Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 6 (June 2009)

Adding Pow to Prime Time


by Debra Kaufman
A new breed of superheroes fights evil with a digital twist.

For those who like quirks and irony with their superheroes, The Middleman television series was a bracing tonic. Based on the graphic novels by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine, the episodes incorporated some unusual digital imagery into the story lines, which followed Wendy Watson (played by Natalie Morales), a struggling artist working at a temp agency. Recruited by the Middleman (played by Matt Keeslar), she began training so she could eventually assume the hero role. The two crime-fighters get their orders from Ida, an android disguised as a librarian, who represented a secret organization.


Aside from unique characters, which were created in CG, The Middleman contained a number of scenes that called for actors to be filmed on greenscreen.

In the course of their adventures, which were told in 12 episodes for ABC Family Channel, Wendy and the Middleman battled a strange group of villains, including a terra-cotta warrior and a winged Peruvian pike fish. Of course, they always saved the day.

“It was a cool show aimed at the Comic-Con crowd and was tailored towards those who like action films and comic books,” says Stephen Lebed, visual effects supervisor at Mechnology, which handled the VFX. Lebed, along with Chip Potter, co-founded the Burbank, California, studio a few years ago.

Grillo-Marxuach, who was The Middleman’s “show-­runner” and executive producer/writer, created the concept while he was working as a writer on the television series Charmed.  “He turned it into a graphic novel (in July 2005) that acquired a cult status among fans,” explains Lebed. “Through ABC Family Channel, he was able to realize it into a TV series,” albeit one that was short lived.

Charmed producer John Pare acted as a middleman of sorts between Mechnology and Grillo-Marxuach. “Our first show was Charmed, and because of that [work], we incorporated the company about four years ago,” says Lebed, who has worked as a model builder and digital VFX creator for Image G, Digital Magic, and Encore. “When The Middleman came up, [Pare] called me and asked if I was available, and he got us involved.”

Mech Tools

Comic books and graphic novels are full of visual effects—as is evident from the spate of comic-book properties that have been transformed into popular feature-film fodder. And despite its debut on the small screen versus the silver screen, The Middleman was no exception. Although several of the 12 episodes had 30 to 40 visual effects—a standard number for a show like this one—there were a couple of episodes that reached 80 visual effects.

“With this show, we were limited by budget and time constraints in terms of how much we could do,” says Lebed. “With 80 effects, we tried to keep them as simple as possible so we could turn them around quickly.” What’s more, The Middleman was shot in high definition.

Mechnology has a core of eight artists but ramped up to as many as 20 to handle the show’s quick turnaround. The studio’s Mac-based pipeline consists of Autodesk’s 3ds Max, Maya, Flame, and, occasionally, Smoke; Apple’s Shake; and Adobe’s After Effects and Photoshop. 

The renderfarm, meanwhile, is PC-based, with dual AMD boxes, with Nvidia’s Mental Ray software used for rendering and Autodesk’s Back Burn as the render controller. “That allowed us to change the priority of the renders,” says Derek Zavada, VFX producer, about Back Burner. “We had several jobs on the farm, but sometimes something would happen to change the priority, and we would go in there and easily change it.”

Mechnology’s main file server is an 8tb Dell running Linux; the VFX company also uses a proprietary asset management system (a Web-based setup that uses Maya’s QL and Adobe’s ColdFusion, formerly from Dreamweaver) for logging in/out and tracking footage. “It has a color-coding system to let us know the status of each shot,” says Zavada. “Every artist can see what shots they’re assigned to.”

Another tool that helped the Mechnology group throughout production was Iridas’ FrameCycler. “This was the easiest way to view the frames and check the final output,” says Zavada. “Sometimes you get a bad render, and this was a good way to check for that.”


The scene depicted above was filmed at a power plant. Left shows the film plate, while right contains a 3D monorail composited at the top of the shot, added by Mechnology.

Adding Effects

For Lebed and Potter, each episode began by perusing the script. “The fun part was breaking down the script and figuring out how to create the VFX,” says Lebed. “They knew how to challenge us. We had five days or less to turn around each episode. It was a wonderful experience.” Grillo-Marxuach, who is knowledgeable about the canon of sci-fi movies and TV, paid homage to the genre in each episode to a scene or theme—small inside jokes for TV-savvy geeks and sci-fi fans who watch the show.

For example, “We got to create a 1950s-style flying saucer,” says Potter. “They shot it out at Vasquez Rocks (near Los Angeles), where Star Trek and The Twilight Zone has filmed. There’s a specific rock formation that you see in every sci-fi show, and, of course, that’s where our CG saucer lands. The CG door opened, and the aliens walked out on a little plywood ramp that we later turned into a ramp that came out of the saucer.”

Another action-packed scene had Wendy ejected from a jet in midair. “They shot Wendy greenscreen in an ejector seat, and we created the 3D jet that left the frame as she is being ejected,” Potter continues. “That was homage to Bruce Willis’ Die Hard.”

