Mitch Suskin and his vfx team brought a greater sense of reality to the fantasy world of Lost this past season.
Lost has just concluded its fifth season, which was marked by making fantastical situations look photoreal with vfx -- only more so. The work not only included creating plane crashes, adding more detail to the Island and revisiting moments from previous seasons, but also bringing the Smoke Monster into new environments and situations.
"There was a lot more steady work this season," admits Mitch Suskin, vfx supervisor. "Not as many ups and downs. Damon and Carl are ramping up the pace." That would be show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who exec produce and who did a lot of the writing this season.
One of the most complex scenes of Season 5 definitely was the crash landing of the 737-100, familiar to viewers of the show, on a dirt airstrip in Episode 9. Featuring 43 shots, mostly from the point of view of the cockpit, the scene contained 50 billion polygons -- a huge number compared to the average—with each frame taking five hours to render. "It's an example of having feature-quality aspirations on a television schedule," says Suskin. "It was a challenge to get it out in time and make it as reasonable as possible." Eden FX utilized a new LightWave 3D plug-in that allowed it to manage the vast amounts of data. "That scene would not have been possible without that plug-in."
The scene also required more back-and-forth than normal between the editor and the vfx crew. The editor, using a greenscreen, had a hard time visualizing how the scene would play. Suskin and his crew put together an animatic of the airplane's flight path and the views from the window. The editor then created temporary comps to show the vfx crew the sped-up pacing and other changes. "It was a dialogue in pictures back and forth between us and the editor," Suskin explains.
Season 5 also featured some advances to the recurring character of the Smoke Monster. "We're actually getting more comfortable with Smokey," Suskin comments. "We have a lot of different tools at our disposal now and a lot of ways of approaching it." Innovations this season have included seeing the Monster in daylight and having him interact more with people. A sequence featuring Smokey dragging a character through the jungle involved mattes and animation for the grabbing and dragging, plus digital elements and rotoing to achieve the layers of depth needed to realistically put the Monster behind bushes and blades of grass. In the latter case, the crew used stills for the background instead of plates.
Suskin credits the matte painters and roto team for the success of this scene. "Having him go behind a tree is one thing, but it's different with hundreds of blades of grass," says Suskin. "It's about paying enough attention to detail to sell the fact that he's there. There's really no magic or high-tech to solve this problem." Suskin notes that, although the process is digital now, it is essentially the same as was used in the 1920s.
One key scene involved Smokey dragging Montand behind the wall of the Temple and into his tunnel-like lair, where he is enveloped by fog. "He has smoke emanating from him, but it's not his smoke," Suskin explains. The challenge for Suskin and Eden FX was to figure out how that would look, and to determine how to create the elements, shapes and densities so the mist would differ from Smokey and stand out from the dark tunnel. "It was more a creative question than technical," adds Suskin. "Smoke on smoke in a dark area is quite challenging."
Suskin was able to direct Smokey more this season than in the past, thanks to some enhancements in LightWave that allowed his movements to be more controlled. In past seasons, the crew had to wait until a shot was rendered to see results, so "there were a lot of reiterations and trial and error," Suskin explains. "When we simulated smoke, it was somewhat chaotic and random. Now I'm able to direct Smokey's gross movements and his performance in much finer detail." The team now has more mastery over how the monster behaves, whether he looks wispy or furry, and what direction the smoke goes -- and it all can be done more quickly as well.
Much of the work in Season 5, as in the past, involved realistic effects that probably aren't obvious to most viewers. "There are things like the fire arrows [most of which were digitally created] or the airplane landing or Smokey," says Suskin. "But usually we're working with reality, where we have to fix or change something. Sometimes it's so seamless that even the people in post-production don't realize we're doing it. We get a kick out of that."
For example, a departure lounge at LAX with a 747 rolling down a runway was all digital. In another scene, some animation work was done on a still of a fallen body so it would look like it was thrashing around after it hit the ground. A character filmed walking down a Honolulu street and a boat docked in Hawaii were transferred to Britain. Hydra Island, a featured location this season, was enhanced with sand dunes and telephone poles going back into the distance. A well was extended downward, and some buzzing flies were added to a scene.
Other photoreal work included the security monitors in DHARMA-ville in Episode 8. "Every TV screen has to be tracked in lovingly into each shot," Suskin points out, noting that the same thing was done with the GPS device in the previous season. The DHARMA control rooms are 1970s-era. "We tried to be roughly accurate to what it would've looked like. Some of us were brought back to our days in college, and some were brought back to things they've only read about."
The vfx in these sorts of scenes may be invisible, but they are just as labor-intensive as the more showy work. An example was at the Lamppost Station, introduced in Episode 6, where the camera pans over a completely digital sign, something like a European train board, that shows longitude and latitude and ended up being seen only briefly. "For a single shot, more went into that than anything else we've done," reports Suskin. "We're hoping it comes back."
The vfx team also was charged with recreating some sets from past seasons, including designing a matte painting of the destroyed Orchid Station in Episode 5 and revisiting scene where a Nigerian drug plane crashes into the jungle.
The latter, in Episode 1, echoes a scene from a couple of seasons ago. The point of view is different from the original -- this time seen through Locke's eyes -- so the scene was recreated synthetically. "We were going to use stock elements, but we didn't have the appropriate camera angles," Suskin explains. "So we did the entire thing digitally." The banyan tree that the plane crashes into was actually modeled in RealFlow, a package typically used for liquid simulations. Eric Bacus at Branit VFX in Kansas City had been working in RealFlow and "he bent the program to work to his own needs. This was an innovative way to handle it and it looked a lot more natural. It enhanced the believability of it."
The Lost vfx crew benefited from some hardware and software improvements this season as well. Workstations were upgraded to dual processor machines with 8 Gigabytes of RAM; the creation and rendering of the crash landing scene in Episode 9 would not have been possible on last year's equipment. "[The upgrade] gave us the edge we needed to try some new things," Suskin says. Another key addition was adding Nuke to the arsenal. The crew is increasingly using Nuke for compositing, along with Fusion, Combustion and After Effects.
On the other hand, sometimes low-tech is the way to go. When the crew was charged with creating Hydra Island, a smaller island near the main Island where much of the action in Lost takes place, Suskin searched Google Earth and found an island in the South Pacific that was the right shape. To support the storyline, features such as a mountain range had to be added. Suskin was trying to explain to Digital Animation Supervisor Eric Hance what the range should look like, but was having trouble putting it into words. "I wish I had some modeling clay," he said. Hance happened to have three buckets of his kids' Play-Doh on his desk and, in a few minutes, Suskin had modeled a fluorescent orange mountain range that hit all the story points. "You have to know when to use high-tech and when to go old-school," he concludes.
Following pages are a photo gallery of images from season 5, including the last episode, enter at your own risk.
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).