The Orville VFX supervisor on mixing practical and visual effects

By Barry Goch

What do you get when you mix Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane with science fiction? The most dysfunctional spaceship in the galaxy, that’s what. What is the Fox series The Orville? Well, it’s more Galaxy Quest/Space Balls than it is Star Trek/Star Wars.

Set 400 years in the future, The Orville is a spaceship captained by MacFarlane’s Ed Mercer, who has to work alongside his ex-wife as they wing their way through space on a science mission. As you might imagine with a show that is set in space, The Orville features a large amount of visual and practical effects shots, including real and CG models of The Orville.

Luke McDonald

We reached out to the show’s VFX supervisor Luke McDonald to find out more.

How did the practical model of The Orville come about?
Jon Favreau was directing the pilot, and he and Seth MacFarlane had been kidding around about doing a practical model of The Orville. I jumped at the chance. In this day and age, visual effects supervisors shooting models is an unheard of thing to do, but something I was absolutely thrilled about.

Favreau’s visual effects supervisor is Rob Legato. I have worked with Rob on many projects, including Martin Scorsese’s Aviator, Shine a Light and Shutter Island, so I was very familiar with how Rob works. The only other chance that I had had to shoot models was with Rob during Shutter Island and Aviator, so in a sense, whenever Rob Legato shows up it’s model time (he laughs). It’s so amazing because it’s just something that the industry shies away from, but given the opportunity it was absolutely fantastic.

Who built the practical model of The Orville?
Glenn Derry made it. He’s worked with Rob Legato on a few things, including Aviator. Glen is kind of a fantastic. He basically does motion controls, models and motion capture. Glen would also look at all the camera moves and all the previz that we did to make sure the camera moves were not doing something that the motion control rig could not do.

How were you able to seamlessly blend the practical model and the CG version of The Orville?
Once we had the design for The Orville, we would then previz out the ships flying by camera, doing whatever, and work out these specific moves. Any move that was too technical for the motion control rig, we would do a CG link-up instead— meaning that it would go from model to a CG ship or vice versa — to get the exact camera move that we wanted. We basically shot all of the miniatures of The Orville at three frames a second. It was kind of like shooting in slow-mo with the motion control rig, and we did about 16 passes per shot — lights on, lights off, key lights, field light, back light, ambient, etc. So, when we got all the passes back, we composited them just like we would any kind of full CG shot.

From the model shoot, we ended up with about 25 individual shots of The Orville. It’s a very time-consuming process, but it’s very rewarding because of how many times you’re going to have to reuse these elements to achieve completely new shots, even though it’s from the same original motion control shoot.

How did the shots of The Orville evolve over the length of the season?
We started to get into more dynamic things, such as big space battles and specific action patenting, where it really wasn’t feasible to continue shooting the model itself. But now we have a complete match for our CG version of The Orville that we can use for our big space battles, where the ship’s flying and whipping around. I need to emphasize that previz on this project was very crucial.

The Orville is a science vessel, but when it needs to throw down and fight, it has the capabilities to be quite maneuverable — it can barrel roll, flip and power slide around to get itself in position to get the best shot off. Seth was responding to these hybrid-type ship-to-ship shots and The Orville moving through space in a unique way when it’s in battle.
There was never a playbook. It was always, “Let’s explore, let’s figure out, and let’s see where we fit in this universe. Do we fit into the traditional Star Trek-y stuff, or do we fit into the Star Wars-type stuff. I’m so pleased that we fit into this really unique world.

How was working with Seth MacFarlane?
Working with Seth has been absolutely amazing. He’s such a dedicated storyteller, even down to the most minute things. He’s such an encyclopedia of sci-fi knowledge, be it Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica or the old-school Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. All of them are part of his creative repertoire. It’s very rare that he makes a reference that I don’t get, because I’m exactly the same way about sci-fi.

How different is creating VFX for TV versus film?
TV is not that new to me, but for the last 10 years I’ve been doing film work for Bad Robot and JJ Abrams. It was a strange awakening coming to TV, but it wasn’t horrifying. I had to approach things in a different way, especially from a budget standpoint.


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