Getting Closure
May 20, 2011

Getting Closure

Smallville’s finale incorporates VFX to close the series in style.
It's amazing how fast 10 years go by. Especially when you're super-speeding.

(Views on Metropolis city throughout the series) Entity FX artists were responsible for creating
views of Metropolis that could be used as establishing shots for key locations. A complete city
grid, with landmarks like The Daily Planet (pictured), was created in 3D to allow flexibility for
doing unique camera angles, flyovers and frame-ups. Specific lighting treatments were added,
along with reflections, sun glints, rain, snow, clouds and other elements, to give each of the city
shots the appropriate feel for the time of day, season.

In its 10 seasons, which came to a close on May 13, The CW Network’s hit television series Smallville brought the boy from Krypton on an intense journey of discovery as he developed toward his destiny as The Man of Steel. Helping him on his journey has been Santa Monica- and Vancouver-based Entity FX, creator of all of Smallville's visual effects since 2002.

The numbers on Smallville are impressive: Entity FX delivered over 4500 shots across nine seasons and 195 episodes, working at the same hyper-speed as Superman himself. Handling visual effects for the longest-running comics-based series in US history—and one of the longest-running visual effects-heavy episodic programs—definitely called for some special abilities.

(From Season 7, Epsiode 1 “Bizarro”) Clark Kent and his evil alter-ego Bizarro do battle with a force that
cracks a local dam. The resulting flood required a wall of CG water to come towards camera, engulfing a
bridge. To do this large CG water event on a TV timeline, Entity FX used a custom in-house system developed
by David Alexander in which the body of water and its leading edge could be produced and controlled based
on particles following a curve. The shot also required appropriate interaction digital water interaction with a
CG bridge, as well as digital splashes, foam and mist.

Co-executive producer Tim Scanlan says visual effects were an essential part of Smallville from the very first frame of the pilot.

“We were deep in space, and meteors were flying over camera,” Scanlan recalls. “We see Clark's spaceship pass by. And then we go to Earth to meet our characters: John and Martha Kent, Lionel Luthor, young Lex.... It set the stage for what the show was going to be. The main idea is the journey Clark is going on—where he came from and where he is going to end up. Visual effects are there to support this story and bring out these visual ideas.”

‘Super’ VFX Evolution
From the beginning, Clark's abilities were intended to be more realistic than versions in the comic books, and they also needed to be “evolve-ble,” to suggest he was gaining more control and understanding of them over time. In early examples, typical heat vision effects were blobs of energy that tended fly around uncontrollably to set fire to random objects around the room. In later episodes, Clark could use more intense, strongly colored beams for specific effect. At first, X-ray powers simply gave Clark a view of, for instance, an object behind a wall. He subsequently progressed to be able to visually "fly" through physical space to a remote point of view to observe CG animated skeletons that were moving in sync within real characters.

(From Season 2, Episode 12 “Insurgence”) Clark completes his first super-jump in Season 2,
Episode 12. The actor was shot on greenscreen on a prop roof element. A synthetic environment
was created looking down the building, including brick and marble textures for building stories,
lights, windows and the street below. Street lights, police cars, and moving traffic elements were
added to the “down” angle of the shot, which later “rewinds” to include a second angle to show
Clark's view to the buildings across from the roof. The “across” angle included CG glass, window
and reflection work on the surrounding structures and an extended city scene in the background,
complete with multiple additional buildings, streets and searchlights in the sky. CG birds frozen in
flight were added around Clark's character to give an additional feel of him moving while everything
else was stopped.

One of the ongoing tasks was finding cues to inform the audience of whose point of view they were seeing. “Sometimes when Clark was super-speeding, we were in the normal world of the story, where we could see nothing but a wind effect, sometimes we were in privileged-audience mode where we could see him running impossibly fast, and sometimes we were in Clark's world where he was running in slow motion and everything else was virtually stopped,” says Mat Beck, senior visual effects supervisor at Entity FX. “Flying birds, surging water, roaring fire, and the classic 'speeding bullet' all served as useful cues when they slowed to a crawl. Adding CG contrails of distortion helped to indicate what was moving faster than should be visible.”  

One early illustration of “Clark time” that set the bar high occurred in Episode 21 of Season 2, when Clark chases a little girl through the rain. “Our concept was that the world would freeze while Clark would move (almost) normally in real time,” says Trent Smith, senior visual effects producer at Entity FX. “We developed similar rules and guidelines for when he super-speeds. We found a way to do a 'bullet-time' event effectively and economically without an array of cameras—which was new at the time in television, and I like to think the process has grown legs since.”

(From Season 10, Episode 18 “Booster”) Entity FX was able to use its techniques in character animation to
bring Blue Beetle to life in the Season 10 episode “Booster.” His suit consists of various panels and elements
that move and transform, working in tandem with practical costume elements in some of the close-ups and
appearing in a full-body CG form in other shots and action scenes.

As time passed, Entity FX's development of in-house techniques and software, combined with the universal increase in computing power, made for more elaborate and comprehensive effects. What had been relatively modest set extensions were replaced by complete virtual environments—sometimes to represent imaginary places, sometimes to save on earthly set costs. Digital stunt performers morphed into real actors and vice versa. New, fully animated characters were continually introduced into the schedule of a weekly show. Entity FX's experience generating natural phenomena like rain, snow, fire, and so forth helped in the creation of characters composed of elements, like smoke and water and more. These and other techniques allowed iconic comic-book figures, such as Blue Beetle and Darkseid, to become part of the cast of characters on the show.

