A Look Under the Microscope
By Eddie Robison
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2014)

A Look Under the Microscope

The year is 2000, and a unique TV show has hit the airwaves. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a new kind of drama that will define a genre in television entertainment. CSI: Miami and CSI: New York both follow as spin-offs, along with similar shows such as NCIS and its spin-offs.

The 1999 George Clooney film “Three Kings” gave us our first look at the super-micro, dive-into-the-body VFX shot. For the first time, we could see the path of destruction a bullet leaves as it bisects bone, tissue, and organs. CSI was the first to pick up that ball and run with it on prime-time TV, providing unique camera views and camera movements atypical for a television series even today.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is now close to midway through the shooting schedule on its 14th season. For the landmark 300th episode, Inhance was tasked with creating a 30-second show opening shot that would include motion-control cameras, miniatures, and lots of CG magic.

Although we worked on five seasons of CSI: Miami, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is new to Inhance for 2013. We are creating all the visual effects as well as providing on-set supervision. This job is handled by Larry Detwiler, a former client of Inhance and the in-house VFX supervisor on CSI: Miami, for which he directed a number of episodes, as well.

Episode 300
For the show opener of episode 300, the writers described a crime scene where a murder had taken the life of a young woman, leaving her body resting on a four-foot-tall architectural model of a hotel called “The Premier.” How we get there is where the magic comes in. Model Builder Craig Currie provided production with a basic miniature of the hotel. This not only served as the base layer for the exterior of the opening shot, but also as a screen prop in several other non-VFX shots.

Detwiler and I were both present on the CSI stages at Universal for the miniature shoot, with the motion-control camera rig provided by Pacific Motion Control. VFX Cameraman/Motion-Control Operator Joshua Cushner was at the helm, dialing in a smooth flight path for the tiny film camera to follow. The model was placed on a riser with a black curtain stretched taught behind it. Tracking markers were placed on the curtain so that real, B-roll footage of Vegas could be 3D tracked and comp’d in behind the hotel. The concept was that the viewer would not know they were looking at a model until after we had completed our run down the front of the building, through the front doors of the casino, past reception, through the main gaming floor, and all the way to the side doors, where, instead of seeing out to the strip, we saw a giant un-blinking eye of the victim lying dead.

CSI AND ITS SPIN-OFFS are known for generating unique camera views. Here, a miniature model facilitated that.

Pieces of the model, such as the four searchlights that adorn the roof of the casino, were removed so that CG versions could be added in post. This enabled us to make them sweep around; we also added volumetric cones of light and lens flares where appropriate.

CSI’s veteran gaffers swarmed down on the miniature and surgically lit every piece of the hotel from every possible angle, adding life and depth to the hotel facade. Several passes were made with the motion-control camera, and we attached additional tracking markers to be used as reference when adding to the model in postproduction. The actual MOCO camera data was saved to a thumb drive, and I returned to Inhance to translate the data into a digital 3D camera path.

Tackling Postproduction
While I had been building the interior of the casino from sketches provided by production, Artist Kevin Quattro started on the exterior. Using the MOCO data and some 3D tracking, Quattro began adding the searchlights, neon, window reflections, and a whole lot of roof detail. Air-conditioning units, vents, and an assortment of pipes were placed on the roof to add believability to the building when the camera scraped over it at the top of the shot.

Finally, the marquee was augmented with shimmering lights, and the front doors completely replaced with 3D doors, modeled by Tony Stranges. This would allow the CG camera to take over from the real one and fly seamlessly through the glass and into the fully computer-generated interior.

For the sake of time, I purchased some of the gaming table models from a 3D model website and then spent some time cleaning them up and re-texturing them so they worked for our specific art direction. I built the rest of the casino interior using NewTek’s LightWave 3D. Every detail needed to be realized, from the reception desk, down the stairs to the gambling pit, over the fully stocked bar, past the slots, and up to the side doors.

Detwiler spent one morning with his 7D camera at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, shooting textures for the casino interior, which was to be Art Deco in style. The Wiltern is a beautiful Art Deco building with the perfect details that I needed to project onto my 3D model. The CG crown moldings, pillars, sconces, skylights, and railings got their texture from the high-res digital stills shot on location.

The casino was branded throughout with logos provided by the CSI art department. Just like a real Las Vegas hotel, every playing card, ashtray, gaming table, and sign along the way needed to display the identity created by the writers. Seeing The Premier logo everywhere really tied things together.

Toward the end of the camera’s run through the casino, we briefly paused over a roulette table, where we get our first clue that we are not at real-world scale. Blood that landed on the exterior of the miniature, during the murder, has finally seeped through the model. It drops from the ceiling onto the gaming table surface in front of the camera, causing an obviously out-of-scale splash. It is only then that we tilt up to see a single, giant, dead person’s eye looking into the casino model as though it were a dollhouse.

THE CREW AT INHANCE created a faux casino using miniatures and computer graphics.

Artist Jason Maynard used Next Limit’s RealFlow to simulate the fluids needed for the blood splashing off the table. This proved to be very difficult because we actually wanted it to look out of scale. RealFlow creates very realistic fluid simulations, and we were going for a somewhat nonrealistic look. Maynard played with scale, viscosity, and different densities until we finally hit on what we needed.

Bringing it Home
Both the full-CG interior and the now augmented miniature exterior were joined together using Eyeon’s Fusion 6.

Later, I layered the various render passes and added volumetric rays pouring through all the exits with lens flares to make the darkened interior feel deserted and ghostly.

There were several “Easter eggs” hidden throughout the shot in homage to the 300th episode. In fact, Director Alec Smight placed the number 300 (or references to 300) throughout the entire episode. The winning number marker on the roulette table was actually a CG version of the commemorative coin that the producers gave to all the cast and crew as a gift to mark the occasion.

All told, the shot ended up being 959 frames. That’s about 10 seconds longer than we had planned, but the producers at CSI decided the shot needed to be exactly as long as it needed to be. Editorial tightened things up to make room for the additional screen time, and the result was an unforgettable opening shot to kick off a very special episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Eddie Robison ( www.inhancevfx.com) has been nominated for a VES Award and Emmy, and has worked on feature films, music videos, games, commercials, and over 30  TV shows.