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May 30
2019

ISSUE

Summer 2019

VFX Battle Stations! Space Wars in THE ORVILLE

By IAN FAILES

One of Pixomondo’s shots from the massive space battle sequence in Season 2 of The Orville. (Images copyright © 2019 Fox)

An eight-minute space battle is not something you typically get to see in episodic television. But Season 2 viewers of Fox’s The Orville were able to witness such a feat as the titular ship becomes part of a dynamic outer space contest between opposing forces in episode 9.

Realizing the visual effects for the “Identity, Part II” battle were Pixomondo and FuseFX, which worked under co-Visual Effects Supervisors Luke McDonald and Brandon Fayette, and Visual Effects Producer Brooke Noska. VFX Voice asked key members of the team how the action was brought to the screen.

PREPARING AN EPIC ACTION SCENE

“The main focus was to try to tell a space battle in a way that the audience could follow the story,” explains Fayette. “In that regard, we worked on staging the props and assets into story beats with tethering shots to carry the viewer between one moment to the next.”

Fayette notes that the script was distilled to written beats where only hard dialogue was cut back to in the edit. “The next step was to cut the entire battle into a long visual CG previs film,” he says. “This was shown to [show creator and star] Seth MacFarlane, who fell in love with all of the action and decided to use the entire piece instead of isolated shots.”

With so many shots to deliver, communication between vendors had to flow seamlessly. “Having the ability to hold an open channel of communication and volley back and forth design and look updates to ensure that nothing bumped between shots and their vendors was an amazing feat,” acknowledges Noska. “Countless phone calls, meetings and updates ensured an on-schedule delivery, but the commitment and passion the teams had to really achieve a top-notch episode is what gives it that extra-special touch.”

The U.S.S. Orville among a group of Kaylon craft in this Pixomondo shot.

In addition to generating a portion of the final battle sequence, as shown in this frame, Pixomondo also delivered previs for the scenes.

A Kaylon sphere on the attack.

FuseFX worked on the majority of the battle sequence, taking in assets from Pixomondo and bringing previs’d scenes into its pipeline.

JUMPING INTO THE BATTLE

Pixomondo, who was a major vendor on the overall series in addition to their portion of the battle work, also handled previs for the battle sequence itself, while Fayette worked on additional previs scenes. Pixomondo then took on the introductory shots of the battle where a Kaylon armada arrives at Earth and faces off against the Union fleet. With animation largely dictated by the animatics, the studio focused on the overall look of the ships in space.

“We wanted, of course, for it to be realistic looking,” observes Pixomondo Visual Effects Supervisor Nhat Phong Tran. “But we also wanted it to retain some of the look of the model shoots like they did on the original Star Trek. So for the lighting, instead of just using lights that are the default CG lights, Brandon actually suggested that we should use lights that had been photographed from the actual Season 1 model shoot.”

“He took HDR photos of all the different lights – bounce lights, reflectors and so on,” adds Tran. “And he gave us a light reel to use as reference. We used that to actually light our scenes. Once you compare the difference between using those lights and not using those lights, you see that there’s an organic component added to the lighting, which makes the image much more pleasant.”

Destruction in the sequence was generally crafted in Houdini.

DEEP INTO BATTLE

FuseFX took over the battle once the Krill arrived, ultimately delivering 117 shots and more than seven minutes of screen time in just eight weeks. FuseFX took assets that had been built at Pixomondo and imported them into their 3ds Max pipeline, remodeling where necessary to allow for further detail in the destruction and damage as the battle continued. One thing the studio tried to ensure was that, despite the chaotic scenes, the audience could follow the beats.

“I attribute that to Seth MacFarlane because Seth really drove the storyboarding,” says FuseFX Visual Effects Supervisor Tommy Tran. “And Brandon Fayette designed that chaos so well, too.”

“Every shot tied together through continuity and story,” adds FuseFX CG Supervisor Matt Von Brock. “There was always something that connected one shot to the shot after it, and it always made it have a good sense of continuity to go with the sequence.”

