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Skitters And Mechs And Overlords, Oh My

Zoic Studios ups the ante for season three of Falling Skies on TNT.

By Christine Bunish

A menacing mech, an entirely CG character from Zoic, stalks the survivors.
A menacing mech, an entirely CG character from Zoic, stalks the survivors.

It has been called a family drama with aliens. Although Falling Skies tells the story of the aftermath of a global invasion by extraterrestrials and the survivors’ resistance to it, the TNT series is as much about former Boston University history professor Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and his relationship with his sons – one of whom was abducted by the aliens and later rescued by the Second Mass, a ragtag group of Massachusetts survivors fighting the alien adversaries. But that doesn’t mean the show comes up short on visual effects. Falling Skies is packed with VFX created by Zoic Studios, Vancouver (www.zoicstudios.com) – VFX that rival any big-screen production.

Created by Robert Rodat and produced by Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Television, Falling Skies was cable’s biggest series launch of 2011. Season one tied with American Horror Story on FX as the biggest new cable series of the year among the coveted demographic of adults 18-49. Now beginning its third season, Falling Skies is poised to introduce new alien creatures, which join “skitters” (green-skinned, six-legged beings), “mechs” (huge mechanical attack drones) and their more humanoid overlord masters in the repertoire of the otherworldly.

A Zoic animator works on a spider-like skitter, which also exists in animatronic suit form for close ups.
A Zoic animator works on a spider-like skitter, which also exists in animatronic suit form for close ups.

Zoic Studios, Vancouver, whose team of artists and animators has crafted VFX for the series since the pilot, was prepared to take Falling Skies to the next level this year with “more skitters, mechs, aliens and the world they’re building,” says VFX Supervisor and Partner Andrew Orloff. “We’ve been able to give the show a scope and scale that are orders of magnitude beyond season one because of the creative shorthand we’ve developed and the library of assets we’ve built along the way.”

Before the series launched, Zoic partnered with Falling Skies’ character design team, many of them veterans of Spielberg’s feature films. “They consulted with us about what would be cool, what was doable, and we fleshed out the characters and created their movements,” Orloff said. That kind of involvement has continued each season, most recently with a new robot character. “We had to figure out how its weapons work, how it walks and tracks, how to give the impression of a menacing war machine,” he explained.

At the start of each season, Zoic comes on board during the scripting stage and works closely with the writers and producers as each shot is planned and storyboarded. Production VFX Supervisor Curt Miller is on set for every VFX shot to ensure there’s enough space for the final CG creature, the camera composition is appropriate for the shot, and practical lights are in place.

Zoic’s VFX often combine with practical effects and prosthetic makeup devised by Todd Masters. “For us,” said Orloff, “it’s about creating and implementing the performances of these characters. It is really exciting to get in the heads of the creatures and make them a believable part of the show.”

An alien base, modeled and animated by Zoic, looms over the remnants of a city and suburbs in the aftermath of the invasion.An alien base, modeled and animated by Zoic, looms over the remnants of a city and suburbs in the aftermath of the invasion. An alien base, modeled and animated by Zoic, looms over the remnants of a city and suburbs in the aftermath of the invasion.
An alien base, modeled and animated by Zoic, looms over the remnants of a city and suburbs in the aftermath of the invasion.

Skitters and mechs and overlords, oh my

The chilling, spider-like skitters exist in both practical and CG worlds. “Sometimes the skitters are all CG, but in a lot of close ups, it’s an animatronic suit with a performer inside, seen from the waist up,” Orloff said. “We might augment the animatronic with an eye blink or add the six skitter legs – the performer sits on a wheeled stool. I think they only have two skitter suits, so for a big action sequence with multiple skitters we make digital doubles; all the skitter stunts are CG too. When CG and practical skitters exist side by side, cut by cut, it’s up to us to make sure viewers can’t tell the difference.”

Season two saw increased interaction between the main characters and the skitters, which tasked Zoic with “ensuring that we gave the actors a good emotional performance to match,” Orloff said. “We wanted to be certain that the characters we created carried the emotional impact of the scene equally. The skitters are not just evil monsters; they became involved in the day-to-day lives of the characters.”

A rebel skitter joins the Second Mass in the battle for survival.  Sometimes skitters are animatronic suits enhanced with Zoic’s CG, and sometimes they’re entirely Zoic’s CG characters.  Photo: TNT.
A rebel skitter joins the Second Mass in the battle for survival. Sometimes skitters are animatronic suits enhanced with Zoic’s CG, and sometimes they’re entirely Zoic’s CG characters. Photo: TNT.

