The cauldron of Fox brews with a diametric intensity of different possibilities which makes its line-up both surprising and engaging in its spectrum. With the fervor over “Idol” and “X-Factor”, sometimes the essence of some of the great dramatic shows (like “Fringe”) go unnoticed but the ideas are always percolating.
With the hopes of a network behind it, “Terra Nova”, the dino mythology tale backed by exec producer Steven Spielberg, journeys into fall with budget scrutiny but also the temptations of what the storytelling will venture towards in lieu of the many possible routes.
Brannon Braga, the “Star Trek” mastermind from the late 80s, brought in to oversee the implementation of this show, has had to transcend the different writers rooms and blogger criticism on what is an all-in large TV canvas protect. The key always with science fiction series, specifically ones using time travel, is the idea of “The Butterfly Effect” which he assures is addressed specifically in hour one of the series. Another concern is delivery of the episodes because of the effects rendering which Braga again speaks as being taken care of through forms of new software that needed to be created for the show.
Rene Echvarria, known for his exec duties on “Castle”, “Dark Angel” and “The 4400”, knows how to deal with deadlines. He relates that “a lot of visual effects houses said it couldn’t be done for the time and money”. He says 5 years ago they couldn’t have done this but “there is a pipeline that has been created” which includes “a specialized team for rendering”. The reality, he says, involved a learning curve but “they get better all the time”. In order to make the schedule cut-offs, they have to start production, if they get the go ahead, in the early spring, because their pipeline involves an extra six weeks of production more than most shows. A fact though Rene remains very proud of is that the “slashers” represent the latest thinking of what dinosaurs looked like.
Jason O’Mara, formerly of “Life On Mars” who plays Jim Shannon, the head of a brood heading to the Terra Nova colony 85 million years ago, jokes that “I call my family saying that I got a new show about a cop who travels through time, and they were like ‘We’ve seen that one'”. In terms of character comparison with his former and current show, O’Mara says that Sam Tyler on “Mars” was lost while his character here wants to get his family to Terra Nova without question. The challenges of Jim in “Terra Nova” are external versus Tyler whose problems were internal. The notion is that in creating a feeling so far from home in Australia where they shoot the series, they are trying to create an adventure, so much so “we already feel like displaced pioneer families”.
From around the bend, the intensity of “X Factor” rears its head. Simon Cowell emerges and will not be undone especially in his choice of both judges including Paula Abdul and Nicole Schlesinger of “The Pussycat Dolls”.
Cowell relates that “for me, it takes a certain breed to survive in this business” but in terms of his new show he thinks “we generally have a good working capacity” but “it feels completely different” from “Idol”. The reasoning in his mind for bringing the show Stateside is that “every one deserves a third chance” which is “why we have no age limit” which gives any person a shot. The challenge becomes that he believes the TV audience has become too savvy. For him it has to be “what you see is what you get” whether it be “the good, the bad or the ugly”.
Revolving back around to comedy, “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” visualizes a generation of young feeling mothers coming about face with their age as they are trying to maintain their own sense of being.
Coming off her successful run on “My Name Is Earl”, Jamie Pressly says she remembers “when I was that 14-year-old girl…and it runs the gamut”. She agrees that, at that age, “we all think we know everything” adding that “I had my own ideas and was outside the box”. Her thought is that “every kid’s different and every parent’s different”. Her reminiscence begins on the thought that “I was treated like dirt by the mean girls” when she was growing up in North Carolina. Most of her friends, she relates, were boys hence she was “a tomboy”. In terms of her return to television, she explains “if I am going to come back to TV, it has to be as far away from the Joy character on ‘Earl'” as possible. The problem when she was going up for other gigs, most people “for some reason, instead of me doing a great job [they actually] thought I was Joy”. Fox President Kevin Reilly actually put “Earl” on the air so he was open to the idea of her expanding. She was surprised “how easy it is to get pigeonholed in that role”. She says she and Wilmer Valderrama, who co-starred as Fez on “That 70s Show”, talk about it because people think he is the same as his character. This made her very scared that “I wasn’t going to be able to get another show for a long time”.
Katie Finneran, who plays Nikki, Jamie’s mother-partner-in-crime, says that in her last TV role [“Damages”] “I had a gun in my hand shooting serial killers”. She admits that she was always the designated driver but that she would get a Whitman Chocolate Sampler and eat. This she attributes to growing up in Miami and “hanging with the Cuban kids”.
