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'Knight Rider' 2008: VFX in High Gear

Tara Bennett talks to showrunner and exec producer Gary Scott Thompson and Stargate Digital's Sam Nicholson about updating the much-loved franchise for a tech-savvy audience.

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Knight Rider is back, and gone is the KITT of old. In its place is an upgraded 2008 Ford Mustang GT500KR that's fully loaded with AI, biometrics, and morphing capabilities. All images © NBC Universal. 

With the success of the contemporized reboot of NBC's Knight Rider as a two-hour movie event last spring, Michael Knight (Justin Bruening) and KITT are now back for weekly adventures starting Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Gone is the 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am KITT of old. Instead KITT (voiced by Val Kilmer) has been upgraded to a 2008 Ford Mustang GT500KR that's fully loaded with artificial intelligence, biometrics, and morphing capabilities.

In the TV movie, KITT actually used nanotechnology to change colors and temporarily morph into other cars. But a lot has changed in only a few months as Knight Rider has developed into a series. New showrunner and executive producer Gary Scott Thompson (Las Vegas) says it's his goal to push the envelope of television visual effects in order to meet the expectations of today's savvy audience.

"Here's the thing about features," Thompson explains. "Once they do [something] for the first time in the feature world, even if it costs $100 million, the price then comes down [everywhere] because it's digital and CG. So if I see something, I immediately turn to our guys and ask how it was done and how we can replicate it or do our version of it. It's all moving so quickly what with Xbox and PS3 in gaming and then Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in movies. And I think the bigger thing is what's being seen by audiences. They are too sophisticated now and if we don't do at least what those other mediums are doing and take it to the next level, I don't think we will make it. So that was the idea with us using nanotechnology as KITT transforms and morphs into other cars. We are finding ways to afford to do it and make it work because we aren't limitless with the visual effects."

The visual effects house charged with creating these visual miracles every week is Stargate Digital of Pasadena, CA. Sam Nicholson, CEO and founder of Stargate Digital, is visual effects supervisor on Knight Rider and he says they've followed Gary's mandate by adding transforming abilities (à la the Transformers movie) to the already loaded super car.

"Gary is a very strong executive producer so we in general follow his lead in all things from depth of field to complexity of graphics," Nicholson details. "And we are fortunate to have NBC as a studio on this because they are very supportive of the changes we wanted to make to the car from the pilot to the series. Naturally, we bring whatever skill sets we can to the table, particularly with the greenscreen and compositing.

"We've gone much more towards a 'Transformer' look in the series," Nicholson says of the changes to KITT. "We tried to somewhat modularize it to say that we could have the car transform from regular KITT to attack KITT. We can then model that, animate it so then we will be able to reuse the animation and relight it in different sequences."

Nicholson admits it's a pretty sophisticated visual effect to use on the small screen every week, but there are long-term benefits too. "The car is going through a series of predictable moves when it goes into attack mode. Generally speaking, there is a certain amount of amortization you can do in any successful, long-running television series. KITT, being the central focus, allowed us to keep coming back to the same high-end model. It's not like it's a different creature every week, so it becomes somewhat predictable and therefore more affordable.

"And it transforms all the time," he continues. "Gary really likes to have a rich visual palate. The mandate from the very beginning was that we were going to take this thing over the top. KITT is a central focus in how to do that, including all the heads-up displays, the transforming car and then the turbo-boosting. Gary brought that all into play."

Of course tinkering too much with a sacrosanct franchise can be as detrimental as a dearth of bells and whistles. But Nicholson says Thompson has a strong hold on exactly how to balance the old and the new. "There is a great fan base. We hope we have improved the car significantly from the original series, but have not broken too many laws of physics so [that] you say 'that's impossible.' The fun thing about the original series is that it was all done with practical stunts. Now we are doing things more with CG and greenscreen techniques, yet we still want to adhere to realistic camera position and realistic moves for the car.

"Any transformation has to be believable," Nicholson continues. "What we were doing in the pilot was more of a sci-fi morph. You can sit and justify it with logic all day long in terms of nanotechnology, but we are coming out of the Industrial Revolution. I think audiences relate more to mechanical transitions than molecular transitions. Gary is very aware of that. Plus, [mechanical transitions] are a lot more visually stimulating."

Aside from the KITT transformations, Nicholson says they also do a wide range of other complicated visual effects every episode. "We did take a unique approach in regards to shooting the [driving] plates. I shot most of them with the Ultimate Arm (Camera Crane System) using an F23 and doing some very interesting speed shutter ramps so we could have the backgrounds as exciting to watch when the car is driving as the foreground is. The plates are exciting to watch by themselves and then you put in the CG car transforming and it is great footage.

The vfx team must walk a fine line between tinkering too much with a sacrosanct franchise and offering fans new and exciting vfx. In the end, the team adheres to realistic camera positions and realistic moves for the car.

And KITT's dash has also gotten an impressive upgrade with an assortment of digital screens, monitors and vehicle feedback controls. Nicholson says at first they were concerned that they had created a potential accident waiting to happen for Michael Knight. "But when you get into touch screens and holographic displays and all that, if you had a car that could drive itself, then it's OK to be watching a whole bunch of monitors and screens with Internet and GPS. So that became one of the design criteria -- the graphics could be very heavy inside the car because KITT is driving itself. And that connects stylistically to the KITT cave, where they park him and work on him."

In the premiere episode of the season, Nicholson is also particularly proud of the work they did having KITT go up in flames. "The flaming car sequence is an interesting one because I think that we achieved a look. Ghost Rider was probably the best example to date of CG fire and I think we have ended up with a look that is better than Ghost Rider."

"That was an interesting discussion," Nicholson chuckles. "When you bypass the look of a $100 million movie, you do think we must be doing something right. And I think the fire sequence, particularly in the exterior shots of the KITT on fire, looks beautiful. It was well executed and the artists here did a great job on them. We are proud of that shot. We did a lot of shooting of fire and then mapping it onto fabric that we could bend and shape around the car. It's like trained fire. You are looking at real fire but it's shaped in a way that we can control it."

Looking ahead, if Knight Rider gets picked up for a full season Nicholson says he can see Stargate Digital perhaps having to let go of the series due to budget demands. "The show is very ambitious and they are fighting the budget every day," he explains. Right now the show averages 100 to 200 effects shots per episode -- an astounding number for a TV series.

"Ultimately I think our job has been to establish a look and a template for the show and then most likely they will probably take the show in-house and do it with in-house artists. It's an option for a lot of shows where you can have someone down the hall with computers and they can respond immediately. Without any overhead you can do some interesting things. But they don't have the horsepower that we have here in terms of render farms, processing power and number of artists. At any one time, we have a dedicated team of 10-12 people in 3D and sometimes 18-20 people in 2D. And at any one time, we had 40 or 50 people working on the show. But at the same time, I think one of the goals has been to move the show in-house from the beginning, to try and contain the costs. It's certainly an option with any show. We did four years of CSI and then they took it in-house. I like to think we deliver a superior product, but if producers are faced with ever-tightening budgets, part of our responsibility is to set it up and get it going and then pass it to their artists."

Tara Bennett is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.

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