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'Pathfinder': A Map to Making VFX Viking Epic

After chatting to the visual effects artisits, Tara DiLullo Bennett draws us a map to how Zoic BC. tackled the vfx work of the Viking epic, Pathfinder.

Are you burning to know the vfx secrets of Pathfinder? All images courtesy of Zoic BC. © 20th Century Fox. 

In the wilds of Vancouver in the early days of 2006, the film Pathfinder was being shot in the pristine, yet primordial-looking woods that surround the very cosmopolitan Canadian city. The film tells the tale of a Viking invasion of North America more than 500 years before Columbus set foot on the virgin continent. With their terrifying "dragon" boats, the Norsemen ransacked coastal Indian villages for slaves and supplies to take back to their homeland. One such mission ended with a shipwreck where one single Norse boy survived. Despite his blonde hair, strange language and the omen of evil surrounding him, the boy is raised by a Native American tribe as one of their own. Upon reaching manhood, Ghost (as he is called) must use his skills as a warrior to protect his adopted family when his Viking kin return to pillage once more.

While Hollywood-style Vikings were laying claim to a new world, there was a much smaller invasion happening in the city with the arrival of Zoic Studios. The first satellite expansion of the successful visual effects house based in Los Angeles, Zoic BC., grew out of the increased number of vfx projects the company was getting coming out of the British Columbia area known as Hollywood North. Set up by Zoic employees, Randy Goux and Patti Gannon, Zoic BC. opened its doors and its pipeline to Pathfinder as its inaugural project. "It was the perfect movie to get Zoic BC. on the map," says Randy Goux, who served as the visual effects supervisor on the film. "We had just come off of Serenity, which was the biggest movie for Zoic to date. We had set up systems for that in L.A., which we mirrored up here. We have 2K playback system and all of the [Los Angeles office] software, the network rendering, plus the facility and screening room are mirrored here in Vancouver. As far as software, we use Maya, Shake for compositing and Combustion -- just like in Los Angeles. We were also really excited about getting a Vancouver staff. It was an all-new crew and we had to interview lots of artists and bring in just the right guys. We found the talent pool very strong, with a lot of young guys that were just aching to work on feature films. They were really hungry and talented and there is a lot we can teach them."

Goux says it worked out well that Pathfinder's director, Marcus Nispel, was looking for exactly what Zoic BC. was pitching when he bid out his vfx needs for the film. "We had done some commercials and music video work with Marcus and we had a relationship with his producer, Vincent Oster. They were looking for the right-sized house for the feature and a company in Vancouver. It just so happened that Zoic was planning to open their Vancouver office and I jumped on it. There was nothing we couldn't do in this movie. The crew was incredibly dedicated. It turned out to be a lot more shots than we expected, but that turned more into a staffing issue than a technical issue. Initially, it was 120 shots, but the ending delivery shot amount is 283 shots."

Part of Zoic BC.'s mission was to create a primordial look to the North American landscape of the Viking era. 

With the film taking place in ancient North America, the greatest challenge for the Zoic team was helping Nispel achieve his vision for the dark, violent world of these early cultures. "There is whole component to our work where we are enhancing a movie that was shot beautifully," Goux explains about the type of work they provided for the film. "There is nothing mechanic about anything we do. If we are doing matte paintings, we are doing skies and mountain ranges and villager huts. If we are doing battle scenes, nobody can shoot an arrow on set because it's horribly dangerous so we are adding arrows all over the place. There's an action chase sequence where there are four different sleds all being pulled by snowmobiles, they go pretty fast, and, of course, they are all being pulled by cables, so there are removals. The thing about shooting here was that it was very pristine and so there is hardly any greenscreen in this show. It was nice, but what that means is that this is a little different show than I was used to in that we would drive an hour away to find the perfect place to do a climatic cliff sequence at a 50-foot rock wall. In the film there ends up being a battle with guys that are attached to ropes that are swinging across this rock wall and our job was to make it seem like they are 800-feet up."