The mainline of all decisions comes through the man on top of the chain which Kevin Reilly has served at Fox Television for the past couple years. The key in the position is both in fostering creative talent but also making the tough financial decisions that make or break a show.
With both “X Factor” and “Glee” causing high visibility creative shuffling, Reilly speaks that “I can’t even know the exact chronology of how everything went down”. “Glee” from his perspective is “a complete management undertaking” because “personalities always have difficulties”. He never said they wouldn’t do it again. The challenge is the only time “when I get worried as a programmer is when people say, ‘I am starting to get bored'”. He reiterates that, with “Glee”, they are focusing on their core characters and there will be a graduation at the end of the season. However, from his perspective, for the present time “the spin-off will stay in the wind” but says “we we are going to revisit that”.
In terms of “Terra Nova”, he says the results will be “sampled” but classifies it as “a unique property” that is “not usual for Fox”. They do have “real estate on our schedule that we can use to see it”. He says that he has seen 5 hours of the show so far and that “it raises expectations” in “what it brings to Fox”.
On a wider note, he says that “baseball has become manageable” but that “it is trickier with X-Factor” adding that “we are not going to do repeats”. He admits that TV currently is “a hard environment” because “we are increasingly in a less linear universe” where the broadcast networks “have to demand [the consumer’s] attention”.
Using the structured examples of “Terra Nova” and “I Hate My Teenage Daughter”, Fox shows along with the intuit notions of “X Factor” and “Glee” that the continual progression requires a balance of both franchise shows and essential risk taking potential.
Using their presumption for accurate and relevant perceptions while still highlighting the genre crossing that always begets an audience, HBO, with the growing intensity of “True Blood”, is playing through into the game balancing both films and new outlays of series and miniseries allowing for the ability to truly play the field.
“Temple Grandin”, which follows the life of a mentally challenged woman whose autistic tendencies gave her the edge to become one of the most successful businesswomen in her arena of ranching, comes on the perception of director Mick Jackson, best known for his 90s tomes “L.A. Story” and “The Bodyguard”.
Jackson says that the script interested him from the get-go though, from the title, he thought it was something based in religion. When he looked closer he saw that it was indeed “not the subject of everyday life”. Claire Danes, who took on the role of this woman who was constantly at her shoulder, says that “autism” as a condition “manifests itself differently” in every person “as it does through Temple”. She said that the performance had to be broken down into two major chapters of life and took much time and practice. The risk, she says is always of getting it wrong or underplaying it. Danes said that she felt protected in her approach but knew she had to be very specific which she usually achieved through music on her headphones.
Temple herself found the entire experience surreal at times. She described it as “like going into a weird time machine” where she would ask Clare “do you think that is you?”. She describes autism as “a big spectrum” in that the more and more you learn, the less you act “autistic”. In terms of what allowed her to make her way in the beginning when no one wanted to talk to her, she said she just whipped our her schematics on how to make the machines that now are essential to her business proudly admitting that the drawings in the movie are hers.
Next, “Treme” from the creators of “The Wire” is a motley vision of the residents of New Orleans, mere months after Katrina told from a dramatic point of view as a narrative series.
David Simon, who previous exec credits also include “Generation Kill” and “Homicide”, says “Treme” is about New Orleans but they are using the music as a hook and something to be valued. In terms of the marketing which shows the funeral procession, he admits that there is an undercurrent of darkness. What makes Orleans great in one sense, can make it problematic in others, hence the irony of making a funeral resounding and fun. The aspect of shooting of course begets insurance issues for sure in The Big Easy especially during incumbent hurricane season. What interested him in terms of behavior was that, in terms of the aftermath and consequences, the vestiges of crime started in 2006 but got worse by 2007. The question becomes what the lack of response did or how it perpetrated itself.
Wendell Pierce, who is one of the series leads as Baptiste, a local musician looking to make his way, says that, as a New Orleanian, he was very concerned about the authenticity of the series. The area is very unique and the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. He knew that David and co-creator Eric Overmeyer had the ability to find the specificity of the culture. The possibility was of making a cathartic moment with life imitating art. He says that someone from “The Wire” told him excitedly that they get to go back to shoot there but Pierce admits that New Orleans still “hasn’t gotten it back together” and that “it is like pulling teeth to get back on your feet”.
