April 1, 2009

600 Odd Creature Shots

Primeval, ITV's critically acclaimed, smash hit adventure series, returns on March 28 to take a monster-size chunk out of Saturday nights. With an extended run of 10 episodes, the action continues to evolve with more new faces joining the team. Also evolving are the creatures that Professor Nick Cutter and his team face each week, with a more bio-diverse menagerie than ever before leaping out of Framestore's Wells Street offices and onto the screen, reveals a representative. Primeval III is an Impossible Pictures production for ITV1, is commissioned by Laura Mackie director of drama, is co-created and executive produced by Tim Haines of Impossible Pictures and Adrian Hodges, and is produced by Tim Bradley.

The new series finds Cutter (Douglas Henshall) fighting to re-focus his embattled team in order to continue the work they started. But as the anomalies continue to present an unrelenting series of threats, the task in hand seems almost insurmountable. With events getting ever wilder, creatures steeped in ancient folklore begin to make an appearance and it becomes clear that the origins of myths and legends are linked with the mysterious anomalies.

Initially signed for 720 shots over the ten episodes, Framestore ended up contributing around 1,000 - 100 shots per episode - around 600 of which were creature shots.

Beasties developed at Framestore for this series include some animals based (loosely, sometimes) on real prehistoric beasts such as Pristichampsus - a kind of Super Croc, the Diictodons - an almost mammalian herbivore that wreaks havoc in a hospital through its insatiable gnawing, and the Gigantosaurus, a carnivore that makes the T Rex look like a poodle. Other, more fantastical animals include the Camouflage Beast seen in Episode 2, a creature that can blend almost perfectly into whatever surface it happens to be on, and the Killer Fungus Creature that appears in the fifth episode, a vaguely humanoid entity that was once a man and is now essentially a menacing, shuffling spore. Other VFX work included a CG helicopter and plane; the Anomaly itself - the gateway to the worlds through which the creatures and the team pass; and some spectacular environmental work including a post-apocalyptic cityscape (in which the team managed to include a blasted and burned out version of the company's offices).

Starting work in April 2008, the team that Framestore brought to Series 3 was largely the same one that had worked on the second series, something that gave them a valuable running start. In addition, the VFX team, led by VFX Supervisor Christian Manz and VFX Producer Matt Fox, had decided to fundamentally change the creative process through which the creatures were developed. Explains Fox, "We had long realised that the physical models of the creatures - which had long been part of the process - were in fact holding us up in a variety of ways. For instance, a creature which looked good as a static model might throw up all sorts of issues when you tried to rig and animate it - sometimes they literally couldn't walk - so time was being spent on 'work-arounds' for these issues. In addition, the whole process of sculpting and Lidar scanning provided more information than was useful at first, so that data had to be stripped off the scans in order to create a lo-res CG model, and then added on later."

"The show itself was becoming more fantasy based and action heavy," Fox continues, "And Framestore was determined to meet these new demands head-on. So we approached the producers with the suggestion that we do the concept work on the creatures in-house, and then work out how the creatures would move as part of that concept design." Impossible Pictures agreed to try out this new method, though maquettes (physical models) of the first few creatures were made as a 'safety', in case the CG way proved unworkable. But the new way of working was an instant hit, and some of the maquettes didn't even make it out of their boxes.

Executive Producer Tim Haines would complement the scripted creature description with a brief, including such elements as reference looks from nature or fiction. Using this material, Lead Texture Artist and Creature Concept Designer Daren Horley, would create 2D concept art, working in close collaboration with the design team (Manz, Fox, Lead Animator Mark Brocking, Lead TD Jason Mayo, Lead Modeller Will Brand and Lead Rigger Max Mallmann, who could spot where problems were likely to arise. Once the concept was signed off, the 3D modelling was started.

In addition to his duties as VFX Supervisor, Series 3 also provided Christian Manz with an opportunity for a bit of Directing, as he led the 2nd Unit team through some of the shots needed for a thrilling car chase sequence. He is fiercely proud of his teams work on the show. "It's the culmination of all we've done over the last 3 years," he says simply, "The shows are better and so are the creatures we've provided."

On the technical side, Lead TD Jason Mayo and his team brought a number of new tools to bear on the show. "We're using a newer version of MentalRay," he says, "And a lot more of our own proprietary plug-ins and R&D work. This time around we wrote custom shaders for all of the creatures," he says. "We render all our passes in one go now - the shader spits out a beauty render and all the separate outputs, which is what Renderman been doing for film for years. 3D motion-blur has also been integrated across the board, which helps it look more realistic, for instance, when a creature is running towards the camera. Also integrated into the shader is subsurface scattering, which helps create better skin qualities."

"For a bird-like creature that appears in one of the later episodes we used a dynamic system - originally developed by the Prince Caspian team for Aslan - to fluff up his feathers and make them bounce as he ran along. Finally, for the Camouflage Beast, we figured a nice way of incorporating the back plates (i.e. what was behind him) into his subsurface scatter, so it looks like the blood under his skin was doing the camouflaging. The change in his skin colour is quick, but there's a slight delay in its catching up with the background - it works very well."

Mark Brocking, Animation Supervisor for the series, also feels that the work is their best yet. "This time we had a one month pre-production period, which gave us invaluable time to think through the creatures. If you look at what we did in the first season with, for example, the Camouflage Creature, who has facial close-ups and a whole range of expressions - acting, really - there's no comparison. It's feature film quality work."

An extra pleasure for the Framestore team this time was the competition that ITV had run during Series 2, offering viewers the chance to design their own creature for an episode of Series 3. "There were thousands of entries," says Fox, "And we were delighted to be involved in bringing the short list together and choosing a winner. The winning creature was one we felt hadn't been seen before, and one which would work well within the show. Carim Nahaboo was the winner and we were pleased to be able to bring him into Framestore so that he could see the whole process whereby his concept design was turned into a living creature." Carim's Mega-optera can be seen in Episode 8. We can't tell you what it looks like, but the clue is in the name, for any Classicists reading this.

The fundamental challenges of Primeval remained the same: ambitious scripts demanding spectacular VFX, delivered to a TV schedule deadline (albeit Primeval's deadlines are longer than most). Fox credits the series' Producer, Tim Bradley, and Line Producer Mike Treen, for the higher level of participation enjoyed by Framestore this time around. "They really immersed themselves in our world and made us feel very much a department within the production," he says, "Which paid off handsomely for all of us, I think. It would be difficult to have made the economical and artistic inputs we did without the producer's blessing." Another mark of this trust as creative contributors within the production was the fact that Manz and Fox were invited to review the Series 3 scripts at treatment and early draft stages, in order to make suggestions as to how the stories and production could be strengthened through sensible VFX choices. Says Fox, "This integration of our input into the creative process is one that's being applied across the board at Framestore. From commercials to film work, clients are finding that there are huge plusses to bringing on board our creativity, as well as our craft."

Created and Produced by Impossible Pictures for ITV

PRODUCTION COMPANY Impossible Pictures
DIRECTORS Tony Mitchell, Cilla Ware, Mark Everest, Richard Curson Smith, Matthew Thompson
PRODUCER Tim Bradley

VFX Framestore