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'Drive': Zoic Re-Invents the Car Chase with CG

Tara DiLullo Bennett asks Zoic Studios' to pop the hood on their production of FOX's new series, Drive, to find out what powers this visual effects filled new series.

Zoic Studios' visual effects help drive this new action series from FOX. All images courtesy of Zoic Studios. © FOX Broadcasting Co. 

How do you re-invent the wheel, or in the case of FOX's new road-race drama Drive, how do you re-invent the steering wheel? For decades, the Hollywood way to show drama inside a vehicle has always been the industry standard of mounting hood or side mount cameras on a car or truck to get a peep behind the wheel. But with the constant advances in CG and visual effects technology, even that old, industry standard is getting a face-lift. Drive is action-drama that follows the varied participants of a cross-country, underground road race as they jockey for pole position to win an eventual prize of $32 million. It's high stakes, life-changing stuff and the merciless driving by the racers reflects that in every episode. While the action may be impressive, the real heart of the series comes from the characters that are putting the pedal-to-the-metal and you need immediacy to tell their stories. The problem is that the characters spend the majority of their time inside their cars actually racing, so how do you make those boring constraints dynamic?

Enter Zoic Studios and visual effects supervisor for Drive, Loni Peristere. Based in Los Angeles, Zoic has made a name for itself turning the impossible into impressive results on the small (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica) and big screen (Serenity, Pathfinder). Having worked with Drive co-creator Tim Minear previously on Firefly, Peristere says this series was a challenge from the get-go. "Right after Ben Queen pitched Tim Minear the show, Tim shot me an e-mail and he said he was considering pitching a show about a cross-country road race from Florida to Alaska. He was interested, but he wanted to do something different with it. He asked me how do we make this interesting? I thought about it and our e-mails went quiet for a little while I was doing other things and then he shot me another e-mail. He asked if I had seen War of the Worlds yet and I had. He asked about the sequence with Tom Cruise and his family in traffic where the camera is flying around their minivan going in and out, and in and out. I explained it was a combination of live-action photography in the background and greenscreen composited together. He asked, "Can we do that on TV?" I said, "Of course." Then he asked, "Can we do that from car to car and travel up the highway and move around with this omniscient point of view?" I said, "Well, I don't know? I don't think it's ever been done before and we'll have to figure out how to do that."

"I got together with Chris Jones (Zoic creative director), Andrew Orloff (Zoic vfx supervisor) and we brought in some of our key compositors and asked how do we invent this new thing?" Peristere continues. "Zoic has become known for reinventing the CG camera, and coming up with new rules that are basically grounded in reality. If you are shooting CG, add zooms, lens flares and bad focus and it will make it more organic. We won the Emmy and the VES for that work. On Drive, it's exactly the opposite. It's almost taking what you see in videogames, with omniscient cameras that fly around your CG characters and never cut, as it just follows the race. For the show, we invented a photo-realistic camera that moves from car-to-car, driver-to-driver, within the context of a race, without cutting. It's really amazing! I'm so incredibly proud because this is what you aspire to do in a vfx company."

Cool as the camera may be, it's created an amazingly complicated vfx pipeline for a television series, one with a learning curve that Peristere and Zoic are still wrestling into submission six episodes into production. "It's a Rubick's Cube!" he laughs. "It's a thing of many parts and when you see it onscreen, that's only one part of thousands. When people watch the show, they will have no idea there are looking at vfx except for the fact that the camera can't possibly be doing what its doing."

In the pilot, Peristere says their new camera process introduces the ensemble cast. "We had a notion that we would have a third person omniscient camera that will introduce all our characters. The camera will find each car in the race, find the racer, then move out, and find the next car and driver over seven vehicles. That's epic in the middle of a race on the highway going 75 mph! We drew up the storyboards of what Chris Jones and I visualized how it should be and we presented them to a really, talented previz artist, Robin Roestroff. He's known industry-wide as "super previz guy." He has a bunch of tools in his kit which allow him to put in camera rigs, limitations and whatnot, so what you previz has some level of attainability in the real world. So basically we had this vision of what we wanted on paper and then presented it to Tim Minear and Greg Yaitanes (director & exec producer). They approved the concept and we then went to technical execution."

Previs presented different challenges on his show.

"Going into previs, we knew we would need certain equipment," Peristere continues. "We went with Alan Padelford and he has a car called a Caddy-Cam. It's a Cadillac Escalade with a jib on the roof and it has the ability to reach all the way down to the ground and go way up high at high speeds. It can do swings and moves because it's built for car commercials and action films. We put that in the previs because we knew that camera was going to be our eye, but at a certain point, we knew that would fail. Why? Because we would come up on a car and as we would rise up on the actor, there would be a stunt person," he laughs. "We also want to see that person and then move into the car. We wanted to leave [the Caddy Cam] behind and go into a controlled situation with actors. So we knew we would move from the open road to the stage where we would have our actors in the same cars lit to match the location time of day. They would act and then there would be a point they would leave or see a racer pace them, so they would step on the gas and we would move away from them."

How do you make the transition? Peristere explains, "Basically what we ended up doing was that we started at location with real cars going 65 mph and we transitioned to greenscreen stages with cars on air casters, these six foot scaffoldings that support the car rigs and they float on air like hydrofoils. These rigs allow a grip to push the car with their hand and it shoots around like it's on ice so we can have it move like a car. We transition from the Cadillac moto-arm to a Technicrane on set where we would use a switcher to match size, scale and location as we saw them out on location until an acting lead needs to get back into the race."

