Closer Encounters
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 2 (Feb 2003)

Closer Encounters

Are alien sightings and abductions fact or fiction? Believers answer with a resounding "yes," while nonbelievers simply shake their heads, roll their eyes, or smirk. These diverse views converge to form the basis for one of the biggest television events to date: the Sci Fi Channel's 20-hour miniseries Taken.

An epic saga set against the backdrop of actual events, Taken focuses on descendants from three families that have been affected by a series of alien abductions. "Taken is a miniseries that's 100 percent character driven," says executive producer Steven Spielberg. "We had a chance to tell a great fictitious story—or a true story if you're a believer—that needed 20 hours [to unfold]." Spielberg admits that the subject of extraterrestrial life has always interested him, and he's broached the subject before in such feature films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.

In Taken, Spielberg and his DreamWorks Television division take advantage of the much longer miniseries format to explore generations of extraterrestrial encounters, beginning in the skies over Germany during World War II to the present day. Integrated throughout the production are more than 500 digital effects—some obvious, some invisible. These graphic elements were generated not by an outside studio, but by a visual effects department that was part of the series' production team.

For Episode 2 of Taken, the effects team generated an idealized storybook world in which an alien, assuming the form of a giant squirrel, befriends a child with special powers.
Images courtesy DreamWorks Television.

"It's a unique way of doing visual effects," says Jim Lima, co-producer and visual effects supervisor, who compares his department to a specialized SWAT team rather than a large studio army. "As a result, we were more creative with how we used our software and hardware. And since we worked exclusively for [DreamWorks] on the production, we were able to accommodate last-minute changes more easily. In general, I approach visual effects as a service of the constantly evolving story decisions in the editorial phase of a project."

The number and type of effects in each episode vary greatly, depending on the era and the particular events being portrayed. In most instances, the graphics are widely dispersed and range from matte-painted backgrounds to set extensions to 3D elements, many of which required scene tracking with RealViz's MatchMover and 2d3's boujou.

In the first episode, the aliens make a grand entrance, as did the artists with the digital effects. In fact, the first six minutes of the series take place in a completely synthetic environment. The opening sequence transports viewers through space, from Orion's Belt to Earth, and right into the middle of an all-CG World War II air battle. Episode One also uses a considerable amount of CG to establish the desaturated hues of a 1940s documentary, achieved through lighting, filtering, and postproduction color techniques.

"The visual effects had to look like they belonged within the various time periods, as each of the first five episodes spans a new decade, while the final five episodes take place in the present time," explains Lima. "The exception are the aliens, as they are outside of our timeframe. However, the consistency of their appearance, as well as some other alien effects, provided a continuity across the entire series."

Each Taken episode has its own style. Episode Two, for example, contains a fantastical, rather than photorealistic, sequence in which an alien assumes the form of a four-foot-tall squirrel that befriends Jesse Keys, a young boy with alien lineage, and then leads him into a fairy-tale world. This environment, as well as the creature, were designed to resemble those in a book the boy had been reading.

This sequence originally was shot at a physical set location, but because of weather problems, the backdrop was later replaced with a synthetic environment, following discussions with, and presentations to, Spielberg and the other executive producers. "Using a completely CG environment was a hard sell, and it only came to fruition in postproduction," says Lima. "Having a synthetic squirrel wasn't enough to achieve the desired surrealism for the sequence. The imagery had to look a little more special than what you see in real life—it was an idealistic world with rich colors. Yet, it also had to be familiar, so it would blend in well with the rest of the episode."

Lima credits the ability to accommodate this change from the real to the digital with having the effects department in-house. "As part of the team, we collaborated on the set with the writer, director, cinematographers, and others. So when there was an idea, we could help evolve it and bring it to the next level," he says. "We were constantly sculpting and re-creating the series as it went along, which, in the end, made it more spectacular."

Transitioning to a digital environment, though, was extremely challenging, as the initial storybook was illustrated in 2D with colored pencils and watercolors. First, the group explored a similar painterly style for the scene environment, "but it just didn't have the impact you would expect to see in an all-3D world," notes Lima. Alas, when the group re-created the environment in 3D, it achieved the desired illustrative look, but overall, it still lacked power and scope. "We decided that if the environment was truly representative of a storybook that came to life, there would be aspects of it that would feel illustrative, but it would still have dimension," he says.

The solution was to build a 2.5-dimensional environment. To accomplish this, the artists first generated a series of 2D matte paintings in Adobe Systems' Photoshop. The artists then separated various elements into layers, and imported them into NewTek's LightWave, where they mapped the images onto flat objects. This, in turn, enabled them to achieve the desired parallax shift as the camera moved around in the scene.

In contrast to the fantastical environments, the 3D squirrel named Artemis had a natural appearance, despite his stature. Like all the characters in Taken, Artemis was modeled in Alias|Wavefront's Maya. The character was then imported into LightWave, textured with Worley Laboratories' Sasquatch hair and fur program for LightWave, and rendered in LightWave. Using Maya, the artists generated the cloth simulations for Artemis's blue coat.

Artemis shares his scenes with Jesse, who was rotoscoped from the live-action plates with Discreet's Combustion and composited into the CG using Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion. Because of the late transition to the digital environment, Jesse was not filmed against greenscreen, which made compositing all the more difficult, especially with the large amount of interaction between the digital character and the actor. In one shot, for example, Artemis catches Jesse after he jumps from the roof, then adjusts the boy's pajamas before they go skipping away hand in hand. "We sat down with Spielberg and the editors and looked for the takes that gave us something to feed off of [for the CG]," says Lima. "We'd look at what the actor was doing and make our synthetic actor respond."

Not all the aliens in Taken assume a friendly form like Artemis. In fact, the beings have an eerie look, which was designed by Lima based on accounts by people who claim to have been abducted. Once Spielberg approved the design of the alien, Lima supervised the hand-sculpting of a full-size maquette, which was then digitized at Gentle Giant Studios using a Cyberware scanner. After stitching together the scan files in LightWave, the digital artists refined the design according to Lima's and Spielberg's specifications. Once the model was completed, the animators imported the file into Maya, and added forward and inverse kinematics.

According to Lima, no motion-capture data was used because Spielberg wanted the aliens to look unique, and not resemble a puppet or a person dressed in a costume. "That directive is what motivated me to design a very skinny being with a long, thin neck—a cross between a praying mantis, a human, and a cat," he says. "The only way to achieve that design was through the use of computer graphics. And, the only way to make it move without echoing a human being was through keyframing."

In most scenes within Taken, the aliens have a menacing look, with their slight build, elongated features, and veiny texture, all of which was created in LightWave and Maya.

Throughout the episodes, the aliens are portrayed as living beings that age. Some are younger, while others are older with wrinkles and skin discoloration. Also, rather than having the typical large black voids for eyes, the aliens instead had visible pupils and irises. This enabled the artists to show them looking around and thinking, which provided them with some level of emotion.

Whether you are a skeptic or not, Taken manages to evoke strong emotions and captivate audiences with its compelling characters, clever story line, and unique, realistic imagery. Even many nonbelievers were "taken" by the innovative television series. ..

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.

Adobe Systems
eyeon Software
Worley Laboratories