Serenity Now
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 12 (December 2005)

Serenity Now

Through an ongoing collaboration, director Joss Whedon and VFX supervisor Loni Peristere have continued to raise the bar for visual effects on television. Working with Whedon, Peristere and his effects facility, Zoic Studios, received an Emmy in 2003 for Best VFX in a TV Series for the work in Firefly (the group received a nomination in the same category for Buffy the Vampire Slayer , another Whedon project.) That same year, Peristere and Zoic took top honors for Firefly at the Visual Effects Society Awards. Despite Firefly’s accolades, the series, which aired on the FOX Network, was cancelled after only 11 episodes. However, backed by strong DVD sales of the complete Firefly series, Whedon persuaded Universal Pictures to produce a film based on the property. Titled Serenity , after the crew’s spaceship, the movie debuted to high ratings following its release on September 30. At a preview screening for the film, Whedon indicated that he would consider reviving the series if a network purchased the broadcast rights from FOX Television.

The story line and background of Serenity are basically the same as Firefly: Humans have abandoned Earth because its resources were used up, so they found a new [planetary] system and moved there. However, the movie plot focuses on the character River Tam and why she behaves like she does. Aesthetically, the look of the film is much the same as the series, only upgraded. Everything is based around the same designs as the TV show, but elaborated on- Serenity is much more detailed, as are the sets.

We rebuilt everything because of the detail needed for the 2k playback. The TV show was done in standard definition, not even high def, and was built to those specs. So, everything needed a major overhaul. I think the only ship we reused untouched was the Reaver ship from the TV pilot as a background ship in the movie.

The story Joss [Whedon] wrote for the film picked up on the crew several months after the TV show ended. He wrote the exposition and designed the film so that even if someone had never seen Firefly, that person easily would be able to jump into the movie and know what was going on.

We had a similar pipeline for the show, but it was heavily modified after our work on the Battlestar Galactica miniseries. We rebuilt everything from the TV show, and added a lot of detail to the models. We followed the notion that if we broke every single render into its bare components-the raw RGB channel, diffuse, specular, fill, self-lighting, etc.-we would have more flexibility in compositing the final images, and that was essential for this movie.

We had to deal with huge amounts of data storage and the way in which we tracked the data. Also, we started implementing a new pipeline to seamlessly support the mixture of [Alias’s] Maya and [NewTek’s] LightWave imagery, but that was not ready until the show had wrapped.

We did everything from space battles to 3D matte paintings and hovercraft. A lot of the work we did in the mule/skiff chase involved terrain replacement, which we did in Maya and [Mental Images’] Mental Ray, as well as smoke creation, which we did with the fluid dynamics in Maya. In the large space battles, we did the majority of the work in LightWave, and created everything from explosions to smoke to engine exhaust. We also crafted several shots of the Serenity in the rain, which we did by layering spec channels and creating drip emitters with painted weight maps for the water runoff. For the same sequence of shots, we created a beautiful sky that was a combination of Maya and LightWave particles, Mental Ray and LightWave renders, and cloud planes on image maps.

Most of the ‘wow’ shots involved the Serenity; one of my favorites is of the ship re-entering the atmosphere. We focus the shot on the Serenity logo and pull back to reveal the ship itself; next, we move around the craft in a beauty shot. Slowly, the vessel starts to heat up until it is in full-bore atmospheric re-entry, and then we turn and look through the windows at some of the crew. As for shots of pure aesthetic pleasure, the Reaver Space sequence has the most beautiful lighting in the film.

The diversity of the effects was a challenge. While we didn’t have any character animation, we had a lot of organic type of effects. For example, the camera work had to feel handheld in order to blend with the live action. That can be hard to achieve if you don’t have experience or a background using real cameras. Another issue was the terrain generation that we had to develop for the mule/skiff scenes, where we camera-tracked shots and blended in foliage to exactly match what had been surrounding a concrete road.

Using LightWave, Maya, Photoshop, and Body Paint, as well as other tools, Zoic created 220 VFX shots for the movie Serenity. Many of the effects included shots of the spaceship.

As I mentioned earlier, the most challenging was the terrain generation. We did it in two ways. First, we developed a system of instancing the foliage from a library of paint effects that we created from the surrounding vegetation. We would then have a particle field and instance the items where we could dial in the amount of any type of vegetation. Toward the last couple of shots, we actually went to a geometry solution, where we just layered in matching models of the vegetation to get the task done as quickly as possible.

The most unique aspect would have to be the camera work. Joss wanted the feel to be documentary-styled and action-oriented-not the typical flawless CG camera moves people are used to. We utilized the CG camera just like you would a real camera. We used long lenses to foreshorten the action. We added shake when using an extremely long lens, and we overshot the action when framing it in the camera. All this led to a much more visceral feeling.

We started in March 2004 and delivered our last shot in June 2005. Initially, we were supposed to be done by February 2005, but the schedule was extended after the film’s release date was pushed back.

We had a core group of about eight CG artists on the show, but it ramped up and down through production to 20 or more. In compositing, Patti Gannon and her team started very small and then ramped up to around 20 people as well.

Illusion Arts did the Mr. Universe establishing shots and the Beaumonde matte paintings, while Rhythm & Hues did great work in the generator room and funeral sequence. They each did about 40 shots. Perpetual Motion Pictures did about 100 generic wire removals and greenscreen shots, and Grant McCune FX did several shots with a practical model it had built for the crash sequence.

We were able to get in the little things that we strived to achieve in the TV show, such as the much-enhanced detail on the ships, the refinement of the ships’ movement, and, most importantly, the interaction of the effects with the live action.

We had more time to achieve the look we wanted in the film. We could sit down and dissect the shots to a much greater extent. In TV, you are on a very tight schedule, and usually if it looks passable, it is acceptable. In this case, the director was able to get the vision he wanted, and we were able to accommodate him in that way. I have worked on several films in the past, but this was the most collaborative effort yet, and it worked well for us.

Emile Edwin Smith
of Zoic Studios is the CG supervisor for Serenity, a live-action film about galactic outcasts 500 years in the future. Zoic generated 220 of the movie’s 400 effects shots.