Meet the Jedi Knights of SyFy’s Defiance
September 3, 2013

Meet the Jedi Knights of SyFy’s Defiance

BURBANK, CA — In a darkened studio on the Universal lot, a small, tight-knit group of CG artists created 1,100 visual effects scenes – including 3D creatures, exotic flora, and virtual environments – for the first season of the Syfy series Defiance.

(Read about the details of the content creation in the upcoming issue of CGW.)

If you factor in all the 2D effects - like glowing weapons and muzzle flashes and the routine cleanup and fixes customary of sci-fi CG effects - the workload swells to 1,500 effects. And this volume doesn't reflect the many iterations and modifications they made to the 3D creatures and visual effects following reviews.

St. Louis Gateway Arch after the Pale Wars

With their finely honed LightWave skills, the CG artists joke that they're like Jedi Knights practicing an obscure religion and wielding 3D tools with mysterious powers. Using LightWave 3D, these CG artists moved virtual heaven and earth to create the new world of Defiance.

"The visual effects challenge on Defiance is to transport viewers to an imaginary, hybrid place that juxtaposes life on Earth with a strange, bizarre new world," said Gary Hutzel, visual effects supervisor for Defiance, which aired Monday nights on the Syfy Network, a part of the NBCUniversal group in Los Angeles. "To successfully immerse viewers in Defiance, our virtual environments needed to support the imaginative plot by strategically employing extremely credible effects."

From Alien Creatures to Hellbugs

Since Defiance is essentially located overtop of what was once St. Louis, Mo., the cityscape contains some recognizable structures. But the Defiance locale also has an infusion of Votanis alien cultures and technology. Viewers quickly become acquainted with the many mutant life forms - such as Saberwolves and Hellbugs - that spawned after disgruntled Votans deliberately detonated their advanced weapons on Earth, which drastically altered Earth's biosphere.

Volge troops cross the bridge

Could the CG team have created all these visual effects without LightWave? "Absolutely not," said Defiance CG Artist Sean Jackson. And Defiance CG Artist Jesse Toves adds that without LightWave tools like Instancing on many scenes, "We would've been dealing with hundreds of millions of polygons. It would've been a nightmare."

In creating cinema-quality visual effects on a TV show budget and production schedule, both Toves and Jackson cite several LightWave capabilities that made all the difference in their productivity. LightWave's intuitive modeler enabled the animators to quickly rig 3D hero creatures from scratch.

Building Virtual Environments

Defiance depends heavily on virtual environments and beauty shots to convey the size of the town and its geographic surroundings. When the production wasn't shooting right on the back lot, the actors and crew worked in large green screen studios. Previsualization helped the actors react properly to the CG creatures or digital elements.

The town of Defiance

Many of the Jedi's on the Defiance CG artistic team consider themselves generalists, capable of handling virtually every aspect of the 3D animation/visual effects craft for movies and television. And they agree that LightWave is the ideal generalist's tool since the platform lets an individual artist access all the tools needed for an end-to-end animation project.

"The speed and versatility of LightWave was indispensable throughout this entire process, but especially when we needed to revise or change anything we created," said Jackson. "For a CG scene known as the Glyph Chamber, I went through 14 revisions of that asset within a week and a half. Sometimes changes are minor, but at other times, they can be drastic. Either way, they need to be turned around quickly and that's what LightWave enables us to do."

According to Defiance Visual Effects Supervisor Gary Hutzel, the show performed exceptionally well in the ratings for a sci-fi series, and has been green-lighted and is currently in production for a second season slated for June 2014.