“The Orville” – Smarter, not Harder

"The Orville" space battle - visual effects by Fuse FX

The recently aired Season 2, Episode 9 of the Fox Network’s The Orville featured an epic space battle that rivaled – and arguably surpassed – those seen previously in the Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica television series. Working under the guidance of production visual effects supervisor Luke McDonald and visual effects producer Brooke Noska, FuseFX visual effects supervisor Tommy Tran and his team delivered all but about a minute of the space battle within a remarkably short eight-week time frame, without compromising anything in terms of dynamism and realism.

Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane, The Orville is, at one level, a space comedy loosely based on Star Trek; but MacFarlane and everyone associated with the show, including the visual effects teams, fully understand that satire works best when the core elements of the subject being satirized are duplicated with precision and specificity. “Comedy or not,” said Tommy Tran, “this space battle had to look and feel like a dramatic space battle, without crossing the boundary from sci-fi reality to absurdity. The sequence does pay homage to the ‘red shirt guy’ from Star Trek, and there is also a Top Gun moment in there; but other than that, the space battle was presented as cinematically as possible.”

Watch the space battle in this clip from The Orville:

In addition to the Orville starship, the sequence features Kaylon, and Krill spaceships and fighters. Though the angular, green Krill ships had been seen previously on the show – their designs already well established – the Kaylon fleet was only introduced in Part 1 of Episode 9. Pixomondo, another vendor on The Orville, built CG models from Kaylon ship designs by in-house digital effects supervisor Brandon Fayette. “Brandon is a very talented CG artist,” said Tran, “and he worked with Seth starting on Season 1 to design the look of every ship in the Union fleet, the Krill fleet, and the Kaylon fleet. However, FuseFX did design the space station from a basic concept, as well as the little robot ships that repair the larger ships.”

Integrating the Maya assets provided by Pixomondo required the use of optimization tools developed by FuseFX as a means of producing shots quickly and efficiently – crucial, given the company’s eight-week schedule. “Our pipeline TD, Changsoo Eun, created a tool that allowed us to auto-populate the shots before they went to the lighters,” Tran said. “So all the tracking data was there, and all the CG assets were there. Without that, we would have had to manually bring in hundreds of ships and place them in 3D space, which would have been daunting.”

The optimization tools enabled shots to be auto-populated not only with ships but also with explosions and space debris. “We looked at several recent films to get a sense of the look and feel of space battle scenes – the look of fireballs and explosions and so on,” recalled Tran. “That’s where we started. From there, I sat the effects artists down for about two weeks to do nothing but make small, medium and large explosions, fireballs and debris. Then Changsoo took all those assets we’d pre-built for the explosions and put them into a library. He wrote some code, so when the lighters needed an explosion, they could just go to the drop-down menu and find a fully rendered Houdini explosion we could plug in anywhere in 3D space.

“We did the same thing for space debris – bits and pieces of broken ships. We sat our modelers down for a couple of days, and said, ‘Run several varying destruction simulations.’ Each asset then was categorized in our library; and so, when the lighter needed to fill the background with space debris, he just went to the drop-down menu through our pipeline. Doing that, we could populate shots with varying amounts of space debris. That was a very robust feature. We’ve been able to auto-populate scenes before but not at this level. It was like we’d auto-populated trees in a park before; but for this, we had to auto-populate Yosemite National Forest!”

In the end, the space battle was such a monumental task, Tran brought in the help of FuseFX visual effects supervisor Kevin Lingenfelser. “He ran part of the episode with me,” Tran said. “We just split it – I’ll do this, you do that. It was a big help; the task was bigger than any one supervisor could manage That’s the thing I’m most proud of – that we were able to deliver that incredible sequence in eight weeks, to the quality that we did. We did it through optimization and teamwork and communication. We did it through working smarter, not harder.”

That’s a Wrap – “Game of Thrones” Q&A

For the past seven years, visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer has been living a transcontinental life, spending half the year or more in Northern Ireland to oversee the filming of visual effects sequences for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and then returning home to Los Angeles for the remainder of the year, working long hours in postproduction to shepherd the completion of final shots from vendors around the globe.

He is currently just a handful of weeks away from delivering the last of those shots for Game of Thrones’ final season – and so, the time seemed right to talk with Bauer about his seven-year journey through Westeros and environs …

Joe Bauer

You came onto Game of Thrones for the series’ third season, in 2013. From the beginning, the production has been based in Northern Ireland. When did you first arrive there?

I think it was May of 2012 – something like that. That first year, I was there for about six months. I remember that we were back in time for Thanksgiving. And then the next year we were back before Christmas; and the year after that, we stayed until after Christmas. For Season Eight, we stayed in Northern Ireland for a full year, from August 2017 to August 2018.

