Virtual sets opening up new story possibilities


The script called for agents on CBS' "The Unit" to discover an underground tunnel used for smuggling illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. The problem was that no suitable practical locations were available, and spending big bucks to build a set that would see less than 15 seconds of screentime in a single episode was out of the question. So, producers brought in visual effects house Encore Hollywood to construct the tunnel in the digital realm.

"The characters are pretending to walk carefully down a tunnel, when in fact they're in front of a greenscreen, and the tunnel is completely added after the fact," Encore director of visual effects Tim Jacobsen says. "We found a lot of examples online of different textures of cave walls and tunnels that were built underground, decided the direction, then had our 3-D department (then headed by Matt von Brock) build it completely in 3-D Studio Max."

Once the exclusive province of features and big-budget miniseries, digital set extensions such as these are becoming increasingly common in episodic television. And it's not just action and sci-fi shows that are making use of the ever-cheaper technology. Even the low-key ABC dramedy "Men in Trees" has made use of virtual backdrops.

"We've gone from shooting in parking lots with greenscreens once in a while to where now whole shows are being planned based on the virtual backlot," says Sam Nicholson, founder of Stargate Digital, whose clients have included such shows as NBC's "ER" and "Las Vegas."

For a three-episode story arc on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," the company transformed the parking lot of Santa Anita Park racetrack into the scene of a ferry crash on a Seattle dock.

"We had two 200- by 30-foot-high greenscreens with a whole bunch of fire engines and emergency workers, but absolutely no water and no ferries and no helicopters," Nicholson says. "All that stuff was 3-D and 2-D reconstruct. Then the trick is, can you turn it around it 10 days -- which we can."

The result? Viewers at home get programs with a look and scope akin to a feature film, and the people making the shows get to let their imaginations run wild.

"All of a sudden, the writers realize that the sky's the limit in terms of their creative potential, so they no longer have to write for the budget," Nicholson says.

It also enables them to make changes after the sets are built and the film is shot, as creators/executive producers Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia discovered while making the pilot for their Sci Fi Channel series "Eureka." Disappointed with the scope of the digital set extensions they were creating for the facilities of the show's top-secret government defense contractor Global Dynamics, the visual effects team at Zoic Studios expanded the building during post.

"They wanted us to make it feel like it was built into the mountain, so we put in a mountain wall in the far distance," says Zoic visual effects producer Matthew Gore, whose team built the virtual facilities using NewTek's LightWave and Autodesk's Maya 3-D software.

Outside the Sci Fi Channel, the most effects-heavy show on television is NBC's "Heroes," for which the artists at Stargate Digital enable the protagonists to perform superhuman feats. But some of the effects are less obvious, like in Episode 8, for which they turned a stretch of Zuma Beach in Malibu, Calif., into India using composited still photos and live-action footage augmented with computer-generated 3-D elements to add additional depth.

"You've got to add the subtleties of things within set extensions or matte paintings, like some birds and some steam coming off some of the vents on buildings, and have the clouds slightly move," says Mark Spatny, who serves as Stargate supervising producer and visual effects supervisor-producer in addition to working as supervising visual effects producer on "Heroes." "Otherwise, it becomes a still life."

When Stargate is brought onto a show, Spatny asks the producers for a list of all the places for which they'd like to write scenes over the course of a season. He then sends a two- to four-person crew to those cities to shoot live-action footage and stills of various locales during evening and daylight hours. Over the last five years, the company has built an extensive library of still and live-action plates shot in cities around the globe -- including Las Vegas, London, Morocco, Moscow, New York, Paris and Washington, D.C. -- which came in handy when the company took on December's three-part Sci Fi Channel miniseries "The Lost Room," about a key that can transport a person to a motel room in another dimension that can be used as portal to any location on the planet.

"In many cases, the entire location is from our library of virtual backlots," the mini's visual effects supervisor Eric Grenaudier says. "For instance, when (Peter Krause's character) goes to Hawaii, all we had was him against a greenscreen with a little bit of sand on the ground. The landscape came entirely from Stargate's library."

Stargate's library also gets a heavy workout in ABC's "Ugly Betty." Set in New York, the show is shot entirely in Los Angeles, with the actors performing virtually all exterior scenes on minimal sets backed by greenscreens.

"One of their standing sets is the front porch of (Betty's) house in Queens," Spatny says. "That set is about 12 feet wide, and it sits on a stage. It's just the stoop and the front doorway and window. Everything else -- the houses around it, the street ... is all done by us."

The Showtime series "The Tudors" didn't just rely on 3-D animation and compositing software to create virtual sets -- in this case portraying centuries-old architectural landmarks such as Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace, as well as vast expanses of London -- it also used it to populate them. To generate large crowds of CG people, the effects team at C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures used the program Massive. For smaller groups, they used a slightly more organic approach.

"We took a day with 50 extras and put them through a couple of costume changes and shot them in front of greenscreens, standing, talking, and walking to camera and away from camera and standing in various groups," says C.O.R.E. co-founder Bob Munroe, who served as both visual effects producer and second unit director. "We called that our 'sprite library,' and we were able to take those people and put them in pretty much any shot that needed people -- even some that were remarkably close up."

The goal for Munroe and others working on the virtual backlot is not to wow audiences with wizardry a la "Star Wars," but to never let them know they're even there.

"I've read every single review of 'The Tudors' and everything online on the (Internet Movie Database), waiting for someone to mention the effects," Munroe says. "Nobody has, which means I think we've done our job."