The new Fox series, which stars MacFarlane, along with Agents of S.H.I.E.D.S.'s Adrianne Palicki and Scott Grimes, follows the crew of the slightly dysfunctional exploratory ship, The Orville, in the Earth’s interstellar fleet, 400 years in the future.
While onscreen, the crew faces a series of challenges as they meet hostile aliens and visit strange planets, behind the scenes, VFX teams had the tall order of creating strong, believable visuals on a TV schedule and budget. Here, we speak with previs supervisor Kenny DiGiordano from Santa Monica-based Halon Entertainment and VFX supervisor Tommy Tran of LA’s FuseFX on what it took to help The Orville take flight!
Founded in 2003, Halon Entertainment’s president and director Daniel Gregoire envisioned a full-service visualization company that would be committed to advancing the art of storytelling through innovative technology and previsualization for film, TV, games and ads. With headquarters in Santa Monica and operations in Vancouver and London, Halon has had a hand in some of the industry’s highest profile projects, including Avatar,
The Hunger Games,
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,
Twilight: Breaking Dawn (Parts 1 and 2),
Jurassic World and
Star Wars: the Force Awakens. Halon also worked on MacFarlane’s
Ted 2, released in theaters in 2015.
Under the direction of DiGiordano, who worked closely with the show’s VFX supervisor Luke McDonald, Halon was brought on board for the new project to create space battles, worm holes, exploding planets and more through previs, helping bring MacFarlane’s creative vision to life.
Having spent nine months on all 13 episodes, working on the Fox lot, Halon was tasked early on to help establish some of the environments and the movement of the ship itself.
“We were brought on back in November, when they were still planning the initial, opening sequence of the show. At that point, there were still a lot of things we needed to figure out — the world and how the ship was moving,” explains DiGiordana. “Since it’s so big scale, they wanted a real graceful, smooth moving ship. We basically pushed for when the ship is just flying along in space, it has a real smooth, graceful movement. But then, for example, in the space battle in the pilot episode, we wanted to try something a bit different to try and show that the ship wasn’t as restricted in its movement as you think it could be. So that was an exploratory process there. Once we were able to establish that, we basically dove right into the pilot. The ultimate goal was to have the team stay ahead of the shoot, by usually about three episodes. Once we were able to stay on schedule with that, it was smooth sailing from there.”
The Halon team also provided the basis for motion control data to supplement model shoots of a practical scale model of the Orville, and provided point of view material displayed on a 18 x 104 foot LED screen giving the actors a clear sense of what was happening outside the ship during their scenes.
“That was really neat because outside the window, there was this giant LED screen which basically curved around the whole front side of the bridge,” says DiGiordana. “When the actors needed to see what they would be reacting to, we were able to project our previs onto this screen. By doing this, we were also able to get the real-time lighting interacting with the actors.”
To achieve the previs, DiGiordana says Halon relied on a mix of Autodesk Maya, Adobe Photoshop, SynthEyes for postvis tracking and the Unreal Engine suite of tools. “We were wondering how far we could take [Unreal Engine] on this show,” says DiGiordana. “Since I just came off of the Planet of the Apes movie, which was the first time that our company used it on that production level, we developed a way where we were able to work it into our Orville pipeline here. Having the capability of the Engine at our fingertips, we were really able to push the limits of what we would traditionally do in previs.”
According to DiGiordana, “The ultimate goal with previs is always to help save time and money, and to help the director realize his vision. Here, the biggest challenges were coming up with a lot of the visuals and trying to establish the overall look of something while also scientifically trying to make sense of it. The nice thing is, we had a science advisor on the show, Andre [Bormanis], who is also one of the producers, and he was always available to answer any questions. For instance, if we wanted to establish, “What does this worm hole look like?” or “What does this plasma look like?” he was basically able to sit down and work with us. I think just the biggest achievement was feeling the sense of worth that the previs brought to everything. We’re here to help the directors realize their vision, and if we can basically provide that, we’re doing our job.”
