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The Digital Eye: Master Key Turbo Boosts its VFX Workflow

The producers and creators of the new French animated feature talk about the transformation of six graphic visions into one artistic frightfest.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Clients always seem to raise their eyebrows when they enter the offices of Master Key Prods., a small start-up vfx house located on the Santa Clarita Studios lot.

The surprise comes from the fact that Master Key, a company consisting of only six rooms, a team of roughly 10-12 animators and compositors, two office assistants and one full time IT engineer supplies NBC's Knight Rider (airing Wednesdays at 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET on NBC) with roughly 200-300 effects shots an episode, while never sacrificing time, quality or cost.

"It's a lot of information and given the nature of TV, we don't get the kind of elongated time for post-vfx that one gets on features," suggests Elan Dassani, Master Key's co-founder and president. "Right now we're working within a two-week turn around period from the day materials are delivered to us to the final delivery of our effects back to post-production.

"We learned pretty early on that any break in the communication between the on-set production, post-production and Black Ginger [an effects house located in South Africa that provides Master Key with driving compositions, cylon light additions and monitor replacements] could have drastic effects on not only our workflow but also the show's budget, delivery dates and air dates.

"The goal was always to create a team where a limited number of people working within a well constructed workflow: a machine where animators and compositors could create a synergy based on that day's needs, could churn out a significant number of shots per week,"adds Rajeev Dassani, co-founder of Master Key and vfx supervisor. "I think we've proved that this is a viable system and I'm very proud of what we've accomplished here."

Which brings us to the real question: How does the company handle the vast demands of a schedule this tight?

The answer is simple: redefine and restructure the existing vfx workflow model to fit these specialized needs.

The Pipeline

The man charged with creating and maintaining the company's multifaceted workflow is Stephan Fleet. Fleet, former director of digital media for Ghost Whisperer, started with Master Key as head of their 2D compositing department and was also responsible for creating KITT's visually arresting and dynamic windshield Heads Up Display (also called the HUD or Touch Screen).

The first step was in designing a user friendly system to track the large number of shots that required attention. It was imperative that this system be easily accessible, time sensitive and able to unite notes from the on-set vfx supervisor and post-production editors directly into the vfx pipeline.

"We needed something that, at any moment could accurately reflect the exact status of a shot's location, what elements were needed or missing, the level of completion and what artists were working with it," explains Fleet.

To achieve this, Fleet, whose personal resolve is to reduce the use of paper and hardcopies in the workflow, custom designed several databases using Filemaker Pro, Flash and Flash video.

In addition to the customized use of Filemaker, the Dassanis, Fleet and IT Engineer Rick Rune created a system where completed HD shots are immediately available to review online in 720p HD utilizing a Flash file via a custom built website.

3D to 2D

Besides having to create a workflow that would incorporate elements from the many levels of production, the system was also tailored to the departmental needs that would help bridge departmental differences (3D uses 3ds Max, 2D uses After Effects) in workflow between the 3D animators and the 2D compositors.

Nathan Evans, head of Master Key's 3D department, has been responsible for creating theatrical quality, photo realistic transformations for KITT every week since the shows premiere.

Master Key is able to turn out roughly 200-300 effects shots per episode of Knight Rider, while never sacrificing time, quality or cost. © NBC Universal.

Given the deadlines involved and the standards that have been outlined, Evans can attribute his team's success to several key factors.

"We've got a small, family sized team and that lends itself to more open communications which is really important," Evans explains. "Unlike some environments, we've designed a process that's extremely organic and open to people's ideas and concepts. That's important so that, given the tight-knit flow, we can make changes along the way.

"Given the nature of our pipeline of information, it's very easy for me to walk across the way to the compositing team, tell them what I'm designing and find out what they need from me and vice-versa. Couple that personal interaction with a database that allows me to have instant, dated and time stamped notations from any department and I think we've created a pretty solid system."

Elan Dassani

Evans concludes on a personal note by saying, "Given the deadlines and volume of shots, this is certainly one of the most intense schedules I've worked in but in terms of the teams we've interacted with and my coworkers, this has certainly been one of the best and most rewarding jobs I've had."

A Continent Away

All the ease that Master Key has built with their in-house system would be useless if their outside vendors couldn't interface correctly with it. This might not seem too difficult if one were working with another company in a different city or state, but the bar of difficulty was raised when Master Key teamed with Black Ginger.

"The first hurdle was how to get the material back and forth in not only the most time efficient manner but also something that was reasonable in cost," says Hilton Treves, managing director of Black Ginger. "We utilize an Aspera file transfer system and a 100-megabit connection in order to transfer 200 gigabytes of HD shots daily to and from South Africa as easily as if they were across the street. I am extremely excited by this opportunity, as it proves that we in South Africa are capable of competing on the world stage. I believe that the doors, this has opened will encourage more work to be done here. We are currently doing the vfx compositing work on 10 episodes and have set up a dedicated team to the project. Our in-house programming team has developed some amazing tools to facilitate and manage the production of up to 200 shots every 10 days."

The Bottom Line

At an average of 200 vfx shots per episode, many of them complex, fully CG vehicle shots, Master Key has had to stay nimble and efficient in its approach to vfx.

"By templating the majority of our processes and staying in close contact with post-production, we can keep things efficient and fast enough to keep up with a television schedule," suggests Elan Dassani. "The same photoreal KITT transformation can just as easily be dropped into a pre-built desert, city, forest, whatever: adjust the angle of the CG camera, and we have an entirely new, feature level shot ready to go each week. We've broken several of the "rules" of how vfx should be done in TV production, in order to keep up with the onslaught of shots we face weekly. By artistically staying in close contact with the show's creator, I can make changes on the fly according to what the producers are looking for, and save them money by letting them know immediately how things should be shot for vfx."

Knight Rider Exec Producer Gary Scott Thompson says, "Master Key and Black Ginger continually astonish us by what they're able to do, creating big budget film-style effects on a weekly television series -- which is something not often found on network programming."

Josh Marrazzo is director of marketing and communications for Master Key. He has a degree in communications and film from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He has spent the last several years working in the entertainment industry with a focus in writing. He currently lives in Burbank, CA.