Eric Overmeyer follows up these thoughts saying that when they first started talking about doing this series, alot of shows were being shot in New Orleans but never got it right. For example, they initially thought about not introducing John Goodman’s character until the second episode but said they needed someone who could comment in a bigger sense on the political situation that was being explored. This is why they integrated that character immediately. Goodman was a natural choice because he lives in Orleans.
In terms of the naming of show, Overmeyer defines that “Treme” is a neighborhood near the French Quarter where, he says, American music and culture were born. He makes clear that the show is not about that neighborhood but more about the spirit of the town stating that they “figured people would catch up with the title sooner or later”. He sees the New Orleans that they are showing as “the same city but not” because “you can see the scars from the storm” yet “it it is still standing”.
Coming back to the film arena, “You Don’t Know Jack” tells the story of Dr. Jack Kevorkian with only the kind of intensity that Al Pacino can bring to a role.
When asked about moving into this area of cable, Al, in signature style, says “It’s television. It’s HBO” monikering the line. He does state though that television has been doing a lot more in a short period of time. In terms of his character, he says that the film’s title is apt because this is a man who is more than meets the eye which is part of his appeal. Pacino says that not alot of people can say that they know Kevorkian, He himself did not meet Jack when doing the role. He said that there are some characters you do that with. He mentions “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon”. If there are possibilities to meet, it can make for great fodder. Other times not.
Susan Sarandon, who plays Janet Good, a social worker who helped advocate for Dr. Kevorkian in his assisted suicides, says that moving into the HBO arena for this role made sense because “their demographic is different” adding that sometimes “feature work gets watered down”. What truly drew her is that she found the character” mesmerizing”.
Following on the trail blazing between the two worlds of series and films is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ epic miniseries “The Pacific” which, beyond one of the bigger productions of its kind, has a distinct challenge in distilling the essence of a combat theater so huge that many people were unaware of in its vastness.
Hanks approaches the thought of the mini-series first saying that “the main difference is our source material” calling it “almost a piece of scholarship”. He calls Eugene Sledge’s “Helmet For My Pillow” “about as great a memoir that has ever been published” perceiving it more as a “prose poem”. He calls the difference between “The Pacific” and “Band Of Brothers” as distinctive as the two theaters of war themselves. He sees The Pacific War like the ones we have been involved with since. The idea in “The Pacific” was to “take human beings through hell”. He says that there were some people (probably at the development level) who thought “that this context would be a waste of time”. He agrees that “it doesn’t bend to a graceful narrative”. When talking about World War II, the emphasis is that the war in Europe liberated Paris. The Pacific conflict does not fall into the same structure, in his mind, making the story much more individiualized and not as essential in the actual location they were stationed. Hanks doesn’t see World War II as a “finite open-and-close story” but “more as an aspect as the human condition” where “fate and serendipity” come into play. He comments that “there are great moments of face and great moments of despair”. What he finds key is taking these stories of these young men and figuring it out. He distinctifies that if you look at The Pacific as a museum piece, the difference between what 17-year-olds did then versus what they do today is mind boggling. The best they, as the lead creatives, can do is “show the vastness of the horizon reflected in the eyes of these characters”. He says that the nomenclature of “hero” can be branded about easily or as a catch-all phrase but anyone who said “I do” to service is a “hero”
Spielberg’s view works in congruence. He says that he had a sense when they were making “Saving Private Ryan” of some of the aspects of what these soldiers experience. Much of this was informed by the photographs these men saved. He wanted to find “the 24-frame equivalent of the reality without being elegant”. He also points to the fact that “The Pacific” has a very different look than “Band Of Brothers” which had a desaturated tinge to it. “The Pacific” is what he calls “a blue sky war”. What he and Hanks wanted to most to capture “in essence” was “what happens to the human soul through these engagements”. The way the soldiers in the Pacific Theater fought was in a very different way than the European Theater fought the Axis Forces. The view of “when evil and nature conspire against the individual” creates a different intersection of emotional claustrophobia. As a person who has never been in a war, Spielberg’s perception is that from his perspective “you don’t look at a war as a geopolitical endeavor…you look at it more in small pods”.
