Atmosphere Visual Effects
3D Animation, Pre-Visualization, Visual Effects
March 30, 2005
Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica all share a common element. They're all part of the Sci Fi channel's Friday night line-up of new weekly episodes. They have another element in common though. One company has contributed visual effects shots to all four series with the aid of LightWave 3D, Atmosphere Visual Effects. Based in Vancouver, an area that is coming into its own in the visual effects industry, this relatively small new company of only about 15 people is already making waves in the business. In addition to the four ongoing weekly series listed above, they have also contributed shots to Dead Like Me and Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital, for which they earned an Emmy nomination. We spent some time talking to Jeremy Hoey, co-founder of Atmosphere VFX, about some of the visual effects work they have been able to bring to the screen.
Can you tell us about a little about yourself and your history with 3D?
I trained as an Architect – which meant enduring the horrors of early versions of Autocad at university – but subsequently fell into visual effects almost by accident, creating playback graphics for Stargate SG-1. That job involved only a rudimentary level of 3D, usually requiring little more than spinning wireframes. A couple of seasons later though, I was offered the opportunity to move up to being a digital matte artist, and started using 3D with more serious applications in mind. Suddenly I was creating landscapes and buildings that had to mesh seamlessly with live-action plates and withstand close scrutiny. Needless to say, it was quite a learning curve! Nowadays, 3D is an integral part of my day-to-day work.
How were you first introduced to LightWave 3D?
At Stargate SG-1, I started off using ElectricImage, but quickly moved to LightWave 5.5 when it became apparent that ElectricImage wasn't really going anywhere, and because I didn't have the time to learn how to model in FormZ. LightWave was the perfect tool for me: being a one-man department with serious production deadlines and few learning resources, I needed a package that enabled me to model and texture environments rapidly and produce photo-real renderings without endless tweaking. LightWave's modeling toolset and beautiful render engine gave me what I needed, and I've not looked back since.
How did you come to be a co-founder of Atmosphere Visual Effects?
I co-founded Atmosphere VFX with my fellow ex-GVFXers Andrew Karr (who is our lead 3D artist) and Tom Archer (our lead compositor). We had all worked at GVFX Vancouver together, and after the sad demise of the company in 2003 we saw an opportunity to fill some of the resulting gap in the market. The three of us set up shop in Andrew's spare bedroom and worked on our first episode of Andromeda during the height of 2003's insanely hot summer: three of us packed into a small room with 6 computers, south-facing windows and no air conditioning. Not the most comfortable setup! But we got the job done with some success, and it was a matter of weeks before we found ourselves a proper office and started hiring more artists to help us. Eighteen months and one Emmy nomination later, and we're in the midst of yet another expansion which will take us to over 20 artists.
What is your primary role at Atmosphere Visual Effects, and what does it entail?
I wear a few different hats, but the two roles that consume most of my energies are Lead Digital Matte Artist and VFX Producer.
Being a digital matte artist goes beyond what most people think of as "matte painting". I certainly spend a lot of time in Photoshop creating matte paintings, but I probably spend even more time in Lightwave building 3D environments for set extensions and so forth. I was attracted to matte painting because of the varied skillset required; it requires a broad and diverse blend of artistic and technical skills that suit my temperament: I don't do so well with narrowly focused jobs, I need to mix it up and tap into both sides of my brain.
My other primary job, VFX Producer, deals more with the business side of visual effects. When a job comes around, I read through and break the scripts down, do cost estimates and bidding, work with the client to get an initial understanding of what she wants from the shots, and so forth.
So my role is to land the job and work with the client at the beginning of the process to get the ball rolling, before handing over day-to-day production to the department heads and the VFX Coordinator.
Many studios have contributed to one or two shows comprising the Sci Fi Friday line-up. How did Atmosphere Visual Effects come to be involved with all four?
Vancouver is a small town in many ways; between the three of us who started the company, we know and have worked with most of the local VFX supervisors over the years.
I personally got my start in visual effects working in-house on Stargate SG-1, so it was natural for us to continue that close working relationship with James Tichenor and Michelle Comens; and we know Mark Breakspear, the VFX Supervisor on the first season of Stargate Atlantis, very well too.
Andrew, Tom and I had also worked for Bruce Turner, VFX Supervisor on Andromeda, back when he was the General Manager at GVFX Vancouver. Battlestar Galactica was a little more indirect; we hadn't met Gary Hutzel before he approached us about working on it, but we knew his VFX Coordinator, Mike Gibson, who kindly brought us to Gary's attention. Luckily, we hit it off with Gary immediately; the rest is history, as they say.
But beyond the personal contacts we had - which there's no denying was a very important factor - we were also lucky that we had a very well-rounded team that could handle a broad range of projects from the very start. The three of us who started Atmosphere were a 3D artist, a compositor, and a matte painter: a neat little kernel that it was easy to build a team around. That, combined with a willingness to work our butts off, got us a long way.
What feature of LightWave do you like the most?
My own personal favorites are not the sexy headline features, they are the fundamentals that underpin LightWave. The render engine: over the years it has consistently produced lovely images with a "feel" unmatched by any other package, and 8.2's recent updates have really helped, too. The modeler: a beautifully smooth, full-featured playroom that almost makes me wish I was a character modeler. And as a digital matte artist who is forever creating set extensions, I find the Render Buffer Export feature extremely useful for outputting those z-depth passes that allow the compositor to create the needed aerial fall-off.
