Syfy's Warehouse 13 series (airing Mondays at 9:00 pm) embraces more complicated character animation in its third season (including a virtual reality fantasy world). Tonight they deal with a zombie plague.
"The biggest difference this season is that there are 50-100 more shots per episode," suggests Darren Cranford, president of Keyframe and visual effects director of Warehouse 13. "Episode six had 720 shots. That was a massive show, having everything from a dragon to a griffon to elves and knights and a wizard, all-CG set extensions, turning the warehouse into a castle and everything looking like a toon shader."
Creature design falls on Keyframe and the biggest challenge, of course, is that they can't render anything off until they have a plate, when they're against the clock. As for the dragon, he was in three shots, and the griffon was only in a couple, yet they still had to be built, articulated and rigged. Cranford drew it and sent it off to exec producer Jack Kenny for same-day approval. They proceeded with rough build, texturing, rigging and show prep.
"We had to filter effects to make it look like an in-game cartoon, but it had fully articulated wings, cloth simulations, arms on top of that and tail and horns and tongue. Unfortunately, by the time you put the filter over everything and see the dragon in shadows, and it breathes fire, it gets hidden very quickly. We've done dragons before but the hardest thing with this one was getting it done in time with all the fire and cloth simulations and rigging."
They use 3ds Max  for animation (with mental ray and Scanline for rendering) and Fume effects for fire. For compositing, they use After Effects, Combustion and Nuke.
Meanwhile, the griffon had full spread wings, claws and saddle and had to land on the catwalk of the warehouse right in front of the camera. In fact, the wings are used again for a magical eagle-like character in the video game world, in which they attached the digital wings to the character's back, do the rig removals and have her fly away.
Other creature work includes a swarm of tiny robotic bugs that look like Steampunk wasps and an Egyptian Scarab Beetle. The wasps contain transparent wings with brass and silver characteristics. On extreme close-ups they were hand-animated, and the swarming shots were done using Particle Flow within 3ds Max. Imagine trying to render a million of these things and not crash the computers. Getting the subsurface scattering look right was a main challenge with the beetle. Plus there was a lot of interaction with the beetle, as one of the characters tries to capture it with a box.
Environments, of course, play a big role in the series, beginning with the CG warehouse, which is supposed to go off into infinity in all directions, and is too difficult to render in one pass. So they plot it out in blocks and render each one separately and then composite them all together. This includes an occlusion pass, diffusion pass, velocity pass and z-depth. They could have 30 layers for each CG background.
In episode eight, one of the artifacts was a spray paint eating away at the building. And the heroes are trying to escape from it. The VFX team had plates and had to make the building crumble apart inside and out. They additionally had to build portions of the elevator shaft.
"I would say the fun of this season is that the executive producer has given us more freedom to be creative," Cranford offers. "But the difference between this season and last season is that we're pulling footage from the Red cameras and we're getting it here first. So we're having everything at our disposal right away, which is huge, because when we know that certain shots are going to be used, we're able to build on that very quickly, know the lighting, know everything way ahead of time, so it makes our stuff look way better this year.
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.