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Zoic Studios Talks VFX For “The Chronicles Of Sarah Connor”

In January of 2008, Fox aired the pilot episode of their new series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, nabbing some of the highest ratings ever seen by the network. The pilot episode pushed the limits of visual effects for television, with Zoic Studios at the helm. Taking into account the previous two movies (Terminator 3 doesn’t exist in episodic arc), and huge fan base of the franchise, Zoic Studios proved that Terminator could live on TV.

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VFXtalk moderator, Saeed Faridzadeh, was able to organize a video interview with some the VFX crew on the pilot episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles; a VFXtalk exclusive. VFX Supervisor Jim Lima was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his involvement with the new Series. Also in the video, Lead Compositor, Lane Jolly, gives away some the secrets that help the team achicve the realistic look of the iconic killing machine, in his talk about compositing, passes, and issues they had to work around. 3d artists Steve Graves, and Lee Carlton where are generous to sit down with us and talk about their involvement with the show.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles
From the creators of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines comes The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Set after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day the Connors find themselves being stalked by Skynet’s agents from the future. Realizing their nightmare isn’t over, they decide to stop running and focus on preventing the birth of Skynet. VFXTalk is pleased to bring you this exclusive interview with the Team at ZOIC Studios who helped to make the awesome graphics you find in the series a reality!

Zoic Studios – Visual Evolution in VFX
Zoic is a company of accomplished artists and producers who understand story, process, and relationships. Our team has a proven record of success. They are masters in their fields of 3D, Compositing, and Production Management. Their reputations, in turn, attract additional talent and encourage a strong work ethic.

Jim Lima It was an initial meeting here with the executive producers David Netter, Josh Freedman the writer, and James Middleton, executive producer, who also came up with the idea of doing Terminator as a TV series.

There are certain iconic elements in our society that you can say that this is part of the modern mythology of our times and Terminator fits into that, it part of our language, it part of our slang, and it also part of, the kind of foundation of where science fiction films and books and television kind of extrapolate from, and so yes the first reaction was, you can’st blow this, you can not blow this.

The Nuke Blast

Steve Graves The Nuke Blast was a big sequence, and I can’st remember the guys name who did the initial blast, I think he used blast code in Maya to blow the building up, that was all done with that. As far as 2D, a lot of it was 2D stuff, alot of debris flying by, and you know what not, a lot of it was 2D.

Lane Jolly Amongst, especially the building explosion, when CG came in it was mainly at the point right when the action starts, you see the bomb go off in the background you see a shockwave come through the building, that when the actual building was projected onto a CG geometry, which then it was ripped apart, so as the CG guy made the ‘building exploding’ I animated a mask to reveal the CG. So I just used that as a cover to translate between the two.

The building was broken down really, like into two passes, the main pass that really helped was the depth pass which allowed me to put in smoke and dust and grade elements, indepth where I see fit, that would help to get the shot to look right, glass blowing up, elements

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The skin ripping off shot was pretty fun, because we had to go from a guy to a terminator in like ten frames, and it nukable so it going to hit him really hard, so we got a nice fire at camera element that comes round behind him and we got a bunch of little fire elements to come out of his insides and like air pockets that pop open and burn up and we had Bob Shappen to do lots of different passes of a stand in skeleton which had the skin texture, like crackly texture all over it, skin pieces ripping off like fire elements coming off in CG we just integrated all those together with animated mattes and morphs to get it to look like its burning him from all around.

Yeah there was a lot of real fire elements integrated with CG fire and spots, mostly real fire elements were all over him, coming off all over him which I placed, little explosions coming off, which I scaled down to make them look like tiny little fires blowing off and those were all re-timed to give it some more whippiness and flames and massive gust with the explosion coming out of him.

The Terminator

The fundamental thing about the endoskeleton is that bipedal tank. It has to look like it made up from the same kind of skeletal structure as a human being it has to fit within the same kind of flesh wetsuit that you and I fit into, that all of us fit into, and that is the human skeletal structure with muscle mass and skin.

