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Giant Dinosaurs, Tiny Budgets

CreativeCOW presents Giant Dinosaurs, Tiny Budgets -- Art of the Edit Feature


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Kevin Blank has had a tough but exhilarating year. He brought to life the dinosaurs and prehistoric environments in the hotly anticipated Amblin Entertainment TV series Terra Nova, which debuted September 26 on Fox. As visual effects supervisor, Blank didn't simply oversee the creation of prehistoric Terra Nova but -- in a completely separate challenge --the polluted futuristic world of Chicago in 2149, where the story begins.

Blank brought a lot of experience to this gig. He was visual effects supervisor on the 2008 indie hit Cloverfield, and, perhaps more important to fan boys and girls everywhere, he was VFX supervisor for 67 episodes of Lost. He was also recently visual effects supervisor for the pilots of Fringe and Hawaii 5-0. Creative COW got the inside scoop on what it's been like working on Terra Nova, including a face-to-face with executive producer Steven Spielberg.

When Amblin Entertainment brought me in on Terra Nova in June 2010, they wanted to figure out the viability of getting the project set up.

Previous to me coming on as the visual effects supervisor, they'd been sending out unfinished script pages to multiple visual effects companies around the world. Everyone wanted to work on a Steven Spielberg dinosaur show.

But when I learned the visual effects budget they had to work with, I realized there was an extreme disconnect between what they wanted to do and what they wanted to pay. When I started talking with those same visual effects companies that had bid on the show about what we wanted to pay for shots, they stopped returning phone calls and claimed to be busy.

The challenge was trying to find out who had an existing pipeline and economic structure that would fit what the show expected. The answer was no one. I had no idea how this was going to get done.

The conversation became, "Are we going to do this in-house?" Fox didn't want to build its own visual effects company or in-house team; they didn't want to pay for the investment. Essentially what happened was we four-walled a group of artists within an existing company structure, and Pixomondo was the company that did that.

It has a German owner and we did some experiments at some of its ten different offices around the world -- two in China, two in the US, one in Canada, four in Germany, one in London. But a new office was opened in Burbank to put everyone in one place. On a TV schedule, everything had to be turned around quickly so we didn't want to go out to 17 companies or wait for a time zone. All problems would have to solved real time.

It took us three months to set up the Burbank facility. We ended up with 40 people, and Pixomondo's Jason Zimmerman became the in-house visual effects supervisor.



TERRA NOVA: Elisabeth Shannon (Shelley Conn, C) and her children Maddy (Naomi Scott, R) and Josh (Landon Libiron, L) prepare to enter the Hope Plaza for their journey to Terra Nova in "Genesis" the special two-hour premiere of TERRA NOVA, which aired Monday, Sept. 26 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Brook Rushton/FOX


Doing it this way, I got to set up the pipeline exactly the way I wanted. It came about through experimentation with lots of different software, finding things that failed, things that were successful, and things that were partially successful. In addition to software experimentation, it was personnel experimentation; there were people hired and people fired to find the right combination of people. What we needed were generalists. I'm borrowing a quote from a friend who says, "In features, it takes three people for one shot, and in TV, one person does three shots." In a feature film, a facility has multiple departments and the shots move through an assembly line. We needed a generalist spirit where a lot of people can do a lot of things.


BUILDING THE PIPELINE

Working on a TV budget and TV schedule is tough. I've done an enormous amount of TV and I like to consider myself as someone who can deconstruct the pipeline, which is what I did.

First of all, it started with finding the right animation director. I knew that I needed to get someone with a very accomplished resume, filled with very high-end shows, who understood what high expectations meant.

I also wanted somebody who was very easy going and nurturing, almost mentoring, because I knew that when the team was constructed, it would be a mix of very experienced people, and potentially some junior people who showed an enormous amount of promise, but weren't as expensive.



Skye protects her friends from a dinosaur attack in "Genesis".


When Colin Brady showed up, he was everything I wanted him to be. He's worked as an animation supervisor on Hugo (directed by Martin Scorcese) and Green Lantern, and he opened up an animation department at Pixomondo.

