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Zoic's Loni Peristere on 'Serenity'

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Reaver2 Zoic Studios visual effects supervisor, Loni Peristere, speaks with vfxblog about his contribution to Joss Whedon's Serenity.
Interview by Ian Failes

Was this the ultimate visual effects project to work on - where story is king?

Story is always king at Zoic. Having attended the Joss Whedon University grad school, I can tell you that the best VFX are the ones you don't notice or care about. Our goal on this film was to be as unintrusive as possible. As with "Firefly," we tried to disappear in the tapestry of Joss' narrative. We love working with Joss; he is a partner and a friend.

What was the overall shot count on the film? Does it cover the full spectrum of visual effects work?

We had just over 400 visual effects in the film. Zoic did about 200 (Open/Skiff Mule Chase/Reaverspace/Battle). The remainder were divided up between Rhythm & Hues (Black Room, Basement Generator Fight, Funeral), Illusion Arts (Mr. Universe, Serenity Crash, Beaumonde, Companion Training Center), PMP (here there and everywhere), and Grant McCune Design (Serenity Crash miniature). There is no character work in Serenity. We do have over 100 all-CG shots though. The overall work includes high-end 3D hard surface and F/X animation, matte paintings, and heavy compositing.

Can you talk about how you work with Joss Whedon, and how your previous work together helped with 'Serenity'?

Joss and I have been working together for nine years. We have an excellent shorthand. I'd like to think I know his aesthetic. As a result, most of the lead animators on this show know it. This allows us to keep the numbers of takes down on a shot. Joss knows what he wants, and then we do it. The longer post process was something we were not used to in our old method of working. This extra time gave us an opportunity for R&D which we never had before; the shots certainly benefited from this.

What kind of practical versus digital decisions did you have to make for the film?

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All of our decisions were based on budget and schedule. We had a great mentor in John Swallow and we did our very best to capture everything we could in camera. It was important to Joss to capture his actors within the action. For our first action scene, a chase between two hovercraft, Dan Sudick built a tow rig which held the hover craft 15 feet over the edge of the road, allowing us to fly the craft for real with the actors in the driver's seat. Jack Green set up two cranes on the same rig which also allowed us to fly around the craft while in motion. This decision alone eliminated the need for green screen coverage of the actors, as they were actually in the craft. We used previz to work out every sequence that might involve effects, using the CG images to brainstorm and come up with practical solutions. John Swallow also brought in Grant McCune to supervise our miniature crash in collaboration with Bill Taylor from Illusion Arts. We were very fortunate that these veterans came in for John and Joss as we had such a tight budget and they did amazing work with what we had.

Can you talk about the planning and previz you carried out?

Every shot in the movie was boarded and every shot was previsualized technically. Jarrod Davis built the sets according to Barry Chusid's blueprints, and built the cameras, and the cranes. He then worked out the shots according to the boards. These scenes were rendered both in camera and with an omniscient point of view. This second viewpoint was used during preproduction in our mini meetings to determine the production plan.

You seem to have a reputation for making shots look good with less money. How do you do it?

Communication in coordination with talented animators. The lead animators on Serenity are attentive and usually get Joss' vision in a few takes. I also think because of television and Joss' must-do mentality, we just figure it out. On "Buffy" we never had time or money, but we always found a way. On Serenity we used this must-do mentality with the best crew imaginable. Jack Green and Dan Sudick were there to make it work. We were constantly challenging ourselves with what could be done. The hovercraft chase is a great example. As scripted, it read like a three-week shoot, with heavy CG. We didn't have that, but we had the scene. So we cooperated and problem-solved the sequence to what it eventually became. A practical cowboy and Indians chase, with a bit of wire removal and some terrain replacement. We were only able to do this by using the unique talents of our crew to overcome safety, aesthetic, and schedule restrictions. Joss finished the story beats in two days, I cleaned up the action over the next two, with a third aerial day. We did it in one week. We also shot the plan, as there was no room or budget for improvement. And yet because we were shooting the actors on the craft, they could improve and Joss could follow them. Just wait until we have a little money.