So when I looked at it in terms of upgrading the design I looked at several things, one is the first read I wanted is that when fans saw the show they would look at it and go – “that’s a Terminator”, and as the Terminator comes closer to frame you realize, wait a minute that a little bit different , so we were looking at the design from an engineering story, an engineering point of view and upgrading it so that it made sense to the design of the Terminator, folded that into when you look at it, it a Terminator and it didn’st change that much it just got upgraded.

Steve Graves What we do is, Jim Leeman when he was on set in New Mexico, took out these little chrome balls, got us all of our HDRs for us, so once we had that, the Terminator is already textured so we’re ready to start lighting so that when we apply our HDR and what I’ll usually do is I will light with my main key, get the main key lit, and our fill pass we’ll use our HDRs for our fill pass, so we can give our comp artist a lot of control over it.

I’ll use an HDR for the reflection pass and I also use it for my fill pass so I can get some nice colours into the film. It mapped onto a sphere and we’sll put luminosity onto the sphere and crank up, if we’sre light we’sll use HDR exposure, we’sll crank up, we’sll mess with the whites and the blacks and get what we need out of it. It a hit or miss thing with the Terminator. Sometimes you can take ten minutes you can light him and he looks great and sometimes it might take four or five hours.

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Lee Carton Realise, your beauty pass, your – all in one’s render out, is the least important of your passes. You know realizing that you need to do like a speculative pass, a reflection pass, a lighting pass, a matte pass, like you know, a red, green, blue, full iluminous pass; the compositor has that power. Because at the end of the day the full end power lies with the compositor, and how well they are put together. As a 3D artist your compositor ends up being your partner in the show, because you want to give him or her enough tools to do the job, because don’st ever expect that your beauty pass is going to end it, because no one does that.

Lane Jolly To create the shot where the Terminator is looking at the camera, like full, full face we had our normal passes, RGB which is flat colour, the diff pass which is our raw key light, the fill pass inclusion plus the raw colour, the reflection pass, then there is the speculative pass. What I did was put all the passes together, so RGB, diff, fill, reflection, spec. Diff gets put flat on, everything else is screened, graded. Once that all made you go back to the fill, and you can crush it, or turn it black and white. That gets piped into the reflection spec, that way the speculative value is dim, and they go through a dirty patch, it looks like it not really doing it but it looks like it when you comp it together.

It the same with the reflection, it gets knocked out like dirty areas, so it will be shining on the metal and those grungy parts won’st be as reflective, so it will break up the monotony and the perfectness of the CG rendering.

The Red Eye

Steve Graves In the pilot it was like 6 or 7 passes, now for the series we’ve got it down to 3 passes. So basically what it is, our render on a black terminator and red eye interior is like a cylinder that goes in the back of the eye

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The next pass will be the matte, which looks like a little schematic, and you know you see a little ring on the front of the Terminator’s eye, that will be matte black and white pass and we render for that, and then we’sve got an interactive eye pass, so we’d get the little interactive red around the eye sockets, so we’ve got it down pretty fast.

The Time Bubble

Jim Lima The Chrono sphere how it arrives is, you watch the arrival on the highway, it has a very specific arrival, you know where it starts off as a singularity, where it this one atom, this one point where it burning mass out and expanding in a very violent way till it reaches a point where it this kind of critical mass and it has a little kind of semi nuke reaction to it. There this one frame on the highway where we are kind of looking down at the traffic and you actually see a shockwave go through.

Lee Carton The colour of the bubble was very simple, it was more or less a sphere that we completed in a moto package, you know very simple, but we did extra work on it in Lightwave, our 3D animation package that we tend to prefer to render out of, we had a displacement map, you know with a fracton displacement where it kind of runs down the bubble itself to give it a bit of movement, stuff like that, and you know, multiple transparency maps, fracton noises and stuff that had, you know, animated fracton noises growing in size, moving back and forwards in a Z to give it somewhat of a more organic feel to the bubble as it growing.

