Sweden’s SVT Brings 'Real Humans' to Life with Mocha

SVT, the Swedish equivalent of the UK’s BBC, recently completed visual effects and on-screen graphics for the network’s forthcoming sci-fi drama series, "Äkta människor" ("Real Humans").

Announcement from Imagineer Systems:

SVT, the Swedish equivalent of the UK’s BBC, recently completed visual effects and on-screen graphics for the network’s forthcoming sci-fi drama series, Äkta människor (Real Humans). The show is set in a parallel universe where humanoid robot evolution has made the same exponential progress that computers have made in our society, becoming an integral part of daily life and interpersonal relationships.

VFX Supervisor Jonas Hummelstrand, who heads up SVG’s in-house graphics department, is responsible for creating everything from high-end visual effects for shows and trailers to motion graphics branding and daily news graphics for the network. Hummelstrand and his team were tasked with creating some 290 VFX shots for Real Humans, including digital replacements, rotoscoping, and a storefront explosion.

Although the effects planned for the series weren't tremendously complicated, it was a big job for the busy broadcast department. Detailing the workflow for the project, Hummelstrand commented, “Since most of the show was shot on a Steadicam for quick setup and turnaround, the first stage of our VFX pipeline was a planar track in mocha AE that was then brought into Adobe After Effects CS5.5 with the MochaImport script, which allows artist create a stabilized and undistorted precomp of the areas that will need treatment.

“This was essential for the team, especially for the sub-skin lights that needed to be tracked to faces that move around and turn,” Hummelstrand continued. “By adding effects to this undistorted shot, and then downstream getting the distortion applied back to the composite made for quick turnaround of shots that would have been impossible just a few years ago. I was so confident in our ability to track everything that every time the DP asked if I wanted the camera locked down for the trickier shots, I always replied, ‘I actually prefer if you move the camera, it helps sell the effect!’”

One of the biggest effects sequences was the explosion of a store front. The location featured a big parking space with a nicely lit exterior, but no natural opening for an entrance other than a giant garage door with doors that could not be removed. Instead of building a real neon sign and glass doors and that could be blown up (at the cost of around $25,000), the team offered to do a digital replacement. With a tight TV production schedule, they had no time to pre-plan anything more than rough camera angles. Hummelstrand’s team devised a single Steadicam shot showing a stunt man walking out from the store, in sync with a special effects arsenal of propane burners and burning-debris canons being pulled by a wire into the side of a car. The car was rigged with squibbed windows and a hydraulic jack that caused it to jump at the time of the explosion. The camera would then walk behind the stunt man as he turned around and looked at the devastated and burning store front, actually represented by a semi-lit green screen behind lots of smoke.

When it came to isolate the stunt man from the smoky green screen, mocha Pro's tracking-assisted rotoscoping capabilities and variable-edge feathering helped to save the day.

Everything was shot on Arri Alexa at 1080p25 to Apple ProRes4444 codec as LogC. Everything was processed as a 32 bpc workflow with Rec709 LUTs used only for viewing, and output offline copies for the editors as DNxHD 36 or 120 with baked-in Rec709 for import into Avid MediaComposer 5 suites. The final delivery was done as 1,920 x 1,080 16 bpc LogC TIFF sequences that were conformed in a Nucoda grading suite.

Almost all of the 290 VFX shots for season 1 of Äkta människor were composited entirely in Adobe After Effects, with a few exceptions that were handled with The Foundry's NukeX.

“It's pretty amazing to be able to do high-end, seamless and photo-real HD effects on hardware that costs less than $2,000 per machine and with software for even less than that,” Hummelstrand concluded. “Being an in-house shop, I know that we need to be extremely efficient, but I know of similar TV shows that have paid more for one tenth the amount of similar effects done on the outside. And ten years ago the budget for this would have to have been ten times that!”

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