Read how District 9 and Stargate Universe are connected.
District 9 came in very handy to Image Engine on Stargate Universe, which resumed the second-half of its first season this month on Syfy (Fridays at 9:00 pm). The 15th of 20 episodes, "Lost," airs on Friday and the season finale concludes June 11 with "Incursion (Part 2)." The second season resumes in the fall for the MGM-produced military sci-fi franchise, which is both grittier and younger in tone under the guidance of exec producers Robert Cooper and Brad Wright.
Turns out that while the band of soldiers, scientists and civilians tries to unlock the secrets of the Destiny's Stargate to survive, they were under attack by aliens in "Space." After initially being tasked with creating the space ship and environments, the Vancouver-based Image Engine was approached about designing and animating the alien as well.
Image Engine worked on four episodes: "Darkness," Light," "Space" and "Pain" (which airs May 14).
"The producers had an alien they wanted to write into the series, so it all tied together," explains Steve Garrad, Image Engine's senior visual effects producer. "We showed them the District 9 alien work and it fit in perfectly as well. So we delivered the space ship work through the summer at the same time we were developing the aliens with them. And as soon as we finished up that crew, then we moved on to finishing up the alien work as well."
Indeed, despite a very different look, the rig was a variation of the one used for District 9. Rather than the crustacean design of the Oscar-nominated movie, SGU offers a more exotic-looking alien and much more translucent.
"The big theme of this alien is that they wanted that slimy look to it," offers Jason Gross, Image Engine's visual effects supervisor on SGU." James Stewart, creature supervisor on District 9, was brought in since they had "an open brief" as far as design.
Image Engine did a maquette followed by texture swatches. The maquette was then cyber scanned and texture painted with different looks to choose from. For example, the producers wanted to see the brain through the skull.
"It's one of those aliens, [despite razor-sharp teeth], where you don't know if it's scary or not," Garrad adds. "There's obviously a threat, but in many ways it conformed a lot to the District 9 alien in terms of having a very thin waist and skeleton-like legs and being slightly taller than humans. And it has fleshy, translucent, blue skin -- but before Avatar did it."
Gross says that "what makes this special compared to other work we've done, especially for TV series, is that we made use of a lot of our film pipeline tools in order to really nail down that look and bring the quality way up. So, in a way, we were bringing film quality work for a television series."
The film pipeline consists of Maya for animation models, lighting in mental ray and 3Dlight for rendering the creatures in space. According to Gross, Image Engine was able to make use of talented shader writers that allowed them to get the most out of its system.
There is one model with some basic variations in terms of height and scale, and a maximum of six aliens on board pushing Star Trek-like buttons.
As far environments, Gross says they were responsible for creating a gas giant in "Darkness," which was recognizable yet contained an alien quality. On "Light," the featured environment was the sun. Again, Image Engine used reference from our own solar system, and NASA, in getting exceedingly close to the sun with a lot of creativity.
"The thing that I love about the series getting grittier is the way we can move our camera around," Gross continues. "It seems to me that a lot of the way they are shooting is almost a documentary style, which means we can get away with some really dynamic camera moves in 3D. So I think that opened up the way the compositions played out."
Garrad concludes, "They are definitely upping the threshold and we couldn't have done it without the previous alien work in District 9. We can use what we have and push forward at the same time. We'll just have to see if the aliens return in season two."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.