LOOK Effects' Hollywood facility created 350 shots for the two-and-a-half-hour season finale of the groundbreaking, pop-culture hit television series Lost. That project ends the facility’s six-season stint of crafting VFX for the series.
In fact, LOOK had produced all of the effects for this final season. Over the course of eight months, the artists at LOOK completed over 1000 shots for 18 episodes, including everything from greenscreen composite shots to all-CG, 3D sequences.
One of the most complex effects LOOK created for the last season of the series was the fully-animated “Smoke Monster.” This was especially challenging because the character appeared in previous seasons. The producers allowed LOOK to expand upon the established Smoke Monster and give it more depth and character.
"The collaboration with the Lost team was unprecedented," states Adam Avitabile, visual effects supervisor at LOOK. "I've never had that level of interaction with the directors and producers of a project. We all really worked as a team. That was especially nice for me, 'the new kid on the block,' as I came onto the show after the rest of the team had been working together for five years."
"We worked very closely with the creators of the show," adds Melinka Thompson-Godoy, LOOK's visual effects producer. "Working directly with Carlton [Cuse] and Damon [Lindelof] was definitely a treat. It was wonderful to be able to give creative input and pick the brains of the show runners and head writers. We also worked with the editing staff on a daily basis. Everyone was so passionately dedicated to the project."
In addition to creating the effects for the series, the Lost final episode became such a large media event that LOOK was also asked to create the effects, including the Smoke Monster, for two 15-second Target commercials, which aired during the final episode.
Adam Avitabile, visual effects supervisor, provides his thoughts on the work.
How many seasons of Lost did you work on?
I was brought on board to supervise the sixth, and final, season, so just one.
How did LOOK get tapped for the work?
We had done some clean-up effects work on season four, I believe. I guess we left a good impression with the show's producers, because when they were looking to make a regime change, they called us.
How many artists at LOOK worked on the season? The final?
On any normal episode (and I use that term very lightly) we would have about 10 to 15 artists working on Lost. As the enormity of the finale started to become clear, we staffed up to about 30 or so.
Describe LOOK's digital pipeline.
On the 3D side, we are primarily a Maya house. For our 2D compositing needs, we turn mostly to Shake, but are heavily supplemented by After Effects, Nuke and Flame. As for our hardware, we are mostly running on eight-core, hyper-threaded Linux and PC boxes.
Why was there such a high level of collaboration with the Lost team?
There just had to be. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the show runners, had created such a dense mythology with this show. They were very hands-on with how the visual effects were used to supplement that. At first, being the new kids on the block, they were instrumental in helping us to learn how everything on their crazy island worked. After a few episodes, a level of mutual trust had been gained, and we felt more at ease with pitching new ideas and approaches. We would champion or shoot down certain ideas, as the case may be, and vice versa. It was always a creative meeting of minds with everyone on the production, from the script phase, through shooting and into postproduction.
How did that help your group with the effects?
It's really rare, in my experience, to have this level of collaboration with the producers. All shows run things a little differently than others, but being able to openly discuss all of these wild ideas really helped me to wrap my brain around what needed to be done. I could then relay that to the various artists with a much higher degree of accuracy. Basically, there was much less guess work involved in the process and, on some of the time constraints we were under, guess work would have sunk the whole ship.
How long on average did it take to create each episode?
We typically would shoot a single episode in about two weeks (not counting the premiere and the finale). It then would go through a couple of weeks of editing and we would see what holes needed to be filled. Pick-up shots, inserts and reshoots, when necessary, were then done. We would get the footage and then have about a week and a half to two weeks to turn out temps, with finals due about four days later. For certain CG-heavy episodes, we would sometimes deliver other episodes out-of-sequence to give us more time to work on the really challenging stuff.
Was there a lot of previs?
There was definitely a hefty amount of previs. We decided early on in the process to get things in front of Damon and Carlton as early as possible. We were always aware of the massive amount of work needed to be done in a frighteningly short amount of time, so previs helped to flesh out ideas and get everyone on the same page. The last thing we wanted is for them to have issues with an approach we had taken when it was too late to do anything about it. Most of our previs was done in Maya, not counting the really horrible 2D blocking animations I would do for Smoke Monster scenes on an old Flint system I dragged with me over to Hawaii.
Can you briefly describe the type of work you have done?
I come from a 2D background and have been a Flame artist for the past eight years. I've pretty much run the gamut from digital-janitor-type shots to giant composites for feature films. I will always love the artist part of my career, but it's nice to get out of the cold, dark offices every once and a while and supervise something other than what's on your computer monitor.
Not counting the final episode, what were some of the more challenging shots you have done?
