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Legacy Effects Populates Pandora

By Christine Bunish

Color character designs of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana); Adobe Photoshop by Joe Pepe.
Color character designs of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana); Adobe Photoshop by Joe Pepe.

Much like the motion picture industry that builds on its hundred-plus year heritage by constantly embracing the new, Legacy Effects (www.legacyefx.com) adds to the pedigree of its antecedent, Stan Winston Studio, by continually broadening its capabilities and taking on new challenges, most recently James Cameron’s multi Oscar-nominee Avatar and Tim Burton’s long-awaited Alice in Wonderland.

When legendary special effects artist Stan Winston died in June 2008, four key players at his studio — John Rosengrant, Alan Scott, Lindsay MacGowan and Shane Mahan — incorporated Legacy Effects to complete work in progress and take on new projects.

“Over the years we became FX supervisors who helped Stan run the studio day in day out,” says Rosengrant. “Stan was our mentor and friend. We learned so much from him, not just the technical aspects of the business — he was such an innovator — but how to turn this into a business. Stan’s whole approach was to serve as an extension of the director and the production, to have them think of the studio as a valuable member in the filmmaking process.”

Winston achieved that goal netting four Academy Awards in the process for Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (two Oscars) and Jurassic Park.

Young Na'vi man color character design; Adobe Photoshop by Joe Pepe.
Young Na’vi man color character design;
Adobe Photoshop by Joe Pepe.

Rosengrant and Mahan joined Stan Winston Studio at virtually the same time in 1983 when Winston was working on the original Terminator. MacGowan joined after he teamed with Winston on Aliens at London’s Pinewood Studios, and Scott came on board during T2 in 1990. Today they are partners in the San Fernando, California-based Legacy Effects and act as FX supervisors on projects. The company provides 2D/3D design and development of creatures and characters, maquettes and prototyping, animatronics, makeup effects and props.

For Avatar, the biggest-grossing motion picture of all time, Legacy supplied extensive design work and was instrumental in designing the Na’vi, a race of striped, blue-skinned humanoids, and crafting specialty props, including the amazing Amp Suit, a kind of walking battle armor. The film reunited the Legacy creatives with James Cameron who was making his first feature in a dozen years.

“When the first Terminator became a hit it established the relationship between Stan Winston Studio and Jim Cameron,” Rosengrant explains. “Then Jim’s Aliens and Terminator 2 helped put us on the map and gave us other opportunities. What we did with the Queen Alien proved we could tackle Jurassic Park.”

Scott Patton's digital design sculpts showing Jake's (Sam Worthington) facial expressions in his
Scott Patton’s digital design sculpts showing Jake’s (Sam Worthington) facial expressions in
his “warrior” look.

At the core of all of Legacy’s work is character design. “It’s the backbone of everything we do,” Rosengrant emphasizes. “We always try to create iconic characters that will be remembered and stand out. We’re not so much creating effects but creating characters: That was Stan’s success and where we’re following up. Although the majority of work today may be done digitally, as with Avatar, we feel we bring a lot to the table by designing the characters. They can be full-scale, interactive puppets; hybrids that are part puppet and part CG; special effects makeup; old-fashioned working props; and specialty props like the Amp Suit.”

For Avatar Cameron had a creative design team at his Lightstorm facility but, “he invited us to join the team because of his relationship with Stan,” says Rosengrant who began supervising the film’s designs and effects in the fall of 2006. Over the course of the almost three-year period everything was designed on Pandora: every plant, nut and bolt, weapon, character and creature. Stan Winston Studio and Legacy were integral to designing the Na’vi, the six-legged direhorses that the Na’vi ride, and the viperwolf, and fleshing out the head of the pterodactyl-like banshee. The Amp Suit, Cryo-Vault Chamber, Scorpion and Valkyrie cockpits “were elaborate set pieces we constructed to function in the real-world set,” he reveals.

“Jim has quite the vision,” Rosengrant notes. “Everything stems from his imagination, and he’s very hands on. For the Na’vi characters Jim had his own sketches and ideas that ended up being in that zone. One of the things we brought to the mix was the ability to incorporate the facial characteristics of the actor playing the part into the design. It was very important to see Jake as an avatar, to recognize him in it. And Wes Studi has such a great face; we blended him into the Na’vi leader so the personality of the actor was in there. This enhances the performance greatly.”

