Zoic Studios rocks the boat with VFX for <i>1923</i>, a <i>Yellowstone</i> origin story
April 20, 2023

Zoic Studios rocks the boat with VFX for 1923, a Yellowstone origin story

1923, a Yellowstone origin story, introduces a new generation of the Dutton family as they explore the early twentieth century when pandemics, historic drought, the end of Prohibition and the Great Depression all plague the mountain west, as well as the Duttons who call it home. The series is executive produced by Academy Award nominee Taylor Sheridan, co-creator of Yellowstone, and stars Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford.
Zoic Studios was brought on to work on VFX, helping to bring to life the dynamic vision of the creative team alongside VFX supervisor Kevin Blank. With a focus on capturing footage in-camera, while still achieving high-risk shots and sequences, the Zoic team created a photoreal look for the complex water sequences in Episodes 105 and 106. Led by co-founder/executive creative director Andrew Orloff, internal VFX supervisor Evan Underwood, and real-time supervisor Ian Fenton, Zoic blended in-camera footage with photoreal VFX and CG assets to create a seamless sequence, toggling between practical, full CG, and hybrid shots.

To tackle the action-packed aquatic battle scenes, Zoic’s Real Time Group leveraged Unreal Engine to work alongside Blank during previs and techvis, mapping out the shots needed to allow the key storyline moment to unfold. The real-time previs phase brought to life complex choreography for this key storyline through quick, creative and collaborative sessions with Blank and the Zoic team. They were able to facilitate bringing to life the vision of Blank and the director before filming began, thus allowing the production team the ability to recreate the precisely choreographed shots based on the the carefully crafted real-time sequence, while leaving room for the full-CG shots executed in post at Zoic to make perfectly in continuity. The previs work ahead of the shoot served as the glue holding all the disparate elements of the sequence together, leveraging Unreal Engine to allow the team to lock down the movements of both the CG elements and cameras before the shoot. 

Once all the elements were mapped out in-engine, they exported the cameras to Houdini. The CG boat and water were animated in Maya, with one-to-one cuts of the real boat integrated with the CG vessel. The practical tugboat was created bolt-for-bolt in CG with the help of a LiDar scan. To maintain a photoreal look with a fusion of both practical and CG elements, Zoic layered in intricate water dynamics and lighting. In addition to making sure the sequences were lit properly, the team paid careful attention to detail including photoreal choppy seas, foam, and spray, commonly known as “white water,” which were essential to achieve the desired look.

The team created the colossal ghost ship featured in the sequence entirely in CG, which allowed for more flexibility with the intense choreography and composition required of the scene, as well as avoiding dangerous feats such as allowing a massive cargo shift to drift unattended at sea. To achieve the seamless look, the team vacillated between simulating the ocean with the right amount of swell and waves, which are the impetus for the two boats colliding, and adding secondary animation to the boats for refined interactions between the simulating ocean and CG boats. 

More about Zoic Studios: http://zoicstudios.com