What accounted for those longer and longer production times?

It wasn’t the number of episodes – those actually diminished. In the beginning there were ten episodes per season, and in later seasons, there were six or seven. But the volume of work for all departments increased, and the length of the episodes increased, as well. Also, the visual effects work compounded dramatically – from 800 shots in Season Three to well over 3,000 shots in Season Eight.

Your first year, what kind of ‘catch up’ did you have to do to take over the visual effects supervision for a show that already had been in production for two seasons?

I hadn’t read the books beforehand, and in fact, I wasn’t even aware of the show. So, the hardest thing was just trying to get some grasp of the story and the characters. Reading the script and making sense of it all was like reading another language. I just focused on the things that seemed most likely to be visual effects, things I knew they wouldn’t be able to shoot.

Do you recall your initial discussions with the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B Weiss?

I remember one of the things they said right off was that they wanted the show to be cinematic – which was a nice thing to hear. And then we tested that immediately by asking them for some things that were unusual for production, things involving stunts and special effects. There is a horrible knee-jerk tendency out there to go the CG route. But it is so much better if you’ve got something there, even if it is just photography to match to – and I’ve been beating that drum for a long time. The idea was to go into postproduction with elements that would be much harder to create as assets or effects sims, especially in a constricted timeframe. If we shot something, I knew I could plug that in and it would look good. If you can put 70% of the shot together on the Avid, then you’re home free.

Were there any peculiarities to working in Northern Ireland?

The working style was a bit different. They work without stopping for lunch, for example, which definitely has its advantages. And so, you do a ‘walking lunch.’ You also do a 10-hour day, generally, unless everyone agrees to go longer. But that’s rare, especially when you’re shooting outdoors in inclement weather. You’d kill people if you kept them out there longer than 10 hours. Also, the crew was made up of a lot of Irish and British people, and it is the cultural tradition to head for the pub after your work is done. If we worked them too long, and they didn’t get to check that emotional box, we’d have a pretty unhappy crew.

Was it more difficult to get special equipment there?

A bit. Anything that was unusual had to come from London – or sometimes even from L.A. For example, in Season Four, we had a 30X400-foot greenscreen for the wall battle. They built this massive scaffold in a farmer’s field, not too far from the coast. A couple of nights, there was such a storm that it ripped all of the greenscreen that had been fabricated in the U.S. and shipped over. It was ripped into rags. They got more of it made and shipped, and they got some at Shepperton, but that was a big deal. Motion control equipment was brought in from the U.K. and the U.S. – so there were shipping considerations with that, as well.

You must have faced a lot of shooting challenges in your six years on the show – days in which things did not go as planned. Care to share any of those memories?

A lot of them revolve around our outdoor greenscreen needs, which increased with every season. Early on, we’d just rely on stand-by people to put up our greenscreens. We’d throw them up the best we could – but not in a way that anybody with any knowledge would have done it! For example, we did that for a scene with Hodor and Bran at the cave of the three-eyed raven, and then the winds came up and the greenscreen started falling over. We realized at that point that we couldn’t function like that any more. It was just too dangerous. So we hired Paul Hatchman as our visual effects key grip, and once we got him in, everything changed. But our worst day was before we hired Paul, and everything was blowing and falling. Most of the bad experiences I recall – those I can actually recount – were those Man vs. Elements situations, because the elements always win.

How did the workflow evolve from Season Three to Season Eight? What improvements or changes were implemented along the way to improve efficiency and productivity?

The biggest change, I think, was just the number of visual effects facilities we had to bring on. In Season Two they had one facility – I think everything was done by Pixomondo. By Season Six, we had 14 facilities. Another comparison: for Season Three we had three previs people; for Season Eight we had 22 – including several geniuses. We also brought on additional visual effects supervisor starting with Season Four – Stefen Fangmeier, Ted Rae and Eric Carney of The Third Floor.

Watch the trailer for Game of Thrones Season Eight:

You mentioned that Season Eight has 3,000-plus visual effects shots. What were the mechanics of managing that volume of work in postproduction?

After we had determined what the shot load was going to be, we told the producers that we had just barely delivered our 2,400 shots for Season Seven – and this was going to be a lot more than that! We simply couldn’t do it in the time we had. We either had to lose shots or we had to bring on another supervisor; and they opted to bring on another supe, which was Stefen Fangmeier. Stefen did the premier and I did the finale, plus the majority of the remaining shots – because I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess!

Many of the same people – department heads and crew members – have worked together on this show season after season. Tell me how that has impacted the production. I imagine there is a significant benefit to that.

