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VFX in TV Series: CSI and Warehouse 13 Wow Viewers with VFX

Zoic Studios and Keyframe Digital deliver VFX grounded in reality and springing from the imagination for a landmark network TV series and one of cable’s highest-rated newcomers

By Christine Bunish

CSI, Warehouse 13 Effects

Clockwise starting at top left: Robbers set off a chain of events frozen in time by Zoic Studios for CSI’s season 10 opener.; The effects-intensive umbilicus shot ended the first season of Warehouse 13.; Rik Shorten, VFX supervisor at Zoic Studios, has worked on CSI since season five.; Instruments spill from a cart during a corridor chase in CSI’s ‘frozen moment’ opener created by Zoic Studios.

CSI Captures Frozen Moment
Although the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is beginning its eleventh season on CBS, the groundbreaking criminal forensics series is definitely not in a visual effects rut. Los Angeles-based Zoic Studios (www.zoicstudios.com), which has been the VFX provider for the show since season five and helps with the Miami and New York spin-offs as needed, recently netted a Visual Effects Society award for its ‘frozen moment’ season 10 opener (see photos) and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Series for the amazing, no-cuts 2:20 sequence, the biggest Zoic has ever done for a series.

Zoic Studios' David Bryant
Zoic Studios’ David Bryant performing 3D tracking for a shot on CSI.

“We’ve been able to create a lot more cinematic shots in seasons 10 and 11 because the hardware and render power have caught up to the TV delivery model,” reports Zoic VFX supervisor Rik Shorten. “We do eight to thirty VFX shots per episode for twenty-four episodes a year. As you get into the delivery schedule there’s not a lot of breathing room: It usually takes two weeks to deliver that quality and quantity of shots.”

Zoic used to become involved with developing VFX shots for CSI during script breakdowns. But at the end of last season the studio started to be called in at the outline stage, a process that continues with season 11. “It has taken us five seasons to be included as creative partners so early in the writing stage. I think it’s unique,” says Shorten. “We’re excited about the opportunity to collaborate at such an early stage. The producers want the VFX to be a character in the show again.” Now Shorten and his CG lead Derek Smith accompany co-producer and director Brad Tannenbaum to pitch the director and writers at the script outline stage. “It’s very gratifying when we get the first draft and see what we pitched has been written in,” he reports.

Zoic Studios
Zoic Studios’ Tom Bremer, Derek Smith and Christina Spring put finishing touches on an episode of CSI.

Every episode includes signature ‘CSI shots’ where, for example, the camera follows a bullet through the victim’s heart and sees how it ricochets through the body. “We have to come up with the concepts and then shoot all the elements we’ll need to create these dynamic shots,” Shorten explains. “They expect us to create a visual roadmap for them.” All shots “have a basis in the real practical science and process,” he emphasizes, even if time periods are compressed for TV viewing. “We only have three to 10 seconds to tell the story with the voiceover and keep viewers engaged.” Zoic taps the show’s crime lab consultants and calls specialists for advice as needed. “I have a full library of the inner workings of the human body,” Shorten points out. “We’ve all learned more about bodily fluids than we want to know.”

CSI’s high-concept ‘frozen moment’ shot was inspired by a two-minute Philips LCD TV commercial for Europe that executive producer Naren Shankar saw on the web; the camera flew through a bank robbery gone wrong and the resulting gun fight. “We’d done smaller frozen moments before, usually panning through one moment,” Shorten says. “For CSI, we were multiplying that by ten, flying through multiple environments in the lab, transitioning from the robbery and muzzle flash to flying bullets, people crashing through glass walls, the getaway van. We’re pausing the action to see what happens. The teaser pays off in realtime later in the show.”