Digital design sculpts of Grace (Sigourney Weaver) by Scott Patton.

To accomplish this Legacy made “old-school life casts” of the actors’ faces and took “batteries of photographs” over which they Photoshopped many variations of the Na’vi look — “with a broader nose, more intense blue coloring, different hairstyles. Jim had a lot of choices,” Rosengrant smiles.

Technology continued to evolve during the three years Avatar was in production, and toward the end of that time “we were designing completely differently than we were at the start,” he notes. “In the beginning of the design process we did hand sketches and Photoshop renderings then made old-fashioned sculptures. But by the end 3D sculptural technology had really changed. Some sculptural programs started to catch up with what we needed to do; they became more and more user friendly and adaptable to our needs.”

Specifically, beta versions of Pixologic’s ZBrush “really changed how we work,” Rosengrant reports. “ZBrush really turned into a useful tool for us; it’s very intuitive for a sculptor to use. After having used life casts of the actors early on to create the Na’vis, ZBrush caught up to the point where we could take certain scans of actors, import them into the program, sculpt them digitally and output them.”

The specialty prop Amp Suit.
The specialty prop Amp Suit.

Softimage XSI “is a great program, too,” he adds. “XSI is better on machine-like surfaces, and ZBrush for is better for more organic things. We might rough out a shape in ZBrush, import it to XSI to clean it up and make it more mechanical then import it back into ZBrush.”

Rosengrant notes that Legacy is “developing a language of how these software programs serve us in our world. They weren’t exactly designed for what we do; we’ve morphed them. When we beta test software we explain to those writing the code what would be useful for what we do. We show people what can be done with their software. Sometimes they say, ‘Really? You’re doing what with it?’ We’re paving the way in a new digital world.”

He finds that “what’s neat about 3D sculpture, especially when the characters will ultimately be CG, is that you bring your character creative skills to bear, sculpt them in 3D and the director gets to see what they look like and how they move in the real world in a day instead of weeks. Then we can rapid prototype parts out almost overnight and paint them.”

Rapid prototyping is done with a 3D printer-style device that can take computer files and build objects in solid resin, a single 1/6,000th-inch layer at a time. “The way we use it, to grow things inhouse, is kind of our own,” says Rosengrant. “We still work with service bureaus, too. We turn over files and they grow or mill foam parts for big things, like the Amp Suit, then we texture them and add details to finish them off.”

Joe Pepe and Chris Swift's Photoshop character design of a crouching female Na'vi.
Joe Pepe and Chris Swift’s Photoshop character design of a crouching female Na’vi.

Full-size versions of the Na’vi were used on set for lighting references for CG and to provide useful eyelines for the actors. “They’re good tools for lighting passes and to establish actor eyelines,” says Rosengrant. “Stan always said the best acting comes from reacting, and we like to help get the best performances.”

For the Amp Suit Legacy created a 13.5-foot version and another version broken into segments for shooting purposes so “you could climb into it or put the cockpit on a motion base or add CG arms,” he explains. Although some wide shots of the Amp Suit that required dynamic motion were fully-CG, the specialty prop Amp Suit “helped anchor the actors in the real world. Actually getting into something can help your performance.”

Rosengrant estimates there were 200-300 parts in the Amp Suit which boasted a full interior and lights. Legacy took the cockpit files to an aircraft glass factory that draped the authentic-looking canopy. “It was the only proper way to get the right look,” he points out. “There are also some unique nuts and bolts in there that you may not see but Jim knows are there.”

Hair tech Justin Ditter with practical character design bust.
Hair tech Justin Ditter with practical character
design bust.

Although Stan Winston Studio made its reputation in feature films, about one-third of Legacy’s business today is effects for commercials. “Stan didn’t do commercials until I started looking at the market four or five years ago,” recalls Alan Scott. “Stan gave us all kinds of freedom and opportunities; he was all for doing commercials as long as it didn’t cost us anything to move into spots. I always thought there would be plenty of work out there.”

The company’s entry into the commercial arena was the celebrated Budweiser frogs for director Gore Verbinski. “We did a few spots here and there, then I started taking an active role looking for them,” says Scott. “We went from maybe five a year to 40 to 240 commercials last year.”

