Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome Takes Off
NBC Universal visual effects artists adopt LightWave 3D to deliver fast-paced VFX
Posted: Fri 09 Nov 2012
Battlestar Galactica fans are ready to rejoice. A new and much-anticipated two-hour event returns eager viewers to the epic battle between Cylon forces and the 12 colonies.
Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, a new science-fiction drama airing on Machinima Prime's YouTube channel beginning November 9, 2012 for 10 episodes and airing on SyFy February 2013, falls on the timeline between Caprica and Battlestar Galactica, in the tenth year of the first Cylon war. To bring this highly anticipated television series to life, the artistic team at NBC Universal relied on a LightWave pipeline to get the job done.
Blood & Chrome was originally envisioned as an innovative Xbox project comprising nine 10-minute segments with a budget of only $2 million. “Obviously, we can’t shoot Battlestar Galactica for $2 million,” remarks Gary Hutzel, visual effects (VFX) supervisor at Universal Cable Productions and on Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome. “I suggested that we look at a radically different approach to the show: to shoot it entirely against greenscreen. As the project gained momentum and the studio realized the cost benefits of this approach, the project gained more financing and grew into a two-hour “backdoor” pilot for a potential new television series.”
Hutzel and the team at Universal were faced with a formidable challenge: producing a Battlestar Galactica-quality, VFX-heavy film from scratch—with “no sets and no locations,” he recalls—at a cost far less than a typical sci-fi pilot. “The way that we accomplished that was to do the entire show on greenscreen,” Hutzel describes, “and I mean the entire show. We are breaking the mold. Right now, we have 89 minutes of content and roughly three minutes of that is filmed against a set piece. The rest of it is greenscreen or pure CGI (computer-generated imagery). That’s how we attacked the project.”
An all-greenscreen production made financial sense. “The executive producers and writers were able to do the kind of show they wanted, as scripted, packed with action and environments all over the universe, including sets, all for much less than the studio would normally pay for a pilot. They came out way ahead. The project is groundbreaking in that nature. It’s something the network is going to hold up and say, ‘This really works, and it makes a lot of sense to do pictures this way.’”
For Hutzel, Blood & Chrome was the ideal project, one he has wanted to do for a long time: “an all-greenscreen, all-virtual environment show for television. It’s something that we’ve broken ground on,” he says.
Hutzel is no stranger to the Battlestar Galactica franchise and to delivering impressive design and visual effects cost-effectively. Originally hired as VFX supervisor on Battlestar Galactica, he worked on the miniseries and the first season. “The miniseries and the first season were done in a traditional way: I oversaw the set and parsed out individual VFX shots to the facility offering the best bid. Going into second season, it became apparent we couldn’t continue outsourcing VFX for that show. The writers couldn’t do the shows that they wanted to do, so we began to bring the work in-house,” he recalls. “By the third season, we were doing the entire show in-house. We call ourselves SyFy’s in-house visual effects operation.”
“We are not a visual effects house in the normal sense,” affirms Doug Drexler, CG supervisor on Blood & Chrome. “Gary has set up a new paradigm. In his model, visual effects is part of the production, just like the art department. We’re there to do anything needed to get the job done.”
Blood & Chrome pushes the new paradigm even further, Drexler adds. “The visual effects department art directed, built, lit, and lined up the shots, designed all the action sequences, created the mood, and drove home the intent of every single scene. What person who fancies himself a filmmaker doesn't dream of being able to do that? And what other department could even conceive of being able to? This is the kind of power that comes from that unassuming little CG package called LightWave.”
Blood & Chrome was a natural progression for Hutzel and his team, as they moved out of Caprica. In the last half of the season, the artists working on Caprica started to expand the show’s VFX footprint by doing entire virtual sets—something they perfected in Blood & Chrome.
Blood & Chrome is, nonetheless, a departure from previous productions in the franchise. “The show is unusual in the sense that it is cut very, very fast,” Hutzel describes. In fact, most of the shots in the two-hour movie span three seconds or less. “Consequently, we ended up with more than 1,800 shots, either full-CGI shots or shots with virtual backdrops created completely in-house for the scene. Battlestar Galactica never delivered anywhere near that number of shots.”
