Tag Archives: Zoic Studios

The importance of on-set VFX supervision

By Karen Maierhofer

Some contend that having a visual effects supervisor present on set during production is a luxury; others deem it a necessity. However, few, if any, see it as unnecessary.

Today, more and more VFX supes can be found alongside directors and DPs during filming, advising and problem-solving, with the goal of saving valuable time and expense during production and, later, in post.

John Kilshaw

“A VFX supervisor is on set and in pre-production to help the director and production team achieve their creative goals. By having the supervisor on set, they gain the flexibility to cope with the unexpected and allow for creative changes in scope or creative direction,” says Zoic Studios creative director John Kilshaw, a sought-after VFX supervisor known for his collaborative creative approach.

Kilshaw, who has worked at a number of top VFX studios including ILM, Method and Double Negative, has an impressive resume of features, among them The Avengers, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and various Harry Potter films. More recently, he was visual effects supervisor for the TV series Marvel’s The Defenders and Iron Fist.

Weta Digital’s Erik Winquist (Apes trilogy, Avatar, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) believes the biggest contribution a VFX supervisor can make while on set comes during prep. “Involving the VFX supervisor as early as possible can only mean less surprises during principal photography. This is when the important conversations are taking place between the various heads of departments. ‘Does this particular effect need to be executed with computer graphics, or is there a way to get this in-camera? Do we need to build a set for this, or would it be better for the post process to be greenscreen? Can we have practical smoke and air mortars firing debris in this shot, or is that going to mess with the visual effects that have to be added behind it later?’”

War for the Planet of the Apes via Weta Digital

According to Winquist, who is VFX supervisor on Rampage (2018), currently in post production, having a VFX supe around can help clear up misconceptions in the mind of the director or other department heads: “No, putting that guy in a green suit doesn’t make him magically disappear from the shot. Yes, replacing that sky is probably relatively straightforward. No, modifying the teeth of that actor to look more like a vampire’s while he’s talking is actually pretty involved.”

Both Kilshaw and Winquist note that it is not uncommon to have a VFX supervisor on set whenever there are shots that include visual effects. In fact, Winquist has not heard of a major production that didn’t have a visual effects supervisor present for principal photography. “From the filmmaker’s point of view, I can’t imagine why you would not want to have your VFX supervisor there to advise,” he says. “Film is a collaborative medium. Building a solid team is how you put your vision up on the screen in the most cost-effective way possible.”

At Industrial Light & Magic, which has a long list of major VFX film credits, it is a requirement. “We always have a visual effects supervisor on set, and we insist on it. It is critical to our success on a project,” says Lindy De Quattro, VFX supervisor at ILM. “Frankly, it terrifies me to think about what could happen without one present.”

Lindy De Quattro

For some films, such as Evan Almighty, Pacific Rim, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and the upcoming Downsizing, De Quattro spent an extended period on set, while for many others she was only present for a week or two while big VFX scenes were shot. “No matter how much time you have put into planning, things rarely go entirely as planned. And someone has to be present to make last-minute adjustments and changes, and deal with new ideas that might arise on that day — it’s just part of the creative process,” she says.

For instance, while working on Pacific Rim, Director Guillermo del Toro would stay up until the wee hours of the night making new boards for what would be shot the following day, and the next morning everyone would crowd around his hand-drawn sketches and notebooks and he would say, “OK, this is what we are shooting. So we have to be prepared and do everything in our power to help ensure that the director’s vision becomes reality on screen.”

“I cannot imagine how they would have gone about setting up the shots if they didn’t have a VFX supervisor on set. Someone has to be there to be sure we are gathering the data needed to recreate the environment and the camera move in post, to be sure these things, and the greenscreens, are set up correctly so the post is successful,” De Quattro says. If you don’t know to put in greenscreen, you may be in a position where you cannot extract the foreground elements the way you need to, she warns. “So, suddenly, two days of an extraction and composite turns into three weeks of roto and hair replacement, and a bunch of other time-consuming and expensive work because it wasn’t set up properly in initial photography.”