A further feature of the battle, which also helped with integration, was having what Tran describes as ‘off-camera lighting.’ “We’d have these off-camera explosions where you never saw the explosion, but you saw the volume of light basically light up a ship – to backlight it or front light it. It really separated it from the background. And when we got to that phase, once we had all the shots filled, we called it our sweetened phase where we were asking, how do we make this ship pop off the screen?”

LASER CONVERSATIONS

FuseFX also sought to integrate the action by having each kind of ship employ a unique laser or weapon effect. “The Krill had green lasers, the Orville and the Union fighters had blue, and the Kaylon, which was the main enemy – the spherical ships – had red,” explains FuseFX Additional Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Lingenfelser.

Indeed, the final look, color and feel of lasers were the result of endless conversations at FuseFX. This was particularly the case for the Kaylon sphere ship’s laser ‘tri-beam.’ Says Tran: “There was a discussion over whether it was a laser blast or a laser beam that goes off into infinity. After a lot of development on how it interacts with ships, we came to the conclusion that the laser beam was not a good idea for how fast things move. So we ended up with a laser blast, and then once we figured that out we let our effects guys loose on its ferocity in Houdini. It needed to feel like an arc welder that would burn your corneas if you ever really looked into it.”

The smaller lasers were done with a particle system that was developed at FuseFX in NUKE, and had to match the actions of hundreds of ships firing at once. “We had a couple of our lead artists come up with a very cool gizmo that, in a procedural way, could populate four different colors of lasers firing from ships that are just flying in 3D space,” describes Tran.

Debris was somewhat ‘art-directed’ by FuseFX artists.

Many elements made up the final shots, from the starfields to Earth, the ships, lasers and destruction.

“[A Krill ship] was getting pelted by the interceptors and eventually blows up. If that had been a normal explosion it would have had orange fire and debris. But their color scheme is green, so we thought, let’s say they have a green, reactive nuclear core, so when that thing blows it must be green energy. We threw it across to [show creator and star] Seth [MacFarlane] as a work in progress, and he loved it!”

—Matt Von Brock, CG Supervisor, FuseFX

A cockpit view of the battle sequence. FuseFX composited its spaceship scenes into the live-action plate.

COORDINATING CHAOS

Those lasers, and a number of subsequent ship collisions, cause some hefty explosions. Depending on the type of ship, FuseFX came up with specific ways to handle explosions and debris. “For the Kaylon spheres, for instance,” says Von Brock, “they’re so large that when they blew up we made it like a chain reaction – it took multiple blasts and multiple explosions to tear them up. So these tended to disintegrate over time, while a smaller ship involved just small ‘pop’ explosions. We also had a library of explosions and blasts for background action.”

One particularly elaborate explosion sees a Krill ship explode into green flames. “It was getting pelted by the interceptors and eventually blows up,” says Von Brock. “If that had been a normal explosion it would have had orange fire and debris. But their color scheme is green, so we thought, let’s say they have a green, reactive nuclear core, so when that thing blows it must be green energy. We threw it across to Seth as a work in progress, and he loved it!”

FuseFX was aided in generating these complex scenes by several custom tools that were written to proceduralize the battle shots and enable them to be done within eight weeks. These included a tool to help ingest previs into FuseFX’s scenes, as Tran explains.

“One of the challenges we had when they delivered the previs was sometimes they had 60-plus ships in there, and they were just proxy models that the client sent over. We had tools that would bring all the setups in, but originally we would have to identify the position and location of all the assets and replace them with our ships. So we had a tool written for the artists to build a scene from the library with all those explosions, hits and things like that. We had a library of debris so artists could almost paint debris into their scenes.”

The result was a compelling sequence that made the most of FuseFX’s toolkit, and helped put on the screen an ambitious battle that had been envisaged by the show’s production team. And despite such a fast turnaround, FuseFX says the process was a memorable one.

“I have to say that working with this client has been very easy and wonderful for me because previous experiences haven’t gone as smoothly as this one has, so that also made our work on the show that much easier,” says Lingenfelser. “We were working with a very well-tuned machine and people who respected the choices that we were making and allowed us to make the sequence that much better for it.”


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