Once you've got your lead animators, you look at tools. For animation, Autodesk Maya is the gold standard, but I'm not an animator, and everything was on the table. Colin had a lot of experience in Autodesk Softimage XSI and was talking up that possibility. Eventually we went the way of Maya. Then we started having discussions of what to render in. Pixomondo has a very robust pipeline of Autodesk 3D Studio Max and Chaos Group's V-Ray rendering engine for Max and Maya, and so we were looking at the possibility of this.



Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara) treks through the jungle to his new home in "Genesis".


Then NewTek LightWave 10 came out. It allowed for geo-caching, which let us be a little software agnostic. LightWave also provided us with a very large talent pool of people available to us who fit the economic model of the show. There were lots of fabulous Maya V-Ray people but they were all employed at bigger companies or they wanted significantly more money. And it was all about trying to fit it into an economic model and LightWave helped us do that.

Also in the pipeline was Terragin, a relatively new program that is a landscape generator. All our landscapes were generated out of this, and I really like the results that it creates. It requires a lot of render power, but it's inexpensive, and you don't need licenses to build out a farm. It isn't the easiest program to work with but can yield spectacular results if you have enough render power.

(Our render farm started at about 50 nodes and kept getting bigger. We're over 200 nodes now. )

The number of visual effects per episode varies greatly. The pilot had between 250 and 280 shots, which doesn't sound like a lot, but there some very large-scale visual effects in there.

After the pilot was delivered, we started filming the new episodes. That first episode had a creature-centric storyline -- I think we had 55 creature shots, with three dinosaurs and an oversized centipede. The second was character-centric, but there are still three creatures and 20 creature shots. In Episode 3, there are about 100 effects shots of which 75 are creature shots. So there are more creature shots in Hour 3 than in Hour 1 and 2 combined, and we're still going.



Alana Mansour as Zoe Shannon feeds a dinosaur.


We had up to five episodes in house at any one time, with alternating teams floating back and forth. The episodes vary greatly between lots of and minimal dinosaur presence, although there's a dinosaur in every episode. Over 13 episodes, there are about 15 or 16 new creatures, and Hour 7 will have one show up with a big bang, with a little bit of a Hitchcock homage. The finale of Season 1 has already been shot, and may be through post by the time you are reading this.

I think that people will be impressed by what they see in Terra Nova.


CREATURES
To develop the look of the creatures, I worked with Neville Page, a fabulous creature designer I'd worked with on Cloverfield. He worked with me on the pilot, along with director Alex Grave, Steven, and anthropologist Jack Horner, who had previously collaborated with Steven on the dinosaurs for the Jurassic Park movies.

We found another super-talented person with Dan Katcher, an unbelievably gifted sculptor and Pixologic ZBrush modeler. Neville designed the creatures and Dan sculpted them beautifully, filled with lots of detail.

Funny, but Dan is the guy who grew up loving dinosaurs and he has his dream job now. He calls Jack Horner and talks about future dinosaurs in the show that we're building.





That was an awesome thing about working with Neville, too. He's a student of zoology so he understands the anatomy of animals, and takes real life and applies it to his digital creations. He and Dan have that same love of looking at reference books and existing animals, and picking great patterns and real details. I love what they do.

There's another interesting aspect of the creature building. In some of our testing on how to move things more quickly, we did a couple of mocap sessions and experimented with taking human action and grafting it on to a dinosaur rig...with mixed results. We had some stuff that didn't work at all, and some stuff that worked wonderfully.

There are a handful of shots that are more mocap-driven than keyframe driven, mostly in the Carnotaurus sequence, a junior T-Rex based off a real fossil record. He's a biped, which is why using human action for motion capture worked so well. Slasher is another dinosaur we also used a bit of mocap for.



A Carnosaur threatens a scientist working at a remote outpost in the "What Remains" episode.


We didn't use a tremendous amount of it in the end, but I'd say that motion capture has a 5 or 10% representation in the finished work. We used our mocap successes, but keyframe animation is alive and strong in what we do.


LANDSCAPES
In addition to all the creatures, Terra Nova also incorporates a lot of digital landscapes. There was some discussion about shooting in Hawaii, but there were a lot of shows shooting in Hawaii, and there was not a lot of local crew available.

