Death Becomes Them
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 3 (March 2005)

Death Becomes Them

Recently ending its second and possibly final season, Showtime’s original series Dead Like Me livened up cable television with its dark humor and Emmy-nominated visual effects that place a new spin on life, death, and what might follow.

The series focuses on Georgia Lass, a cynical college dropout lacking ambition and direction. While on a lunch break from a boring temp job, she is struck and killed by a toilet seat that falls from the MIR space station. She then joins a group of grim reapers who, like herself, died with unresolved issues. With many “life” lessons to learn, these reapers exist among the living in the Pacific Northwest-eating, sleeping, working, and so forth-yet they perform some unique functions, such as collecting the souls of the just departed.

To lend a tongue-in-cheek spirit to the series, the manners of death can entail far-fetched scenarios, such as the one involving Georgia, or those that are ironic, such as when animal rights activists get mauled by a caged bear they are trying to release. As a result of the show’s bizarre bent, the “death scene” effects had to be computer generated. Yet, because the effects are so integral to the story lines, the artists to had ensure that the CG blended naturally into the live action.

“Most of the effects are used when we cannot accomplish what we want for the script-and often, that involves killing people, which is difficult to do practically,” chuckles Jennifer McEachern, Dead Like Me’s visual effects supervisor.
Showtime’s Dead Like Me original series uses digital imagery and effects, such as the CG graveling creature (atop the couch), to drive its unusual story lines that focus on death.

Each episode contains approximately 20 effects shots, which are planned by McEachern and senior visual effects supervisor Robert Habros at MGM’s Bridge Studios in Vancouver, Canada. The actual effects, however, are generated by any number of local postproduction facilities under the duo’s supervision. The two-hour pilot, for example, contained nearly 120 effects shots, including those by Rainmaker and Image Engine depicting an elaborate train wreck.

To create the harrowing accident during which a passenger train car disengages and careens down a steep hillside, McEachern and Habros located stock film footage of a moving freight train that served as the base of the action. Also, using NewTek’s LightWave, Rainmaker built a CG replica of a practical train car that the actors boarded during an earlier scene. The artists then animated and composited the 3D model into the film plate with Discreet’s Inferno, digitally replacing the freight train in the stock footage. To complete the accident, Rainmaker and Image Engine crafted digital matte paintings of the hillside, while live tree elements shot on bluescreen provided foreground elements.

Like the train scene, a number of Dead Like Me’s digital effects are created in CG, but others are done using filmed elements, which are added later during postproduction. In the show’s “Always” episode, for example, post house Atmosphere Visual Effects used breaking glass elements, shot against bluescreen, for a scene in which glass shards from an office building rain down on victims below. To accomplish this particular effect in-camera, the group filmed real sheets of glass against bluescreen as they were dropped from a forklift situated just out of the frame. To get more out of the effect, the team shot the action using 35mm film at 120 frames per second (fps) instead of 24 fps, which allowed the action to be slowed down without excessive motion blur. The team then filmed this action using several takes-with the glass breaking as it hit the ground, as it fell on a blue sawhorse, and as it broke over a dummy standing in for a victim-to obtain different breakage results that coincided with the action in the scene. With so many takes, the compositors were able to build up the elements so that the glass shards in the final scene had more volume and weight.
To create this scene, effects artists at Atmosphere combined bluescreen shots of several different types of practical glass breaks, including one of a pane crashing over a blue dummy, which served as a stand-in for the actor in the final composited shot.

Simultaneously, the team filmed the action with an HD camera, which enabled the artists to better blend and transition the effects shots into the live-action plate. Meanwhile, blue mannequins were placed on the ground level as stand-ins for the actors, who were later composited into the scene. Finally, the artists used numerous layers of shards from the bluescreen shots to matte tiny bits of glass in and around the actors, helping to blend the stunt footage and some larger glass elements.

Not all of the show’s effects, however, are done for a single episode, as there are several recurring “signature” elements. Among them is the so-called soul ripple-a glowing distortion, created by Rainmaker using the Inferno system-that appears after a reaper touches a person who is about to die. Depending on the scenario, the artists sometimes augment that reaction with pre-shot footage of smoke elements.

“A lot of our inspiration, and the base of many of the series’ effects, come from organic elements,” says Rainmaker digital artist Carmen Pollard, “which gives the images an ethereal look yet makes them more realistic.”

The show also features a CG character, called a graveling, a mischievous creature from the afterworld that sets deadly accidents into motion. Created by Image Engine, the graveling-the brainchild of the series creator, Bryan Fuller-looks like a cross between Gollum and a porcupine, and is visible only to the reapers.