Commercials are a logical extension of Legacy’s feature effects abilities, Rosengrant points out. “They keep a core group of people constantly working and refining their skills. You have to wrap your head around solving problems quickly while maintaining a high bar of artistic excellence.”

Scott remembers that initially “the way we did things for features didn’t lend itself to the time frame and budget of commercials. But we learned to be much more efficient and inventive. That has translated, in turn, to our work in film production where budgets are getting smaller and turnaround time is shrinking.”

Still, it was a challenge to learn how to deliver “the same caliber work we were accustomed to doing” for less time, less money and more layers of approval, Scott concedes. But once the company mastered the learning curve word spread that commercials were now part of its repertoire.

“It wasn’t a good business plan to be just a big blockbuster effects shop,” Scott points out. “We weren’t consciously planning to diversify, but that’s what it was. One producer told me, ‘If we had any idea we could get your caliber of effects for commercials, we’d have turned to you years ago.’ We’ve battled the preconceived notion that we only do big-budget movies, but expanding to commercials has opened doors to new clients for us.”

Concept art for the direhorse; Clay maquette (inset) by Chris Swift; color paint over in Adobe Photoshop by Joe Pepe.
Concept art for the direhorse; Clay maquette (inset) by Chris Swift; color paint over in Adobe Photoshop
by Joe Pepe.

Legacy has lent its talents to the long-running Aflac campaign from Kaplan Thaler/NY, an amazing case study in building brand recognition among TV viewers. “The commercials use a blend of live ducks, CG and our puppet duck,” Scott reveals. “They try to get as much as they can from the live duck, then they call us. When we reach our limits they go digital.”

Legacy also does character design and makeup for Bigfoot in the ongoing Jack Links beef jerky “Messin’ with Sasquatch” campaign from Carmichael Lynch/Minneapolis and helped create the iconic King character for Burger King agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky/Miami.

Most recently the company crafted a new series of Nike commercials for Wieden+Kennedy/Portland, Oregon featuring the Kobe and LeBron puppets; a pair of spots for Bungie from T.A.G/San Francisco for its Halo 3 and ODST Xbox 360 games which required armor, helmets, weapons, and a giant monster fashioned as props and animatronic puppets; plus Super Bowl commercials for Bridgestone, Kia Sorrento, and Intel.

“The same artists who designed for Avatar get to work on Nike or Jack Links,” Scott explains. “They like the immediate gratification of commercials; they get to see their work on the air in a couple of weeks.” Legacy also sends the artists on-set to operate the puppets they design and to do the makeup they devise. “We provide that kind of continuity,” says Scott. “And everything gets stored here for future use. A lot of clients reprise them for sales meetings and personal appearances.”

While bolstering its roster of commercials Legacy also completed effects last year for the features Terminator Salvation, Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Shutter Island, and Tim Burton’s soon-to-release Alice in Wonderland. Led by Shane Mahan, the company also furnished effects for Iron Man 2, due out in May. “It was neat to have the opportunity to build on the work we did for the original Iron Man, which was so successful, and streamline and improve things for the sequel,” says Rosengrant.

Joe Pepe's Photoshop character design of Eytukan (Wes Studi).
Joe Pepe’s Photoshop character design of
Eytukan (Wes Studi).

Features on deck are Thor, based on the Marvel Comics character, and John Carter of Mars, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 11-volume “Barsoom” series written in the early 20th century. “We’re designing the creatures for John Carter and are very proud of our work — it’s going to be fabulous,” Rosengrant predicts.

While much of what Legacy does remains rooted in the tangible, practical world, Rosengrant is quick to point out that “digital is our friend. It doesn’t replace what we do, it enhances it. We’re always looking to add tools to our toolbox.”

But he emphasizes that underlying everything at Legacy is a “marvelous collective of people who make everything happen. We’re fortunate to have such a talented group of artists, artisans and fabricators working for us.”

More than a year-and-a-half after Stan Winston’s death, his influence continues to be felt at Legacy in a most important way. “Whenever we deliver something we ask, ‘Does this meet Stan’s bar (of excellence)?'” says Rosengrant. “Stan imparted so many gifts to us, and we try to uphold his standard in everything we do.”

December 21, 2012