Issue: Volume 36 Issue 6: (Sept/Oct 2013)

New World Order


Claudia Kienzle

In the science-fiction television series Defiance, Earth is a very different place than we know today.

A galactic war incident drastically changes the topology and biosphere of the planet, leading to the extinction of native plants and animals, and introducing new, deadly species. In this new land, hellbugs, Saberwolves, and Volge mercenaries are among the extraordinary, exotic, and vicious creatures that roam the Earth in this period. St. Louis is now a place called Defiance, and its human residents must coexist with survivors of eight different Votan races.

Defiance - Volge

CREATURES AND ALIENS occupy a changed Earth in the television series Defiance. Artists created the characters and backdrops in LightWave.

To quickly convey this complex, multi-faceted story line, Defiance (airing on the Syfy Network) depends heavily on 3D animated creatures, virtual environments, and visual and physical effects. “To successfully immerse viewers in Defiance, our virtual environments need to be captivating, cohesive, and credible,” says Gary Hutzel, visual effects supervisor for Defiance.

Defiance - Indogene Defiance - Indogene greenscreen

MOST OF THE ACTION is filmed against greenscreen and added into all-CG environments.

The first season, which began April 15, 2013, required 1,100 visual effects scenes and extensive greenscreen compositing to create the credible world that synthesized recognizable elements of Earth with menacing, mutant, and alien forms. Working under the time constraints of an intense production schedule, Hutzel and his lean team of CG artists leveraged NewTek’s LightWave 3D to design, build, and animate the lion’s share of the series’ effects.

“We were given the tall order of creating a massive number of new and modified assets. So it’s astonishing how few people we have creating this much work on the schedule,” says CG Artist Jesse Toves. “Two trends converged to make this possible. First, the 3D software matured to the point where we’re confident we can find a solution to most common and more complex visual effects problems. Second, our CG artists have gelled into a tight-knit group of professionals whose experience and expertise with LightWave and many other applications make collaboration second nature. We tend to be generalists capable of handling every aspect of the visual effects sequences required by Defiance.”

Throughout the process, the CG team tackled and solved many creative challenges and problems. Some of the series’ 3D creatures and virtual environments first appeared in the 84-minute pilot, but most of the individual episodes featured entirely new CGI environments, revealing more of the world as the season progressed. These creatures, plus entirely new ones yet to be imagined, will likely appear in season two.

“There isn’t enough money in the world to build the world of Defiance for real. With LightWave, we were able to create this extraordinary world on a tight budget and schedule,” says CG Artist Sean Jackson.

Defiance - St Louis Arch

DEFIANCE ARTISTS sculpted a digital landscape that is familiar yet alien at the same time.

World Building

The animators preferred to work intuitively as the tasks at hand dictated, rather than follow a strict workflow process. For the creatures, they generated models based on a few sets of geometry that they then custom-altered as part of the rigging process. In some cases, they also opted to use LightWave’s instancing tool for cloning a single 3D object to form large groups, such as packs or swarms. “Without instancing, we would’ve been dealing with hundreds of millions of polygons. It would’ve been a nightmare,” Toves says.

Saberwolves travel in packs and surround their prey before attacking. Modeled and rigged by CG artists Dave Morton and Neal Sopata, respectively, these creatures can be described as a cross between saber-toothed tigers and wolves; however, they have six insect-like legs. The Saberwolves also have tufts of black fur, created using LightWave’s integrated Fiber FX hair and fur generation system.

In the pilot, seven Saberwolves surround Nolan and Irisa, the two Defiance leads, in a forest and viciously “bark” at them. The artists relied on traditional keyframe animation techniques, and hand-animated each Saberwolf individually. These creatures were then rendered using the Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) system, which streamlines and accelerates the computationally intensive rendering process.

Hutzel notes that tools such as the VPR, as well as accelerated rendering and advanced lighting tools, “now make it easy to manage the custom creation, animation, and control of each creature.” The renderfarm for Defiance consists of 20 quad-/eight-core CPU render nodes. That’s a total of 640 CPUs, a level of computational intensity that has recently become cost-efficient and fast.