I can honestly say that there were no "easy" episodes of Lost. Smaller episodes...yes, but never easy. One of the things I learned quickly on this show is that there is no such thing as a lock-off camera. Everything is always moving. So a seemingly simple set extension becomes a whole different animal when coupled with a crazy crane move with foreground elements that need to be matted out. We created a fully-CG stormy ocean sequence with an old ship, circa late 1800's, bobbing around in the waves. We made a gigantic camera move shot that started outside a plane window cruising at 35,000 feet and then plummeting all the way to the bottom of the ocean. We basically ended up doing all the most difficult and challenging shots that you would never think about approaching on a TV show's time and budget.
On average, how many VFX shots did you do work on?
I think the grand total for the entire season was somewhere well over 1000 shots. As for a per episode count, there would be a light episode that had 40 shots in it, and a large one, like the finale, that would have 375 shots in it.
Let's talk about the Smoke Monster. How did you expand that character?
"Smokey," as we lovingly referred to him as, was quite a challenge for us. We spent the first two months just trying to figure him out. When I first interviewed with Damon and Carlton, I pitched a subtle expansion in the personality of Smokey. I was a fan of the show coming into this, and I recognized what a powerful character Smokey actually was. But I always felt like he was a bit too much of a bull in a china shop. I knew that he had already been established for five seasons, and that I couldn't drastically change his overall look or anything like that, but I felt that he could have a bit more intention to his actions. I really pushed to give him a bit more "expression" in his movements, if that makes sense at all. There were moments in the past seasons where maybe Smokey would barrel into a room and just destroy everything he saw. For this season I tried to give him a bit more of a questing persona. He would enter a room and look around first. We actually had endless conversations as to how much of a "head" we would give him. I felt strongly that he needed some kind of focal point that could help the audience, and us, get a better sense of his direction and state of mind. We would do subtle things like ramping up the amount of turbulence in his smoke as he was preparing to make a big move, as well as controlling the amount of wispy particles that emanated from his mass. All these things allowed us to have a bit more fun with the character.
What tools did you use?
Smokey was created in Maya using an animated bone structure that had particle emitters attached to it. We would first render out a Smokey pass with a low-res model just to make animation tweaks, and then render out the full high-res version for the final composite. Flashes and shadow passes were composited in Shake later.
What was so challenging about that character?
The most challenging thing was just to figure out how to do Smokey in the first place. Originally, he had been created in LightWave, but we, being a Maya house, had to reverse engineer the entire process. We had countless tests of Smokey doing various actions that he had done before in past seasons, just so we could get up to speed. No... the tendril he shoots out is breaking up... no... the smoke particles are not holding together... no... Smokey looks stupid. On and on, we went. Then when we finally got to the point where we felt he was living up to the incarnations we had seen in the past, we wanted to take him a bit further. We tried to refine the control over his smoke surface. We wanted to have control over individual wisps of smoke that might detach from him as he struck objects. There were just so many parameters to the character, it was hard to keep everything in line.
What were the biggest technical challenges pertaining solely to the last episode?
Honestly, the biggest challenges we had for the finale were trying to figure out how to produce over 375 shots in about three and a half weeks time. We knew it was going to be bad, but we had no idea how bad. We actually started working on the shots before the edit was locked, which led to about 35 of our shots that we had gotten to an almost complete state being cut from the episode completely due to editorial changes. We had no choice. If we had waited until the final locked edit, we would have never made the deadline.
What were the hardest shots in that?
The hardest shots in the finale were, by far, the final CG-plane sequence. We had to create a full 737 plane and have it racing down a runway and eventually take off. I had shot plates in Hawaii of a runway-like area that we then made to look much more sandy and overgrown with weeds using matte paintings. We then created the model and textures for the plane and animated it doing its thing down the runway. As it went, we had fissures opening up in the ground, because the island was being wracked with earthquakes at the time. Everything was mapped into an environment within Nuke, where we had more control over the camera moves. Couple this with all of the shots inside the plane that were shot on a sound stage with green screens hung out every window. We animated the dials in the cockpit, we created spinning turbines that we composited into the engine cowlings. We even went as far as to add CG reverse thrusters on the engines to explain how they were able to back the plane up in the first place. Normally we would take about four months to create this sequence for a feature film, but due to the magic of television show deadlines, we were given only a fraction of that.
Did you have to invent any new techniques or technologies to accomplish any of the effects for the finale or during the season?
Nothing too new or noteworthy. Sometimes the hardest part is taking old tried-and-true techniques and adapting them to overcome the challenges you are faced with. No need to reinvent the wheel if you can already make that wheel work for you.
Any “Lost” words?
Lost was a HUGE show. It will be quite sometime before we see its like again. It was an immense honor to be allowed to play around in its sandbox for the final stretch. If ever there was a show that pushed the limits of what could be accomplished on a TV show's time and budget constraints, it was this one. I just want to point out how impressed I was -- and continue to be -- with the workmanship that LOOK Effects displayed during this tough schedule. Not many facilities could have pulled off what we accomplished in such a short amount of time. I'm eternally grateful... and at the same time happy -- to take a much-needed break from the trials and tribulations of this wacky island.