Ashton Holmes, who plays Private Sydney Phillips, summarizes the vision from the ground up saying that in terms of the character he was playing “the marine corp was all about discipline”. He pontificates that these men “were trained and trained and trained” so that by that perception “everyone would do their job to the best of their ability” and “be ready”.
After the essence of pre-vis, seeing things in advance is very helpful especially when planning or in some cases, adding material for a project, because of an ability to accomplish something more with what is available. At the 2009 Produced By Conference on its second day at Sony Studios, the aspects of Mo Cap (or Motion Capture), which is being optimized by the top people in the business from Bob Zemeckis to David Fincher to James Cameron, was brought into focus.
Performance/Motion Capture Production Technology Performance basis of creatures is motivated ultimately by camera angle. Certain examples of what was done in the past to emphasize mo cap was always personified by the dotted faces of actors used to create the computer grids. To personify this point, footage is shown of Bill Nighy paying the slithery captain in “Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”. Nighy called his getup when he was playing the creature: his “funky computer pajamas. The thing is that mo cap still can’t capture directly around the eye sockets and the actual eyes. Steve Sullivan, Sr. Technology Officer at ILM, breaks down the different perspectives of motion capture. “Facial Mo-Cap” involves a “zillion” dots on the face and uses the same fundamental techniques as “Body Mo-Cap”. Make up can be sometimes used to make the dots. Sometimes it works but it depends on the lighting. When you start working on facial re-targeting where you actually align a new face with a different performance, it becomes a subjective artistic endeavor. These re-targeting exercises however can now be done in real time. Sullivan then shows a test using a live low res example running off an XBOX 360 console and not one of their super computers. The result is still fairly comprehensive.
The realization is that once you do the actual mo cap and get the data, then you can do camera coverage. After that, you just go back and key out any problematic frames. Sullivan then showed an “Indiana Jones” video game engine optimizing mo cap which was made in two hours. It wasn’t done to show the possibilities of FX but more to see how the actual story could play out. This kind of low tech Mo-Cap with facial re-targeting is effective in his mind for actor freedom and director control. It also allows on-demand capture for quick experimentation and real time documenting for timing.
Rob Readow and Debbie Denise from Sony Imageworks began the ball rolling on Mo-Cap back when director Bob Zemeckis first came in with “Polar Express”. They went about with different tests. The second one they did for “Polar” at Imageworks was green screen with full digital environments like “300”. They suggested the InMotion Mo-Cap system they had been working on to Zemeckis. Zemeckis was hesitant but it was Tom Hanks who said that it could allow him to play both the boy and the conductor in the same movie which seemingly ultimately swayed the director. Despite what anyone thinks, according to Readow and Denise, these movies are still mounted as big pictures. The box that they first worked on for “Polar” was only 10 feet by 10 feet which is the most the computer could do at the time. On “Monster House” they could have the ability of 200 cameras shooting on once. And by the time “Beowulf” came around, they could capture horses running across the soundstage.
The importance aspect to remember is that it is still a live action shoot of sorts. The actors just don’t have to hit their marks. The “Beowulf” shoot itself took 38-40 days. Denise says Hanks said that it was the hardest he has ever worked because you never go back to your trailer. Readow follows up Denise’s observations talking about using the Sony DXC-M3A camera as a virtual camera rig where you are using its systems to shoot in a virtual world. That is how they got the realistic camera movements in “Surf’s Up”. By comparison when they worked on some of the elements of “Watchmen” specifically Dr. Manhattan with Billy Crudup, the scanning was done low impact on set. After the initial scan done in live action with the dot structure, the body fabrication was scanned off a bodybuilder with the head and partial torso of Crudup melded together. The simulation software even worked to cause the muscles to ripple. However the camera still racked Crudup in 2D space. Even in the small sequence where Manhattan is forming, the dyanmic simulation of the circulatory systems was done on set with Mo-Cap with the final VFX adding the other different elements such as heat, static and luminescence.