A staff ranging from 22 to 35 VFX and CG artists also delivered the shots on a short schedule. “We delivered up to 150 shots a week, which was barely getting it done in time,” Hutzel affirms. “When I did the Battlestar Galactica miniseries—which, for the time, was a huge VFX show—we had six months to complete 320 VFX shots in the show. Now, we’ve just completed 1,800 shots that are an order of magnitude more complex in five months.”
The Blood & Chrome production script spanned an impressive 117 pages, almost 30 pages longer than typical for an 84-minute show. “The script was enormous,” Hutzel says. “We shot all of it and we shot it in 15 days, which is an extremely short schedule for a two-hour show.”
After the team shot the live action against greenscreen, the artists moved ahead with designing the virtual elements, including the mood and look, says Drexler. “The computer and LightWave give us a lot of freedom; we can experiment to our hearts’ content without the constraints of budget and building physical sets.”
Drexler and his team of 10 CG artists used LightWave to retrofit the Galactica, including the battlestar’s interior sets. “Because the show was all greenscreen, we had an opportunity to expand the ship and give it greater scope.” He and the artists pushed back walls and raised ceilings, but stayed true to the original Galactica design and layout.
“Nothing ticks off my geek sensibilities more than going to my favorite franchise prequel/sequel and finding out that they completely redesigned my favorite character in the show, the spacecraft,” Drexler notes. “The trick was to come up with a design logic that wouldn't tick off our audience. If you were to examine the sets, you’d see that the structure from the last show is intact; even though the sets are more expansive and complex, they still feel like the same place—and, in fact, they are.”
Above and Beyond
Given the show’s greenscreen nature, Hutzel and his team were the de facto production designers, constructing everything except minimalist set pieces, which the art department created and with which the actors interacted. The Blood & Chrome pilot boasts more sets and backdrops than the Battlestar Galactica miniseries.
“It has Cylon robots, a snake creature, and a total of 23 sets we constructed entirely in LightWave 3D,” Hutzel enthuses.
Extensive virtual environments permeate the entire pilot. Hutzel’s goal was to create environments that enhance the live action shot on greenscreen, without drawing so much attention such that the audience is aware of them. “We have a very natural feel with some large-scale elements that are very believable,” he affirms. “LightWave was instrumental because we can work with very large, high-resolution models very quickly. The latest visualization and lighting tools really expedite that process. I can literally light on the fly, just like I would if I were lighting a set. You simply can’t do that reliably in other packages and get the kind of results that we have.”
Artists also looked to LightWave when modeling and animating Blood & Chrome’s unique CG characters, including robots and a unique snake creature. “Despite what a lot of people think, a large number of artists do character work in LightWave,” Hutzel notes. “The look of it, the render, and the animation are tremendous—and fast. Every robot in the show is literally animated by one artist, CG Artist Jesse Toves, and there are dozens of robots. The fact that he can move through that animation so quickly and customize his rig so effectively is due to LightWave’s setup.”
“When people say ‘you can't do character animation in LightWave,’ what they really mean to say is that they can't or don't want to do character animation in LightWave,” Toves explains. “When you want a certain result and you are on a deadline, you simply can't say "my software can't do this, so it can't be done.’ You find a solution. Using LightWave for Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome was a no-brainer. The deep history Lightwave has in handling the hard-edged look of science-fiction content is well earned in television.”
“Honestly, I don't know if any platform other than LightWave could have pulled off this project,” Drexler admits. “The LightWave pipeline is fast. How else could 10 CG artists have pulled off the enormous number of shots in Blood & Chrome? Gary likes to call it ‘our dirty little secret.’ LightWave is the little engine that could, and did; it defied all the odds on a show that by all rights we never should have been able to pull off.”