Sometimes, a VFX supervisor ends up running the second unit, where the bulk of the VFX work is done, if the director is at a different location with the first unit. This was the case recently when De Quattro was in Norway for the Downsizing shoot. She ended up overseeing the plate unit and did location scouting with the DP each morning to find shots or elements that could be used in post. “It’s not that unusual for a VFX supervisor to operate as a second unit director and get a credit for that work,” she adds.

Kilshaw often finds himself discussing the best way of achieving the show’s creative goals with the director and producer while on set. Also, he makes sure that the producer is always informed of changes that will impact the budget. “It becomes very easy for people to say, ‘we can fix this in post.’ It is at this time when costs can start to spiral, and having a VFX supervisor on set to discuss options helps stop this from happening,” he adds. “At Zoic, we ensure that the VFX supervisor is also able to suggest alternative approaches that may help directors achieve what they need.”

Erik Winquist

According to Winquist, the tasks a VFX supe does on set depends on the size of the budget and crew. In a low-budget production, a person might be doing a myriad of different tasks themselves: creating previs and techvis, working with the cinematographer and key grip concerning greenscreen or bluescreen placement, placing tracking markers, collecting camera information for each setup or take, shooting reference photos of the set, helping with camera or lighting placement, gathering lighting measurements with gray and chrome reference spheres — basically any information that will help the person best execute the visual effects requirements of the shot. “And all the while being available to answer questions the director might have,” he says.

If the production has a large budget, the role is more about spreading out and managing those tasks among an on-set visual effects team: data wranglers, surveyors, photographers, coordinators, PAs, perhaps a motion capture crew, “so that each aspect of it is done as thoroughly as possible,” says Winquist. “Your primary responsibility is being there for the director and staying in close communication with the ADs so that you or your team are able to get all the required data from the shoot. You only have one chance to do so.”

The benefits of on-set VFX supervision are not just for those working on big-budget features, however. As Winquist points out, the larger the budget, the more demanding the VFX work and the higher the shot count, therefore the more important it is to involve the VFX supervisor in the shoot. “But it could also be argued that a production with a shoestring budget also can’t afford to get it wrong or be wasteful during the shoot, and the best way to ensure that footage is captured in a way that will make for a cost-effective post process is to have the VFX supervisor there to help.”

Kilshaw concurs. “Regardless of whether it is a period drama or superhero show, whether you need to create a superpower or a digital version of 1900 New York, the advantages of visual effects and visual effects supervision on set are equally important.”

While De Quattro’s resume is overflowing with big-budget VFX films, she has also assisted on smaller projects where a VFX supervisor’s presence was also critical. She recalls a commercial shoot, one that prompted her to question the need for her presence. However, production hit a snag when a young actor was unable to physically accomplish a task during multiple takes, and she was able to step in and offer a suggestion, knowing it would require just a minor VFX fix. “It’s always something like that. Even if the shoot is simple and you think there is no need, inevitably someone will need you and the input of someone who understands the process and what can be done,” she says.

De Quattro’s husband is also a VFX supervisor who is presently working on a non-VFX-driven Netflix series. While he is not on set every day, he is called when there is an effects shoot scheduled.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

So, with so many benefits to be had, why would someone opt not to have a VFX supervisor on set? De Quattro assumes it is the cost. “What’s that saying, ‘penny wise and pound foolish?’ A producer thinks he or she is saving money by eliminating the line item of an on-set supervisor but doesn’t realize the invisible costs, including how much more expensive the work can be, and often is, on the back end,” she notes.

“On set, people always tell me their plans, and I find myself advising them not to bother building this or that — we are not going to need it, and the money saved could be better utilized elsewhere,” De Quattro says.

On Mission: Impossible, for example, the crew was filming a complicated underwater escape scene with Tom Cruise and finally got the perfect take, only his emergency rig became exposed. However, rather than have the actor go back into the frigid water for another take, De Quattro assured the team that the rig could be removed in post within the original scope of the VFX work. While most people are aware that can be done now, having someone with the authority and knowledge to know that for sure was a relief, she says.

