Turning Back Time
Courtney Howard
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 8: (Oct/Nov 2011)

Turning Back Time

Terra Nova, the much-anticipated new television series airing Monday nights on Fox, is a unique combination of science fiction and drama, which melds not only futuristic and prehistoric elements, but also live action, computer graphics, and visual effects.

The show takes place in the year 2149, with people on Earth facing probable extinction, until scientists devise a working time machine capable of transporting inhabitants back in time roughly 85 million years.  The series closely follows the five-member Shannon family as they, along with myriad others, start life anew in the plush, prehistoric terrain of the new colony called Terra Nova.

Fox officials and a long list of executive producers behind Terra Nova—including Steven Spielberg, and showrunners Brannon Braga and Rene Echevaria—effectively built up signifi cant suspense and excitement in anticipation of Terra Nova ’s September premiere. A Super Bowl TV commercial, full trailer, and sneak preview at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con event—each sample released in succession over the span of six months, between January and July—fueled interest and provided audiences everywhere all-too-brief glimpses of what would culminate in Terra Nova ’s two hour premiere and subsequent first season.

“This thing is going to be huge,” predicted Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly in October 2010. “It’s going to take an enormous production commitment.”

The production is, by all accounts, ambitious. It was filmed in Australia on more than 250 sets. Fox, abandoning the typical wait-and-see approach, ordered not a pilot, but the fi rst series of 13 episodes—taking Terra Nova through the end of the year. Each episode reportedly enjoys an average budget of $4 million, requires roughly eight days of filming, and spends six weeks (twice the average stint) in postproduction.

True to its name, the show breaks into new  territory, particularly in the area of visual effects. While typical VFX-heavy shows might feature 10 shots of “the big CG creature,” Terra Nova features between 20 and 70 shots with CG creatures per episode.

Getting Started

In the fall of 2010, Kevin Blank, VFX supervisor on Terra Nova (who has worked on groundbreaking pilots including Lost, FlashForward, Fringe, and Hawaii Five-O, as well as the movies Cloverfield and Mission: Impossible III), and John Parenteau, general manager of Pixomondo Los Angeles, assembled a team of artists to begin developing creatures for the new series.

Renowned creature designer Neville Page (Cloverfield) worked with lead creature  modeler/designer Dan Katcher and animation director (and original Pixar member) Colin Brady at Pixomondo to develop how the creatures would look and move. Jason Zimmerman took the reins as Pixomondo VFX supervisor, while Pixomondo CG supervisor Eric Hance rounded out the team.

As Pixomondo artists were advancing Terra Nova’s creature designs, the company’s founder and CEO, Thilo Kuther, collaborated with industry veteran Mark Miller to open a new Pixomondo studio in Burbank, California, catering to the CG and VFX needs of this high-end television series. Under Miller’s guidance as GM, they built a new pipeline process designed to accommodate the ambitious show—a  television/feature-film hybrid—and in the process, expanded the company’s global network to 11 studios in six countries.

Hybrid Pipeline

A team of approximately 50 Pixomondo artists—including the animation, CG, modeling, and compositing teams—worked on the two hour Terra Nova premiere. As with all VFX projects, time and money were key factors in determining the tool set for Terra Nova, along with finding the right artists.

“We had this grand, beautiful creature project coming in and knew that we had to find the right artists and not worry about software,” says Zimmerman. “We asked them what they needed in order to do the job, and then found a way to work it into the pipeline. We use the term ‘software agnostic’ around here quite a bit.”

The pipeline included Autodesk’s Maya for animation; NewTek’s LightWave 3D for rendering; pixologic’s ZBrush for modeling, texturing and painting; Planetside Software’s Terragen for scene generation; and a combination of The Foundry’s Nuke and Adobe’s After Effects for compositing. In addition to these off-the-shelf tools, the crew at Pixomondo generated a great deal of custom scripts. Scripter Jennifer Hachigian overcame cache issues by writing a series of Python scripts that worked with LightWave’s text-based project file structure, in essence bridging Maya and LightWave for lighting tasks. The Pythonbased render-pass system and a number of right-click actions further automated technical work wherever possible, from updating XML files to swapping out geometry.

