoic still uses is IK (Inverse Kenimatics). "It's a combination of motion-capture and IK solutions." Andrew takes us through the process, "Basically we use the IK for hand key frames as the Terminator is walking towards Sarah - the movement of the walk, the movement of the spine and the movement of the body and his reaction to the mass in general is something that's created from the motion-capture session. But the fine points that you can't motion-capture, the fingers, the movements of the eyes and the gears inside of the Terminator are the second animation. When we built and Jim designed this model we went through great pains to make sure that everything was mechanically sound. It's another big point that James Cameron made in the original, that this thing needs to look like it's really going to work to be really scary. Because if it looks too magical or if it's some kind of weird robot that couldn't really exist it's not as real. We took that to heart," he continues, "and we made sure that when our Terminator moved his arm you see all the gears and pulleys working inside his body to make that arm move. The other thing we had to do for TV is we've pre-programmed the innards of the Terminator to react in a mechanically proper way to what he's doing. In other shots, when we get close up, the Terminator's face is just a skull so we animate the face by hand and sometimes we animate the fingers on the hand, by hand as well using IK solutions. We just go back and forth using our character animators to add secondary motion and the fine points of the performance, resting on motion-capture for the gross movements."
During Comic Con David Nutter mentioned that is was going to be important for the visual effects to follow the characters and the story rather than being just high-profile eye candy. "I don't think it'll be any more difficult for us to do," Andrew offers, "I think it's a stylistic choice which I tend to agree with. Again this goes back to the original series because you don't see the Terminator trying to hide as if he's trying to disguise himself so it works well with the concept behind the series. The Terminators are trying to constantly obscure the fact that they're, at heart, a visual effect so it works well for us in a lot of ways." He explains, "The first thing is, when you see it, it's special enough that it's rewarding. Because if every time you saw a Terminator endoskeleton walking around it would lose its visual impact pretty quickly and so there's a certain amount of hiding the ball that's effective and is something they've done in the series from the beginning. You want to keep that mystery of who is a Terminator and we don't know from the series if some characters are Terminators. You don't know what their endoskeleton is and some may or may not be. You only have so much time and so much money to play with on an episode by episode basis. It's a really smart thing to do from a story point and a practical point from this series because it allows us to really concentrate a handful of shots that are really rewarding to the fans. And to everybody," he admits with a laugh, "because we know everybody is looking at this, frame by frame and Tivos and DVDs across the country because there are so many rabid fans out there. We've got to make sure our stuff stands up and that method really helps us to achieve that."
There's been amazing advances in special effects in the last 10, 5, even 2 years, certainly since the original Terminator film. Keeping up on a long-term project, which SCC certainly hopes to be, when something new is always being created can be daunting. "We're constantly upgrading," Andrew reassures, "this is really a bleeding edge series for us, we're pulling out all the stops here at Zoic and doing it on the most advanced rendering platforms, the most advanced animation forms. Jim Lima's doing some very technical things as far as shooting and green screens to make this stuff work. It's something we constantly do, on all our shows, every season we schedule time with the writers and the executive producers to go in and to sit down at the table before the season starts, and say 'how are we going to outdo what we did last season?' Because that's what TV is all about too and so we design and we build knowing that what's cutting edge this year may be 'ho-hum' next year and that's our job to pitch new ideas. You're right," continues Andrew, "the flip side of that coin is that it's kind of good that there's always going to be somebody out there who's going to think of a new visual effects technique. We like to think that we're creating some of our own here, but there's more than enough new stuff to go around every year and it's our job to tailor all that stuff and make a pitch for the new year."
Zoic has great ideas and getting free rein to offer Josh up ideas as the production progresses from a Visual FX point of view can the linchpin for success. "I think that's a lot of the reason why people choose to come to Zoic, we set ourselves up as a creative partnership. We're not just a dubbing house that has some visual effects guys in it. We're not a transfer facility that has a few flames available for people to do stuff. We are solely concentrated on visual effects and we stick on our reputation on creating unique solutions that are specially tailored to the individual shows that we work for." Andrew offers, "The reason that people come to us is they expect us to pitch ideas. I've had situations where writers call me and they say, 'I want to do something, and here's a story point can you throw a technique at me that might work?' I'm glad to see that. Jim and David have a really tight relationship that way and they really are able to communicate giving us the creative input from the technical side and David Nutter being just brilliant at being able to integrate that and weave it into a story. We showed them motion-capture, we showed them some of the particle work that we've been doing that creates highly realistic explosions and the virtual backgrounds that we've been working on and all of a sudden there's a sequence that appears of the whole world being destroyed behind the Terminator blowing his skin off."