Also, Jurassic Park was shot there and there was a big edict from Steven that Terra Nova should be nothing like Jurassic Park. Louisiana and Georgia were considered, but they were more swamp-like than we were hoping for, and had no mountain terrain whatsoever.

Spielberg really liked how Queensland Australia looks: it's beautiful and it's lush. It's hilly and has nice trees, so it plays nicely for something prehistoric, allowing what was closer to camera to be real. Visual effects dressed in the mountain terrain behind it.

In the Terra Nova portions of the movie, we had three or four landscape shots that were 100 percent CGI, and maybe two to three dozen where we added in terrain in the background, kind of like set extensions. In the pilot, out of our 265 shots, we have 55 creature shots and maybe 24 landscape shots.



Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, R) and his Lieutenant, Washington (Simone Kessell, L) watch over Terra Nova in "Genesis".


In the sections on earth in 2149, as the show begins, there was a lot more CG creation and set extension than there was for the prehistoric sections. For example, the opening shot of the show is a one-minute, 100% CGI shot. It starts on the moon and flies into a polluted earth and then flies through a futuristic Chicago skyline and lands with our main characters, the Shannon family.

There's a prison break -- and the prison is 100% CGI -- and then they find their way to Hope Plaza, a fictional location somewhere near Chicago, which is 98% CGI creation. Hope Plaza is the portal built around the accelerator that is the time machine that allows everyone to move back to the Cretaceous era, and the city has been built around it.



Hope Plaza is the portal built around the accelerator that is the time machine that allows everyone to move back to the Cretaceous era, and the city has been built around it.



Mira portrayed by Christine Adams arrives at Terra Nova in "The Runaway".


(The aerials flying into Hope Plaza was the work of one artist -- Lars Simkins -- who worked on that one shot for eight months. It's pretty cool.)

Some of these 2149 exteriors were gargantuan. When Pierre Drolet, who has modeled many of the big scope effects you've seen on TV, for Star Trek: Enterprise, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, built the model for Hope Plaza, he said it was the biggest model for a TV show that he'd ever done. Then we had him model Chicago in 2149, and he said it was even bigger than Hope Plaza. So he passed his own benchmark twice.



Josh (Landon Liboiron, L) and Skye (Allison Miller, R) are captured by "Sixers" in the "What Remains" episode.


GETTING BIG ON A SMALL BUDGET

In any case, we got big on a small budget. That's my niche: making the dollars go a long way. We put together a pipeline to create creatures that were done on a shoestring budget for this kind of work.

As we do that, we keep tweaking our rigging and shading and it keeps getting better. Not to say that I dislike what we did in the pilot, but I do feel that as we go on and tweak the pipeline, the effects are looking better and better. It's like coming up with a recipe and adding things, taking things away, and coming up with better results.

To be honest, I was completely thrilled to get this job, and there were still moments when I wished I was never part of it. Now? Speaking here just before the first episode airs, I'm exhausted and a little too close to it, but I'm also very proud of it. I think we did good work, and I've had some people give me a pat on the back.



Jim (Jason O'Mara, R), Elisabeth (Shelley Conn, C) and Zoe Shannon (Alana Mansour, L) explore Terra Nova in "Genesis".


"Steven Spielberg and dinosaurs," you think Jurassic Park, and then skip ahead to King Kong and then Avatar. All of those are groundbreaking films that had budgets light years ahead of ours. I'm nervous about being compared to that, but for people who watch Terra Nova, I'm confident we're going to show something really spectacular.


 


 

Kevin Blank

Kevin Blank
Los Angeles, California USA


In addition to Terra Nova, shows for which Kevin has served as Visual Effects Coordinator and/or Visual Effects Supervisor include Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Star Trek: Enterprise, Alias, Lost (where he won an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects) FlashForward, and the pilot for Fringe, for which he won a VES Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program. He has also served these roles for features including Mission: Impossible III and Cloverfield.








In the title photo, Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara) and Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang) travel outside the safety of the compound's fence. All photos from Terra Nova ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credits: Brook Rushton/FOX



Terra Nova preview. ©Fox Broadcasting Co.




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