Swarming in Sleepy Hollow

See how the popular Fox Television show uses LightWave and its VPR to create swarming effects.

Posted: Sun 15 Mar 2015

Sleepy Hollow is a US police drama series from the writers and producers of Star Trek, created for 20th Century Fox Television. The story, based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, twists the 1820s plot to include the supernatural/horror genre, which keep audiences engaged and coming back for more. .

CG artists in Hollywood are well aware that you must go where the work takes you, something the visual effects team working on Sleepy Hollow discovered early on in the production schedule. “I was working at Pixomondo while we were starting the show,” says CG supervisor Eric Hance. “Then, we had a really big sequence working with VFX Supervisor Jason Zimmerman and moved from Pixomondo to another facility called Synaptic, so we could work a little closer to the production in Burbank.”

FOX, Sleepy Hollow, LightWave 3D, VPR, NewTek, locust swarm, flocking, visual effects, FOX television, LightWave, animation, CGCreating a swarm of locusts in LightWave 3D.

A Murder of Crows

At Synaptic, LightWave integrated into the Sleepy Hollow production workflow, which up until that point, was primarily using 3ds Max for VFX shots. However, Hance knew there were several sequences that would directly benefit from using LightWave in the pipeline. “In Sleepy Hollow, for example, there was an episode that called for a big flock, or a ‘murder’ of crows. There was a lot of animation, rendering and lighting [required for that scene] and I felt it was best to have it all done in one piece of software by generalists,” he explained.

The animation rigs in LightWave weren’t too complex and this allowed Hance to consider creating the movement of the murder of crows as a particle form. “If there are one or two creatures, there’s the possibility of impressive animation with LightWave,” he said, “but when the numbers of crows runs to the tens of thousands like in this case, the animation is better as a fluid procedural form.”

Made for TV

“LightWave has always been a phenomenal tool when dealing with the demanding schedule of network television,” said Jason Zimmerman, VFX artist. “That coupled with the talented artists I was able to work with allowed us to execute very complex sequences quickly and yet retain the high standard we had for the show.”

The swarm of locusts as it appeared  in Sleepy Hollow.

There was a scene in an early episode of Sleepy Hollow where two actors in a dark hotel hallway are surrounded by flying crows. The actors each had flashlights and were pointing the lights onto the seething mass of birds. “Seeing the lighting effects in the VPR and animating as we go, we could see how the light was affecting the geometry. This made working with animated lighting solutions so much easier,” explains Hance.

When the Synaptic crew tackled the animation of birds for Sleepy Hollow, they were actually all keyframe animated using LightWave. These were middle distance to camera and generated from a few models with a complex crowded-bird flutter. “LightWave quickly gave me what I wanted as a result,” said Hance. “After seeing a quick lighting pass in the viewport, it gave us a glance at all the different disciplines on the fly.”

Next, A Swarm

“In the finale, there was a sequence that included a swarm of locusts that were to be tying an actor up in cobwebs,” Hance describes. “We worked out the sequence in an earlier episode where we’d done some particle work in LightWave, so when we got to the locusts, we knew we should do this [particular effect] in LightWave. It would give us the VPR feedback for the lighting and the camera settings, while doing the particles and animation [for the sequence].”

The VPR was instrumental because it allowed us to see immediately the effect of the lighting on the instanced particles. Whatever you see in the VPR in production, is exactly what you get back when you run it through the renderfarm later.”

When creating the locust builds at Synaptic, Hance approached the LightWave Group for support on how best to tackle the visuals. The LightWave 3D Group provided the visual effects team with enhancements for the way LightWave works with particles, so they could create the locusts for the show. “We worked with a specialist at the LightWave 3D Group, [who helped with] the instancing, particles and flocking, to get the locusts to come to life,” explains Hance. “We only had a week or two to get things done and it was quite a mammoth sequence. But having that direct assistance to the LightWave 3D Group was really valuable.”

“The team was able to quickly turn around any and all requests which is again a testament to the speed with which LightWave operates,” adds VFX Supervisor Zimmerman. “Having notes and comments addressed quickly allowed me to get sign off on the look of many shots and this allowed us to keep up with the fast pace of the show.”

In a kind of Sleepy Hollow finale in episode 112, the artists resurrected some of the LightWave crows and locusts from previous episodes to have them flying around in purgatory. “This [effect] was VPR to the rescue again,” adds Hance, “because we heard only a couple of days before delivery that some crows and locusts were being called for in that final episode. So I took all our existing assets, put it together with a textured dome-light, and I knocked out all of the crow shots in something like a day or so.”

The CG community always wants more features and the LightWave Group is listening. The features in LW 11.6 answer these queries because the people behind the scenes at the LightWave 3D Group are artists working within or alongside the industry on a daily basis.

One of the workflows Eric Hance often implements when working in LightWave is to use a dome light with a texture and directional light on it. This is a typical V-Ray style of workflow that he uses to generate lighting solutions; all of which aer available inside LightWave, using a textured dome. “The message here,” says Hance, “is that I had to jump from Max into V-Ray to set that up, but when I work with LightWave, it’s all there in the application. I don’t have to move.”