High-end visual effects for television is not a new concept for LA’s FuseFX, known for its work on such TV hits as Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,
American Horror Story,
The Blacklist and
Zoo. At the time
Post spoke with the studio’s VFX supervisor Tommy Tran, FuseFX had already completed 73 visual effects shots for
The Orville, with more on the way. One of the key sequences was the pilot episode’s opening.
“We were the main vendor on the pilot and we started early this past summer, with just talks, getting proof of concept and artwork out to them and building that relationship,” says Tran. “Our main contribution to the pilot was the opening scene, where we established New York, 400 years from now. It was a lot of CG, a lot of in-depth matte paintings with hundreds and hundreds of buildings. We had to make it all up, based on this vision that Seth had, where everything was clean and pristine. Every balcony had its own lush garden and there was no more poverty. Everything was perfect. Once they figured out all the problems on Earth, they went to go save the universe. We had to use our imaginations to figure out what Seth wanted with this perfect world. We went through a bunch of revisions on our concept of New York 400 years from now and we wanted to keep main, iconic buildings there, but updated. For instance, there was one shot where they wanted to use the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge is still there, but we added a monorail to the bottom of it and futuristic paneling to the sides. If you look at it, at first glance, it’s the bridge. But then, if you pay closer attention, you realize it’s been updated for a future world.”
According to Tran, the first five minutes of the pilot was all FuseFX’s work, as well as a scene early on in the episode and another at the end where conversations take place inside the admiral’s office. There, FuseFX completed a detailed, digital matte painting for the environment seen outside of the admiral’s window.
“It wasn’t anything groundbreaking,” explains Tran. “It was a digital matte painting, but it was also very intricate that was brought to life with the help of CG ships and CG pods — lots of air traffic. It’s just a flat, two-dimensional painting of a million buildings — or 600 of whatever we ended up with. Then we added small nuances, such as moving water, clouds, little ships, little taxis, little transports here and there just to draw the eye to some sort of movement that made our matte painting come alive.”
To complete the look of a futuristic New York City, FuseFX relied on a mix of tools, including Foundry’s Nuke as its main compositing software, Adobe Photoshop for the matte paintings and Autodesk 3ds Max for the 3D — modeling all the ships, the pods and some of the buildings.
“The matte painters all use Adobe Photoshop, and then we use Max for our 3D. We did use CG buildings in our matte paintings. The artists built some very nice looking buildings — some intricacies that we just couldn’t paint. We created a lot of really cool buildings and then we gave that asset out of Max to our Photoshop guys, our matte painting department, and they laid those CG buildings into our matte paintings. I guess we call it 2 ½D, where we integrated 3D buildings, very cool articulate ones that had a lot of dimension to them, to make everything pop a little bit better.”
According to Tran, “We went down to Fox early on and they had all their storyboards, all their artwork and concepts of each ship, figured out pretty well already. They had been in pre-production for about a year at that point. So, all their uniforms, all their cities, ships, were on the wall as concept art throughout their office. We immediately felt like we knew where they wanted to go with the world and then it basically came down to maybe three or four concept images that someone had done on their end and a rough layout of New York City. Through those we said, ‘We get it — there’s a mix of iconic buildings here and there and the rest is this very shiny, clean, green world. We just ran with it and I think we submitted maybe two versions of our concept and they loved our second version. They let us loose for a month — while we did the main matte paintings for it —everything after that was smooth sailing.”
On a personal note, Tran says a lot of the team “geeked out” when they found out they were working on a Seth MacFarland and Fox project. “When we get a show like The Orville where we’re going into space, we’re going into the future, we geeked out pretty hard on that,” he says. “When you have a name like Seth attached, you really want to go above and beyond. It’s been a lot of long hours, but also a lot of fun. Seth knows what he wants, and I am very happy to be able to give it to him.”