Of course, I'm just a matte painter; my needs are quite basic compared to those of "real" 3D artists!
Are there any plug-ins you use on a regular basis?
Nobody working on Sci-Fi shows in LightWave can get by without StarPro! It sounds awfully mundane, but we used to do starfields the tedious, tricky way; StarPro has made them another in a long line of no-brainers.
Other plug-ins we use a lot are mostly those which help us tweak our pipeline - plug-ins which improve motion blur, export render layers automatically, and so forth; the kind of stuff which lets us spend less time being technicians and more time being artists.
How does LightWave help a company you describe as a "boutique" meet the demands of contributing visual effects shots to so many weekly television series?
LightWave is great because it's so efficient. Whip up a model, texture it, light it, render it; it just goes so fast. The simplicity with which models can be substituted in scene files greatly streamlines the pipeline from previz, through animation tweaks, to the lighting and rendering of the final frames. The quality of the render engine means we can have confidence in having a good-looking image by the end of the shift. All these factors help greatly when we have big deadlines breathing down our neck.
What role did LightWave 3D play in creating the Emmy-nominated visual effects work you contributed to Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital?
Most of what we did in Kingdom Hospital was matte paintings and set extensions. But because Kingdom Hospital made almost exclusive use of moving cameras, almost every shot had to enter the 3D realm for tracking. Sometimes this was as simple as tracking the shot and placing a luminous poly in the 3D environment with the matte painting mapped on it, and rendering the result out in seconds. But in some shots, the camera was moving far too much for that gag to work -- there was too much parallax and the shot felt flat and fake. In those circumstances, I had to split the matte painting into several layers, and map each one onto separate polys using front projection mapping. That way, you'd get the appropriate parallax between elements, which sold the shot as having depth. In a couple of shots, we'd also chuck a CG car in the foreground to add extra movement and life. So we wouldn't have been able to do most of those shots without LightWave's sticky front projection mapping tools.
Other shots included a full-CG baseball stadium seen from a number of angles including a couple of helicopter shots. A relatively straightforward CG build, but a lot of fun!
Andromeda and Battlestar Galactica are in the realm of futuristic sci-fi while the two Stargate series fall more into the realm of modern day sci-fi. Kingdom Hospital can be classified as modern day horror. Does work for one genre present more of a challenge than the others?
Hmmm... Good question. I'm not sure that one genre is necessarily more of a challenge than another; the bigger differentiator is whether the visual style presents a greater challenge. In the case of our work on Kingdom Hospital, the style was supposed to be blink-and-you-miss-it photorealism. Sometimes tough to achieve, but very much less so when you're using matte painting techniques and just projecting them, as many of our shots required.
Battlestar Galactica is a bit of a departure in that it is much darker and grittier than most other sci-fi shows. It depicts the desperate struggle of humanity to survive in the face of the Cylon onslaught, and it doesn't flinch from keeping the lighting moody, the sets dirty, the spaceships grime-streaked. Because there is such a strong visual style to the show, though, we usually have a pretty good idea of how a shot needs to look: keep the contrast high, the shadows dark, the grain prominent. And if I'm being totally honest, that style often makes our job easier! Another thing that helps is the highly dynamic use of camera moves: when we have the freedom to do reportage-style whip pans and zooms, we can really draw attention towards the things that matter. In shows with more sedate (or locked) camera work, more of the work of directing the viewer's eye falls on composition, lighting, colour, etc. Again, it all fits in with the dark, gritty, muted colour palette of the show.
Stargate has a more "traditional" look to its vfx, with a lower key/fill ratio, and shadows that are not as impenetrable. That lends it's own challenges, of course: you can't hide as much in the shadows!
In the shows listed above, it's obvious where visual effects are going to come into play. Where do visual effects come into the picture in a much more mainstream show, such as the dark comedy Dead Like Me, and does Atmosphere Visual Effects approach them in any different manner?
Dead Like Me is, I think, a special case. It's the only show I've worked on where the visual effects are such an explicit vehicle for the humour of the situation. In Dead Like Me, they serve a similar purpose to the opening death sequences in Six Feet Under, in that they often provide a visual exclamation mark for the plotline that the rest of the show pivots around. And for that reason, they are particularly enjoyable to plan.
Of the projects you've worked on to date, is there one that stands out as a favorite? Why?
No comment! I try very hard not to play favourites... although I know I'm not kidding anyone with that response. At the moment, though, I must confess I do particularly mourn the cancellation of Dead Like Me. It was a great show, with a great VFX crew who were a pleasure to work with.
Tip o' the hat to Bob Habros, Jennifer McEachern and Jeannie Walasek!
What's next for Atmosphere Visual Effects?
We've got a pretty full slate for the next 10 months, and we're in a major hiring spree with an aim to expand to 25-30 artists. You know any good lightwave people out there who want to work on Battlestar Galactica, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate SG-1 and The 4400? The next big move for us is to pursue more feature film work.
Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us, Jeremy!
Atmosphere Visual Effects' work can currently be seen weekly throughout the Sci Fi Channel's Friday night line-up, starting with Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda at 6pm CST, then continuing with Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, and wrapping up with Battlestar Galactica at 9pm. You can learn more about Atmosphere VFX, their other projects, and available job openings by visitng their website at http://www.atmosphere-vfx.com.