Despite their extensive knowledge of VFX, these supervisors all say they support the best tool for the job on set and, mostly, that is to capture the shot in-camera first. “In most instances, the best way to make something look real is to shoot it real, even if it’s ultimately just a small part of the final frame,” Winquist says. However, when factors conspire against that, whether it be weather, animals, extras, or something similar, “having a VFX supervisor there during the shoot will allow a director to make decisions with confidence.”

Main Image: Weta’s Erik Winquist on set for Planet of the Apes.

Creating new worlds for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

Zoic Studios used visual effects to recreate occupied New York and San Francisco.

By Randi Altman

What if Germany and Japan had won World War II? What would the world look like? That is the premise of Philip K. Dick’s 1963 novel and Amazon’s series, The Man in the High Castle, which is currently gearing up for its second season premiere in December.

The Man in the High Castle features familiar landmarks with unfamiliar touches. For example, New York’s Time Square has its typical billboards, but sprinkled in are giant swastika banners, images of Hitler and a bizarro American flag, whose blue stripes have been replaced with yet another swastika. San Francisco, and the entire West Coast, is now under Japanese rule, complete with Japanese architecture and cultural influences. It’s actually quite chilling.

Jeff

Jeff Baksinski

Helping to create these “new” worlds was Zoic Studios, whose team received one of the show’s four Emmy nods for its visual effects work. That team was led by visual effects supervisor Jeff Baksinski.

Zoic’s path to getting the VFX gig was a bit different than most. Instead of waiting to be called for a bid, they got aggressive… in the best possible way. “Both myself and another supervisor here, Todd Shifflett, had read Dick’s book, and we really wanted this project.”

They began with some concept stills and bouncing ideas off each other of what a German-occupied New York would look like. One of Zoic’s producers saw what they were up to and helped secure some money for a real test. “Todd found a bunch of late ‘50s/early 60’s airline commercials about traveling to New York, and strung it together as one piece. Then we added various Nazi banners, swastikas and statues. Our commercial features a pullback from a 1960s-era TV. Then we pull back to reveal a New York penthouse with a Nazi solider standing at the window. The commercial’s very static-y and beat up, but as we pull back out the window, we have a very high-resolution version of Nazi New York.”

And that, my friends, is how they got the show. Let’s find out more from Baksinski…

The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon show. Does the workflow differ from traditional broadcast shows?
Yes. For example, on our network TV shows, typically you’ll get a script each week, you’ll break it down and maybe have 10 days worth of post to execute the visual effects. Amazon and Netflix shows are different. They have a good idea of where their season is going, so you can start building assets well in advance.

High Castle’s version of the Brooklyn Bridge features a Nazi/American flag.

When we did the pilot, we were already building assets while I was going out to set. We were building San Francisco’s Hirohito Airport, the airplane that featured heavily in a few episodes and the cities of New York and San Francisco — a lot of that started before we ever shot a single frame.

It’s a whole new world with the streaming channels.
Everybody does it a little bit differently. Right now when we work on Netflix shows, we are working in shooting order, episode 105, 106, 107, etc., but we have the flexibility to say, “Okay, that one’s going to push longer because it’s more effects-heavy. We’re going to need four weeks on that episode and only two on this other one.” It’s very different than normal episodic TV.

Do you have a preference?
At the moment, my preference is for the online shows. I come from a features background where we had much longer schedules. Even worse, I worked in the days where movies had a year-and-a-half worth of schedule to do their visual effects. That was a different era. When I came into television, I had never seen anything this fast in my life. TV has a super quick turnaround, and obviously audiences have gotten smarter and smarter and want better and better work; television is definitely pushing closer to a features-type look.

Assuming you get more time with the pilots?
I love pilots. You get a big chunk of the story going, and a longer post schedule — six to eight weeks. We had about six weeks on Man in the High Castle, which is a good amount of time to ask, “What does this world look like, and what do they expect? In the case of High Castle, it was really about building a world. We were never going to create a giant robot. It was about how do we do make the world interesting and support our actors and story? You need time to do that.