Although frozen moments can be recorded with several techniques, Zoic put a Black Widow/Kuper Controls motion-control rig on the Universal Studios set and did a lot of “old-school prep” with props and actors using monofilament, harnesses and supports to capture characters and their wardrobe and hair (“we used a lot of hairspray,” Shorten quips) in mid-action on 35mm film over a three-day shoot. Motion-control passes were shot with and without actors, with pyro and interactive lighting. “Then we stitched all the camera traveling together, cleaned up any subtle movements that would have ruined the shot, and put in the CG exploding glass, medical instruments in mid-air, flying bullets, Bunsen burner flames.” he explains.

Flying Lab Equipment
Lab equipment tumbles from shelves amidst shards of broken glass in Zoic Studios’ ‘frozen moment’ that opened CSI season 10.

“Shooting the plates and elements and doing the CG took about six weeks, we could only have done it for the first episode before air dates caught up with us,” he notes. “When we talked about the shot at the Visual Effects Society, the fact that we did something of that cinematic level for a TV show, with a TV budget and schedule, was what impressed people. It was a huge challenge, an adventure!”

NewTek’s LightWave 3D is Zoic’s primary CG software with Autodesk Maya and Pixar’s RenderMan deployed for particles and fluid simulations. “LightWave has a reputation as a good hard-surface tool for planes, trains and automobiles, but we’re using it for organics,” he notes. The studio has compiled a huge volumedic medical database of human-body scans that allows artists to quickly source and build shots. “The data sets, designed for medical research, are so huge that we’ve had to trim them and break them out for our use,” Shorten says. “Sometimes we need to jerry rig something from outside the industry to make it work in our pipeline. You take unconventional solutions and make them work for what you need.”

Zoic is currently crafting a “high-adrenaline teaser” for the first episode of season 11 “with the same sort of wow moments” as the ‘frozen moment’ shot. Shorten promises that CSI will “take the gloves off” for VFX this year. “We really want to stay relevant. The series has inspired other shows in the genre, and I hope this year we’ll reinvent how to tell stories while continuing to take the work we do to a new level.”

Warehouse 13 Agents
Secret Service agents Myka Bering (Joanne
Kelly) and Pete Lattimer (Eddie McClintock)
between artifact hunts at Warehouse 13.

Warehouse 13 Ups the VFX Ante
When Warehouse 13 debuted on the Syfy Network last summer, viewers were introduced to a mysterious repository in the Badlands where historic and dangerous artifacts (think Alice Through the Looking Glass’s mirror, Sylvia Plath’s typewriter, Volta’s lab coat) that can affect the people and environments around them are housed. Each week Pete Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) and Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly), Secret Service agents attached to the warehouse, are tasked with collecting new artifacts that are wreaking havoc in small towns and big cities worldwide.

From the vast warehouse itself, which appears to stretch to infinity, to the bizarre artifacts and their powerful attributes, episodes are packed with VFX. Keyframe Digital Productions in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario (www.keyframe.ca), came on board to develop and create the show’s visual effects after the pilot and is currently in the midst of season two. Each show features the warehouse interior and exterior, the vintage-style Farnsworth communications device, the agents’ defensive Tesla Gun, plus the artifact-of-the-day. VFX shots easily surpass 200 per episode in season two, reports Darren Cranford, Keyframe’s president and co-founder with Clint Green and the show’s VFX producer. “We’re about halfway through the season with tons of CG, comps, facial replacements, you name it. We have a huge episode coming up with over 300 VFX shots. And the end of the season will be even bigger. But all the effects are story-driven. There are no VFX for VFX sake.”

Keyframe usually has a lot of latitude in developing the VFX. The infinite scope of the warehouse was established in the pilot but the studio continues to enrich it using Autodesk 3ds Max. Keyframe blueprints its grid pattern and assigns new rooms, such as the Dark Vault and Bronzing Room, to spaces in the structure’s supports so they can be seen again when the camera flies by the same spot in future episodes.

