Grand Opening
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 4 (April 2004)

Grand Opening

Creators of new prime-time television shows have just a short period—often only a few weeks—to win the loyalty of a substantial viewing audience or risk being replaced by the network.

Recently, a number of shows followed the "franchise" formula of the highly successful Law & Order crime drama by using an already popular show to lure viewers to a new but similar series. Conversely, there are a number of recently launched properties that are striving to make it on their own, without the help of a flagship program. When these shows debut, whether in September or as a mid-season replacement for another series, they have but a few minutes to capture viewers' attention and stave off the often-fatal channel click.

Realizing the importance of an introduction with impact, the creators and producers of the NBC television show Las Vegas, named one of the year's best new dramas, achieved what could arguably be the most exciting one minute of weekly television footage. Created by the team at Stargate Digital (Pasadena, CA) in just three weeks, the opening segment used to introduce Las Vegas touches on three major story points by identifying the show's location (the fictitious Montecito Hotel in Las Vegas), the main characters and their roles (including the beautiful pit boss Nessa Holt, head of casino security Ed Deline, and his protégé Danny McCoy), and the show's focus (high-tech surveillance).

Stargate Digital created a stunning introduction for the TV series Las Vegas by moving the camera at "warp speed" to key locations throughout the city. Conversely, for some shots, they slowed the action for more impact.

The opening also simulates the same "warp-speed camera mode" used throughout the show, and in the segment, taking viewers on a thrilling ride from the Las Vegas airport, down the famous Strip, across the casino floor, up an elevator shaft, down a hallway, and through the keyhole of a hotel room—all the while maintaining the high-paced action and visual intensity. The 'trip' had to be seamless and uninterrupted, says Sam Nicholson, president of Stargate, so it would draw the viewers into the action and the story. "We also wanted them to experience Las Vegas like no one else had," he says.

According to James Riley, visual effects supervisor at Stargate, when he and Nicholson first read the script, they immediately knew that they had to do the show. "The series creator/executive producer, Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious), was clearly thinking outside the box with this show," he says. "He likes to move the camera without cuts, to tie everything together, so you physically move from one part of the city to another in a blazing motion. For us, that was both exciting and frightening, because we had to figure out how to do that for the opening."

Riley notes that Thompson wanted the initial segment to begin with the camera focused on a dead body lying in a field outside the city (the plot of a subsequent show). Then, he wanted a flyover from the body to the nearby airport, then down the Strip at hyperspeed, passing over the top of cars, narrowly missing buildings, and circling in and around various objects, such as a blowing newspaper and a simulated volcano, before entering the hotel. There, the camera was to slow momentarily on the various stars, before continuing on its high-speed journey through the hotel and into a VIP room where the character Danny McCoy is seen in a compromising position with his boss's daughter.

"We faced some challenges in meeting Gary's vision. We couldn't fly a helicopter close enough to the ground over the Strip to obtain the basic shots, nor could we film over or around the airport," Riley explains. "Because of all the strict rules and regulations, we had to figure out how to move the camera in one seamless motion from this dead person outside of town and into the hotel room while showing all the things [Thompson] wanted along the way."

To pull this off, Stargate employed state-of-the-art film and video technology that was seamlessly blended with high-end 3D computer graphics to create a dynamic look that could not have been achieved in either medium alone.

"The issue with visual effects in television is that we are often working with a limited budget and timeframe," says Riley. "So we started with the overall physical experience, broke it down into its most basic parts, determined what could be shot in camera (using various frame rates and motion-control techniques), what needed to be created as multiple 2D layers, and what areas were best suited for nested 3D. Then we created and weaved the various elements back together—with all the nuances and inconsistencies of the physical world—until we had achieved the heightened sense of reality we were going for."

Following this approach, a little more than half the imagery in the opening sequence is live-action film footage, while the remainder is integrated 3D.

Logistics, rather than aesthetics, usually determined what was to be either computer generated or live action. First, the team filmed a time-lapse, day-to-night sequence for the shot of the corpse, then pulled back, boomed up, and flew over the dead body toward the city. Next, the group transitioned from the live action into a full-CG segment of the airport at night—complete with an underbelly shot of a synthetic plane landing on a synthetic runway—and a 3D Las Vegas glittering in the background.

Creating the Las Vegas Strip entirely in 3D was out of the question because of the associated time and expense. "So the first thing we did was attach a film camera to one of our camera vehicles so it was approximately 10 feet off the ground, then we undercranked the camera [slowed down the film] and drove down the Strip. This 'photo survey' became the basis for our previz animatic for simulating and allowing us to study various speeds, heights, angles, and lenses," Riley explains. Using this previz as a reference, the Stargate artists determined which elements needed to be created as layered live action, 360 mega-matte plates, matte paintings, or nested 3D.

The live-action shots of the Strip were filmed at different angles and frame rates with Stargate's motion-control system mounted on a specially rigged car at the precise height to achieve the most dynamic flythrough of the Strip. "Since the opening was at night, we were able to take advantage of the new 5218 Kodak film stock. All the amazing lighting and colors of the Strip could be fully realized, and the solid grain gave us tremendous latitude for manipulating the image."

To create a sense of flying, the road, cars, island dividers, pedestrian walkways, and palm trees were all created as nested 3D objects, to allow the camera to "fly" over and, sometimes, around the objects. Additional elements along the Strip, such as hotels, casinos, and marquees, also were created as 3D objects in Alias Systems' Maya to heighten and enhance the experience.

Eight teams of artists, each assigned to a particular segment, were responsible for the final high-resolution CG imagery for their section. This entailed building the Maya models, applying photographic-based textures onto the geometry with Adobe's Photoshop, and rendering the imagery with Stargate's proprietary renderer. After this work was completed, the artists tracked the 3D models into the film footage using 2d3's boujou camera-tracking software, and lit the geometry to match the specific camera moves. Finally, the group composited the elements into their portions of the shots using Adobe's After Effects, and rotoscoped objects out of the footage as required.

In addition to the high-speed camera moves, the artists also used integrated CGI to achieve a compelling scene by first previsualizing the shot, creating the digital elements, and then compositing them into the video to create the final scene.

"We used a lot of tricks and enhancements to finish off the experience, to take viewers way beyond where the physical camera can go—in this instance, flying down the Strip at a thousand miles an hour," says Riley.

"It's usually the design and approach, rather than the tools or techniques, that make a shot great," continued Riley. "Ultimately, the best visual effects shot is a combination of multiple layers of 2D, matte paintings, and nested 3D because you get all the irregularities of reality in a controlled way." All told, Riley estimates that the opening segment contains upward of 600 layers that contain approximately 1500 pieces, or visual elements, that have been seamlessly integrated.

Since the show's debut, the opening sequence has been edited somewhat to reflect current story lines, though it still retains its high visual impact. And given the chance, Riley says he would like to add more extreme POV camera moves to it in the future. "It's always fun to take the viewers for an unexpected and exciting ride outside their normal experience. That's what the writers and producers of the show wanted to do, and we enjoyed helping them bring that to the screen."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor atComputer Graphics World.

Alias Systems