You were creating a world that doesn’t exist, but also a period piece that takes place in the early ‘60s. Can you talk about that?
We started with what the normal versions of New York and San Francisco looked like in the ‘60s. We did a lot of sketch work, some simple modeling and planning. The next step was what would New York look like if Germany had taken over, and how would San Francisco be different under the influence of Japan?

Zoic added a Japanese feel to San Francisco streets and buildings.

In the case of San Francisco, we found areas in other countries that have heavy Japanese populations and how they influence the architecture —so buildings that were initially built by somebody else and then altered for a Japanese feel. We used a lot of that for what you see in the San Francisco shots.

What about New York?
That was a little bit tougher, because if you’re going to reference back to Germany during the war, you have propaganda signs, but our story takes place in 1962, so you’ve got some 17 years there where the world has gotten used to this German and Nazi influence. So while those signs do exist, we scaled back and added normal signs with German names.

In terms of the architecture, we took some buildings down and put new ones in place. You’ll notice that in our Times Square, traffic doesn’t move as it does in real life. We altered the roads to show how traffic would move if somebody eliminated some buildings and put cross-traffic in.

You also added a little bit of German efficiency to some scenes?
Absolutely. It’s funny… in the show’s New York there are long lines of people waiting to get into various restaurants and stores, and it’s all very regimented and controlled. Compare that to San Francisco where we have people milling about everywhere and it’s overcrowded with a lot of randomness.

How much of what you guys did were matte paintings, and could those be reused?
We use a few different types of matte paintings. We have the Rocky Mountains, for example, in the Neutral Zone. Those are a series of matte paintings we did from different angles that show mountains, trees and rivers. That is reusable for the most part.

Other matte paintings are very specific. For example, in the alley outside of Frank’s apartment, you see clothes hanging out to dry, and buildings all the way down the alleyway that lead to this very crowded-looking city. Those matte paintings are shot-specific.

Then we use matte paintings to show things far off in the distance to cut off the CG. Our New York is maybe four square city blocks around in every direction. When we get down to that fourth block, we started using old film tricks — what they used to do on studio lots, where you start curving the roads, dead-ending, or pinching the roads together. There is no way we could build 30 blocks of CG in every direction. I just can’t get there, so we started curving the CG and doing little tricks so the viewer can’t tell the difference.

What was the most challenging type of effects you created for the show? Which shots are you most proud of?
We are most proud of the Hirohito Airport and the V9 rocket plane. What most people don’t realize is that there’s actually nothing there — we weren’t at a real airport and there’s no plane for the actors to interact with. The actors are literally standing on a giant set of grip pipe and crates and walking down a set of stairs. That plane looks very realistic, even super close-up. You see every bolt and hinge and everything as the actors walk out. The monorail and embassy are also cool.

What do you call on in terms of tools?
We use Maya for modeling and lighting environments and for any animation work, such as a plane flying or the cars driving. There is a plug-in for Maya called Miarmy that we used to create CG people walking around in backgrounds. Some of those shots have hundreds of extras, but it still felt a little bit thin, so we were used CG people to fill in the gaps.

What about compositing?
It’s all Nuke. A lot of our environments are combinations of Photoshop and Nuke or projections onto geometry. Nuke will actually let you use geometry and projections in 3D inside of the compositing package, so some of our compositors are doing environment work as well.

Did you do a lot of greenscreen work?
We didn’t do any on the pilot, but did on the following episodes. We decided to go all roto on the pilot because the show has such a unique lighting set-up — the way the DP wanted to light that show — that green would have completely ruined it. This is abnormal for visual effects, where everyone’s always greenscreening.

street-before-nyRoto is such a painstaking process.
Absolutely. Our DP Jim Hawkinson was coming off of Hannibal at the time. DPs are always super wary of visual effects supervisors because when you come on the set you’re immediately the enemy; you’re about to tell them how to screw up all their lighting (smiles).