The bulk of the VFX shots in Blood & Chrome were done in LightWave. In fact, a majority of the Universal team working on the project, including Hutzel, have been working in LightWave for more than 10 years.
“We have been very fortunate to put together a great team,” Hutzel mentions. “The reason we can do this work is, honestly, because of LightWave. It’s a 3D product that allows us to hire artists with a lot of background, who move very quickly, and are used to working independently. I’ve used other 3D packages, but I keep coming back to LightWave. It is a just a powerhouse and I can find the right kind of people to do the job I want that work in LightWave.”
Experienced artists proved essential to executing virtual backdrops to a standard that works in the show in a short amount of time. “Working with LightWave artists and LightWave, we can do that effectively. We can make the schedule. Trying to do it in [Autodesk’s] Maya would be a nonstarter. We would never get done in time. [Maya artists] are used to a pipeline; they are used to having other people do many different phases of a project,” Hutzel says. “The LightWave team that I’ve put together is used to doing it all, ‘soup to nuts.’ They’ll set temporary lighting in all the scenes and they do previs, complete with all the storytelling elements—all in the same software we eventually use to render out our passes for comping. It makes for a very efficient, fast pipeline.”
“LightWave is terrific for previsualization, which we can do very quickly. The big benefit is that you can present new ideas in their entirety to executive producers and directors,” Hutzel explains. On Caprica, for instance, he would present an entire two-minute segment of an action sequence in LightWave previs after seeing a first pass on a script. “We can put a one- or two-minute segment complete with audio together in a couple of weeks to present ideas to the producers. Once it is approved, the editor intercuts the CGI with the live-action plates. As soon as the show is locked, we do final lighting touches, break it out, and go to render from the same scene file. It’s very productive.”
“From a render perspective, our main challenge was tackling close to 1,800 shots within our pipeline,” explains Manuel Choi, render coordinator on Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome. “Because of our fast turnaround, we don't have the luxury of dialing in render settings per shot, or even per sequence. Instead, we'll spend a few days with Gary Hutzel finding general render settings that work for 90 percent of all shots: large space battles, complex outdoor and interior virtual sets, creatures, etc. Having solid settings that give us the render quality that matches Gary's vision enables us to focus on taking previs shots from our CG artists to final (by updating lighting, swapping low-res models for final ones, and performing an overall quality check) and stay on course to tackle 1,800 shots in a short schedule.
"Rendering our final shot count of roughly 1,800 would be close to impossible without having LightWave as our main CG and render platform,” Choi continues. “It's a relief knowing we can always count on LightWave to get us there.”
Hutzel has been working with LightWave at various levels and on myriad projects for 12 years. “It’s just a very productive tool and pervasive,” he says. “Wherever I went and whatever I worked on, from features to presentation projects to documentaries, LightWave has been there.
“In recent years, [LightWave] has developed and improved in lockstep with exactly what I want to accomplish,” Hutzel continues. “For the past four years, it has taken huge strides in improved functionality. In versions 9 and 10, render throughput improved dramatically. In 10.1, we have improved control over the radiosity render settings, so we use it for everything we do now. The combination of increased speed, the ability to adjust settings in radiosity, and the new Hexacore render engines allows us to hammer this stuff out. It has been very productive; we have been very happy with it.”
Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, like LightWave version 10.1, was a natural progression for Hutzel. “I started out on Battlestar Galactica with what was at the time a very large-scale pilot; nobody else was doing that kind of thing at the time,” he says. “We started in a workstation environment using LightWave, and it worked out very successfully. That was eight years ago, and although VFX demands have increased exponentially, LightWave has persevered as my 3D tool of choice.
“LightWave has increased in flexibility and quality to the point where we feel very comfortable going into a project like Blood & Chrome and saying to the director and writers: ‘Write whatever you want. It doesn’t matter. You’ve paid to have us to do every shot on your show, write anything,’” Hutzel enthuses. “That is exactly what we did on Blood & Chrome, and we’ve been successful in bringing this idea to life. VFX are no longer cost-prohibitive. Greenscreen can help you get there from here.” So say we all.