The lighting, just because 3D and the amount of time that we had and the tools that we had to use it was much better to allow the compositors, um it was a lot quicker process for them to go ahead and add lighting to it, since it didn’st really need to be so much of a 3D feel to it, it can be achieved just by size and like you know, that creating depth to the lighting so that was handled by the 2D compositors.

Lane Jolly The Chrono sphere scene was an ordeal because you look at lightening and you see it, it like (click fingers) that, lightening is, and you wanted that feeling of thick lightening beams floating around the room. So we ended up having to go through and actually paint lightening, like in 2D animate lightening over time.

We went through like four or five different types of lighting, all 2D gags using Saphire plug ins to produce that lightening and lightening bolts and the integration came out nicely. The last thing was the metal room, with a lot of metal reflective things which produced nice little soft reflections of all the bolts everywhere. So I made it a little more violent looking.

Terminator Banging on Door

Lane Jolly The scene where we had the Terminator beating the door down was kind of a hassle because we had him hitting the green screen, but he was actually hitting the green screen so he making dimples and stuff and the shadows were being produced from the punches. So we had to take him out entirely and then replace him with the CG door which was hard because he was super focused and the door had to look like it was bending metal and reflecting him at the same time.

The hardest part of that gag was getting the reflections to play right because he was right in front of the door, so he needs to look like he (gestures), otherwise it going to be a dead give away if there was nothing reflecting. So they’sve got to move somewhat with them.

So what we ended up doing was making a mock up reflection of his hitting to be like a face on one side and made arms just hitting, just based on what he was doing and we used that as reflection just a simple gag but it worked. And we piped that into the 3D reflection map which ended up being the reflection for the door.

Invisible Shots

Lane Jolly The invisible shots in most of the glass exploding and cracks in the glass, were really simple shots but they are needed for story points, and they need to look good that why they’sre called invisible shots, but those were the ones that I was most worried about because there were a lot of them .

And the whole idea that there was one shot where the Terminator walks into the bank and breaks one of the glass, breaks the glass panel door, and it falls over, and we had shot an element where we had just a piece of glass breaking and we didn’st really get any sense of glass falling on him, he walks right through it. So we had to go in and take a bunch of different glass elements, and let them, re-time them and animate them correctly so they would look like they were bouncing off him, falling off his shoulders and stuff.

We had a lot of little stuff like that like taking squib hits, blowing them off people varying size and stuff and speed. Just to make them look right. A lot of shots were eratic, the camera was all over the place, which helped cos you were able to motion bowl a lot of things. But you also wanted to get a sense of the violence that was in it.

Programs Used

Lane Jolly – Compositing Supervisor
Maya was used for the making of the fire for this whole sequence and a little bit of Lightwave was used as well for the fire. Combustion was used to composite it and After Effects was used to do all the re-timing for the fire.

Steve Graves – Visual Effects Artist
To do all of the uv mapping I used Mojo and then for texturing I used Projection Paint And then the final textures were applied in Lightwave.

So when we did use Maya we would take our model into Maya before we do the transfer and take it over. All the animations were done in Maya, queball it over to Lightwave.

The Neverending Process
You know you always think about what you can do differently on set, and that the thing about the film making process, is that, you know, you have a finite amount of time to plan, you have a finite amount of time to shoot, and then after you shoot you have a tremendous amount of time to study your work – and everyone will tell you who is involved in this process that you always look at it and think you should have done this differently.

And so the reality is that I look at it as these were the decisions we made, and we went forward on these decisions with the limitations and the time we had, and they seemed like the right decisions to make so now in the spirit of that let do, not the best we can but the kick ass best we can with what we have. And it going to kill it.

And so from my point of view the process never really ends, what happens is that you abandon the project , and so what I mean by that is that I never really finished the pilot I had to abandon it because it had to air on tv.

And that’s all time we have today, I would like to thank everyone at Zoic Studios for giving us their time to talk about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. And be sure to catch it on Monday nights on Fox. From VFXTalk.com this is Saeed Faridzadeh.

Creative Credits

Project: Sarah Conners Chronicles
Client: FOX
VFX Studio: Zoic Studios



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