Oh, yeah. Once you have a history, everyone is confident enough to own what they’re doing and not wait to be told. Confidence is the key – and once everybody has that, you can do great things. For example, for this season, The Third Floor came up with the idea of putting programmed LEDs on the walls of the stage to ensure correct moving eyelines. Previously, we’d just had numbers on the wall, and we’d be yelling out: ‘Number 1! Number 5! Number 4!’ The programmed LEDs were a big improvement – and The Third Floor just did it, because they had the confidence to do it.

Visual effects producer Steve Kullback preceded you by one season – but you’ve been working as a team since Season Three. What is that working relationship like?

Anything I want to do, Steve makes it happen. And I’m not overstating that.

That’s a great quality in a visual effects producer.

It is! Whenever I had an idea, I’d first have to sell it to Steve – and he would be the devil’s advocate, to some degree, until I held my breath and threatened to walk in front of a bus if I didn’t get what I wanted. Once I convinced him, he would march it upstairs to Bernadette Caulfield, the executive producer, and I’d hear her jaw hit the floor. But she trusted Steve, and Steve trusted me – so it worked out. He was the Great Facilitator. He put a kind of protective bubble over me and ran interference for me, so I could do what I had to do.

After working on this show and these people for six years, you must have had mixed feelings about its being over. Tell me about your final days working on Game of Thrones as the production side of it came to an end last August.

I remember that the number of effects shots was still growing, and that meant there were more and more elements to shoot. As the schedule worked out, the last elements were being shot as I was in Heathrow Airport, preparing to fly back to L.A. – and so, right there in the airport, I was getting QuickTime movies sent to me on my phone to sign off on. There wasn’t a wasted second. And everybody was on board. We had a couple of the best camera operators in the U.K. working for us, and they stayed to shoot elements! Everybody was invested in this effort, as a whole. Everybody wanted to stay and see it out.

You have another few weeks of postproduction ahead of you, and then your tenure on Game of Thrones will be over. What’s next? Do you plan to take some time off?

I’m not that kind of person – not a lay-by-the-pool kind of guy. Never have been. I’ve got some travel plans for this June, but hopefully by late summer I’ll be plugged into the next thing.

Thanks, Joe.

Cinefex 157 covers "Game of Thrones" Season Seven

The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones airs on HBO, commencing April 14, 2019.

Now Showing – Cinefex 163

Cinefex 163 featuring "Alita: Battle Angel"

I spent my formative childhood years in a rural northern California town that had a population of 2,000 cowboy-hat-wearing people, one gas station, and a single main street still lined with hitching posts to which denizens had once tied their horses. There wasn’t a multiplex movie theater in sight.

And so, when Walt Disney Pictures released Mary Poppins in 1964, I only saw it because my mother packed me up along with my siblings and drove 30 miles to the one single-screen movie theater in the area. It was an event so thrilling, so outside my day-to-day life, I have never forgotten it.

That memory led me to approach my coverage of Mary Poppins Returns with particular joy. I also had some trepidation, though, wondering what in the world these new-fangled filmmakers were going to do with my beloved nanny. I need not have worried. Director Rob Marshall brought a sure and reverent hand to the project, and his commentary in my article is revelatory.

If there is a character diametrically opposed to Mary Poppins, it would be the manga warrior, Alita. The big-eyed girl’s big-screen debut, Alita: Battle Angel, has been in the works for more than a decade, and Joe Fordham brings you all the details of that journey. Joe also covers Mortal Engines, which marks the directorial debut of longtime Peter Jackson collaborator and concept designer Christian Rivers.

Graham Edwards delivers the behind-the-scenes story of Bumblebee and its 1980s-style Transformer effects by Industrial Light & Magic and Cantina Creative, which brought heart and character to the ‘rock-em, sock-em robots’ franchise.

Cinefex 163 – Practically Perfect in Every Way.

Cinefex 163 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already powering towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, out soon, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Now Showing – Cinefex 162

Cinefex 162

One of the realities of the film industry today – something solidly in the “This Never Used to Happen” category – is the phenomenon of shifting movie release dates. In January, Film X is set to be released in March; by February, its release has been changed to May; in April, its release is set for July – of the following year.

This trend of jockeying release dates – whether to afford a film a more advantageous opening or to tinker with a film that isn’t quite ready or any number of other considerations – plays havoc with our editorial schedules. We have an article planned, sometimes even written, and then, at the last minute, the release date changes and our article must be postponed for publication in a later issue.

That is what happened with Cinefex 162, and we were suddenly left with an Alita-sized hole in our magazine!

Fortunately, we still have a few tricks up our sleeves, and a few treasures in our old file cabinets – such as an interview that Cinefex founder Don Shay conducted with Richard Fleischer, the director of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, back in 1977, as part of his research for a never-realized book project.

