In Terra Nova (airing Mondays at 8:00 pm on Fox), scientists from 2149 discover a time rift to travel back 85 million years to save humanity from its Orwellian imprisonment. Only trouble is, there are dinosaurs to deal with as well as a new tyrant in their midst.
But since it's produced by Steven Spielberg, the pressure was on to build great dinos. Overseeing the production is VFX supervisor Kevin Blank, who's been working with Pixomondo (Hugo), which is led by VFX supervisor Jason Zimmerman and animation head Colin Brady.
"The biggest challenge of the dinosaurs is to create a quality product in a television timeline and a television budget point," Blank suggests. "And also living up to the expectations of something with Steven Spielberg's name on it. Comparisons to Jurassic Park are inevitable and we can't tell anyone not to compare, although when you talk about advances in animation or rendering capabilities, a more effective comparison would be Hercules and Xena."
According to Brady, believable weight is certainly important, but more than that, some characteristic of the species that they represent. There are several species, including Brachiosaurs and Carnotataurus, as well as the fictitious Slashers (derived from raptors) and Nyko Raptors (a composite of different raptors).
"We want each dinosaur to have its own distinctive movement and personality," Brady adds. "We're also working very closely with Jack Horner, who is Steven Spielberg's trusted paleontologist. And we're working with the most recent research on what these dinosaurs might have looked like and how they would've moved. So we'll get all kinds of notes from Horner that will, more often than not, direct us to move in a bird-like manner or motion. Of course, there are occasions when we have to break from that just to make it more entertaining. On one level, these were simply large chickens. Sometimes they might end up looking goofy instead of scary. We put all this in a blender and we do our homework. We study a lot of reference of animals: hawks and eagles and Komodo dragons and roadrunners. And we shoot the motion capture reference. We act this stuff out and Kevin is probably the biggest actor of them all. He really gets into the dinosaur characteristics."
The reason the show takes place 85 million years in the past, according to Blank, is because the fossil records of that time are the least defined. With 90% up to interpretation, they predate or postdate and use fossil records to guide designs and looks. But when they do a complete creation such as the Slasher, it's done under the watchful eye of Horner to make it plausible.
Initial designs were done by Neville Page (Avatar, Super 8) in ZBrush. Then Pixomondo's lead modeler and dino designer, Dan Katcher, did the final sculpt and has taken over design in production. With a 3D build in ZBrush, they've been able to do a 3D print. Although they built a puppet of the Slasher, it was derived from the digital sculpt.
Pixomondo uses Maya  for rigging but have added in the dynamics to help make the dinos believable. Overlap of tail, bouncing of feathers, or jiggle of skin are built right into the rig. "It's creatively fun but also a shortcut to bypassing an entire department and providing the efficiency that we need," Brady adds. Individual muscle controls are also done in animation.
Rendering and lighting are done in LightWave  10.1: "We found LightWave 10.1 invaluable for our custom pipeline that was developed for the Terra Nova two-hour premiere," adds Pixomondo supervisor, Eric Hance. "We used LightWave in nearly 200 shots, including all of the dinosaur creature renders, many of the environments, and several of the futuristic earth cityscapes. NewTek was responsive to our needs, and we look forward to working closely with them [throughout the series]."
Speaking of environments, the time portal, described as "light rapids," was done in After Effects, with all kinds of lens flares and then displacements and fractals added as they venture deeper. And the Terra Nova mountainous regions were done in Terragen 2, and the waterfalls in RealFlow.
But in the end, the VFX all comes down to the dinos: "They're not the villains of the show but they're obstacles and they're very likable adversaries," Blank concludes.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com ), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.