Studio’s Visual Effects Department Crafts Creatures for Hit SCI FI Channel Series
Concoct a creature from parts of an armadillo, a porcupine and a rhinoceros, dig a 300-foot trench through bone-dry desert, cut a man in half; it’s all in a day’s work at Encore Hollywood. The post house has performed those and many other mind-boggling feats in producing visual effects for Tremors: The Series, the SCI FI Channel’s tongue-in-cheek science fiction series about giant worms and other stomach-turning beasts that threaten the tranquility of Perfection, Nevada (while enjoying government protection under the Endangered Species Act). The series, which debuted with six episodes earlier this year, returns June 20 with seven more episodes.
It’s not uncommon for Encore Hollywood, the sole digital effects provider for the series, to deliver 70 or more computer-animated effects for a single 1-hour episode. And, by and large, the facility’s to-do list is not a matter of simple rig removals, but often involves fully-articulated 3D creatures whose murderous mayhem occupies a central component of the plot. Multiply that by 13 episodes and it’s enough to keep the half dozen animators who work regularly on the series in perpetual high gear.
“We had Encore create ghost clouds of bacteria, ravenous hordes of mutant insects, hybrid killing machines with X-ray vision, and even a version of El Blanco, our hero Graboid, and all of them turned out great,” said Tremors Executive Producer David Israel. “We asked them to do a lot of work in too little time without the biggest budget in the world, and they always did a terrific job.”
Having 13 episodes under its belt, Encore Hollywood has developed a unique methodology for managing Tremors’ massive demands. Virtually all of the digital effects work is accomplished on high-powered, Windows-based desktop systems using Discreet’s 3D Studio Max for animation and Digital Fusion for compositing. The animators who create the Graboids, Shriekers, AssBlasters and their friends also do much of the compositing so that each workstation operates as a self-contained, end-to-end visual effects system.
“Tremors is incredibly demanding, but it’s also a lot of fun and it offers our animators almost limitless opportunities to be creative,” said Barbara Marshall, Executive Producer of Encore Hollywood’s Visual Effects Department. “While the show’s time and budget constraints are challenging, our team has proven it can produce effects that are a hit with the show’s fans and compare favorably with those seen in the Tremors features. This is the kind of project we had in mind when we created the visual effects department at Encore Hollywood.”
The creatures featured in Tremors are a mix of animatronic puppets created by KNB EFX Group in Chatsworth and 3D characters produced by Encore Hollywood. During the show’s first six episodes, about 60% of the creatures were puppets, but with the new episodes the balance has tilted in favor of digital creatures. “We’ve been shifting to digital effects because the work has become so seamless, you can’t tell the difference,” Israel said.
Having worked together for several months, a close rapport has developed between Encore’s animators, the puppet masters at KNB and the Tremors staff. Encore Hollywood CG Supervisor Greg Tsadilas will typically meet with KNB staff and the show’s writers and producers in pre-production to discuss the needs of each episode and how best to meet them.
“We get scripts from the first outlines,” said Tsadilas. “We’ll then break down the effects and talk with the directors, the set supervisor and the puppeteers and figure out how best to do them—and make sure we stay within budget. We use CG whenever it’s impractical to use puppets.”
One typical effect for the Encore Hollywood team involves the worm-like Graboids burrowing through the ground. As it would involve enormous time to dig a zigzagging trench, ten feet wide and hundreds of yards long, animators instead create the illusion of a line of earth being convulsed as the creature tunnels below the surface.
“We will generally start with an empty background plate where the camera may or may not be moving,” explained animator Matt Von Brock. “We then replace a section of the shot with a CG furrow. In blending the two elements together, we often have to replicate elements in the background plate in CG. We also have a library of practical dust and particle elements that we can draw on to make it all look seamless.”
While most of the creatures featured in Tremors are based on characters from the feature films, Encore’s artists have the most fun when they get an opportunity to animate a new cast member. For one new episode, animators were charged with creating a genetically engineered “pet” belonging to an eccentric scientist played by Christopher Lloyd. After ideas suggested by the show’s writers, KNB artists prepared a small-scale model of the creature whose various body parts resemble those of a porcupine, an armadillo and a rhinoceros.
Encore’s task was to produce a 3D version of the exceedingly odd looking creature and bring it to life. “The creature is capable of running at great speeds and one of the biggest challenges for us was determining how such a creature would move,” recalled Van Brock. “We studied the motion of horses and dogs, but neither was appropriate to the characteristics of the creature’s body. It is broad-chested but has narrow hindquarters. Ultimately, we developed a kind of hybrid motion in which it lopes along—in a very frightening manner.”
The creature appears in dozens of shots. It escapes from a wood structure by knocking down a door (on top of Lloyd) and chases after a pick-up truck.. Compositing a fast moving creature into multiple scenes—many of which involve a moving camera—would have been all but impossible within the context of the production schedule, were it not for a software tool that Encore Hollywood employs for camera tracking. Boujou2 allows animators to automatically extract 3D camera tracking data from ordinary production footage.
“The software finds high contrast points in a scene, such as a horizon line or the corners of objects, and uses them as tracking points,” said animator Dan Lopez. “It is accurate to such an amazing degree that we advise the production crew to shoot anyway they prefer, including hand held. With a little tweaking, we are able to place a creature into almost any scene, quickly, and achieve near perfect integration.”
In many cases, animators are required to integrate CG elements with puppets and other practical effects elements. An effect for another upcoming episode involving such a mix shows a Graboid bursting out of the ground and biting a man in half. (Graboids prefer sheep but will munch on humans when provoked.) For the back half of the shot, the fabricated lower half of a human body was used with a crew member dropping the bloodied heap onto the ground.
Encore’s team took that element, painted out the crew member and then reverse-animated a CG version of the body segment from the point where the practical model begins to where it is spit out by the CG Graboid. “In order to mask the transition, the CG torso had to match the angle of descent of the prop,” observed animator Nick D’Amico, “but its path also had to link appropriately with the creature. It took some time to work out that choreography, but we are very happy with the results.”
While the artists who create effects for Tremors labor under the extreme pressures of a television production schedule, it is worth the effort. The creature effects are impressive in how they look, how they move and how they integrate with the live action. “With each effect, we ask ourselves ‘Is it visually interesting?’ and ‘Is it believable?’,” said Tsadilas. “And we don’t quit on any shot until we can say ‘Yes’ to both.”
Encore Hollywood’s Tremors team includes Barbara Marshall, Executive Producer; Laurie Ryan, Visual Effects Producer; Greg Tsadilas, CG Supervisor; Rich Suchy, Modeler; Matt Von Brock, Dan Lopez, Kurt McKeever, Mitch Gates and Nick D’Amico, Animators; Eric Bauer, Rob Williams, Mandy Sorenson and John Shirley, Inferno Artists.
Encore Hollywood is located at 6344 Fountain Avenue, Hollywood, California 90028. For more information, call (323) 466-7663 or visit www.encorehollywood.com.