Framestore adds a touch of film-level flair to its CG dinosaurs, as Tara Bennett discovers in her coverage of the popular Primeval TV series.
What if dinosaurs never went extinct? That's the question posed and explored in Impossible Pictures' audacious and compelling U.K. sci-fi television series, Primeval. Envisioned as the amped up, fictionalized companions to Impossible's award-winning CG-animated BBC documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs, Primeval debuted on ITV in 2007. The series follows the adventures of evolutionary zoologist Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall), who discovers that temporal rifts are allowing prehistoric creatures to suddenly appear in contemporary society -- wreaking havoc and mayhem in a literal clash of time periods. Together with a small team of paleontologists, researchers and government helpers, Cutter races to save the future from its own past.
A critical and audience hit in the U.K. after a two-season, 13 episode run, Primeval recently debuted on BBC America to equally fantastic numbers. The series returns for its highly anticipated third season of 10 episodes in 2009.
Already deep into production on Primeval, Christian Manz, vfx supervisor for London-based Framestore, says the new season is pushing their company to raise the bar on what audiences have come to expect from vfx on television.
Manz explains that Framstore's involvement with Primeval spooled out of their long-term collaborations with Impossible Pictures. "We'd worked for Impossible Pictures for several years doing the Walking with Dinosaurs brand. This show had been hanging around for a couple years and was originally with the BBC, but a show called Doctor Who came around and so it went to another station."
When Primeval was greenlit, Manz was hired to supervise the highly ambitious visual effects required of the series. "What I always wanted to do was bring a bit of our film work to TV," he explains about his intentions. "People never compare our work [in this show] to other TV shows, they compare it to what they see in the cinema, so that is what we have to try and attain. Everybody looks at our raptors against Jurassic Park. They never compare them to TV shows."
And being a bit of a sci-fi fan myself, what also excited me was the possibility that we didn't have to do creature work that had to be as scientifically accurate as the Walking With… series," Manz continues. "As the series has gone on there are more imaginative creatures being created, which are all done and designed in house."
Despite the short episode orders for each season, Primeval has proved to be a literal monster to keep up with considering the sheer number of vfx required each week from Framestore. "It's a huge challenge because we have to turn around the episodes very quickly. In the states they showed series one and two as season one. But episodes one through six, which was our season one, we did in very quick turnaround. We filmed it in April  and delivered it all by September . We worked on each episode about 13weeks: eight weeks in animation, six weeks in compositing and three weeks in lighting, but all overlapping with three episodes going at the same time. For series one, it was the equivalent of four years work for one animator, obviously split amongst the crew. We have a crew of 60 people working on the show: 15 animators, 15 compositors, five TDs and then we have a load of trackers, paint and roto and what-have-you. It's a big crew, about the size of the crew that shoots it."
Those are pretty epic numbers for a series that in reality only has a fraction of the budget that a theatrical film with a comparable scope would have. "It was one of the major challenges of Primeval," Manz agrees. But it turns out Framestore's varied film experience, from the Harry Potter films to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ended up helping prepare the team to better plan and utilize their vast resources for the small screen.
Manz explains, "All the television documentary work we had done before was in a very different pipeline than the rest of our vfx work. It was kind of a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, which worked very well, and that approach was kept to deliver a lot of those shows. When it came to Primeval, I came on board as the supervisor so it was a new show for me. Now I knew we were doing things like the fur in our feature work for The Golden Compass and Chronicles of Narnia and those shows have R&D budgets that we just don't have in television. But those tools are in-house now and much more standardized, so we are able to beg, borrow and steal those tools from the films for the TV show. By now in our third season, our pipeline (barring some slight differences) is pretty much the same as it is on a film. We can use the same tools and the crew. In fact, a lot of the guys on Primeval are pretty junior, but it's worked out well both ways in that they've done our show and then gone on to do great work in film. But then when they are done on a film, they can come back and do a bit of Primeval and bring back what they've learned. It's a delicate balance, but I think we achieve about 80% of the finish that you get in our feature work. Probably to the casual viewer, it's even closer.