The TV series and now this film have a handheld, documentary style. How did that translate into your approach towards the visual effects?

This is a style which Emile Smith and I developed for the series. We wanted to do CG like Nascar. For Serenity, we blocked and boarded the action and the animation team was told what the story beats were. From these beats they were told to find a way to follow the action with their camera despite the fact that there was a battle going on. The camera had to always be a part of the beats of the story; thus, our space battle isn't about the battle, but rather, about "Serenity" as she navigates the front and our camera operator who must stay with her under fire. Kyle Toucher, Chris Zapara, Aram Granger, Jarrod Davis are the very best at making this happen. Emile is great at pushing it. It is a luxury to work with these guys.

You had an established pipeline for 'Firefly' at Zoic. Did you have to do a lot of extra work to upgrade or change that pipeline for 'Serenity'?

It was completely redone. The lead animators on "Firefly" are generalists who are able to do their shots entirely. On the movie they became sequence leads and managed a team of modelers, lighters, and F/X artists who generated elements for their shots. This was necessary due to volume of work and the level of detail required. Randy Goux and Patti Gannon led this process with Saker Klippsten and Steve Avoujageli made it happen. We also introduced Maya/mental ray to the team and a feature pipeline adapted from the ESC pipeline by the guys. This pipeline brought Zoic Digital Dailies, an asset publishing system, and proprietary fluid tools created by the F/X lead Rob Nitsch for Fire and Smoke.

What were some of the technical challenges you faced on the film? The skiff/mule chase: how do we fly our cast?

Integrating the practical ship into the CG. We had to often track our talent into Serenity. We used previz to understand this before we shot it. Ship design: we received our ship design very late in the process, which held production back. As a result we had to scramble to recover lost ground. In addition, this limited the amount of "kit bashing" we had planned to do to create a larger fleet. Serenity_side Rendering: Brian Friesinger and the team had to constantly rework the models and textures to camera, as there were often 200 ships in a single shot. He had to build and rebuild in order to keep the scenes as light as possible. This was a great deal of back and forth between his model and texture team and production. Rendering in Lightwave: Lightwave has issues with motion blur. We worked around this by spitting out vectors and creating motion blur in 2D. Lightwave has texture memory issues. The huge models crashed like crazy and this required constant rerendering. The guys, who are the best in the business with this tool, were very frustrated by the limitations. Compositing in combustion: Patti Gannon had to create a workflow for her crew which had yet to work with 120-plus layers. Our new network: the large amount of data pushed around on the show constantly taxed Saker Klippsten and his tech team. The team had to be very patient while many storage companies tried to patch bandwidth. Air conditioning: it was awfully hot here last summer and the AC balance was never quite right.

Can you take us through a couple of the key shots you are most proud of and talk about how they were accomplished?

Mule 40 - The hovercraft reveal. We used a mounted techno crane to establish the "mule" hovercraft and the chase. The camera begins underneath the mule, just over the terrain as brush flies by, then rises, extends and pulls across the "mule" revealing the reaver's behind. The mule was suspended 15 feet away from the road, but in this move we saw the road, the camera crew, and the rig. We had to replace all of this with a matching digital landscape. We also had to add the reaver and his exhaust. This was fun as this was done on a plate and for all intents and purposes it only looks like we added the reaver. The landscape system was written by Brian Goldberg and Marcus Stokes. It was used throughout the sequence by Mark Norrie, but this particular shot was incredibly difficult and you would think so by looking at it. Bat 260 - "Serenity" is turned back into the battle and chased by reavers. This shot animated by Kyle Toucher is what the Serenity aesthetic is all about. In it we watch her evade a slew of firepower and debris, while leaving the Operative to get crushed by a reaver. It is just an awesome shot. I think every artist in the building helped to make this shot happen.

Related Links:

Official Serenity site

Zoic Studios

Special thanks to Loni Peristere for chatting to vfxblog, and to Michele Lu for making it possible. All images copyright 2005 Universal Studios. Courtesy of Zoic Studios. All rights reserved. Posted on 24 September 2005 | Permalink


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