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'True Blood' Season Four: Faeries and Werepanthers

Zoic discusses the latest and greatest CG on HBO's popular vampire series.

The debut episode of the season was filled with magical effects. All image courtesy of Zoic. © 2011 - HBO.

In the fourth season of True Blood (Sundays at 9:00 on HBO), creator Alan Ball expands the scope with the introduction of faeries and werepanthers. We spoke with Zoic visual effects supervisor Jon Massey and compositing supervisor Steve Meyer about the new twists.

Bill Desowitz: What's new in Season Four?

Jon Massey: As you probably know, at the end of last season, Sookie [Anna Paquin] gets transported out of the real world. In the first episode, she has been taken to Faerieland by her Faerie Godmother. When they were first writing the show, that land of the faerie, as Alan Ball likes to say, was discussed in great detail in concept meetings. They had an idea of it, but they weren't sure how they wanted it to look. It takes place in the ballroom of the Queen of the faeries, where that is and what that looked like went through a lot of iterations. Finally, it was decided to give it some scope. The set was going to be half-built and there was going to be a 260-degree view of this Maxfield Parrish-type place. So that was something new for us because most of True Blood takes place in the here and now with visitations to some places like 12th century Scandinavia or the Civil War down South. So that raised the bar right off the bat.

BD: What else?

JM: The second and fourth episodes have CG werepanthers in them. One of the problems with panthers is that you can't really make them aggressive: you can't play with them like you could a hybrid wolf. You're very limited by the interaction that you can do with a live panther, so we did CG shots that blended seamlessly with their live-action shots because they didn't want to do the whole scene with CG panthers, and yet they couldn't get the panthers to be aggressive. So we made them do what a werepanther would do.

BD: How did you animate them? In Maya?

JM: Yes, we animate in Maya…

Steve Meyer: … We render in mental ray, we do the matte paintings in Photoshop and compositing in After Effects.

JM: We actually an animator and a generalist for lighting and rendering and shading.

BD: What was the trickiest part of the performance?

JM: The trickiest thing is to make it nice and fluid. And our animators would look at stock footage of panthers and they studied how they moved. It was a matter of having them move naturally and not linearly, which is a problem with a lot of CG characters. When they take a step, another part of their body might come to a stop, so we wanted to keep things tied together and constantly moving because there are a lot of muscle twitches that a wild animal has. It's getting those subtleties underneath the fur. With a panther, it's basically a leopard that's black, so it actually has spots that you can only see in a certain light. That created other challenges. We want it to look black, but if it turns a certain way, this brings out the spots underneath and the realism to those people that are going frame by frame to look at things. But we had to go back and forth a few times to adjust the hair, the fur and the lighting to get the right look for the texture of the spots.

There will be a boom of effects around Sookie as she comes into her faerie powers.

SM: In episode four we also see one of the characters, Felton [James Harvey Ward] morph from a panther back into a human while he's attacking Jason [Ryan Kwanten]. And this was a tricky set up because we couldn't have the panther doing any action that was aggressive. We did some video of it playing, which helped our artists with some of the arm movement. But really what we were asking for it to do was something similar to a human, which obviously its arm movements can't really do. So we had to make sure it was in within the morph, that as we broke the rig, as his arm moves around, that his arm looks natural and not strange. We had James in the position of the panther just to give Ryan something to act with because it's always hard for an actor to fight and stab at something that's not there. So we had to paint out the human actor and put in our CG panther on top of it and then blend those as they morph together.

BD: Any other new powers?

SM:

We've got Sookie boom where she can throw energy and knock people down or get them off of her, which she just touched on last season.

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

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