Tag Archives: practical effects

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.

SFX and VFX veteran Scott Coulter joins MastersFX

LA- and Vancouver-based MastersFX (MFX) has added longtime VFX producer Scott Coulter as its new VP/executive producer of visual effects. He brings extensive experience in both practical and digital effects and is already overseeing day-to-day operations on visual effects at MFX’s Los Angeles headquarters. He is also heading up character and creature design work for their current slate of projects.

Coulter joins the company with over 30 years of effects experience, having worked on more than 200 films that have integrated almost every aspect of special and visual effects. His credits include the feature films The Expendables, Conan the Barbarian, Dogma, My Favorite Martian and The Crow.

He began his career as a production assistant on George Romero’s Creepshow. His first love was special effects makeup and monsters and he quickly moved up the ranks, becoming a makeup FX supervisor and developing his animatronics and practical blood skills. While working on The Crow, Coulter saw Jurassic Park in the theater and became inspired by the digital visual effects. Not long after he took a six-month sabbatical from his role as a makeup FX artist to learn everything he could about computer animation.

In 2001, Coulter founded and launched Worldwide FX, headquartered in Bulgaria, to meet the visual effects needs of Nu_Image/Millennium Films — Millennium Studio owns Worldwide FX. He eventually expanded the facility, even opening a second facility in Shreveport, Louisiana. To date, Worldwide FX has created VFX for more than 140 films.

“Scott is a rare sort… his knowledge is diverse and his skill set is truly unmatched,” says founder/president of Masters FX Todd Masters, noting that he and Coulter had a working relationship that spans two decades. “Scott and I worked together more than 15 years ago on early MFX projects such as Demon Knight, Dark Skies and Mortal Kombat. Back then we were using only puppets and prosthetics. Scott was there, coming up with great tricks, even then. But it was all practical FX, and long before the birth of digital.”

Today Masters FX combines both practical and digital techniques. “Because we’ve changed many of the ways we approach FX these days, both Scott and I did a bit of an adjustment over these past many, many years — working from separate locations and with slightly separate disciplines,” adds Masters. “Most recently, I’ve been helping develop and supervise the art-side of our advanced FX methodologies, while Scott’s been evolving himself into this amazingly creative and experienced, worldwide VFX executive. He’s one of the few effects executives I know of who has seen it all and done it all, from numerous vantage points.”

“The blending of these disciplines is the greatest challenge moving forward, and this company is the place to perfect this blending and really make it happen,” adds Coulter. “On top of that, the idea of working in LA again after many years based in Bulgaria also appealed to me!”

Tips on working practically with CG

Many recent big action films — Jurassic World, Tomorrowland, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Pacific Rim, to name a few — feature practical effects created by the team at 32Ten Studios  in San Rafael, California, in the space where Kerner Optical once was.

Practical effects add touches of reality to scenes created with CG. Over the years, artists at 32Ten Studios (@32tenstudios) have designed, built and occasionally blown up all sort of models and miniatures, as well as filmed environmental effects like fire, water, smoke or dust.

32Ten Studios’ COO/producer, Greg Maloney, is an industry veteran and ILM alum. He joined the storied VFX studio in 1989 doing line-up. “Basically, it was the task of the line-up person to create the film rolls and instructions for the optical printers,” he explains, adding that he transitioned to CG around 1992, starting as a compositor and then moving up to compositing supervisor. He left ILM in 2007 to work for Image-Movers Digital as a stereographer. When they closed, he and some colleagues started Stereobox. In 2011 he, along with his partners, established 32Ten Studios at the one-time location of Kerner Optical.

Greg Maloney with an Optimus Prime head, of course!

Greg Maloney (L) with an Optimus Prime head, of course!

So Maloney has a perfect mix of film, digital, CG and practical effects experience. Here he offers his perspective on what makes a successful practical-effects shoot — ensuring that the VFX team has what it needs to build a memorable scene. Enjoy…

Understand the Shot
One of the first things we do when we get a previs from the VFX supervisor is to look for exactly what the camera is going to see. Once we know that, we build and polish the parts that are going to show up on screen.

Do the Homework
Then we start mapping out the shot by getting detailed information. For instance, we’ll need to know how the camera moves during the shot, the scale of the shot, the camera’s speed, if it’s being shot on film or digitally, where the sun was during the original shoot and if we’re going to shoot in front of a bluescreen or a greenscreen. We’ll ask for the original plate so we can match the sun angles. Also, we lay every shot out using Autodesk Maya to make sure we have everything set up correctly when we film.

Ask Questions
We have on-going dialog with the VFX team to make sure we’re delivering the pieces that will work during their compositing sessions. Our ultimate goal is to make it look like the final image was recorded in a single camera, on a set, in one take.

32Ten's crew on Jurassic World shoot.

32Ten’s crew on Jurassic World shoot.

Practice, Practice, Practice
The beauty of practical, especially when we’re doing an explosion or something like that, is the sense of serendipity. We can control much of what happens, but there’s always something magical that happens that adds to the reality. That said, we don’t shoot anything without a ton of rehearsal. This way, the effects we’re shooting match what the VFX supervisor and director want for the scene.

Adding the Human Touch
We shoot a lot of extras in front of a greenscreen, which pushes a CG scene over the top. Our experience is that we need to be really organized with our schedule, making sure the actors are in wardrobe with make up applied and on the set right when we need them.

When I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, the last scene when the clerk is pushing the Holy Grail through that warehouse, I wanted to go to that warehouse. It felt real because of that person with the cart. My first desk at ILM was directly in front of the matte painting of that warehouse. It was the first big “wow” of my career.

Ultimately, the benefit of using practical effects with CG is that practical elements adhere to the laws of gravity and nature. The effects look correct because they are real. We like to think that practical creates an emotional connection and experience.

That’s what we try to do on every shoot.

MastersFX: blending practical and digital makeup

By Randi Altman

MastersFX has long had a reputation in the industry as a place to go for practical character/creature makeup effects. Recently this 30-year-old shop opened its Digital Makeup FX division, finalizing a path the company set out on almost eight years ago.

According to founder/owner/chief monster maker Todd Masters, “While we’ve just recently announced that we’ve opened a Digital Makeup division formally, the truth is that we’ve really been going in this direction for a quite a while now. Our pursuit of making better creatures and more believable character FX has always been the plan.”

Part of that plan has been building a team and upgrading their skill set. “Even in regard to the blending of practical effects and digital work, that’s nothing new for us. It’s actually where I Continue reading