VFX Files: Khaos Digital Helps Bones Tell Its Stories
COW Library : Autodesk Maya : Debra Kaufman : VFX Files: Khaos Digital Helps Bones Tell Its Stories
On the TV show Bones, forensic artist Angela Montenegro (played by Michaela Conlin) stares intently at The Angelatron, an 8-foot screen that displays a digital skeleton of a murder victim. As she taps on her remote, she walks the Bones team through the graphic evidence of how the crime occurred.
"Most people think the content on these screens is done in post," says Khaos Digital Graphics Artist David Watkinson, who is Graphics Coordinator on the show. "But the scenes are all shot live with the actors interacting with the screens in real-time. In this case, Angela has an 8-foot screen that's made out of plexiglass. She taps the remote control...and up comes some combination of images, text, video and animations that we've created and programmed to respond to her actions. It's the same procedure for all the other approximately 40 computer screens on our sets, but the Angelatron is usually the most impressive because of its size."
24-frame playback, screen replacement, computer visualization, virtual interfaces: creating this content is one of those interesting Hollywood jobs that got its start when someone was needed to synchronize film cameras with TV screens. Now, that niche job has expanded to involve filling any screen in the scene with content, and Khaos Digital is one of a handful of companies that does just that, bringing all those screens to life with animated graphics, surveillance footage and other content. "We have restarted hearts, matched fingerprints and tracked killer robots," says Khaos Digital owner/founder Mark Marcum. "We helped Mulder and Scully find the Truth, we helped Dr. House diagnose rare diseases and we helped Jack Bauer defend our country from terrorists."
Left to right, the Khaos Digital team: Mark Marcum, Jim Unsinn, Simon Knights David Watkinson, Mike Stein, Chris Waggoner.
With the advent of LCD panels in the 1990s, Marcum and his wife Elena Santaballa realized that storytelling on the screen was becoming increasingly complex. "The idea that you had to have someone there to synchronize the film camera to video was going away," he says. "At the same time, with LCD screens, the content was being done in post or art departments that really didn't know how it worked. Elena and I said, let's not worry about the hardware. Maybe we should market the content."
That's exactly what they did, and the TV hit Bones, which just wrapped up its seventh season, is a great example of the result: the series is chock-a-block full of Khaos Digital's design, motion graphics and playback. Watkinson, who has also provided on-screen graphics for dozens of feature films, has acted as Graphics Coordinator for the show since the middle of season one.
Bones -- which centers on the relationship between forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) who solve Federal legal cases by examining the remains of possible murder victims -- is also a rich source for Watkinson's special craft.
"Every episode averages about twelve animations that tell different aspects of the story on the various computer screens spread throughout our laboratory sets," says Watkinson. "But the story-point animation that solves the crime is usually played on the Angelatron." The 8-foot monitor is named after Angela the show's computer expert. Watkinson says that directors love to shoot in Angela's office because the screen is actually plexiglass suspended in the air with graphics projected on it. "It allows directors to shoot through the monitor for a dramatic look at the characters, as they approach the solution to that week's mystery," he says.
Watkinson switched from being an Assistant Director to doing playback graphics in 1993, when the producers of Sliver were looking for someone with a background in film, computers and interactivity -- at that time, a unique set of skills. "Since then, I've created interfaces, animations and graphics that playback on video or computer screens in many big budget features like two of the Batman movies, and the first two Men in Black," he says. "But I was happy to switch to TV to do Bones because it is such a great working environment."
Although nearly 20 years have passed since he started creating playback graphics, Watkinson says changes in the workflow used to create them have been minimal. "Besides improvements in each version of the software we use, the most dramatic change has been the result of improvements in processor speed and resolution," he says. "In the beginning, it was virtually impossible to incorporate good video in our interactive animations. I remember showing an early version of Quicktime to a special interest group that I hosted at the American Film Institute. The people from the computer world were very excited to see a little postage-sized low-res video playing on a computer screen. But the guys who came from the video world thought it was crap! Now we incorporate high def with no problem."
Watkinson relies on getting his models from Daz 3D (for people) as well as TurboSquid and Renderosity. "They're perfectly suited for the simulations we're always doing about how people died," he says. "A big problem has been getting them into Maya and rigging them." To avoid the rigging problem, Watkinson and Stein animated characters in Poser and used a plug-in to incorporate the animations into Maya. "They're not actually imported," he says. "It's like an alias. So, if you need to change the Poser animation, you need to leave Maya, change it in Poser and then hope that it updates in Maya."
Since Watkinson says the plug-in for integration with Maya was very buggy, he has begun experimenting with the new version of Poser's competition, Daz Studio 4. "It's much more streamlined," he says. "And the characters actually import into Maya with rigging."
Although Watkinson is interested in Unity 3D, he expressed concern about how long it might take to create content for the large number of scenes usually required in each episode. TV schedules are notoriously fast, and says Watkinson, "a big challenge is getting it all done on time in front of the camera." Watkinson adds, "An hour-long show is half a feature film and we do it in eight days. I have eight days to prep for eight days of shooting, and of course the 3D is tricky."
Khaos Digital creates a combination of images, text, video and animations that respond to the actor's touch.
Watkinson says that the show's ADs work with him to try to move the biggest scenes to the end of the shoot, to give him more time. Although he's never missed a deadline, sometimes the shooting schedule precludes shooting the computer screen with the actors during principle photography. "Let's say it's a location shoot and the scientist Dr. Jack Hodgins is in the field where he has his computer and is video conferencing back to Brennan or Angela," says Watkinson. "On his screen is supposed to be a video of the folks back at the lab, but if we haven't shot the scene in the lab yet, Hodgins' screen in the field will be green and then we'll composite the video in post production."
Compositing graphics during post production used to be something that Khaos Digital left to visual effects departments. Eventually Marcum decided that Khaos Digital would also do the composites. "Since we're responsible for the visual quality of the computer screen content shot live, Mark felt that we should also control the quality of composites, or burn-ins as we call them," said Watkinson.
Khaos Digital is responsible for the visual quality of the computer screen content shot live.
Marcum has also expanded his business to create content for smart phones, the latest screen to appear on TV. "This is such a niche market that no one develops for us," he says. "We have to find things that are already developed and then find a way to make it work for us. We don't compete with VFX houses, but if it's on the screen, we're a better fit."
Although creating playback content is indeed a quintessential niche market, it also requires very specialized knowledge and tools. Khaos Digital is likely to be busy for a long time to come, not just for Bones but also for the growing number of shows that feature content on all kinds of screens.
Title image... from BONES Brennan (Emily Deschanel, R) runs into her friend and colleague Dr. Douglas Filmore (guest star Scott Lowell, L) while in Los Angeles consulting on the production of a film based on her latest book in the "The Suit on the Set" episode of BONES aired Monday, May 7 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2012 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Ray Mickshaw/FOX