Under the Dome with Encore VFX Supervisor Stephan Fleet
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Stephan Fleet : Under the Dome with Encore VFX Supervisor Stephan Fleet
At USC, he was mentored by Professor Ian Sander, who also worked, along with wife Kim Moses, as the show runner for the series Ghost Whisperer. That exposure to TV production convinced Fleet that this was the direction he wanted to take his career.
Sander hired his mentee to work on pitches as a development associate. The writer's strike interrupted that work, but post-strike, Fleet partnered with friends from USC who had formed Master Key Visual Effects.
There, Fleet soon helped lead a team of about 30 artists to complete hundreds of visual effects per week for the series Knight Rider (2008). After an amicable leave-taking, Fleet joined Encore in Hollywood, eventually helping the post production company expand a budding VFX division.
Since then, he's done "countless amounts" of TV visual effects as a VFX supervisor and artist. Among his TV VFX work at Encore are series Magic City, Beauty and the Beast, Vegas, The River, and Castle. Now Encore VFX's Executive Creative Director, Fleet oversees work on the CBS/DreamWorks production of the Stephen King series Under the Dome.
I feel it's very important to come to a pitch meeting prepared and ready to get a creative discussion going immediately. I never want to just go and say, "Here's our reel. What do you want us to do?" It doesn't really matter if the meeting is with someone you know, who knows your work, or if it's totally cold. You always need to demonstrate that you've given their project a lot of thought and that you've come in with creative and technical solutions.
It doesn't mean you expect them to do everything the way you suggest, but it's still very important to have strong ideas going in. For the meetings about Under the Dome, I presented to 20 people and I'd already worked with about 18 of them. But that didn't mean I felt I could coast. I came prepared with concepts and ways of executing them. Encore VFX faced stiff competition to get Under the Dome -- competition against companies I respect a lot.
I brought in several test stills where I had people push their hands against Lexan (a high grade plastic, like glass), removing all reflections, giving a visual that looked like someone trapped, pushing up against nothing.
To give you a better idea, it's the concept that ended up being used for the CBS promo pictures with the cast. I also created video bloody handprint "suspended in the air," using simple compositing techniques and my Canon 5D Mark III, a visual which ended up being one of the signature images of the show.
So I delivered this whole visual presentation and only then found out that creators of the show had similar thoughts. This got a great discussion going. The pitch became a creative concept meeting, and not some typical sales thing. The energy was great!
In my role as VFX supervisor on Under the Dome, I work on set in Wilmington, NC with the show's creative production team, led by EP Jack Bender. I help to orchestrate the preparation and shooting of any material that has a visual effects component; I also telecommute and often travel back to LA to oversee post production of visual effects, spot shows with our VFX team and discuss the creative work with executive producers and writers of the show.
Cinematographer Cort Fey, ASC shoots Under the Dome primarily with ARRI Alexa cameras, but he'll also throw in a couple of GoPro Hero 3s, Canon 5D Mark IIIs, and 1Ds as additional cameras for use in stunts and explosions. Cort used a RED Epic for a truck crash sequence in the first episode to take advantage of the high-frame-rate capability.
Stephan Fleet and DP Cort Fey, ASC
Encore provides not just all the VFX work, but also an entire package of post services, including our Mobilab on-location dailies and final color grading through sister facility Level 3, Burbank. Cort loves Mobilabs because it lets him see graded dailies very quickly. Mobilabs also helps us in the VFX department because it shaves time off the processes involved in seeing graded dailies -- we can easily attain the grade with the CDL (Color Decision List) and implement the grade in our VFX programs. Anyplace you can save time is helpful because this is a show with very tight deadlines, lots of revisions and producers, and an international release schedule. We're always working up to the wire.
We're generally working on three to four episodes in post at any given time and when we're shooting, we're always prepping another episode concurrently. I don't know how that could happen with the efficiency necessary without Mobilabs or if the whole post/VFX workflow weren't so tightly connected.
