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Ingenuity Engine effects ‘The Last Man on Earth’

Los Angeles-based Ingenuity Engine was the primary visual effects vendor on the first season of the Fox hit The Last Man on Earth — the story of a man who believes he is the only survivor of a deadly virus that has wiped out the world’s population. In an act of desperation, Phil (series creator and star Will Forte) puts up billboards telling anyone who might care that he is “Alive in Tuscon.” Amazingly he finds other survivors.

The series, scored by Mark Mothersbaugh (see our story here), has already been renewed for a second season.

Aside from the show’s virtual cul de sac exterior location (via CBS Digital) and a few small shots done by Mango LA, Ingenuity Engine was responsible for all of this season’s VFX on the show. The number of shots they provided per episode varied quite a bit, anywhere from 10 to more than 50. “Last Man takes place a few years after a global disaster kills most of the world’s population,” explains Ingenuity Engine’s VFX producer Oliver Taylor. “So any time the show’s characters went out into that world we wound up doing a large amount of work to assist making the world look uninhabited.”

Oliver Taylor

Oliver Taylor

The work ranged from basic paint-outs, sky replacements and general clean-up all the way up to creating a CG space station orbiting Earth for the season finale. “The Last Man crew is very experienced and pretty VFX savvy, so they had a very good grasp of what was possible in post, what they could do on their own and what we needed to be deeply involved in,” says Taylor.

Two VFX sequences from the first season stick out in Taylor’s mind in terms of how involved the studio got with the shots. The first is a where Will Forte’s character climbs up onto the catwalk of a billboard, only to have the ladder fall. “They couldn’t put their actor on top of a real billboard because it would be unsafe, and putting a camera up that high would be slow and error-prone. So a billboard set was constructed with greenscreen around it, and a plate shoot was done to capture the backgrounds,” he describes. “Production brought us on a week or so before the shoot and we went over the storyboards in detail with their team. We also participated in the location scouts and helped them figure out the dimensions of the set they were building.”

The second VFX-heavy work is the reveal of the International Space Station (ISS) for the finale. Just as with the billboard sequence, Ingenuity Engine got involved from the very start. “We were looking at storyboards, recommending adjustments that were appropriate, walking through the set with the director and DP, and helping everyone come to a consensus as to how it was going to be photographed.”

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The first shot of the sequence is a crane shot that rises from the surface of the Earth, through the clouds and up to the International Space Station. “We knew right away we couldn’t get away with a matte painting of the Earth, and that to some extent we had to do it for real,” explains Taylor. “Because the camera moves through the clouds we needed them to be volumetric. We also needed them to cast correct shadows on the Earth, interrupt reflections on the surface of the Earth’s terrain and water, etc. All this necessitated a detailed build of the Earth, it’s textures and displacement, and proper interaction with the clouds.”

Once the viewer gets inside the ISS they see a character that has been stranded for some time. Making the actor (Jason Sudeikis) look like he was in zero gravity involved placing the actor on a crane arm, which would be moved around as he pushed off the walls. Taylor explains that the scene and the removal of the zero-gravity rig from the actor on the ISS was a fun challenge. “The two complicating factors were that it was shot on a moving Steadicam and the stunts team used a crane rig, which entered the shot from just behind camera. To remove the crane, from a shot which drifted around, we had to build geo for the interior of the ISS to match the set, get an accurate match-move for the camera and re-project clean-plate textures back onto the geo. It’s a tricky process, one that requires a lot of tweaking, but it allows production to be very flexible with how they shoot the scene.”

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Remember that all of this was done on a TV production schedule, meaning fast turnarounds. Taylor says timing is a big challenge when it comes to creating CG-heavy shots like this. “The typical episode only gets a week or so for VFX, but with the ISS sequence it was necessary to lock the edit five weeks in advance. Editorial was able to do that because we did animated previsualiztions specifically for their edit. They were able to cut in different versions of our animation and retime them to get the pacing and shots they wanted. In parallel we developed the model, texture and rendering work. The Last Man post team was great to work with. Doing a sequence like this in such a short time requires very tight collaboration, which keeps everyone on the same page and makes the creatives on their end feel more involved in the process and more at ease with where we’re going.”

Tools
Ingenuity Engine is in the process of testing and switching to The Foundry’s Modo for a lot of its 3D work, so they used this project as an opportunity to “jump in the deep end,” says Taylor. “The interactivity of the render preview is a great advantage for us and for this particular situation. To stay true to reality we knew there was only one way we could light the exterior of the ISS — with the light from the sun and a soft bounce from the Earth. Being able to work on the lighting and shading and quickly see results makes the process much easier to navigate and, ultimately, allows us to do much better work.”

The studio calls on The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing, as well as The Foundry’s Hiero for all I/O, which Taylor refers to as “a great integrated pipeline that makes everything a little faster and easier.” Side Effects Houdini was used to create the clouds around the Earth in the ISS sequence. “The primary benefit for us was that we could place rough geo in the scene, so that the placement of the clouds made sense from an artistic sense, and use that geo to generate VDB volumes of the clouds. It’s a process we nailed down working on commercials and have used it again and again doing cloud work.”

Ingenuity Engine called on another Foundry product, Mari, for texturing the exterior of the ISS. “Mari was very useful in this situation because it saved us a lot of time in model prep and skipping a lot of the grunt work in laying out UVs,” concludes Taylor.

If you haven’t seen The Last Man on Earth yet, check it out on Hulu and get your binge on.

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