DP John Toll, ASC
By Bob Fisher

DP Tim Orr
By David Geffner

DP James Whitaker
By Jon Silberg

Steven Poster, ASC

Rob Legato
By Bonnie Goldberg

Out-of-the-box VFX
By Bonnie Goldberg

By Pauline Rogers

By Kevin H. Martin

By Kevin H. Martin


By Kevin H. Martin


While art does thrive on restrictions at times, there are other instances when economics cause it to suffer. When the cost of visual effects impact TV production, the results are sometimes dire, but preplanning can offset and/or minimize the difficulties.
In the 1960s, a seemingly unending stream of sci-fi TV series developed by producer Irwin Allen was able to draw upon in-house talent from 20th Century Fox’s seasoned feature film FXperts. But in most other cases, optical effects for television were so time-consuming that production companies were forced to employ a variety of vendors just to meet their airdates. Practically every optical house in Hollywood worked on the original Star Trek, and even with the later Trek series, which retained multiple in-house vfx supervisors and coordinators, there was still heavy reliance on outside facilities like Image-G for motion-control shooting, plus a bevy of other groups for animation work.

CGI became available and practical for small-screen efforts in the ‘90s with Babylon 5 and seaQuest DSV spearheading whole-cloth CG efforts, using arrays of personal computers with LightWave software. A number of syndicated fantasy programs also availed themselves of these processes, which eventually even overtook the Trek universe, supplanting motion control model work before the coming of the new millennium.

Many of the key players who would later form Zoic Studios began their professional effects careers during this period, working on Trek spinoffs and in Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse. Zoic came into being for Whedon’s short-lived Firefly series, where it pioneered a very active and searching camera style for CG space scenes. The subject of a sudden camera zoom would go out of focus momentarily, then sharpen, just as one might observe in footage shot on the fly or in a war zone. This sense of immediacy meshed well with the show’s approach to live-action and won them an Emmy; later, Zoic built on that style for the Sci-Fi Channel’s reworking of Battlestar Galactica, which led to their winning a VES award.
Zoic broadened its repertoire with more earthbound programming, such as CSI Miami (and later, its predecessor), Tru Calling, Cold Case, 24, Blade and Eureka, and was able to apply circle-camera technology (developed for the old 360-degree Disney


pavilion) for a see-everything/go everywhere opening to Drive, which featured a sustained, seemingly-single shot that introduced all of the main characters and their speeding vehicles.

While Zoic’s principal currency is design and creation of computer-generated imagery, there is no fixed mindset about automatically relying on the current ‘state-of-the-art’—motion control and the shooting of practical elements as needed are also employed. According to Zoic Studios creative director/visual effects supervisor Andrew Orloff, who has been with the company since its inception, “We decided early on, as a corporate philosophy, that it is always a matter of the right tool for the right job.”

This perspective is demonstrated with Orloff’s recent work on the CBS series Jericho, which employs practical as well as digital solutions. “As the series finale, Patriots and Tyrants was a big deal to the fans who kept this show alive past its initial cancellation,” notes Orloff. “It was a big deal for us as well, because our big scene had to carry a heavy emotional aspect, that the main character Jake [Skeet Ulrich] is not going to make it out alive.” Flying a critical mission in a Cessna, Jake is intercepted by a pair of F-15 fighters. With the jets poised to shoot him down, all seems lost, but F-16 ‘friendlies’ enter the fray, vanquishing his opponents via a pair of SideWinder missiles.

Pulling that off for a TV budget was a real struggle,” Orloff readily admits, “but it shows how getting involved creatively with production right from the beginning pays off. They told us what was needed storywise in general terms, then asked what sort of things we could do in that vein. This is just so different from the old approach to effects for TV, where you’re just told about what they decided to shoot and that you’ll need to figure out how to plug elements into that plate.” Orloff’s team studied a variety of aerial source footage, ranging from Top Gun to The Blue Angels, before devising a possible choreography, beginning with storyboards. “From there we fashioned animatics that included a mix of styles. These approximated what you might capture when shooting a real aircraft; one angle could be in the vein of a copter shot, and another emulating a chase plane view. We took this into editorial with the director and producer so they could pick and choose from these options, then got our approvals.”

The CG aircraft featured are hard surface models, but, as Orloff explains, “The look isn’t so cut and dried as you might think. The sheen of the metal and the glass in the cockpit are important factors in selling the look. We also had to build CG cockpit interiors because the shots got in so close. We took close-up pics at a local airport, then used about a dozen 4K texture maps to get every


detail.” Zoic’s pipeline breaks renders into three passes, so that reflections, color and specularity can be handled separately, and the render is done in EXR format. “This approach gives us enormous flexibility with getting a look that is appropriate to the environment, and permits dialing in the right amount of atmosphere and highlight blooming. Unfortunately in this instance, the battle took place at 30,000 feet, which is so clear that it might as well be up in space. Traditional CG tricks like fog can’t be used. And the terrain is very clear from up there as well, but you can’t model every single tree, so we wound up laying USGS maps over a rough CG landscape.” To keep their client in the loop, Zoic uses cineSync to send QuickTime files for review.

That ‘right tool for the right job’ outlook translated to practical solutions for the pyrotechnic aspects of the sequence. While some visual effects companies rely almost entirely on computer generated effects, Zoic maintains its own 5,000 square-foot stage for mo-con and other shooting, which saw duty for the cockpit live-action in Jericho’s aerial battle [Zoic also handle their own film processing and transferring], and has a parking lot zoned for pyrotechnics. “I’ve done a lot of hard surface models, spaceship shells and the like, so I knew photo-real explosions in a daylight environment are really hard to sell when you work 3D. To me, planes turning into fireballs meant getting in modelmakers and a pyro expert [John Stirber].” Barry Walton dp’d the shoot and fire marshals were called in to advise as well. Orloff relies on Fries Mitchells, “the older workhorse cameras with great registration. We cranked at 120 fps, and I made a point of shooting on long lenses—the widest we ever went was about 150mm.”

Shells from actual RC aircraft models served as a basis for the pyro shoot, which was accomplished in broad daylight. “We made sure these physical models—which had nearly six-foot wingspans, making for a decent shooting scale—were painted to match our CG aircraft with their very specific textures and markings.” Packed with Pyrocel, a plane miniature was hoisted atop a 30-foot armature. “We lined the pyro model up to camera so the angle matched the plane in the animatic; the great thing about this armature was that it allowed the model to rotate on axis, letting us follow the sun throughout the day while maintaining the match. A two-frame dissolve was made between the cg model and the miniature before it exploded, and it goes by so smoothly you just can’t see it.”

Prior to the finale, Zoic had successfully mixed methodologies when creating a spectacular sequence for the Jericho season opener, which required a series of shots of a speeding steam locomotive to climax with the train ramming and destroying a tank. “Building a photoreal CG train would have been pricey and taken awhile to do, but I found L.A. Live Steamers, a large-gauge model railroad organization,” explains Orloff. “They had a functioning engine in eighth scale, and we hung it on a lift above camera so the wheels could turn freely in dynamic close shots. To get running train plates, the engine moved down a track while our camera hung from a Steadicam arm off an ATV. Later, we shot shrub brush and the like against greenscreen, and then rooted that stuff into the scene, both on the camera side of the train and also in the background. After a suspenseful series of intercuts between live-action full-scale tank and miniature locomotive, the sequence culminates with a full-CG tank being smashed apart while flying into camera.”

With ongoing commitments to The Sara Connor Chronicles and the CSI franchise, plus a growing number of impressive commercial spots, Zoic Studios seems committed to resetting the bar ever higher for quality vfx on the tube.