He said very clearly, “This is how I like to use light, and these are the paintings and the artwork.” This is the stuff I really enjoy. Between talking to him and director David Semel, and knowing that it was an RSA project, your brain immediately starts going to things like Blade Runner. You’re just listening to the conversations. It’s like, “Oh, this is not straightforward. They’re going to have a very contrast-y, smoky look to this show.”

We did use greenscreen on the rest of the episodes because we had less time. So out of necessity we used green.

What about rendering?
We use V-Ray, which is a global illumination renderer. We’d go out and take HDR images of the entire area for lighting and capture all of the DPs lights — that’s what’s most important to me. The DP set up his lights for a reason. I want to capture as much of his lighting as humanly possible so when I need to add a building or car into the shot, I’m using his lighting to light it.

It’s a starting point because you usually build a little bit on top of that, but that’s typically what we do. We get our HDRs, we bring them into Maya, we light the scene inside of Maya, then we render through V-Ray, and it all gets composited together.

EP Blythe Klippsten returns to Zoic for series work

Blythe Klippsten has joined Culver City visual effects house Zoic as executive producer, working on television series. This almost-15-year VFX vet has worked with other busy LA studios in the past, including Psyop, MassMarket, Stardust Studios and Ntropic.

Actually Klippsten isn’t new to Zoic, having worked there near the start of her career — she was a VFX producer from 2006 to 2008. Klippsten, who is now working with EP Gina Fiore to continue building Zoic’s list of television clients, has an extensive background in both commercial and television visual effects.

Prior to joining Zoic in 2006, she coordinated VFX for CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. She gained experience working on a number of TV series, including HBO’s True Blood, and CBS and Jericho, for which she was nominated for an Emmy.

Klippsten spent the next eight years leading teams at a variety of VFX shops, overseeing the production on major campaigns for Pepsi, BMW, EA, Nintendo, Sony, Sprint, Starbucks and Honda, as well as a Super Bowl spot for Cars.com.

“Television has always been a first love of mine and I’m excited to return to Zoic where I really got my start in visual effects,” says Klippsten. “It’s a dynamic time in television, with a much wider distribution landscape and a more diverse range of creative content.”

Zoic taps VFX vet Jeff Wozniak to helm its NYC studio

Veteran VFX supervisor Jeff Wozniak has been hired by Zoic Studios, which is headquartered in Culver City, California, to helm the studio’s newly launched New York studios.

Wozniak has nearly two decades of experience in VFX. He got his start at ILM and has worked on such big-time films as Star Wars: Episode I, II and III, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Avatar, the Transformers series and Marvel’s The Avengers.

Wozniak will be helming Zoic’s newly launched New York studio, which will service projects across all divisions: features, episodic, commercials and gaming. The NYC studio will leverage the studio’s in-house pipeline to collaborate with both the Culver City and Vancouver offices.

“Not only has Jeff worked on some of the most noted effects-driven films in the past decade, but he also has a deep understanding of VFX processes and pipelines and is skilled at curating teams of artists for projects of any size,” says Zoic executive creative director/partner Chris Jones.”

Wozniak’s love for visual effects was sparked by watching Back to the Future as a kid in Minneapolis. After earning a degree from Stanford University, he got into audio post at Lucasfilm’s THX division. After getting more involved in visual effects and computer graphics, he came on board at VFX house Industrial Light & Magic and spent 12 years working on features. He eventually took over as head of computer graphics and senior VFX supervisor at Industrial Color.

‘Banshee’ associate producer Gwyn Shovelski talks VFX

By Randi Altman

For those of you lucky enough to have discovered Banshee on Cinemax, you know just how fun a ride it can be… and just how violent. The amount of blood spilled would make Quentin Tarantino proud.

The show recently finished its third season run of action-packed goodness, and while the episodes featured many in-your-face visual effects — I urge you to search for “Chayton’s Death Scene” on YouTube — courtesy of Zoic Studios, there were also many effects that were just, well, face effects.