For many of the scenes in season one, the actors performed on a backlot the size of a football field, with 48 buildings crowded onto six streets that were constructed in very close proximity to one another. So the team needed to create a CG aerial of the town to give the illusion of its immense size. And every street had to be enhanced with CG surroundings: scenic mountains, exotic gardens, and other expansive landscapes.

Since many scenes involved greenscreen compositing of VFX scenes, the CG artists provide previsualizations of the digital elements to give the director, producers, and actors a better idea of what would later appear in the scene. For the Volge attack sequence, for example, a group of actors were perched on a rocky cliff in the middle of a studio surrounded by a sea of greenscreen. The previs enabled the actors to visualize how this army of armored computer-generated creatures would advance and attack from the CG valley below, so they would know how and where to fire their weapons.

Defiance - Volge

“To accomplish clean composites, the production often placed physical objects in the foreground, surrounded by CG environments ranging from alien spaceship interiors to terraformed caverns,” Jackson says. “The goal was to match and blend the live plate with the CG environments so viewers would never know where one ended and the other began.”

For any frames that did not feature actors, the content of the scenes would be CGI, giving the artists greater control over all the creative parameters. “One of the overarching challenges in Defiance is the need to juxtapose recognizable aspects of the world we know – like the St. Louis arch – with a completely new and fantastic alien world, such as different flora and foliage,” Jackson explains. “We’d occasionally use photographic elements, alter elements taken from live plates, grab stock CG elements from online sources, and repurpose a myriad of CG assets in our massive library.”

The digital asset library, which consists of tens of terabytes of 3D objects and environments, was amassed during the past 10 years. It includes CG work the artists previously developed while working together on Battlestar Gallactica, Blood and Chrome, and other Syfy series. Among the ready-made assets in the library are virtual environments, tanks, boats, vehicles, plants, trees, and scenic elements.

The artists also have access to the vast resources of the Defiance online video game that are being developed by animators at Trion concurrently with the TV show. The Trion and TV show teams collaborate closely and, in many cases, trade 3D models and other assets or modify the look of creatures based on each other’s designs.

To create the McCauley Mines, a labyrinth of underground tunnels and corridors, Jackson placed a variety of CG elements in that environment, including tunnel sections, doorways, corridors, and hero prop pieces. “These items were individually placed to custom fit the scenes they were in, as it was crucial that those elements be exactly where we wanted them to be to ’seam up’ with the elements in the live plates,” he adds.

Instancing, however, was used to clone repeatable objects, such as Gulanite crystals that line the walls of the mines and rocks that line the floor. While these objects were instanced, they were used and put together in new ways so that each section of the mine had its own distinctive look.

Defiance - Hellbug

THE HELLBUG skitterlings CG characters, menace the Defiance settlers.

Bad Bugs

The dark, dirty McCauley Mines is the setting where viewers first get a look at one of the most ominous creatures in Defiance known as the Matron. The Matron, which is the queen of the hellbugs, stands as tall as a three-story building but is often shown coiled up in her nest.

Due to the physics and inertia involved, the Matron moves in a slow, deliberate, lumbering manner that belies her massive size and sense of weight. Her body has a crab-like shell and her head emerges from between two brain lobes. To create the movement of the brain lobes, the team used a set of displacement maps – limited to certain areas by weight maps – that were constantly moving over the brain to make it undulate. The body, head, and brain lobes, meanwhile, were all isolated by weight maps controlled by separate bones.

“Those displacement maps were also tied to the actual motion of the Matron herself as a reference object. So as she moves, the displacement maps become exaggerated, thereby producing an organic motion that is tied directly to the motion of the matron which gives it a sense of lag,” Jackson says.

The Matron rig took two days to build and two additional days to test and fine-tune. Streams of 3D slime and drool spilling from the matron’s chest to the base of the nest were created using LightWave HyperVoxels, which produces volumetric fluid effects.

