LOOK Effects’ VFX supervisor talks about the fast-paced world of visual effects on Fox's hit procedural crime drama.
When you first meet LOOK Effects VFX supervisor Christian Cardona, the thing you notice immediately is that he’s in really good shape. Not the wiry good shape you get from yoga and chia seeds, but the thick good shape you get from lifting and smacking around heavy things, like people. It’s the kind of good shape that reminds you of Ivan Drago glaring at Rocky Balboa and saying, “I must break you.”
And indeed, after a bit of discussion, it turns out that Christian Cardona’s path to VFX supervisor on Fox’s hit show Bones is different from that of every other person in the industry, and jives perfectly with the thought that most probably, he could easily break you in two or toss you through a window. Before getting into CG and visual effects, Christian Cardona was a stunt man. Martial arts and fight choreography. A stunt man who realized his career as a professional rag doll would probably be measured in months, not years. An on set chat with a VFX supervisor who had worked on Lord of the Rings piqued his interest. A bit of research, time spent at film school, more time spent learning CG, a lot of on the job training and eventually, he landed at LOOK, running himself ragged leading the work on Bones.
The recent Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role on "The Twist in the Twister" episode is proof positive that his work, along with the entire Look team, is getting noticed. I recently sat with Christian to talk about the grueling, fast paced and highly rewarding work he’s doing on the show.
Dan Sarto: In your role as a visual effects supervisor, tell us a little bit about the type of shots you do on Bones?
Christian Cardona: Sure. The type of stuff we do for Bones is pretty wide ranging. It’s really broad. Almost every episode they ask us to do something completely different. One of the main things that they ask us to do are set extensions, because the show shoots in Los Angeles, but it takes place in Washington DC.
So, often if you see a monument in the show, we’ve added it later. What’s really funny is if you are looking for geographical accuracy with the monuments, you won’t find it on the show. They really don’t care where we put the monuments as long as it looks aesthetically pleasing. So that’s one aspect of what we do.
One of the other components that they ask us to do is gore enhancements. They take a lot of pride in the bodies. Often they ask us to do rig removals and then enhance a lot of stuff that they do practically. So that’s one of the other main components that they ask us to do.
3D characters are another one. When you have decomposing bodies, anything that interacts with the actors that you can’t obviously train, they want us to do that as well. Insects usually.
DS: Your production schedule must be unbelievably compressed. How do you breakdown production scheduling for a 22 episode season?
CC: We typically have two weeks to turn around an episode and we have 22 episodes per season, which as you know, is just crazy. Also, we’re usually working on three shows simultaneously. So, we will be in prep on one, we will be shooting one and we will be in post on another. Essentially I’m all over the place, either on set, in concept meetings or supervising our artists.
We had a unique schedule last year, because one of the lead actresses, Emily Deschanel, had a baby. So, they shortened the season. There were four episodes that we are delivering this season that carried over from last season.
So, we did get some extra time on those episodes, but right now we’re dealing with delivering stuff that’s being shot right now, as well as stuff that was shot last season. So, we’re almost delivering a show every week right now.
To give you an example, there is an episode they will be airing in the coming season that involves a car explosion in a parking garage. We ended up doing a miniature shoot for fire elements. So that’s something that we were able to shoot during their hiatus [between last season, Season 7 and the beginning of the current Season 8]. Once we got the plates, we had the elements already done in-house and we were able to composite those and deliver that show pretty quickly. But that was something that definitely needed additional prep going into it in order to deliver it on this type of schedule.
We also don’t have a traditional pipeline. We have a very small crew of about five people at any given time. It fluctuates a little bit depending on the amount of work per episode, but that’s pretty standard. Our artists are really versatile. Essentially they can all do 3D to a certain extent, they all track, they all paint and they all composite. So, I will give full-on sequences to each individual artist based on their own strengths, so that allows us to streamline things.
DS: What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work?
CC: Well, I think through the course of the season, the most challenging aspect of what we do is [deal with the fact that] 50% of our visual effects weren’t even planned to begin with. So, we’ll get in post and the Executive Producer wants to add something else or for whatever reason the scene wasn’t working, so they have asked us to change things.
That can create complications, because it wasn’t shot properly or it affects our schedule, because we didn’t plan on having shots added. So, it kind of creates conflicts as far as are we going to be able to deliver the show on time with this kind of unexpected scene. That’s actually one of the main challenges.
Some things require a little more prep than others. Sometimes the complexity of the shot, the post process could be more stressful and time consuming than the prep or obviously the shooting of it as well.
The shooting schedule always stays the same. They don’t really change schedule for shooting VFX for us. We shoot an episode in eight days and there are two pages worth of VFX [in the script] and they are going to give us the same amount of time as they would to any other two pages. So that’s where the prep really becomes important as well as having a good plan of attack. We have to be efficient when we are on set, with a plan that doesn’t eat up a bunch of time.
DS: How early in the process do you get involved with the writers or directors to determine what’s even feasible for that episode?
CC: That probably depends on the work needed for that episode. Initially, we’ll get a script. If they think there is going to be a sequence where they have to rely heavily on visual effects, they do a really nice job of bringing me in quite early, essentially when they are doing the first draft of that script, to discuss what is and what isn’t feasible.
Then, I can essentially walk them through the steps of what we can do, what we can’t do, and roughly what the budget would be. That’s when they determine whether to move forward or maybe change the direction they will go in the script. So, it’s a real nice collaborate effort.
DS: Do you guys get an opportunity to do any previs? How relevant is that to your process and are you able to or required to do any?