“The warehouse is real geometry, not a matte painting. The polygon count is in the millions upon millions,” Cranford reveals. “There’s all kinds of eye candy in the warehouse for fans: the Hindenburg hanging from the ceiling, Easter Island heads, the Trojan Horse, a perpetually-moving lighthouse and windmill. It’s probably one of the largest scenes in TV.” Keyframe also reprised the look of the Farnsworth from the pilot but season two may see some tweaks as brilliant young Claudia Donovan (Allison Scagliotti) attempts to update it. “She’s playing with the idea of color [on the device’s primitive video screen] but so far we’re keeping the steampunk feel and sepia tone,” Cranford says. “Farnsworth composites can be quite a challenge. A lipstick camera captures the moving actor’s image but the handheld Farnsworth is also moving with changing reflections and tracking. The screens are rounded, too, so we have to bend images to fit.”

The cliffhanger last episode of season one and the first episode of season two featured many dynamic VFX. The 20-second giant pull-out revealing the aftermath of the explosion that destroyed the umbilicus tunnel and, presumably, warehouse director Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), showed Pete and Myka framed in a doorway to nowhere encircled by live smoke. Keyframe’s VFX lead Darren Locke used Sitni Sati’s FumeFX software to track the scene as the camera moved back and added 3D explosions, debris, fire and smoke. Later, FumeFX also reconstituted Artie, saved by the phoenix artifact in his pocket.

Greenscreen Shot
The scene where Claudia perches atop a step stool to repair the warehouse zip line was shot greenscreen. Final Scene
Keyframe extended the warehouse set, as seen in the final composite. Wireframe of Shot
A wireframe shows the scene’s CG elements.

In the same episode Claudia morphed to Bed & Breakfast manager Leena (Genelle Williams) who’s under the spell of the evil MacPherson. The actors were shot on greenscreen and morphed in stages with Autodesk Combustion and Adobe After Effects; a glowing, almost thread-like element, inspired by the supernatural thimble that enables the transformation was created in 3ds Max. It spiraled up around Claudia bringing on Leena “more organically” than a conventional morph.

Combustion’s “really robust paint program” gave MacPherson the bronzing that only momentarily interred him; it was reversed but when his protective crystal necklace was torn off and his blood began to boil, the villain crumbled into ashes. “We scanned actor Roger Rees’s head and body and made a 3D head for him,” Cranford recalls. “Senior VFX artist Rex Alerta comped effects onto the Roger underneath using (Andersson Technologies’) SynthEyes to track moving textures of the blood boiling under his skin and dialing it up as he went along. We added 3D ashes falling off his hair and burns and disintegrated his whole body in a 3D particle mass.”

What makes it possible for Keyframe to deliver so many high-quality VFX shots on a TV schedule? “Lots of coffee, and we only hire people who don’t require any sleep,” he quips. “Our greatest asset is not our computers and software but the artists who come up with the ideas,” he adds in a more serious vein. “Executive producer Jack Kenny understands the effects process and doesn’t make unreasonable requests. When we send him effects for approval he sends back notes within an hour, it’s why we’re able to turn things around so quickly.”

The fact that Warehouse 13 shoots in Toronto with RED One cameras has also made a “huge impact” on turnaround time, Cranford points out. “Clint [Green] can be on set and ask the RED technician to grab frames, and he’ll hand him a USB for our matte artist who’s building and matching the set. The RED tech can output any format or file for us which gives us a huge jump on the process.” Greenscreen shots come out “especially nice with RED,” he adds. “There’s hardly any grain whatsoever, it’s a godsend.”

Cranford promises many wow moments before season two finishes airing. “We have an effects-generated character in the same show as a character fully-treated with VFX,” he says. “The writers have always wanted to write these types of stories but have been restrained by what VFX have been able to do. Now the writers can write for themselves knowing we can support them. Their stories are top-notch. We’re just complementing what’s already there.”

VFX lead Darren Locke
Keyframe’s VFX lead Darren Locke is busy with the intricate cliffhanger shot of the destroyed umbilicus for Warehouse 13 (wireframe seen below).


December 10, 2012