The machine-like mechs, on the other hand, are completely CG, “except for the lights on their chests which spotlight the enemy – they’re sometimes practical,” he noted. “All the vehicles, alien bases and destroyed cities are digital, although the production shoots in some backlots with crumbling buildings.”

Viewers met the overlord character in season two when Tom voluntarily boarded his alien headquarters. With a very attenuated humanoid appearance, the overlord was a challenge for Zoic to create. “Because of its anatomy – very tall with out-of-proportion limbs – it was impossible to build a suit for a performer to wear,” Orloff said. “But the performance of the overlord needed to be very complex and nuanced; we needed to get the feel of a samurai, a feudal lord. There were a lot of scenes of Tom and the overlord arguing and in deep conversation, so we felt we really had to see a performance in there.”

  A mech shines its bright chest light to better home in on survivors.
  A mech shines its bright chest light to better home in on survivors.

The solution was to have motion capture drive the overlord’s performance. “We set up the motion capture so the episode director could direct the performer alongside Noah. Noah performed to an eyeline or another actor standing off side, and we projected Noah’s performance on a large wall in the mo cap studio and had the overlord performer react.”

The crustacean-like “harnesses,” biomechanical obedience devices that the aliens attached to the spines of captured children to control their minds, are generally practical effects. “But when you saw a harness factory in season two and the harnesses were creatures in their pre-connected state – that was our VFX,” said Orloff.

Myriad “creepy-crawlies” in the series are digital as well. “The things that crawled out of Jamal’s mouth in the basement in season two were CG,” Orloff continued. “The actor performed as if something horrible was happening when nothing was happening on set at all. It was a testament to him that he could reach that intense level of performance that we could key off [for the animation].”

The parasite that crawled out of Tom’s eye in season two and invaded his son Hal’s ear and eye in the season finale posed a number of challenges because of its close interaction with the actors. “We worked long and hard to figure out how to make the bug come out of the eye,” Orloff recalled. “We recreated the camera move and all the moving skin, making a digital proxy of the actor. It was super challenging – not exactly fun to do, but there’s something rewarding about making people squirm!”

The Zoic team goes through numerous VFX shot review sessions with the directors and producers. “A lot of times, it’s an important gauge to see what their reaction is,” said Orloff. “We can get snow blind from repetition after repetition. So it’s good to have the touchstone of other people’s reactions to make sure we hit that dramatic note.”

Zoic also does extensive postvis working with editorial to temp creatures into all the scenes.

A Mega Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, poses new dangers for the survivors.  Photo: TNT.
A Mega Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, poses new dangers for the survivors. Photo: TNT.

Cochise is a member of the Volm, a new alien race introduced in season three, whose full 3D shots and digital doubles were done by Zoic.  Photo: TNT.
Cochise is a member of the Volm, a new alien race introduced in season three, whose full 3D shots and digital doubles were done by Zoic. Photo: TNT.

Upping the ante every season

Orloff said Zoic has been “really pleased and excited” about creating “a lot of new creatures, alien technology and structures this season. We’ve been involved with the creative process with Steven [Spielberg] and the designers. We don’t meet with Steven on a regular basis, but he gives notes on every shot in every episode we do. We get direct feedback. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for a CG artist to work with Steven, even if it’s two stages removed by email.”

Each season “has been a one-up of the previous season,” not only in terms of the quantity of VFX shots, but also the degree of interaction between the CG and the characters, Orloff continued. “In season one, the survivors were always in a battle or at arm’s length from the aliens,” he pointed out. “Then the characters became more sophisticated in the way they fought back, and there was more interaction between the VFX elements and the actors. We had to create more complex segments with the same realistic feel as the rest of the show. In season three, you can expect a lot more in-depth exploration of the world of Falling Skies.”

Colin Cunningham (left) leads The Berserkers who join up with the Second Mass survivors.  Photo: James Dittiger.
Colin Cunningham (left) leads The Berserkers who join up with the Second Mass survivors. Photo: James Dittiger.