Throughout just the first 13 episodes, Manz says the visual effects have already evolved by leaps and bounds. From the very first episode, we had the Gorgonopsid, which we had already done for [Walking with… ], but everything was remodeled and remade. We made them look scarier so its teeth were much larger. Generally in the show everything is a bit larger to make it scarier," he observes. "But I think the big turning point for us was the Future Predator at the [end of episode six]. I think the fight it had with the Gorgonopsid still stands up. It showed us what we were able to do in a very short bit of time. The Future Predator is quite human really, so on this new third season, we've moved from the beginning visual effects, where there wasn't much facial rigging at all, to now where we are creating creatures with 30-50 face shapes. The Future Predator was a big turning point because it clearly wasn't a dinosaur. In the second season, we then did the worms [aka very large carnivorous worms] and the Mer-creatures, which in themselves have a lot of facial stuff going on with them. They were meant to be what we would turn into eventually. They are an ape-like mammal that's gone back to the sea, so it couldn't have a rigid face. It has to have a lot of character to it. So what also separates this show is the animation because on the documentaries you could get away with populating scenes with cycled animation because it was all behavioral stuff. But here we are creating digital actors that are acting against the real actors so that means every shot is animated. A run or a walk cycle might be created but every shot is directed by the director. We'll do a couple of passes of blocking, a couple of passes at animation and then move it on but that sheer level of detail that we are delivering : 60 shots an episode of creature animation plus all of the other vfx work -- it's amazing we get it done!"
But Manz says a big reason for their success is the collaborative nature of the series overall. "We have more input now and are involved very early on in the script stage with the show so we can help the producers decide what are the most achievable things to do. It's so important that we have a very collaborative approach with the production when they are scripting, in pre-production, filming and then post. By doing that we are able to get it all up onscreen and I think you end up with a broader quality level across the work rather than a couple of great shots and a couple of mediocre shots."
It's also the talent of the guys," Manz continues. "We live off a lot of the enthusiasm of the crew making the show. It's all their hard work. They know the shortcuts and the broad brushstrokes of what needs to be there to get the finesse of film."
Detailing a bit of their episodic prep pipeline, Manz explains, "The way the process begins is that we read the scripts, break it down and then I say, 'Wow, I wish I was working on that film. Let's cut it down a bit,' he chuckles. "From there we move into storyboards, which I work on with all the directors. We have a storyboard artist, so before we go into shoot, we have a meeting just about all of the CGI and the elements."
From there, the show goes into production. "We have a set supervisor that go out to set so we always have a presence," Manz continues. "Because turnaround is so quick, two weeks into their shoot we are already receiving plates here. We work from an assembly edit with heavy handles. Essentially, we give back the digital rushes of the creatures so we give them good takes of each shot and they can edit. The process has its pitfalls like when they haven't had a chance to fine cut before they give the stuff to you, but generally it works. For example, the fight with the Future Predator and Gorgonopsid, we blocked out the fight as one long shot and animated it as one long shot. I sat with the animator and we put five camera views on it and turned over that full fight from five different views and then they cut it as if they had rushes of that fight. We then rendered the bits we needed from the camera views. I think it looks so good because they had the opportunity to cut with that."
Another improvement to their process comes from streamlining their concept work on the many creatures needed for any given episode. "The methodology used to be that there would be a lot of discussions over physical sculpts made of the creatures. We would scan those and then it clean up and move it into rigging. What happens now is that [artist] Daren Horley concepts, but then we model from scratch so there is no more sculpting clay. That means from the very beginning, seeing what the script says the creature has to do, we can adapt that concept to make the creature correctly do what it's meant to do in the script. It's worked very well and the season three creatures are a step up from what we've done previously. Texture and modeling can work more hand-in-hand so the end product is better and it's done quicker."
Lastly, Manz says, "We also have a much closer relationship with the production designer [Paul Cross], so when he is making props like control anomalies, he will come into me and show us loads of drawing and we can see what we can do to augment them to make each others lives easier. It's what it's all about and it's the only way a TV show like this can work. From the director down, it's collaborative and it really results in a much better product at the end of the day."
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.