Following the design process, CG artists spent another month building the3D model in Alias’s Maya. To animate the creature, a team rigged the model inside Maya, using inverse kinematics and blend shapes to achieve the desired movement. As Habros explains, Fuller wanted the graveling to be amphibious and, when desired, to scale walls as well. For this reason, the graveling’s forearms are larger than its biceps, similar to a frog’s anatomy. “Its movements are quite different from that of a biped,” says Habros. “So you end up with joints that are fixed, like an amphibian’s, but every now and then the creature will stand upright and move in a human-like way.” Accomplishing this wide range of motion required the animators to rework and reskin the model before giving it human motion.
For one episode in which the gravelings swim underwater, applied dynamics allowed the quills on the creatures to react to the environment, while caustics were used for the underwater lighting.

Using Adobe’s Photoshop, the artists then textured the model, giving the creature bumpy, wart-like skin with quills running down its back. “My texturing process comes from the practical school of visual effects, which entails airbrushing,” explains Kevin Little, digital effects supervisor at Image Engine, “whereby layers and layers of color are applied to the model in Photoshop until they give it an almost fractal-like skin pattern.” The final models were rendered in LighWave.

Last, the team composited the gravelings into the live action with Eyeon Software’s Digital Fusion. To ensure that the CG character (whether by itself or in a group) blended seamlessly into the plate, a team from Image Engine employed HDRI as its main lighting technique, using a mirrored ball and a gray ball to capture the on-set lighting and shadows, respectively, before applying that information to the CGI.

When the gravelings move in a scene, they move quickly, phasing in and out between the dimensions of the living and the dead. “The concept is that the gravelings could be around us all the time if they wanted to, only we just can’t see them,” explains Habros. “They make the transition from one dimension to another whenever they slow down. It’s like seeing a flash out of the corner of your eye, where you know something was there, but you can’t tell what it was.”

In the first season, only Georgia saw the creatures, but could catch only a fleeting glimpse. However, the artists knew that as the series progressed, the character would have more camera time, so they made sure that the original model contained enough detail to withstand that kind of scrutiny. In the second season, some of the other reapers also could see the gravelings. And, in three consecutive episodes, the creature evolves from a shadowy figure to a major player when an unusual graveling gets a starring role. In those episodes, Eric McCormack guest-stars as a charming but untrustworthy reality-TV producer named Ray, and when he dies, a white graveling is born.

“This was a big moment in the series’ folklore, because it introduced a new character with a unique personality, and it hints at where the gravelings may come from,” explains McEachern. “If you are a very bad person, a graveling comes out of your corpse in place of a soul.”
In one episode, the fleeting 3D graveling evolves from an effect to a main character, an albino creature named Ray. Rather than remodeling the creature from scratch, the artists used the same body mesh as they did for the other gravelings, but gave Ray a

According to Habros, the team wanted this particular creature to be different from the other gravelings, yet it had be consistent in appearance to the others. The group’s solution was to create Ray as an albino graveling, but retain the same form as the original gravelings, just with a more extensive quill setup and a different texture map.

Nevertheless, using an all-white CG character spawned a new challenge. “When you put a white model into any environment, it reflects all the light in the room,” explains Habros. “So, suddenly, he’s pink, then blue. And when you put him outside, he’s blinding white, and it looks like a bad composite.” To overcome this hurdle, the group at Image Engine spent two weeks altering the lighting and shaders in LightWave until, says Little, the model finally sat in the frame right. “The Ray creature straddles the line between a character and an effect,” he notes.

The artists used the main graveling body mesh for the albino as they did for the fleeting characters. But since the creature did not have to match the flock exactly, the artists made some minor tweaks, including the creation of new hand-painted texture maps and the use of a new hair-dynamics system now built into Maya 6. “It definitely proved to be a faster calculation system and more stable than the setup we were using, which took overnight to complete a full-sequence calculation for driving the geometric quills,” notes Little.
The artists spent a good deal of time adjusting the lighting and shading within LightWave so that the white CG character Ray wouldn’t reflect the set lights and would fit naturally into the live scenes.

Alas, like all beings in the show, the albino creature dies, having lived for only three episodes before perishing in a flashy, Hollywood fashion as it froze, disintegrated, and then crumbled into dust. This sequence of events was achieved with rigid-body dynamics, which enabled the group to freeze vertexes on the model’s geometry and then, through the use of another MEL script, apply a UV map. The MEL script generated a soft-body duplicate from the geometry that then froze the soft-body particles in place when the artists exported the models to LightWave, where they wrote another script that broke the model apart using a different algorithm. The team then ran that through a rigid-body dynamics simulation. Meanwhile, all the residual organic effects-smoke, dust, etc.-were done using Maya fluids and a Maya particle pass.

And like the albino, Dead Like Me met its own demise recently, as the network chose not to renew the series despite its edgy look, graphics, and content. However, the evolutionary tale of life, death, and what lies beyond will be resurrected this summer as Show-time re-airs Season 1 and 2. The series may even get a second life, as insiders speculate on the possibility that another network may pick up the property.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.