Not all of the VFX for the show are related to alien creatures and structures. There’s a considerable amount of more conventional VFX work in every episode, too. “The environment everywhere is battle-scarred, so we extend sets and augment damage to the environment,” said Orloff. “We add muzzle flashes, and if there’s a new bomb, missile or gun, we implement how that technology works. The blue muzzle flashes from the mechs’ machine guns can get quite complicated. Fans will see more eye candy of this nature in season three.”

Since the survivors move from place to place on the show “there are a lot of greenscreen driving” shots involving vehicles of all kinds. Although a wide range of locations has been found in the Vancouver area, matte paintings and virtual environments also are deployed “so the environment you see on screen conforms to the script.”

A menacing Mega Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, sets its sights on the survivors. Photo: TNT.
A menacing Mega Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, sets its sights on the survivors. Photo: TNT.

Hiding from mechs marching along the crest of a ridge. Photo: TNT.
Hiding from mechs marching along the crest of a ridge. Photo: TNT.

Zoic’s work was split between its LA and Vancouver studios for the first two seasons, but for season three all of the VFX are based in Vancouver. “I moved up here to grow this office,” Orloff said. “All told, we have 35-40 really talented people working on the show.”

Shots are allocated according to artists’ strengths. “Some are very good at robots, some at alien architecture or spacecraft,” he said. “We give shots to those who specialize in each area; you need a lot of expertise in these fields.”

Unlike the post-production for many network shows, which continues through the season, often running right up to an episode’s air date, Zoic finished season three of Falling Skies just before the episode’s debut.

A Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, sets its sights on the survivors. Photo: TNT.
A Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, sets its sights on the survivors. Photo: TNT.

Establishing an efficient pipeline

At the core of VFX production for Falling Skies are Autodesk Maya for 3D animation, The Foundry’s Nuke for 2D compositing and Chaos Group’s V-Ray for rendering. But it’s the proprietary Zoic File Browser (ZFB) and Studio Manager that ensure a smooth and efficient workflow.

“We wrote ZFB, our management and integration software, as a front end to Shotgun,” said Orloff. “With tight deadlines like this, we have to make sure we share files easily, and updates are propagated quickly through the system. When we make assignments with ZFB, files go directly to the artist within the software they’re working on.”

Studio Manager “gives an overview of everything that’s going on in the facility for every show: the current published version of a shot, notes, changes, what’s been sent to the render farm,” he explained.

Will Patton as Captain Weaver (left) leads the Second Mass survivors in their struggle against the aliens.  Photo: James Dittiger.
Will Patton as Captain Weaver (left) leads the Second Mass survivors in their struggle against the aliens. Photo: James Dittiger.

In developing these custom tools, Zoic has “concentrated on creating efficiencies and reducing friction in the pipeline,” Orloff emphasized. “This enables artists to concentrate more on the artistic part of their work instead of figuring out where their stuff is. We couldn’t have done a show of this magnitude on the schedule we have three or four years ago.”

By necessity, Zoic’s artists and animators apply their talents to a particular shot simultaneously. “We don’t have the luxury of a film project where the pipeline is linear,” Orloff said. Animators, lighters and compositors work concurrently, and versions of shots are published as soon as an artist makes his contribution since what he does likely ripples into other disciplines.

Once shots are approved, a DNx QuickTime package is sent to the editors in Los Angeles. “We’re in tight communication with them,” Orloff said. “We use cineSync for creative reviews and do a lot of Skyping and conference calls.”

A Mega Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, is a new threat for the survivors.  Photo: TNT.
A Mega Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, is a new threat for the survivors. Photo: TNT.

A Mega Mech, animated by Zoic for season three, is a new threat for the survivors.  Photo: TNT.
Noah Wyle and Sarah Carter on horseback in season two of Falling Skies. Photo: James Dittiger.

He conceded that it’s no secret that the broadcast VFX portion of the industry is asked to work faster and cheaper than those working on motion pictures. But at the same time, the sophistication of the television audience means their expectations are not much different from audiences for feature films.

The ability to revisit assets and continually improve them is key to keeping viewers happy. According to Orloff, “We’re constantly iterating, changing, and tweaking our assets over time. We have the opportunity to ‘reconceptualize’ and try new things. We didn’t stop working on the skitters after the pilot. We’re always improving our assets so by the time we get to season three or four we’re really dialed in on how to make a great-looking skitter or mech.”

Zoic does not have infinite time to massage assets, however. “We have to use the extra wiggle room in the schedule wisely,” Orloff said. “The producers, directors and execs have been really smart about how to use that time. Telling great stories is still the goal.”