“I'd say the biggest technological advancement we experienced was in 3D animation. It's made very long strides in the 10 years since we started,” Scanlan states. “CG characters, environments, and elements can be created more readily. We shoot elements, and the visual effects team makes the scene work. If we can think it, they can make it. That's where we've come today.”

“In contrast to motion pictures, where you have months to work on the effects, each week of Smallville tended to have a 'save-me' moment, a point of epic action, and it was our task it to figure out how to make it a big-impact moment,” Smith says. “The concept of a mini-movie every week is pretty apt. Because we work in both features and television, we try to bring a filmic sensibility to our TV work. We spent a lot of time developing tricks and shortcuts to prove you can have some pretty cinematic moments without spending months working on them.”

This extended to delivering countless views, flyovers, and establishing shots of Metropolis using a library of detailed building and street models, including landmarks such as The Daily Planet, Luthorcorp, and Watchtower, and a full-3D city turntable and grid. To keep things fresh, cityscapes were always changing from show to show, as camera movement, time of day, time of year, cloud patterns, weather patterns, sun and moon positions, and even the layout of the city could be manipulated at will to fit the story setting or mood.  Sometimes a wide-angle view of the city combined with a telephoto moon was exactly what the moment called for.

(From Seaosn 10, Episode 21 “Finale”) Oliver Queen (Justin Hartley) looks out over an apocalyptic sky.
The background, showing the planet Apokolips looming behind, is composed of digital elements and models
composited into the live plate.

Other visual effects—shots of Clark super-jumping, tossing a tractor, or saving the town from a host of meteors—were set in the would-be quiet environs of Smallville itself. “The mandate was always that Smallville was a very normal-looking, brightly lit place where very strange things happened.” says Beck, who directed filming on set for such sequences as Clark dismantling a nuclear missile in Season 5's “Hidden” and the full “Prototype” episode in Season 6. “So often, we visual effects folks can use the opportunity of darkness, a quick cut, or a shaky camera to help an effect. One of the treats and challenges of Smallville was that, often as not, the effect was lovingly featured in full screen, frequently in broad daylight.”

The ability to meet such challenges—and the sheer longevity of the company's involvement—led to a unique communication and trust level with the production and postproduction teams. A type of “short hand” developed, with quick abbreviations and ways to discuss things, and the visual effects team contributing to creative decision-making as well as serving a problem-solving role.

The series “Finale” required numerous types and combinations of CG models, including an
airplane in flight. Artists modeled, textured and animated the CG asset for multiple different
views, placing it into a dramatic sky with clouds, showing views down on Earth and including
views of the Apokolips planet as the aircraft flew by.

“In a comic book, the sky's the limit. You just have to get it onto a 2D page,” Scanlan points out. “On the screen, it's different. We had to find ways—sometimes difficult ways, given the considerations of television—to bring this world to life. Our relationship with Entity FX was always collaborative. We put value in their input and loved it when they challenged what we thought was right. This inevitably allowed us to come up with better ideas and approaches, and to consistently keep the quality and innovation up.”

For their part, the folks at Entity FX say they relished the chance to put a distinct stamp on the fabled mythology. “I was always a fan of Superman,” Smith notes, “running around with a blanket [mimicking a cape] as a kid. That goes for a lot of us who have grown to love comics and the story lines that go with them. The fact that the production relied on us to help tell the story was especially gratifying.”

Apokolips dominates the city in this shot, combining CG planet elements and photography.

The End
Wrapping up those storylines in the two-hour “Finale” naturally called for epic contributions all around. With CG planets and planes, an apocalypse over Metropolis, and digital characters playing roles at the emotional center of the plot, visual effects for the series also soared to new heights.

“When solid black came on for about two minutes during the first editing session, we knew were going to be filling a lot of screen time with visual effects,” says Smith. “It was a very open palette for us, requiring completely new material and relying on all the creative and technical sensibilities we had built. The effects needed to be iconic and satisfying, obviously, but at one point, we realized we were not just working with the expectations of the fan base, but also with our own.”  

This shot, as Apokolips approaches Earth, is a synthetic environment created using a CG Earth,
moon and Apokolips planet. The Cosmos appears as a digital star field in the background.

As for Smallville's hero seen flying, that expectation was finally realized as well. Given the show's long-standing “No Flight, No Tights” mantra, allowing Clark this last gift required something of a mental switch.

“Clark's meta-human abilities—super-strength, super-hearing, time manipulation, invulnerability—were rolled out over the seasons, and once he developed them, they became part of our regular visual effects,” Smith concludes. “When it came to scenes for 'Finale,' it was like we had to clear our palates, that he could do this thing he was never able to do before. We wanted to honor the comics, but it was also important to us that this most elusive power be translated within our own Smallville universe. And, of course, from the beginning we knew that, eventually, a guy in a cape would, like Smallville itself, gracefully take flight.”

In addition to its work on Smallville, Entity has had a busy 2011 so far, also providing visual effects for The Vampires Diaries, Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe, Hellcats, pilots for Secret Circle and Charlie's Angels, and a CBS medical drama, along with feature films I Am Number Four and soon-to-be-released Fright Night)

Images © Warner Bros. Television/The CW. Courtesy Entity FX.