I do a lot of the pre-vis myself, as part of my VFX supervisor duties. Honestly, I'm not a very good 3D artist, but I'm good enough to mock things up. In a 3D program, if you understand the principles of photography, you can recreate scenarios accurately. If there's a complex sequence on a TV show I'll pre-vis scenes based on all the information I have about the script and location as well as what I think is right.
Then, of course, there is a lot of collaboration with people on the production end and also with my wonderful VFX team, especially Jane Sharvina, who leads the artists in the room and is like my creative right hand woman and Adam Avitable, a co-Supervisor I convinced the show and Encore to bring on when I realized its epic proportions. I've learned the main key to success is to surround myself with talented, creative people... and trust them. Though I've also found that threatening to pour coffee on an artist's head, or worse, sing (I'm tone deaf) helps get work done faster.
From "Outbreak" -- Behind the scenes of UNDER THE DOME with Angie (Britt Robertson). Photo: Michael Tackett. Cinematographer Cort Fey, ASC shoots Under the Dome primarily with ARRI Alexa cameras, but he'll also throw in a couple of GoPro Hero 3s, Canon 5D Mark IIIs, and 1Ds as additional cameras for use in stunts and explosions. Cort has also used the RED Epic.
We primarily rely on Autodesk 3ds Max for 3D, Maya software for some modeling and animation and NUKE for compositing. We use the Foundry's Mari for texturing, as well as Pixologic ZBrush and Luxology's Modo.
Truthfully, we're slowly becoming program agnostic. We think it's about creating, not programming. We also have several seats of Autodesk Flame too. Not too many VFX companies have them much anymore, but I've found it's great to have a Flame team; it's a different approach that can work well in TV and I've found that our Flame artists and NUKE compositors work really well together. It can be faster for quick fixes, it also allows the client to sit in a bay and supervise work in real time.
The approach to the hero effect of the dome itself is to a great extent the "invisible" force field we initially discussed, although it does have a hint of a presence when people touch it. But primarily, we know it's there because objects hit it or lean against it and we see the effects of its presence. So we see someone spray painting it and the paint sticks or the bloody handprint I mentioned. Some of the simpler effects are based on carefully positioning Lexan and then painting out traces of its presence in post. More complex shots involve more elaborate particle effects.
In Episode Five, you'll see a swarm of butterflies hitting the barely visible obstruction, a missile explode against the dome, and some really cool, full CG environment replacement of a devastated world beyond the dome. And that's just the beginning. As the series progresses, you'll see more and more complex shots.
From "Blue on Blue." Pictured: L-R Mackenzie Lintz as Norrie and Colin Ford as Joe as a missile explodes against the dome.
As I write this, I'm sitting in an airport, on my way back to Los Angeles, after having just worked several long nights in a row on the last episode of Season 1. Almost every single shot for the last week has had a visual effects component.
I think one overlooked aspect of the VFX supervisor is that we need to function as a "digital language translator." The director and cinematographer and producers in Wilmington are thinking about the work in one way, with a specific set of terms and the VFX team in Hollywood is approaching the same shots from a very different perspective.
Here's an example: the script might read, "the kids touch the invisible dome and it glows bright on their faces." Unbeknownst to the writer, to production this one sentence will trigger a series of meetings. The DP and gaffer are going to want to know what kind of light glows on their faces, what color, what intensity, does it fade up? How do we technically do that? The Props department is going to want to know how they touch the dome, and do they need to touch Lexan or do they touch blue screen? The director is going to want to know his or her limitations: Can I use a crane? What angles can I get that work for VFX? And most importantly, what will the actors see and feel...? Of course, the actors will ask that last question too.
The Endless Thirst -- UNDER THE DOME, aired Monday, July 29 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Rachell Lefevre as Julia Shumway, Mackenzie Lintz as Norrie, Jolene Purdy as Dodee and Colin Ford as Joe. Photo: Kent Smith.
