Effects Driven
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 6 (June 2007)

Effects Driven

For the past several years, Zoic Studios has helped fast-track movie-quality visual effects on television by creating stunning imagery for a number of series, including Battle­star Galactica, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, CSI: Crime Scene Investi­gation, and more. Most recently, the facility found itself behind the wheel in a new action-fueled Fox Television drama called Drive.

Drive follows a diverse group of Americans driving for their lives, or the lives of a loved one, in a sinister, cross-country road race. Some of them have been coerced into joining the race, while others have sought out the race on their own amid rumors of a $32 million prize. To put viewers on the edge of their seats (and in their seats) during the pilot, Zoic created a cutting-edge, two-minute opening sequence that employs a range of digital and photographic techniques.

The segment moves seamlessly from the open highway and into, around, and through six cars and a motorcycle, guiding the audience to the leader and the star of the series, Nathan Fillion, at the front of the pack. Zoic accomplished this through a combination of live-action stunt photography, a 220-degree matching highway psyclorama, greenscreen stage work, CG cars, reflections, and characters. “Drive required the entire gamut of visual effects practices to accomplish the new techniques in the scene,” says Loni Peristere, creative director and partner at Zoic. The result is a seamless experience in race photography as seen through the eyes of an omniscient camera whose lens is not bound by physics or structure.
Zoic Studios created a number of digital images and
effects for the new Fox Television drama Drive.
What looks real often is not, as this image series
illustrates. Above, from top to bottom, shows the
elements comprising the final comp

Planning the Drive

According to Peristere, the dramatic opening sequence was made possible through extensive previsualization and planning that required the production and effects crews to follow a meticulous road map; that map itemized and scheduled each step in the lengthy and complex process. The previz not only considered the technical limitations of the camera equipment, but also established the technical requirements of the sequence. The end result appears to be one layer, although, in reality, it comprises several thousand layers. Moreover, it doesn’t appear to have much technical flash; the effect is almost invisible, save for the fact that the viewers have this improbable omniscient view, says Peristere. 

The script called for a shot that moved into the Florida Keys over Highway 1, then down onto the road where the camera would pass in and out of seven vehicles involved in the race, thus introducing the cars and the drivers. With this in mind, Peristere and creative director Chris Jones met with Robyn Roepstorff, a senior previz supervisor who built the previsualization in Autodesk’s Maya. The artists at Zoic then brought this layout to the set, where they used it as a working template for shooting, giving CG supervisor Jarrod Davis the ability to make changes when necessary. 

As Peristere explains, he and others gathered the stunt team and professional drivers around the monitors to discuss the layout of the 37 pieces of the puzzle they would need to make the shot whole. After they viewed the previz, the group moved to a long table where Andy Gill, the stunt coordinator, used Matchbox cars to illustrate the shot pieces to the drivers, so everyone could see the action from the top down. “From there, we jumped into the vehicles, rehearsed, and then shot the pieces,” Peristere says. “The stunt team, led by Spiro Ratzos, had to hit dangerous, hard marks at high speeds. Once we had our take for the performance, we had to retake the scene using CircleVision (consisting of several independent film plates) for our psyclorama.”

According to Peristere, this meticulous prep enabled the group to cut the shooting schedule in half, and as a result, make the action and coverage broader and better—“key successes for television production,” he adds.

The camera moves seamlessly among vehicles in the opening
sequence. Yet, the actors were never actually on the ride, thanks to VFX.

Roadside Assistance

The sequence, at its core, shows an entire freeway with several hundred cars, all incorporated into a continuous two-minute shot. And the layers add up: foreground live action, onstage greenscreen technocrane match plates, background CircleVision psycloramas, a live-action exit, 3D tracking, 3D reflection passes, 3D specular passes, 3D key lighting, a 3D beauty pass, a 3D ground pass, a 3D tire pass, a secondary 3D traffic pass, and more. In addition, Zoic had to introduce 11 characters in seven moving vehicles without a cut.

“It’s two minutes-plus, and the most challenging part was creating the illusion of a camera that seems to move freely up and down the freeway at high speed, passing in and out of cars as it introduces the characters,” describes Peristere. “No equipment or solution alone could make this happen; it required a concept of ideas developed by many experienced people.”

While the end result is an invisible effect that seems simple and unimpressive, quite the opposite was true. According to Peristere, the plan initially seemed improbable from the concept stage. “It was a creative idea that did not have a solution that could be applied out of the box,” he says. “Rather, it required a giant think tank involving stunts, production, special effects, and post to even begin to fathom, and even with all that planning, we were unsure of its final potential.”

All the driving shots involved digital compositing and 3D reflections and lighting applications. So, everything was, to some extent, affected digitally, despite the fact that the imagery originated from photography. “The actors never went on the road. We used visual effects to put them there,” Peristere points out. “We needed to move freely in and out of the vehicles, and the CG windscreens and car interiors at times allowed us to shoot without limitations.”