If you are a viewer, you know that most of the characters aren’t who they appear to be, and the audience is let in on their back stories via flashbacks. That is where Technicolor Flame artist Continue reading

Zoic VFX helps time travel for ‘Hot Tub Time Machine 2’

Zoic Studios in Vancouver created 225 visual effects shots for the sequel to the popular, and silly, Hot Tub Time Machine. Zoic’s VFX supervisor Rocco Passionino travelled to the New Orleans to be on hand during the shoot.

The work provided included visual effects to help ramp up the funny, including futuristic matte paintings, high-tech graphical interfaces for a number of devices and vortexes of light and water. Passionino and the Zoic Vancouver office worked closely with director Steve Pink to deliver just the right visuals needed. The film stars Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Rob Corddry and Adam Scott.

Since the guys use a hot tub to travel through time, the water vortex that serves as their mode of transportation to the future was hugely important to the story. To intensify this time portal for the sequel, the Zoic team crafted a water vortex that becomes a column of water and light. Passionino worked with cinematographer Declan Quinn to create an animated LED light system to simulate the interactive light from the water vortex that would later be augmented in post.

The CG team used a wide array of tools and software to delve into the dynamics and water solutions involved with creating the water vortex. Once the main column of the of the vortex was created using Realflow, additional elements of foam, splashes, droplets, blobs, steam, mist and debris were created in Maya with Phoenix, Fury and Vray, then added in compositing to create the shaft of the vortex.

Additional render passes for subsurface, refraction, depth, luminosity and light rays were created along with an RGB lighting utility pass to give further flexibility for the compositors to light the CG in 2D. To connect the chaos on the ground to the sky, a swirling mass of volumetric clouds were created with Phoenix and rendered in Vray.

Another central effect for the comedy was the visualization of a character’s existence being threatened due to the time travel. To show Lou (Rob Corddry) flickering — in threat of not surviving long enough to reach 2024 — clean plates were shot on set for each of the scenes where the effect would be needed and moments where the actors crossed. In post production, compositors painted sections back in that were needed and added multiple layers of static, distortion and chromatic aberration to the images to create the final effect.

Since Hot Tub Time Machine 2 includes traveling to the future, the Zoic team also crafted a number of holographic elements, such as a holographic television and holographic phone communications. To create a television that would cater to the ever-dwindling attention spans of viewers, Zoic worked with director Pink to create a holographic television that would allow for an endless number of channels to display simultaneously.

Motion graphics designer Jeremy Price crafted the multi-planed interface and composited the content into the windows to create an interactive and holographic device that was activated by touch. This design was also used for telecommunications throughout the film.

Behind the Title: Zoic’s Peter Hunt

NAME: Peter Hunt

COMPANY: Zoic Studios (@zoicstudios)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Zoic Studios is a visual effects company, based in Culver City, California, and Vancouver, British Columbia, that creates VFX for films, TV, commercials, games and digital experiences.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
CG Supervisor

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
It means I have two sets of bosses and responsibilities.
1. Supporting the creative vision of our client through the VFX supervisor.
2. Making sure my team and departments have the technical and artistic means to bring that Continue reading

Zoic’s Mike Romey discusses previs app ZEUS:Scout

By Randi Altman

Visual effects studio Zoic has released to the masses an iPad-based previs tool they developed while providing shots for VFX-heavy shows such as Once Upon a Time, Intelligence, Pan Am and V. The app is available now via iTunes for $9.99.

According to Zoic (@zoicstudios), ZEUS:Scout (Zoic Environmental Unification System) offers seven main modes: View allows the user to move the camera around and save camera positions for shock blocking purposes; Measurements mode allows users to bring real-world measurements into a virtual world; Characters mode can be used to insert character cards into the virtual location; Props lets users add, move, rotate and scale set props that are available for in-app purchase; Previs Animation lets users explore camera moves for previs and rehearsal purposes. The Tracking mode allows users to use the tablet as a virtual camera with the CG view matching the Continue reading