'In-hancing' Grimm
Eddie Robinson
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 5: (July/August 2013)

'In-hancing' Grimm

Inhance Digital moved to Los Angeles from the Bay Area in 2005 to expand its business into television and feature-film visual effects. Inhance’s mainstay has been producing cutting-edge corporate animation and post for Fortune 500 companies, including a who’s who of aerospace, defense, pharmaceutical, biomedical, and technological powerhouses, such as Raytheon, Sikorsky, Boeing, BAE Systems, NASA, Amgen, and Cisco.

I took a position with Inhance in 2006, applying 15 years of industry experience to spearhead an effort to break into the TV VFX market. We landed our first television client with CSI Miami and began to grow the VFX department along with Inhance’s booming corporate division. Over the last six years, we have grown from 18 artists, producers, and support staff to over 100. Our TV clients have included CSI Miami, Boss, The Cape, The Big C, Cougar Town, Person of Interest, Nashville, and our largest client to date, NBC’s hit show Grimm.

Grimm Producer Steve Oster and VFX Supervisor Ed Irastarza had used Inhance exclusively on The Cape, and, when the time came, they included Inhance, among other post houses, to work on the pilot episode for Grimm. Because we weren’t known for creature work, we were given all the other types of effects instead. We did all the greenscreens, set extensions, matte paintings, and effects such as fire, blood, and smoke gags.

After the show was picked up and we had solidified our new working relationship with Grimm, we set about convincing them that we, too, could do creature effects. Although there were three other facilities working on Grimm at the time, we were the only house working on virtually every episode, but we wanted the more prestigious shots.

Along with Matt Lefferts, one of our senior artists, I began doing some tests to showcase our capabilities. We did these at our own insistence and on our own dime, redoing shots other houses had done from scratch and sending them up the chain as proof of our capabilities. I guess it worked because by Episode 12 of Season One, I had completed our first five creature shots for the series. It was an alligator creature who was a fighter in an underground cage-fighting ring. For Episode 13, Lefferts turned Hitler into a “Blutbad” (werewolf) for an amusing and very memorable punctuation to that story line. And with that, we were in the creature business. Both episodes were well received, and Inhance had successfully changed how our clients perceived us.

INHANCE PROVED it could handle the creatures for Grimm, and now the facility is a prime vendor on the show, creating a range of effects.

A Grimm Future

Flash forward to today, where we are finishing up work on 79 shots for Episode 18 of Season Two. Grimm is a smash hit for NBC, and Inhance is now one of the main VFX houses at work on the series. We still do the bulk of what I call the “invisible effects,” and we still work on every episode. The difference is that now we are heavy into creature effects, as well. We have done many creatures, including an owl man, leech, cobra, rat, troll, mouse, snake, gator, werewolf, bee, fly, lizard, and, most recently, an episode with an otter and a fairy.

For these types of shots, we have two similar pipelines, the only difference being the 3D package in which the creatures (or “Wesen,” as they are called in Grimm speak) are animated and rendered. We divide the creature work between Autodesk’s 3ds Max and NewTek’s LightWave. The furry or hairy ones are completed in Max, while the scaly, more textural ones are done in LightWave. Either way, both methods generally start in Pixologic’s ZBrush.

Production provides us with stills of the actor and concept sketches of what the creature looks like. Either Lefferts or our LightWave creature artist, Patrick Horne, starts fleshing out the character using ZBrush and finish in their respective 3D packages by producing a “turntable” render of the 3D sculpt to send to the client for approval. Once a buy-off on the model is in hand, animation can begin. The characters are rigged while background footage of each shot is 3D tracked in Andersson Technologies’ Synth­Eyes by Compositing and Tracking Artist Jeremy Nelson. The camera data is sent to Horne, Lefferts, artist Jason Maynard, or me to matchmove, animate, light, and render the character in several passes.

Compositing is the final stage of the shot, and Inhance uses Eyeon’s Fusion 6 to pain­stakingly layer the render passes with the background plate to produce a realistic shot of a Wesen, in human form, turning into a creature right before viewers’ eyes. The actor is rotoscoped so that the 3D creature fits into the actor’s clothing. Oftentimes we have to augment the actual clothing the actor was wearing, and most of the time a clean plate has to be generated so the actor’s head can be removed. This technique guards against parts of the real actor’s head peeking out from behind the CG character.

THE ACTOR'S HEAD is roto'd and replaced with that of a 3D creature, here an owl.

It is important to note that these kinds of effects, considered impossible on a TV budget and timeline until recently, usually take place in a medium to close-up shot, fully lit, in full-frame high definition. The client insists that we really see it happen. It is never hidden in the shadows or set back in a wide shot. This takes considerable skill and a variety of specialists using several different types of software, all working together on an extremely tight turnaround. Inhance VFX Producer Jason Sax will tell you that a typical episode of Grimm can be upward of 70 shots. Ten or 12 of those may be creature shots. Depending on the time of the season we are in, we may get 10 days to finish, all the while overlapping into the next episode with its own unique set of challenges.

Augmenting the artists named above in the VFX department are several 3D artists and compositors who help out with Grimm while simultaneously working on other in-house VFX projects. This includes steady clients like ABC’s hit show Nashville. You wouldn’t think of Nashville as being a visual effects show, but we fill up those large venues where the actors perform with thousands of concert-goers, shot at actual country music shows months apart. Other notable work from this past TV season includes some really fun shots for Cougar Town. We re-created an iconic effect from the film Snow White and the Huntsman, whereby we made Courtney Cox explode into a murder of crows, which then fly off in all directions. In another episode, Inhance used real seagulls, shot on greenscreen, and CG seagulls to swarm around and chase Cox down the beach.

Inhance’s VFX department continues to grow, despite several of our more high-profile shows going off the air and a climate where VFX work is leaving town for cheaper pastures. We have done so because we offer high-quality product at competitive rates. We are able to do this because we work smart and fast. Clients see first drafts of shots at a very early stage, and we are able to hone in on what they are really looking for very quickly. Our artists are all capable, and we use the best tools for the job, which means we are flexible. We are also extremely well supported by our company owners and IT department staff.

We have a large renderfarm that is first-rate. We offer “blinding speed” for uploading shots to our clients via our Fibre Channel to the Net. We have an entire department of motion graphics artists, usually working on projects for our corporate clients who, on occasion, are involved with us on pitches and jobs that require main title work. Last summer, we completed our first feature-film project, Atlas Shrugged II, and we are currently bidding on a few more. It is in this arena that we hope to grow more. We feel diversity is the key to thriving in this industry.

As we finish Grimm for the season, we are rolling into pilot work. We have new shows that we are working on, and after that, if there’s a break in the action, we will fold into some corporate work for the summer months until TV starts up again. Or, like last summer, we will work on a film project. Either way, you will always find the same team of artists working here, year round, regardless of the season.