By Randi Altman
Looking for something fun and compelling to watch while your broadcast shows are on winter break? You might want to try Hulu’s original eight-part miniseries 11.22.63, which the streaming channel released last February.
It comes with a pretty impressive pedigree — it’s based on a Stephen King novel, it’s executive produced by J.J. Abrams, it stars Oscar-nominee James Franco (127 Hours) and it’s about JFK’s assassination and includes time travel. C’mon!
The plot involves Franco’s character traveling back to 1960 in an effort to stop JFK’s assassination, but just as he makes headway, he feels the past pushing back in some dangerous, and sometimes gross, ways.
In the series pilot, Franco’s character, Jack Epping, is being chased by Kennedy’s security after he tries to sneak into a campaign rally. He ducks in a storage room to hide, but he’s already ticked off the past, which slowly serves him up a room filled with cockroaches that swarm him. The sequence is a slow build, with roaches crawling out, covering the floor and then crawling up him.
I’m not sure if Franco has a no-roach clause in his contract (I would), but in order to have control over these pests, it was best to create them digitally. This is where Bruce Branit, owner of BranitFX in Kansas City, Missouri came in. Yes, you read that right, Kansas City, and his resume is impressive. He is a frequent collaborator with Jay Worth, Bad Robot’s VFX supervisor.
So for this particular scene, BranitFX had one or two reference shots, which they used to create a roach brush via Photoshop. Once the exact look was determined regarding the amount of attacking roaches, they animated it in 3D and and composited. They then used 2D and 3D tracking tools to track Franco while the cockroaches swarmed all over him.
Let’s find out more from Bruce Branit.
How early did you get involved in that episode? How much input did you have in how it would play out?
For this show, there wasn’t a lot of lead time. I came on after shooting was done and there was a rough edit. I don’t think the edit changed a lot after we started.
What did the client want from the scene, and how did you go about accomplishing that?
VFX supervisor Jay Worth and I have worked together on a lot of shows. We’d done some roaches for an episode of Almost Human, and also I think for Fringe, so we had some similar assets and background with talking “roach.” The general description was tons of roaches crawling on James Franco.
Did you do previs?
Not really. I rendered about 10 angles of the roach we had previously worked with and made Adobe Photoshop brushes out of each frame. I used that to paint up a still of each shot to establish a baseline for size, population and general direction of the roaches in each of the 25 or so shots in the sequence.
Did you have to play with the movements a lot, or did it all just come together?
We developed a couple base roach walks and behaviors and then populated each scene with instances of that. This changed depending on whether we needed them crossing the floor, hanging on a light fixture or climbing on Franco’s suit. The roach we had used in the past was similar to what the producers on 11.22.63 had in mind. We made a few minor modifications with texture and modeling. Some of this affected the rig we’d built so a lot of the animations had to be rebuilt.
Can you talk about your process/workflow?
This sequence was shot in anamorphic and featured a constantly flashing light on the set going from dark emergency red lighting to brighter florescent lights. So I generated unsqueezed lens distortion, removed and light mitigated interim plates to pull all of our 2D and 3D tracking off of. The tracking was broken into 2D, 3D and 3D tracking by hand involving roaches on Franco’s body as he turns and swats at them in a panic. The production had taped large “Xs” on his jacket to help with this roto-tracking, but those two had to be painted out for many shots prior to the roaches reaching Franco.
The shots were tracked in Fusion Studio for 2D and SynthEyes for 3D. A few shots were also tracked in PFTrack.
The 3D roach assets were animated and rendered in NewTek LightWave. Passes for the red light and white light conditions were rendered as well as ambient show and specular passes. Although we were now using tracking plates with the 2:1 anamorphic stretch removed, a special camera was created in LightWave that was actually double the anamorphic squeeze to duplicate the vertical booked and DOF from an anamorphic lens. The final composite was completed in Blackmagic Fusion Studio using the original anamorphic plates.
What was the biggest challenge you faced working on this scene?
Understanding the anamorphic workflow was a new challenge. Luckily, I had just completed a short project of my own called Bully Mech that was shot with Lomo anamorphic lenses. So I had just recently developed some familiarity and techniques to deal with the unusual lens attributes of those lenses. Let’s just say they have a lot of character. I talked with a lot of cinematographer friends to try to understand how the lenses behaved and why they stretched the out-of-focus element vertically while the image was actually stretched the other way.
What are you working on now?
I‘ve wrapped up a small amount of work on Westworld and a handful of shots on Legends of Tomorrow. I’ve been directing some television commercials the last few months and just signed a development deal on the Bully Mech project I mentioned earlier.
We are making a sizzle reel of the short that expands the scope of the larger world and working with concept designers and a writer to flush out a feature film pitch. We should be going out with the project early next year.