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Going Deeper into the 'Fringe'-y Way

Jay Worth and Andrew Orloff describe some of the vfx highlights of the Fringe's second season.

Zoic has come up with a workflow for performance transfer of tracking 2D points for the trademark creature effects. All images courtesy of FOX.

With J.J. Abrams' series, the method to the madness usually starts to emerge more clearly in the second season, which is certainly the case with Fringe, airing Thursdays on FOX at 9/8c. Olivia (Anna Torv) returns from the parallel universe, and must battle shapeshifters bent on destroying one universe. William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), the mysterious chairman of Massive Dynamic, returns as a key to understanding the meaning of the two universes.

"Obviously we had a few challenges with moving the production from New York to Vancouver, as well as a new writing staff, for the most part," offers Jay Worth, the overall visual effects supervisor. "Jeff Pinker stayed on as the show runner and J.J. and Bob [Orci] and Alex [Kurtzman] and [producer] Bryan Burke are the over arching figure heads. But we have a whole new slew of writers and a new production team in Vancouver. When you do that, you get some continuity. But, to be honest, it was all new people once again. So in some ways, it was starting over from that standpoint. However, because I was able to keep the continuity going with our vendors [including Zoic and Eden FX], I do think that that has helped the show not feel as a big of a bump from one season to the next, particularly with different crews and a different vibe a little bit.

"We've always strived to be Cronenberg-esque in our delivery of things and have these amazingly insane things going on but also have these simple things in terms of camera and environments and be naturalistic. And that's where the visual effects come to play. One of the privileges is that because we're so involved with the producers and the writing of everything that we get to infuse that temperament and creative through line. So we're all on the same page in terms of tone and story. Sometimes they even write treatments where they'll describe someone dying in 'The Fringy way,' and we all know what that means: 'How do you want to kill someone?' But because they come to us, we get to come up with ideas and creatures, even before a story point goes to the studio, which makes the creative process infinitely more fun and fulfilling."

The Ash Man is probably the most difficult effect so far: "a layering, compositing, tweaking challenge beyond belief."

Andrew Orloff, Zoic's visual effects supervisor, echoes that it has to look real -- like you really photographed it. "What it means is that we just don't have any shots that seemed staged for the camera or any hint of being a visual effect. One of the big effects, like the parasite that crawls out of the guy's mouth, are interacting with actor's performances and they're shot with a very loose camera style and we have to have the tentacles of this creature coming out of the guy's mouth and all the deformations that are in his stomach and in his throat and in his chest.

"And we had to create a proprietary workflow here of what we're calling performance transfer of tracking 2D points, and putting those 2D tracked points onto the formation of 3D inter-geometry. So we're transferring not just the camera motion but also the performance of the actors on set onto 3D pieces of geometry so we can deform them and warp them and have our effects interact with them because the mandate is all about making it look as natural as possible, so that means a lot of optical tricks and atmosphere put in as seamlessly as possible."

Worth adds that one of the benefits this season "is having Todd Masters of Todd Masters FX being on the practical side, which has really opened us up to doing more hands-on creature and body work, where you just know that the corpse and creatures work seamlessly with what we're doing. That's what I like most about episode nine with the parasite that came out of the body. We had such a good parasite to work with that we were able to design and execute a [better result]."

So, aside from new twists on the trademark creepy deaths, what are some of the new wrinkles this season?

Having great practical effects from Todd Masters FX has allowed more hands-on creature and body work and more believable results.

How about someone turning to ash, inspired by Worth holding the remains of his wife's grandmother in his hands at her funeral?

"The Ash Man definitely had its own set of challenges," Worth says, "because we wanted to utilize a lot of real elements, and because we didn't have the time to do all the simulation and particle work needed to make it look real. The thing that sold The Ash Man more than anything was the aftermath shot: This half-disintegrated body with a pile of ash for the head on the ground. It ended up being a layering, compositing, tweaking challenge beyond belief. I got to shoot the elements myself and had more control over them."

The Ash Man was arguably the most daunting effect for Zoic so far this season. "Originally, it was supposed to be a practical effect but they couldn't get it to fall in a natural way, so what we had to do was shoot the practical elements in pieces and we put them all together and timed all those plates and ended up rebuilding a significant part of it and tying it all together in CG," Orloff explains. "So we took a cyberscan of the guy's body, and on top of all the practical elements we used as a base, we had a matte painting, a reveal matte painting of the cracks that ran through the body, 3D particles of large chunks of ash falling out, 3D particles of small ash bits floating down, residual dust flying off of it and, at one point, his head falls off and crashes to the ground as ash. So we had to do a full-CG head and tumble it down the body. That was pretty complicated and entailed lots of R&D: there was 2D work in After Effects, tracking, retiming, we did a lot of CG lighting for the body parts in Maya/mental ray and all of the particles were a combination of Maya software, and rendered in Maya/mental ray.

Then there was the effect of turning Bell and Bishop (John Noble) younger. "The guys at Zoic had to walk a fine line between too plasticky, stretched, morph effects and something that naturalistically looks younger," Worth suggests. "And we're looking to do again in the future, but that's all I can say."

For Zoic, the "youngify" effect is a compositing approach using After Effects to lift out some of the higher frequency details from the plates. "We're pulling those out and doing a softened pass and then we're using some selective roto to blend that back in and also some tracked warp to change the shape of the face to make it look younger," Orloff explains.

They always strive to be Cronenesque through a combination of the insane and the naturalistic.

Meanwhile, they're getting very adept at their trademark effects, according to Worth. "Now when we have to design a creature and how to ripple under someone's skin and come out, we know what exactly what we're doing: The efficiencies that we have this year are amazing in terms of the pipeline we have at Zoic, and the creative pipeline we have with the writers and them just trusting us."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.