Similarly, the car exteriors could only be used in a limited fashion, so CG vehicles—modeled in Luxology’s Modo, animated in Maya, and rendered with NewTek’s LightWave—often were placed within the real-world environment to augment the scenes. According to Peristere, the CG cars were used mainly when the practical cars could not be timed to meet the complex performance demands. 

The most pressing demand was for a solution that would allow the camera to move around the freeway in an apparently omniscient manner without the usual motion-control limitations. Moreover, the team needed to carry the effect into episodic production, which can require the work to come together in literally less than a week. And key to this was an internal application dubbed ZoicEarth, which, in itself, became a complicated R&D project, albeit one that worked well toward Zoic’s endgame of creating a virtual “drive-through” world.

ZoicEarth is a 2D/3D proprietary im­ple­mentation of immersive CircleVision camera plates that gives the director the freedom to move the camera in any way he or she desires. This became ideal for the show’s backgrounds, as it allowed the camera to move freely on the stage, thereby creating an extra level of realism to the shots. However, this process results in a terminal parallax that cannot account for near-ground vehicles. Therefore, those cars had to be computer-generated or shot on stage. Zoic did both, depending on the story point.

“The [CircleVision] effect involved a high level of R&D, and we actually walked down several roads until we found the best one,” says Peristere. “The photographic technique we used in the final was not a sure thing, and we actually overbuilt the CG assets to protect ourselves if we failed in the photographic approach. The big question we had going in was whether or not the lack of parallax in the near-ground would render the photographic method unusable; in post we discovered this wasn’t an issue, as the nodal point of the CircleVision rig and its offset were good enough to render the midground authentically. The near-ground on the highway wasn’t an issue here, and when it became one later, we used CG. That is why the motorcycle was built in CG.”

The series of shots, just like every driving shot in the show, was a composite; the actors never left the sound stage. The CircleVision camera system uses up to nine motion-picture cameras to capture a 360-degree picture in motion and in sync. The resulting plates were then stitched together and rendered out for the ZoicEarth application, which involved the application of a 3D track and the subsequent rendering of 3D passes that later were used not only as background imagery but also as a lighting and reflection kit in 3D for placing on the road the vehicles that were shot on stage.

Zoic then used the lighting chart gathered on location to light the greenscreen set. Working in Adobe’s After Effects, Apple’s Shake, and Autodesk’s Combustion, the compositors prepped the plates, added the backgrounds, and color-corrected the imagery, then handed them off to Steve Meyer, composite supervisor, who brought all the big pieces together in an Autodesk Flame system.

“One of the cool things about doing so much photography for this [sequence] was the quick comp. On stage it looked good, but the comp had mismatched lighting and reflections that could not come from any other place besides a digital application applied by an artist with a good eye,” says Peristere. In the end, Meyer, along with Nate Overstrom, brought these elements together using 3D renders of CG vehicles provided by Davis.
All the actors were filmed on a greenscreen set (above);
Zoic added background imagery to finish the shots.

Final Destination

In all, this VFX trip took a 16-person team at Zoic nearly six weeks to complete. Along the way, they encountered new sites—requiring the formation of the ZoicEarth application, which is now part of the facility’s tool set. Says Peristere: “It’s one killer tool, but it wasn’t easy to set up.”

And Zoic is continuing its journey on this series. Drive features locations all over the country, but production will never leave the city of Los Angeles. The exterior driving sequences, which take the audience from location to location, will be photographed on a greenscreen stage, while the location-based exteriors will be shot by a second unit and combined in post. In all, Drive will feature more than 120 greenscreen composites per episode, transporting the viewer and the cast all over the US and beyond, and Zoic will be navigating that work, in addition to contributing a number of 3D set extensions.

So, how is the effects work for Drive helping Zoic push the state of the art on television yet again? According to Peristere, the work has opened up the creative aspect somewhat. “The stage production of location work is not only economical but practical. We can shoot 14 pages a day without worrying about tow rigs and wild walls,” he says. “This is efficient and exciting.” 

Furthermore, the composited world opens up production value, allowing the crew to travel to exotic locations—or just down the street—without the myriad of complications that come along with taking the first unit there. “It is really a beginning for a tool and a process that will evolve and give us a great deal for less,” says Peristere. “The realism of the work also gives production new answers to problems that they may have written themselves out of before. Now they can keep the idea in the show because we can give it to them without breaking the bank or the schedule.”

On set, Zoic used its proprietary ZoicEarth, which gave the director the
freedom to move the camera without limitation, resulting in
a virtual drive-through world.
As Zoic proved, anything can happen on a road trip.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.