“Those ribbons of slime were set up as a series of points that were actually sculpted to look like ribbons of slime. HyperVoxels let us add a volume-based effect to that point system. You can either generate the HyperVoxels from a particle system, or you can generate them off the points of an object. In the case of the Matron bug, we were actually doing both,” says Jackson.

In fact, there are two varieties of hellbugs: skitterlings (which includes the queen) and archers. The archer, which only appeared in two shots during season one, is a large flying insect. For swarms of flying insects, the group created and repeated 30-frame flight cycles that, when applied to the insects, enabled the artists to manually control.

Skitterlings – a type of hellbug that’s ubiquitous in season one – are large spider-like insects (the size of small dogs) that crawl from under buildings and scamper through interiors and up walls.

While the Matron moves in a slow, deliberate manner, its skitterling offspring are hard-shelled like crabs whose movements are very spry, aggressive, and downright crazy. The skitterlings have personalities, thanks to some of the artists who created them, including Toves, Jackson, and Sopata. “For the hero skitterlings, we preferred to use our own custom rigs,” Jackson says. “So the result was that each of the skitterlings had a slightly different personality.”

Individual MDDs were preferred for hero bugs, but when there was a swarm, instancing was used instead. While some creature rigs were built in LightWave’s modeler, most fine adjustments and modifications to the rigs or creature were made in LightWave’s Layout environment. Instead of a single-object-type of “one bone,” Layout now has a joint-type of bones with a node that establishes where the joint is. Two nodes establish a deformer between the two joints. And that change alone has made rigging in Layout more sophisticated. “You can actually get smoother transitions and smoother deformations using the joints than you could by using the bones,” he says. “This gives you more flexible, better-quality, and more predictable results.”

Defiance - Volge

The Volge CG characters, menace the Defiance settlers.

Adding the Details

For texturing and adding fine detail to the creatures, including the hellbugs, CG Artist Doug Drexler often used Pixologic’s ZBrush, streamlined through the GoZ ZBrush plug-in.

“In my opinion, ZBrush works best when you have a polygon mesh you already built into your 3D program, and you let ZBrush sculpt all the fine detail you want to put on it,” Toves says. “There are newer methods in ZBrush that allow you to work without a base mesh, but different artists can move forward with things like rigging or previs if they start with that base mesh, updating as needed without having to wait for one process to finish.”

In the final episode of season one, digital actors were used in a few matte-painting shots for risky action scenes and stunts. Specifically, Drexler used ZBrush to sculpt digital actors in the likeness of Nolan and Irisa, who has distinctive, wild red hair.

For the hair, the artists used the LightWave hair creation system and then the digital hair system within ZBrush to refine the look. Next, using LightWave’s Fiber FX, the animators could follow those polygonal guides to match the styling that was done in ZBrush. Jackson explains the process. “Using the guide chains generated out of ZBrush, we could generate the final hair system in Fiber FX, LightWave’s own fiber rigger. The guides for Irisa’s hair then became a separate object parented to her head. You can light the hair in your scene along with your object, and both the hair and object take light the same way, which adds to the credibility of the effect.”

The clothing on the digital actors was handled by using soft-body dynamics, which in a time crunch was deemed a faster method than using cloth simulation. According to Jackson, on a TV budget, it is best to shy away from making extensive use of digital actors, especially for close-ups. “It’s a hard sell not only because of the surfacing of the skin, but also the subtle dynamics of secondary facial movements and the way soft-body muscles and skinning [lays] over bones. Getting all these little, subtle things right is extremely difficult to do on a TV budget and schedule.”

The LightWave platform inherently supports objects created using previous versions, so the team believes that any 3D creatures and visual effects created for season one will be usable again in season two when they expect to make the leap from LightWave 11.0 to 11.5.

With production about to ramp up for season two, the CG team is looking forward to solving new creative challenges and finding resourceful workarounds for new problems. They hope that the show’s writers will let their imaginations run wild, dreaming up new creatures, explosions, and virtual scenes so they can push the boundaries of their skills to bring those visions to life.

Claudia Kienzle is a New Jersey-based freelance writer specializing in all facets of digital media. She can be reached at claudia.kienzle@gmail.com.

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