'Smallville' Takes Final Flight

Entity FX talks about the final journey with Clark Kent.

CG fire and virtual environments are two big challenges in the final season. All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Television and Entity FX.

Last week, Smallville began its 10th and final season (Fridays, 8/7 on The CW) with "Lazarus." Clark Kent is saved from his near-death experience with blue Kryptonite and learns more about his destiny, including the re-emergence of Lex Luthor and a warning that "evil is coming."

In fact, in terms of sheer numbers, Entity FX, which came on board in season two, has completed 4,382 vfx shots for the series as of the Season 10 premiere, and will reach a milestone when the series' 200th episode, "Homecoming," airs Oct. 15.

Meanwhile, the bar has been raised for the familiar signature effects this season, including super-speed; "Clark Time" where he moves while the world stands still; heat vision; X-ray vision; synthetic environments (Metropolis, LuthorCorp., Daily Planet, Watchtower, North Pole, outer space); energy effects; digital stunts; flying and jumping; and natural phenomena (water, floods, snow).

And the impact of Entity FX work throughout the series has consisted of vfx that are tightly tied to the actors' performances (emotional impact as well as a wow factor); that help advance the story and sometimes allow scenes to be recut or repurposed to better advantage; and that have influenced vfx in other projects with some of the signature moments.

Clark wakes up in the cornfield to begin the 10th and final season.

"As we move into the final season, it's been very interesting discussing everything with the producing and seeing what path they want to conclude with," suggests Trent Smith, the visual effects producer/supervisor from Entity FX, who began the series as vfx coordinator. "For 'Lazarus,' we did a lot of synthetic landscapes and altered universes that were part of Clark's dream state and that foreshadow a new character that will be coming into the series this year to help wrap things up."

Some of the new challenges in the premiere episode include CG fire and integrating it with Clark Time. "We have a scene where Clark has to rescue Lois in a cornfield that has been set on fire by Lex Luthor, and, simultaneously, Lex has set up a bomb to tumble onto the morning rush-hour traffic in Metropolis," Smith explains. "Who does Clark save? In classic Superman style, he's able to do both at the same time using his super-speed."

The fire solution involved Maya Fluids as Clark whips around and the wake of his speed and the air distinguish the fire. "The final effect is a complete CG scene done in Maya and composited in After Effects, with a cyber scan of Clark where we see the globe atop the Daily Planet topple over and Clark catches it in a super jump mid-fall and brings it back to its place on the building," Smith adds.

Of course, there will be more extreme peril this final season as Clark completes his origin story to become Superman, which means upgrading some of the signature effects, expanding the synthetic environments and creating more creatures.

The signature effects have gotten more sophisticated throughout the series.

"Definitely we're expanding our techniques for frozen time effects," Smith continues. "With the frozen moments we did, say, back in Season two, we used to do a lot more cable removals and have actors hold still and shoot it at high-speed. Now it's definitely expanded with more digital photography and we're using Phantom cameras and high-speed cameras so we don't actually freeze our actors as much but have them move slowly. And there are times when we use our digital double, for Clark to help get him in or out of a location at the beginning of Clark Time.

"When we first introduced heat vision, it was something Clark could not control. Eventually, he learned to control it, and over the years we've fine tuned and even changed the style of the heat beam. Initially, we always started off with just doing more of a heat distortion -- a wave of air -- coming from his eyes. Over the years we've moved it with the traditional view of Superman with his heat vision; more of a traditional red color. And that's both an evolving stylized view of the show and a progression of his powers. Nowadays, we do a red beam with heat distortion and hints of fire. Sometimes he'll do a full-beam for more strength, but sometimes when he's trying to hide his powers, he does more of a heat bullet that melts an object."

As for synthetic environments, Entity FX has been able to take advantage of technology improvements, better stylization and an immense library of assets the company has created. "As these environments have evolved, we've seen Clark grow and spend more time at the Daily Planet and more of our storylines have been generated around the city," Smith suggests. "Along with the visual effects side of it, production over the years decided that many of the shows were going to be based in Metropolis, so they built a small set in Vancouver completely dedicated to Metropolis. It's our own Metropolis back lot. So we have built full digital cityscapes on top of that. Our CG version also includes set extensions since the physical buildings are only about three-and-a-half stories tall."

Metropolis will offer even greater CG cityscapes.

And what is Smith's favorite moment so far? It involves a CG meteor that grew in stature beyond a season finale.

"For me, a personal favorite was a meteor shower from 'Commencement' in Season four. As originally scripted, there was a scene where a meteor hits a fuel truck and the truck runs out of control and is about to careen into a little child amid all the chaos. And Clark comes in and saves the child. In editorial, once everything was shot and coming together, the executive producer, Ken Horton, didn't feel the jeopardy, and, in trying to figure it out, we came in and offered a possible solution that had an iconic image of Clark saving this little boy. I suggested the idea of removing the truck and adding a meteor that's about to come down and land on the boy. Within four days of the show's airdate, we recut the scene and turned it into two separate events, with the second one an all-CG world with the meteor and Clark shielding the boy from the meteor crashing down on him. It was very exciting to work that closely with production and they were extremely happy with the way it turned out, and I was even more excited when that shot became part of the opening title sequence the following season."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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