Zoic offers a variety of services which allows them to mix mediums in SCC from their digital compositing, CG animation, to down and dirty visual effects. Andrew is quick to concur, "That's one of the great things about being in television for visual effects is that you don't get as pigeonholed as you would in every show. We do a lot of matt paintings, a lot of character work, a lot of extension set replacement, a lot of hard surface animation, and a lot of particles for all the shows. Especially Sarah Connor, we had every expert in the facility involved in the show in way or another, to the guy who designed the way the skin burns and peels off the Terminator in the first sequence to the person who's going to create the perfect matt pane to put L.A. behind the location in New Mexico."
With amazing visual effects comes even more impressive makeup effects and there's no better studio for SCC than Almost Human and Robert Hall. These two effects go hand-in-hand. "On a show like this yes, it's really important that we work very closely together," points out Andrew. "From the design phase, where Jim was actually the production designer for the T-888, he was sending drawings back and forth. Rob was doing sculpts of his designs and then sending the sculpted pieces back to us for us to model. Very, very closely related. When shots come out Jim and Rob are there together saying sometimes the best solution for a shot is a practical solution. Whether the practical Terminator arm, which they've built, works great for some shots and doesn't need to be as articulated and you can save a visual effects shot there. Sometimes on set, if that decision is made that they want the arm to do something it can't do mechanically then that's where Jim comes in and says, 'we'll take over, we'll do a Zoic shot here.' They have created pieces of the Terminator, a foot, an arm and a head that they can use to mitigate so that every time you see the endoskeleton it's not a CG shot."
Other effects that are sacrosanct to Terminator are the time machine effects and Zoic has the solution for those that will keep fans impressed. "The time bubble and the time arcing was created by us," admits Andrew proudly. "We really tried to stay true to and pay homage to the innovators and origins of visual effects and sometimes a lot of new technology and new software can cloud the glass so to speak. This is the perfect example of that, where we originally tried to do the time machine and the arcing electricity inside the bank vault as a software generated affect, meaning using a lightning program. Jim and I, looking at that scene with David, we're thinking, 'you know this doesn't really look right.' So what we ended up doing was going to some people who I knew were really good special effects cell animators, hand animators who could paint the lighting on frame by frame." Andrew explains the technique, "That was a really great process because Jim is a fantastic illustrator, a fantastic storyboard artist and what he was able to do was go into PhotoShop, draw the basics of where the beams and the arcs of electricity were headed, and the shape of them. Then the rotoscoping animation artist would take that and animate it by hand, frame by frame, and it really gives you personality, when you start to integrate a really skilled artist's ability to bring these things to life. You see it in films like, The Prestige and all the way back to Big Trouble in Little China - really great hand-drawn lighting just has a certain organic flair to it. It completely transformed the look of the sequence and gave it such an organic flow. It definitely ranges to the highest of high tech for the motion-capture stuff to what we call good old brute force composting and animation."
While David and Josh are adamant about living up to what James Cameron started, it now falls on Zoic to pick up the effects ball and keep it rolling, pressure notwithstanding. "Well yeah," laughs Andrew, "you go into these things with the utmost confidence saying, 'yeah we'll do it and we'd love the challenge,' and then there's that moment we had that gut-check and you're actually awarded the job and you think to yourself, 'oh my god we actually have to do this now, we actually have to make this thing.' And that's quickly resolved by a rush of adrenaline to just get the ball going and put heads down and go forward." He seriously admits, "It's definitely a lot to live up to but all the artists here and Jim and everyone involved was so excited to be involved with this franchise that I think that overtook any anxiety quickly, we were ready for the challenge. It was one of those few projects that comes by that everyone in the facility was falling over themselves to get a shot assignment on this job."
Zoic can now look forward to all the excitement it's planning to bring to SCC. "I think that the biggest thing, and we talked about it a lot in this interview, is just the integration and the performance of a computer generated character as a real integral part/actor in the series. I hope that as we go and evolve we get more into that, that we can contribute more and more in the field of virtual actors and characters integrating into real environments because I think that's kind of the last frontier as far as bringing visual effects techniques from film over to TV. You see set extension stuff in TV on a weekly basis that rivals what you might see in a film. Particle work and effects work, hard surface rendering can be going right towards film quality. The stuff we did for Firefly, for Battlestar on a weekly basis and the amount of work that we did is comparable to any film, but the amount of character work you're seeing in film these days hasn't yet been replicated on television. I think that's something we're really excited about having the opportunity to do is to bring that home and show it can be done." The quality of this work doesn't go without the credit to the talents involved who bring this creativity to life and who will be the driving energy behind SCC. Andrew sincerely states, "I work closely with Jim and David on this side, but a lot of the credit of this goes to Jim Lima who is the visual effects supervisor and on set every day doing all the production design. He's such a creative force and deserves to be mentioned as well as the producer, John Massey, who worked with him to get all the budgets and stuff straightened out, and our lead compositor Lane Jolly."