"The next big complication in the process is what do you see out the window when you are in the car?" Peristere poses. "Here's the trick, so now you have to, with absolute continuity, match exactly what you saw with the moto-arm, peripherally and behind. You also can't have a locked plate; it needs to be moving around. So what do you do? That was our next invention we had to figure out. When they did The Matrix and they did all the virtual cameras, they used the still camera which gave them a 360-degree field and that worked for them because of the nature of their shots, but our shots are moving. So we looked to technology from Disneyland's World Theater, where it's like a 360-degree movie and asked how do they shoot that? We figured that as long as we do the action twice on set, we can split the timing to match. It also meant the camera didn't have to be locked off; it can move around outside the windows because it's on a nodal point. For the pilot episode, we used a poor man's version of what they had and then we found the guy who built that rig and used it for the next episodes. His rig is called, "Circlevision." We mounted seven cameras that shot into mirrors, which gave us a 220-degree field of view that we used to create our backgrounds. Old to new!"

Another important aspect of the cross-country race is that the audience gets to see the real-life landmarks and landscapes reflected through the windows of the cars for a semblance of authenticity. Peristere says that for each episode, they collect plates for background context. "It's been really laborious upfront, but now that we are on episodes five and six, it's like we are accumulating backgrounds like a huge stock library. When we schedule a second unit, I'll go out, direct them and work with the second-unit team to shoot the plate that leads up to the action. Then we redo the action using that rig and then we have the background. Then we go to stage and now we have our lighting matching and we work with Chris Manley, our dp, who sets the lights to match exactly where the highlights are on each vehicle using this elaborate grid that he built on a giant, greenscreen at the Santa Clarita studio. We shoot the interior the way we want in action because we have already shot the action outside. Then the director can come in to do dialogue and performance as he needs to make it work. Now we have a working composite, and we've been comping in After Effects on the stage as we go, so we can see it and because this is all based in practical photography, we can see a rough version of what is going on. So we have a couple of key cameras that we can throw in the comp and then we can move on. We do a temp comp and we look at it so when we get back to Zoic, and we work in the Flame with Steve Myer, we know he is going to be able to stitch it all together nicely. All those cameras blend in together either in Shake or Combustion, depending on the time of day, and it's like a giant, single cyc that the guys use."

The cyc was actually the one element that made Peristere the most nervous. "We were really worried about it because it's impossible to create a true nodal cyc. In order for it to exist it had to be shot with a wider lens and now there is lens distortion and improper depth of field. We had to go in like surgery and re-recreate depth of field based on the lens. We then had to hand rotoscope and animate depth of field. I'll never forget we were in this meeting and a very talented compositor said, 'It's impossible. It will not work.' I was scared to death!" he laughs.

Due to reflections and intricate camera moves, the on-set cars are actually useless, needing to be replace with digital doubles. 

Continuing down the complicated pipeline, Peristere says, "When we get back to post, there's so much that has to happen. When we are the greenscreen stage, we can't shoot with the windows in because the cameras are actually moving into the cars, so we are constantly moving the camera like a snake. There are no windows in the car and a boatload of tracking marks out the windows and a whole bunch of equipment reflected all over the vehicle, so the actual element of the car is almost useless. What that means is that when we get into post, we have to create a CG version of that car that also matches the lighting on location and carries the reflections that we got on location, so we use our cyclorama as our reflections. It's this soup brewing now. When we get into post, everything has to be tracked in 3D. Every single plate, the A-side, the B-side and the greenscreen all have to be tracked because we have to create a CG car that stays with all three passes. The CG car is rendered with reflections, specularity and directional light that we are able to lay into the car and use as a bridge that creates a seamless transition. The CG acts as the glue that gets rid of all the inconsistencies. You put the windows back in, the rear window, the reflections and the highlights and you give it to Steve Myer in Flame and he throws it into his composite -- and it becomes 30 to 40 layers that essentially doesn't look like visual effects!"

Crunching the numbers, Peristere reveals the staggering number of vfx shots they are creating for Drive. "It's averaging out to about 120 shots per episode. In real life context, that's like doing 1,000 shots in under six months and it's really, really hard. It's a bear because we need to edit and get performance and approvals and still have these short turnarounds. But it's a fluid process that is settling in because, as a concept, this allows [the producers] to shoot 14 to 18 pages a day so it really changes their productivity. It allows them to spend more time getting a bigger show. I call it 'feature television.' What it means for post is that we have to lock those shots first and then get into the debate of how are we going to get it done? Every car has a match clip depending on time of day. Every angle gets a match clip and then we set the team off to work and that's how it works."

Practically, Zoic is splitting the work by car between Los Angeles and Zoic BC. "I would say the team on Drive is anywhere from 15 to 20 artists and that includes multiple 3D trackers, 3D lighters, roto-artists and compositors. It starts in Bijoux and moves to Maya. It's ported over to LightWave and exported to the guys working on the composites for Shake or Combustion. They put together the 3D elements with the giant cyc (which was stitched together in Combustion). They mash it up and hand over the entire pre-comp over to Flame and that seams it altogether for final. We are also using Menfond (of Hong Kong) and they are doing a fantastic job with the straight comps and the greenscreens," Peristere adds. "It's not easy because I didn't want this show to look like a straight composite show, so there are a lot of angles that exist outside of the glass, so they are putting in the reflections."

All that remains is to see if audiences embrace the concept itself. Regardless, Peristere says Zoic is incredibly proud of what they have created. "It's so huge and when people see it, if you aren't from our world, you don't appreciate the amount of labor. It just looks like a really cool car scene. With all this work you expect explosions or a walking machine! It's just not as obvious in what you expect visual effects to be. It's also a very different kind of CG for Zoic. We're not creating foreign things, and everybody knows what driving looks like! It's at ground-level but not a tow. It has a different esthetic. It doesn't feel like anything anybody has seen on television because it is moving fast!"

Tara DiLullo 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 & 2.