With the camera department, I talk about lenses (primes or zooms?) and how I need three points in space for a moving camera to track the movement later. So I may ask, Are we going handheld or will we be in studio mode (slang for on a dolly or sticks)? What's the color temperature going to be? Skinny shutter (narrow angle) this time?
Between the Gaffer, Props, and the Art Department, we create special hand plates for the actors to press against and use fancy remote-controlled LED lights to give the actors a kick on their face. That's really important to me, that the reactive light on the actors' faces is real. Nothing looks worse than trying to re-light someone in post. With the director I'm talking about the action.
This dome is a "character," -- it has a motivation, too, and we need to find it, understand it, and convey it on camera. And, naturally, I'm thinking about all those technical questions: what kind of data do I need to grab to help my team get this right in post?
Later, back in L.A., we'll watch a cut. The story has evolved and now we realize we have to see the dome in some way in this shot to help tell the story. But how do we see it? Is it like the Predator when he's invisible? Is it a little like glass? I listen, and I translate.
The Endless Thirst -- Pictured R-L: Mike Vogel as Barbie and Natalie Martinez as Deputy Linda. Photo: James Bridges.
With the artists, it's about creating a displacement pass in 3D that we can use with an iDistort node in NUKE, a spec pass for a glass look we can dial in, then using the HDRI that I shot to possibly cheat in some minor reflective element.
In the end, you'll see "the kids touch the dome and it glows" executed. It's on screen for 5 seconds, audiences love it, but they're not really thinking about how a few simple words that took seven "dialects" and six weeks to create. And if they aren't thinking about it, if they are enjoying the show, then I claim victory.
The point is, I speak to different departments in their native tongue, if and when I can. It's about doing my job, it's about respect, and it's about learning. There are so many wonderful cultures and dialects within the microcosm of creating a TV show, and it's important to respect them all and understand them.
Lastly, one important point, if I come across something I don't understand, something that is new to me (which happens all the time! It's wonderful!), I've found it's better to be honest about it. I don't pretend to understand. People in film and TV really appreciate it when you ask them how they are doing something; they have a lot of knowledge and are usually more than willing to teach you.
When I started at Encore four years ago as a compositor, the VFX division was smaller. It had grown up as something of an adjunct division to Encore's large post production operation and was doing strong work for shows including House MD, Castle, and Weeds, but it was a relatively small presence in the television VFX world.
When plans were being made to expand the VFX division, my boss, Encore VFX VP Tom Kendall, asked me to be Creative Director. Needless to say, I was flattered and took the gig very seriously. I also get a lot of support from Encore's executive staff, especially Executive VP Bill Romeo, and so many talented artists and producers. We've grown Encore VFX into a unit that's handling at least 30 TV shows at any one time.
It's a fascinating time in the industry now. The traditional separation between production and post is quickly disappearing. I think we'll see a time in the not-too-distant future when those distinctions are gone completely and it's all one organic thing.
Under the Dome has now hit the airwaves and it's a huge success. For me, it's a success because I know I'll leave with a greater knowledge of life, leadership, and creativity. And that's thanks to the cast, the crew, the producers, creators, directors... and, of course, Encore's very own VFX team, which teaches me something new every day.
Above and title graphic: From "The Endless Thirst" -- When the town begins to run low on water, the residents of Chester's Mill begin to fight for the remaining resources. Meanwhile, Julia discovers a strange connection that two of the town's residents have with the Dome, on UNDER THE DOME, Monday, July 29 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Rachelle Lefevre as Julia Shumway. Photo: Kent Smith. All images ©2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In our research for this story, we ran across a fantastic letter from Under the Dome author Stephen King, where he muses about keeping a production true to the original novel. King states, "For those of you out there in Constant Reader Land who are feeling miffed because the TV version of Under the Dome varies considerably from the book version, here's a little story."
You're going to love this... After all, there's no place like Dome. Read the rest of his letter here.