CC: Yeah, we are required to do it if there’s a lot of 3D work, just because if we don’t we’re really flying blind. So, I take that upon myself, to get something close to what they are asking for. We do have a limited amount of time. So, the extent of the previs is fairly limited. It’s essentially photographs, a little bit of concept work, storyboarding and some camera moves.
DS: Can you share any particularly difficult shots you’ve worked on?
CC: Sure. Season 7 was fairly challenging, because they relied a lot more on visual effects. They really enjoyed the work we did. So they expanded our role a lot more. We did an entire tornado sequence where we had to create a tornado, have it form from a Meso cloud, touchdown, rip apart a barn, essentially come towards our actors and fling out a lot of debris, with that debris interacting with them as they ran into a barn.
We did that on a three-week schedule. It was a total of about 55 shots. 30 of them featured the tornado, so it’s pretty extensive. That’s definitely one of the highlights that we did in the season.
DS: How much time is needed for the studio to take your work, integrate it and then finish a complete episode?
CC: Well, typically, we have a drop deadline, which is ten days before an episode airs. That is usually the latest we can deliver an episode and typically, they want it even before that. So, they need ten days, because they deliver the show internationally. They air every new episode on the same day internationally. So, they need the proper time to dub and do all the other necessary international promotions. They have promotional screeners that go out and sometimes we put in temp VFX. People in the studio, or in some cases even the critics, they will get a rougher version of the show. And it’s just because we are moving so fast that we don’t want to jeopardize the quality with any of the components just to get a promo sent out.
DS: What are the main tools your team uses on this production?
CC: Since we have a small team and we have to move quickly, we do have specific tools that we use. As far as 3D software, normally we use Maya, but we have a couple guys in here who use 3D Studio Max. I have been trying to incorporate it a little bit more. It really depends on our specific needs. We will turn to Max at times, as it has some interesting tools that I think work pretty well. For example, we’ve been doing a lot of explosions, and the program has great fire and fume effects to help facilitate those elements.
Our main compositing software is After Effects. The reason being is there are a lot of great third-party plug-ins that are already packaged with the software. We have a great 3D tracker in there now. We have a great planar tracker with mocha. There are some really good particle emitters that we use. So, it gives the compositor a lot of control. The 3D tracking software that we also use besides the one inherent in After Effects is the new PFTrack. We have some really, really fantastic stuff that helps us streamline a lot of our tracking needs. There are also some new tools that we’re looking forward to using. We were playing with them towards the end of last season, but there hasn’t been that show yet that has required something new or something different.
There are so many plug-ins in After Effects that we’re really excited to start using. There is a 3D rendering package now that allows you to import models, animate them, apply different materials and shaders, and they behave with all the cameras and lights in After Effects. It renders almost in real-time and you get some pretty advanced rendering options as well, like ambient occlusions as well as some ray tracing and global illumination qualities. So, you get some pretty high quality renders almost straight out of the box. Depending on what those models or those 3D objects are, that could be pretty useful considering our workflow. So, that’s a tool we’re interested in incorporating this season, as well as some third-party plug-ins in 3D Studio Max that do fluid and dynamic simulation.
DS: How do you decide what to do as practical effects and what you’ll have to create digitally?
CC: When we plan with the studio on how to accomplish the visual effects, I really look to shoot a lot of our elements practical for a couple reasons. One, it gives us a quick turnaround. We don’t have to spend our time generating elements when we could just be compositing them. Secondly, it puts the cost back on to production, so that allows us to utilize our budget a lot more effectively on the digital components of the shot. We see eye-to-eye in that philosophy and we get some really good results because of that.
DS: Looking ahead over the course of the new season, do you anticipate being asked to work on any big new VFX shots or elements that will be much different from the type stuff you’ve already been dealing with?
CC: I don’t necessarily think there’s going to be anything new, but there will be an expansion of what and how we’re used. Because they see how much we can accomplish, for example in areas such as set extensions, they realize they have more options, what stories they can tell, what locations they can use, where they can shoot. They realize they don’t need the perfect location. They know we can help out quite a bit. They are looking to us now to help them out a lot more when it comes to locations, helping them figure out those components. They are much more willing to go to us and help out with the set extensions.
Actually, there is something that I can tell you, actually, that we will probably see more of. So, for instance, on these parking garage explosion elements that we shot, we ended up building a third-scale miniature. Not detailed, just rough geometry of the parking structure plus its cars. Then, we ended up igniting some explosions in a specific area and matching those camera angles, then extracting those fire elements and explosions and compositing them into the shot, where we got some interactive lighting and rigs that moved and shook the cars and so forth.
This was the very first time they essentially gave us the budget to do this type of shoot ourselves. We went out together with another company, Fantasy Seven, who built the miniature. We were in charge of the entire shooting process. Normally, the studio would always be in charge. But, because of schedule constraints and crew operations, this type of shoot would end up being pretty expensive. I pitching them the idea that these are really our elements anyways, we know what we need, and if I could find a place to shoot it and a company to help us build it, get the right pyro guys involved as well, I think we’d come in considerably cheaper. We ended up coming in at roughly only one third of what their cost would have been. And we were able to get all the elements that we needed without being rushed. We were able to spend two days blowing stuff up, where they would have given us maybe six hours. So, they were really, really happy with that, obviously, because they were able to save money. But second, it was a responsibility that they didn’t need to worry about anymore.
DS: They trusted you with more of the process.
CC: Right. So, I have a feeling if there is any sort of element shoot, be it fire, water, smoke or whatever, that’s something that we will take charge of. We will be taking it upon ourselves to shoot these elements rather than putting that on production. So I think that’s going to be something that’s different from what we’ve been doing in seasons past. And I think it comes from what you were saying; they’re trusting the process more.
Dan Sarto is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Animation World Network.