Greg LaSalle, Founder of Mova, works in the essence of the balance between real and photoreal. He worked on “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” using aspects of their proprietary Mo-Cap system but wanted to let Oscar winner for “Button”: Steve Preeg talk about that show. Greg talks about Mova in a different light saying that his company works with effects companies but is not actually one themself. Their specific system is called Contour Digital Capture. It records the precise motion that is needed to make something photo real like Brad Pitt’s older head replacement in “Benjamin Button”. When this information is outputted from their system it is like a raw reconstruction. The result is alot of reference video. It becomes what is known as Data Driven Mesh (DDM). From this information you can create FACS which is normal face shape computer systems but ones that operate in real time. This way the expressions are more natural and you are able to get subtle and accurate skin, bone and muscle positions. They have also recently integarted invisible make up which lets the pores and ridges of the face shine through on the scan. Mova is a subsisdiary on On Live which is a new video game avatar system that will be able to be optimized in the future. The test we saw has divisive possibilities in many different sectors. This is not a rendered scan operation but instead it would have scans of people filtered through an engine running in literal real time.
From that, Steve Preeg, Oscar winner as an animation supervisor for “Benjamin Button” last year from Digital Domain, talked about what Mo-Cap allowed them to do on that specific movie as a workshop example. In “Benjamin Button”, they had to do 325 body double head replacements in 325 shots over 52 minutes. The big obstacles and goals was locking Pitt’s performance to the body double’s head motion, making sure the body motion adhered to the dialogue timing and then that the eye line was right. They tended to use a blendshape route which allows for linear transformations between individual shapes. They originally thought about doing emotional study and creating some elements ala Andy Serkis in “King Kong” but that was out of and beyond the budget. What they did was strap Pitt into the Mova system. Unlike the dot system, Pitt’s face was covered with a green paste which allowed a more infinite scan of his skin. Preeg said this allowed much more pore detail to come through. The problem can be stablization because nothing at any time in this process is stable. They actually had to build a plug in for Maya to deal with this issue.
The fear was that at some times the wrong part moved in simulation or if Pitt couldn’t hit that particular point. The other concern is that there is no data captured right around the eyes. They had to create an eye rig to match that. The hardest part of the eye to recreate, according to Preeg, was the goopy part where there is an angle of reflection. Add these elements to the onset data capture where you have to track 3-4 cameras per shot. You shoot the material on set in layers to get positional information but then you have to track the head markers through the other elements. The onset was the first part. Now several months later you need to get Pitt’s take on Ben. Pitt was strapped into the HD Viper Cam rig. He basically had to angle into the audio keys (what Preeg calls almost “visual ADR”). Add to that equation, “Image Analysis” which brings the timings closer together. The thing is no matter what you do, the computer still can’t get across intent. This is a creative endeavor but there always needs to be an artist behind the notion. This technology will never replace that kind of talent in terms of the actor. A big point was made on this.
Patrick Runyon, Product Specialist at Xsens, brought a real world example of Mo-Cap with a portable system that is used in the industry. Specifically cited was Third Floor who was represented in the pre-vis panel. Their system called MVN uses the continuing trend of flexible capture. It doesn’t require cameras but uses motion trackers and wire frames inside a suit along with scopes and magnetic parameters. Biomechanics eventually comes into play for the aspect of the precise measurements. You just need a laptop, the case with the hardware and the suit to make it work. The onscreen motion set within a 3D grid was real time and showed the practical application of scanning real world movements on the fly in a virtual setting.
In the essence of wrap up, several questions were posed. Rob Readow at Imageworks spoke about future technologies specifically the aspect of “passive digital” where the scan doesn’t need to be in “line of sight”. He said that the aerospace arena is leveraging the data but that currently optical is still the highest fidelity. Readow was also asked about adding stereoscopic elements in post in terms of Mo-Cap and also animation. He says that it is fairly easy to add an extra eye for Stereo 3D as long as they have the other data from the opposite eye complete. He brings up the point that “Polar Express” was originally not in 3D. They were told 3 or 4 months ahead of release that this was a new angle. They got it done but that was not the plan from the beginning.
Denise from Imageworks also was asked about a rig that was supposedly used on Spielberg’s upcoming “Tin Tin” movie which apparently incorporated mounted head cams with the body suits instead of dots. She says that it is just another way to capture all the facial tracking markers. It is simple image recognization. James Cameron’s “Avatar” is using this kind of rig as well. It simply uses a different marker set.
Mo-Cap like Pre-Vis offers more complicated and infinitely fulfilling ways in which to realize many possibilities that couldn’t be done before but also make the realization process a little smoother by allowing virtual worlds to come alive in a more organix way.
For more info on Mo-Cap, visit The Motion Capture Society.