“Our mixed pipeline would not be possible without LightWave’s native support of Autodesk file formats and linear color space workflow,” Hachigian notes.

Devising Dinosaurs

Artists built the dinosaurs—some based on science and history, and some imagined and fictitious—in ZBrush under the direction of Dan Katcher. They then used Maya to animate and rig the creatures. In LightWave, the team did the final renders, shader work, and worked out the subsurface scattering to see the “blood and guts” under the creatures’ skin.

“We used the subsurface scatter materials inside LightWave’s Node Editor to do the complex light penetrations,” says Hance. “We also used HDRIs that Kevin Blank shot on set to match the live plates. We knew that if the dinosaur’s skin looked like plastic, we’d be in trouble.”

CG lighting lead Ed Ruiz performed much of Pixomondo’s shader work for the creatures. Because TV timelines are so short, it was important for Pixomondo to find tools that saved the artists time. “It was a huge headache to transfer a lighting kit or set HDRIs from one scene to another in some other pieces of software,” Hance says. With LightWave’s Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR), the team was able to quickly turn around adjustments to the lighting and shading work.

Pixomondo set up a hybrid pipeline to handle the ambitious effects in the TV series, including a
variety of dinosaurs, luscious landscapes, and sci-fi/prehistoric backdrops.

Fur for Television

In the second half of the Terra Nova premiere, the fictional species of dinosaur called Acceraptors,
or “Slashers,” arrive on the scene. Gorgeous yet formidable creatures, Slashers bring the added CG complexity of fur. Creating fur is a huge undertaking and not something frequently seen on episodic television. Terra Nova episodes routinely have 20 to 30 shots that include fur-covered creatures.

“We knew we would need additional buffers for the fur,” Hance recalls. “It’s a high-end pipeline; people don’t just take the rendered image and make it a little brighter or a little bit darker. You need to be able to give the compositors what will buffer, such as specularity, diffuse, raw, depth, and all those things. They need high levels of control to nail it to the plate.” Using FiberFX within LightWave, CG fur lead Sean Jackson had the Slashers well covered.

“Fibers respect light, just as the parent geometry does, and can even use that geometry’s innate texture and weight mapping to control color, dispersal, length…you name it,” explains Jackson. “The rendered fur can respect gravity and dynamics with the scene, and can even be styled and combed directly within the scene itself on the fly.”

Unique Undertaking

Zimmerman counts virtually everything about this project as being unique. “One of the challenges of this show was walking in and setting things up,” he says. “It’s always interesting when you’re on the frontier and setting up the pipeline for the first time; but, to be doing that hand-in-hand with the biggest TV pilot ever made…it was a fantastic opportunity.”

Pixomondo achieved the results audiences see on screen by constructing a pipeline that was truly a hybrid of TV and feature-film approaches. “We knew that a typical TV pipeline likely would not be able to support the kind of quality aspirations that the studio had. Because we were building a new studio pipeline from scratch, we were able to cater a very specific need,” says Zimmerman.

In addition to handling all VFX for Terra Nova, Pixomondo’s Burbank studio pipeline is working on Hawaii Five-O and the upcoming series Perception, among other projects. They have also  created shots for Fringe, Chuck, Outsourced, and Outlaw.

“Pretty much everything about this project has been extremely ambitious,” Blank acknowledges.
“These creatures upped the ante quite a bit for anything on television. A number of people on our team are award-nominated and Academy/Emmy/VES Award-winning artists. They’re great people who happen to be fantastic artists. As for Terra Nova, it really is one of those shows that you could only just dream about a year ago.”

Courtney E. Howard is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at cehoward@twitchinc.net.