That interview, never before published, is a treasure, indeed, as the now late Fleischer recalled the making of that iconic film 23 years prior as if it had just wrapped. We present it to you in our issue 162, along with our cover story on the making of Aquaman, Joe Fordham’s coverage of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and Graham Edwards’ Welcome to Marwen story – supported by an in-depth Q&A with director Robert Zemeckis.

It’s a terrific issue – and you can look for Alita in February!

Cinefex 162 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already splashing its way to your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, out soon, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Songs for the Unsung

16th Annual VES AwardsOstriches, apes, dragons and a Land of the Dead tour guide took top honors at last night’s 16th Annual Visual Effects Society awards presentation. I was lucky enough to be sitting at the Game of Thrones table, where there were big grins and much shaking of hands as the HBO series won recognition in several categories, including the granddaddy Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode. Its feature film corollary, Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature, went to War for the Planet of the Apes, whose visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri, also won the prestigious Georges Méliès Award for his body of work, which goes back to 1993’s Jurassic Park. Samsung’s ‘Ostrich – Do What You Can’t’ ad also won kudos, as did Pixar’s animated feature, Coco.

I was having too much fun reconnecting with old friends in the business to take copious notes, but here are a few of my off-the-top-of-my head recollections of the evening’s highlights:

Host Patton Oswalt kept the very large crowd in the Beverly Hilton Hotel laughing with a series of to-be-expected nerd jokes. He also lambasted the 1970s and 1980s musical selections that accompanied recipients on and off the stage – but the elder statesmen at my table were grooving to it. (Game of Thrones visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer enthused, “I want the soundtrack to this awards ceremony!”)

Jon Favreau’s speech as this year’s recipient of the VES’s Lifetime Achievement Award was heartfelt. The actor/writer/director seemed genuinely moved by the honor, and he noted what, to him, seemed an irony: he was receiving an award for the privilege of having learned so much from so many of the people in the room. A particularly poignant moment in his speech, for me, was his mention of someone who was not in the room, and to whom he owed so much – the late Stan Winston. As someone who knew Stan for many years and was entrusted to write the definitive book on his long career, The Winston Effect, I am always happy when Stan is remembered.

Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with "Game of Thrones" visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer at the 16th Annual VES Awards.

Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with “Game of Thrones” visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer at the 16th Annual VES Awards.

A filmed tribute to Joe Letteri included congratulations and remarks by James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg, all of whom showered the venerated visual effects supervisor with praise for his role in bringing films such as Avatar, The BFG, Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the screen.

Presenter Gabriel ‘Fluffy’ Iglesias, looking considerably less fluffy than he used to, impressed me. He was given the task of presenting one of the evening’s more technical awards, that for best simulations, but he had obviously taken the trouble of learning just what a simulation is. He could have just read off the teleprompter, but he went the extra mile to understand just what was being honored, and I don’t know how many celebrities would do that.

The night’s two top awards were presented by surprise guest Mark Hamill, who received a standing ovation from a crowd to whom Star Wars means so very much. Hamill was charming and self-deprecating, noting the recently instituted ‘Jedi Pension Plan,’ no doubt a reference to the recent series of Star Wars films.

Patton Oswalt said goodnight to the crowd, instructing the men to get out of their tuxes and back into their usual cargo shorts. (Patton must have visited a VFX company or two in his time, because cargo shorts are, indeed, the preferred uniform item.)

That was the evening – wish you all could have been there!


The Cinefex staff had the opportunity to see an IMAX 3D screening of “Gravity” last night. I won’t risk spoiling the film by commenting on its content; but, I will repeat what Don Shay said as we stood outside the theater afterward: “Every once in a while, a film comes along that is a game-changer. This is one of those films.” Indeed. It certainly changed my perception of stereoscopic filmmaking. I’ve never been a 3D enthusiast. Even when it was done superbly, as in “Avatar,” it left me uninspired. “Yeah, yeah, look at the firefly things floating toward me. Saw the same thing in that old Michael Jackson flick at Disneyland years ago. When do we get back to the story?” For the first time last night, I felt what a 3D experience can be — especially in IMAX. I wasn’t just watching these characters in space; I was there, with them. It ratcheted the film from tense to harrowing. My palms are still sweating, just as they did when I was a little girl and watched grainy black and white footage of real-life spacewalks. It made me nervous, as all I could think was: What if that cable breaks? I wanted those astronauts back in the cocoon of their spacecraft as soon as possible. Those thoughts and feelings were intensified as I watched “Gravity” last night. It is a beautiful, awe-inspiring film, with a subtle and moving performance by Sandra Bullock. It is a game-changer.