Any superhero has his or her supertoys, and The Middleman was no exception. “He has guns, his secret office, his Middleman car, and other devices,” points out Potter. “It’s Men in Black meets Inspector Gadget meets Get Smart. There were a lot of things going on.” The Middle-mobile was based on a Smart car, which, of course, had special powers created by Mechnology. “When he pushed a button, a jet engine bursts out, and the vehicle goes down the road a billion miles an hour,” says Potter. In another episode, an alien posing as a precocious girl rode a bicycle that also transitioned to warp speed when she rang the bike’s bell.

Some of the effects helped out a typically crunched TV production budget. For example, the Middleman’s high-tech headquarters featured a bank of 20 monitors that played back everything from surveillance video to newsreels. The production couldn’t afford to use real monitors, so they created plastic ones instead, and relied on Mechnology to shoot the footage that played in the monitors and composite it into the monitors’ blank screens. “Doing it that way also made the production much more flexible,” says Lebed. “Ordinarily you’d have to shoot the footage that played in the monitors before you shot the actual scene. This way, we were able to shoot that footage whenever we needed to and add it in later. For a seven-day schedule with so many locations and stunts, this helped a lot.”

Not too long ago, all-digital characters were too complex and expensive to create for anything but high-end feature films. Now, even with the tight turnaround, smaller-budget TV shows, like The Middleman, can feature digital creatures galore. “We had a terra-cotta warrior who came to life when a terra-cotta roof broke and the pieces formed into the warrior, who then transitioned into a live actor,” explains Lebed, who says the effect was created with Autodesk 3ds Max’s Particle Flow.

“That was challenging mainly because all the pieces had to swim around in a way that allowed us to control them and tweak them to suit the needs of production,” Lebed says. “Once they formed into the warrior, there was a moment where the digital warrior opened his arms and struck a pose.”

Another CG character was the toothed Peruvian flying pike, a fish with wings that chased after the protagonists. The original idea was to use a practical fish. An effects company built a fish puppet, with the idea that a puppeteer would move the fish throughout the scene and Mechnology would paint out the stick. “It didn’t quite work out the way they wanted,” says Lebed. “We had already done a couple of CG shots of the fish, and we ended up doing nearly all the shots. Only one shot ended up being the puppet.”

According to Lebed, the challenge was to get the CG fish to match the environment. “One shot had the fish under a shade tree with mottled lighting,” he explains. “We shot a lot of lighting reference on set and spent a lot of time with lighting and shaders so it had the same reflective and translucent qualities of the puppet.”
Ida, the cranky librarian, is played by actress Mary Pat Gleason, but according to the story, is supposed to be an android, leaving Mechnology to create her robotic abilities. 

Mechnology also helped build the kind of immense sets ordinarily found in blockbuster feature films. On stage, the production created the bare bones of a Mayan temple. “They had a big chair where the Mayan king sat, and [it was] built up with sand,” recalls Potter. “The camera started at the top of the stage, then came down and did a slow reveal to get our audience into the temple. We built the rest of the temple in 3D and tracked it in there.”

It wouldn’t have been a sci-fi show without the parallel-universe episode, and The Middleman put effort into theirs. “We have two Wendys, the good one and the evil one,” says Potter. “They met up and exchanged dialog, so there was quite a bit of split screen and greenscreen so they could do that.” The scenes were shot on location in an immense power plant. Mechnology turned that into an Orwellian futuristic world, adding, among other touches, a 3D monorail system.


Working on a tight TV schedule, Mechnology had to analyze the shots and come up with the most effective solutions to make them work. Sometimes that meant using a prop augmented with CG.

It’s a Wrap

At the end of the 12 episodes, says Zavada, the crew worked on 2.2tb of data, for a total of 33 minutes of visual effects. But it wasn’t the quantity of the effects that proved to be the biggest challenge. It was the schedule.

“In any episode, we had a 10-day turnaround, so the challenge was to build a concept that we could execute in those 10 days and that, obviously, the production company, show-runners, and network all liked,” says Potter. “If we were going to build a monorail, a fish, a gun ray, or spaceship, we had to come up with those designs and have them approved quickly. But we often didn’t have much lead time. We knew that we’d be building a fish for Episode 4, for example, but we were so busy building Episode 3 that we didn’t have the time.”

The approval process became more streamlined as the first episodes were turned around. “But the writers would see what we were doing and up the ante the next week,” says Potter. “They’d say, ‘These guys did eight shots of a fish, so next week they can do a 3D car with a jet engine on top of it and three shots of an explosion.’”

Nevertheless, both Lebed and Potter enthuse over working with Grillo-Marxuach. “He’d come up with a concept in the script, and if he liked the direction we were going, he’d just let us keep going,” explains Potter. Adds Lebed, “This was the most fun I’ve had while working on a show. There was a great crew, the producers were wonderful, and every script was so well written that I couldn’t wait to grab the next one and dive right into it.”

With such enthusiasm, it’s no wonder that Mechnology successfully completed its weekly missions on The Middleman. Unfortunately, this unique series was not “super” enough for the network, which cancelled it after its initial season.


 

Debra Kaufman is a freelance writer in the entertainment industry. She can be reached at dkla99@verizon.net.

 

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