"Another one of the things that was really crazy about this show was that they had three, sometimes four, cameras shooting at once," Goux continues. "For us to prepare any greenscreens for that kind of shooting, with the frantic schedule and shooting days, it was almost impossible. So I would plant myself next to Marcus and as soon as he would start shooting an angle, I would suggest how to go in tight or pull out to find the right angle to make a rock wall extension work. Patti and I were always on set, and instead of us demanding that there was a 60x30 greenscreen at all times on the side of the wall, we would help him get him what he needed and also recommend shots that would give us the most amount of leeway in terms of our post schedule. It was really neat because we were really involved in how they were shooting this thing, but on the sidelines, not screaming, "Hold the shoot!" It was pretty cool."

Environments were a big part of the effects wizards' job in helping create the look of Pathfinder.

Coming from the run and gun world of video and commercial shooting, Goux says Nispel employed a speedy style of shooting on this film too and that proved challenging for the Zoic team. "This was his second feature, but he's a very busy director that is constantly working in commercials and has a very successful career with videos. I could tell he was going to be a different kind of director, because you have to roll with how his production runs. It's very fast and very furious. We had maybe two days on a stage and the rest of the three months was on location during the end of fall 2005 and the early winter of 2006. It was just rainy and cold, which is great for the movie, because it helps the look. But when you are trying to think ahead about how we were going to have to do some of the visual effects, we had to accept the fact that we were on a ride and it's not the ideal situation like being on a studio set. Throughout the months of shooting, I was changing my strategy as we went along to see what I was going to have to be prepared for with post. For instance, we were out in the middle of the woods and Marcus is an exciting director when he wants to shoot something a certain way. He will explain it to you, but no matter how many crew I have on set, there is nothing you can do to prepare for it. So when he's replacing a background that happens to have half of the crew in the frame, but he needs the shot -- I said to myself that I would have to prepare my post schedule accordingly. It was a wild ride!" Goux laughs.

Impressed with Nispel's vision, Goux says they had some exciting sequences to put together in the end. "The stunt work was pretty spectacular with these guys doing freefalls into boxes in full Viking gear. There were a few shots where we had to do digi-double handoffs and we would extend them. There was also an avalanche and of course, you can't reproduce an avalanche practically, so enter Zoic BC. We did some pretty heavy volumetrics and that's probably the heaviest CG that we did for the show, lots of volumetrics for the dynamics for our avalanche sequence -- really making these guys feel like they are getting hit with a freight train of snow. I think it's going to come across well on screen and people are going to feel like a side of a mountain just came tumbling down. Marcus let us run with that and he knew it was out of his hands to direct that, so he gave us a lot of creativity to make that whole sequence happen. We got into some fluid dynamics work for it and it's advanced. We dedicated a team to it to get the right look. While it's included in Maya, it really takes a dedicated effects artist, or artists, to get something that is fully realistic onscreen. It is one of the things we first started on, because we knew it would take some R&D. On Jan. 3, (2006), when we officially opened our doors, the guys started running with the avalanche scenes, even when it wasn't a locked cut, but we started the process."

Nispel also charged Zoic BC. to create some complicated matte paintings to help create the environments for the Indian villages and the Viking sea vessels. "Nispel was a little more particular about the matte paintings and that's a big part of what this movie is about," Goux explains. "It takes place in the Northeast in 800 A.D. and to try and help set the different locations for the villagers and when the Vikings come in with their Viking ships, we have about 15 matte paintings that are pretty big in scope."

And don't forget the blood, guts and arrows for this

Delayed a little short of a year, Pathfinder finally hits screens in April as a very violent dark piece of ancient North American history that will give audiences a feral look at the cultures of the day. "It's pretty dark," Goux says of the finished piece. "It's rated R and was going to be PG-13, but the studio decided to go R with it, which means the director got to keep a lot of stuff in this movie. Marcus wanted it to be a 'Viking snuff movie,' which means we were adding blood, hacking off limbs and decapitating people, so it's pretty gruesome. My mother isn't going to see this movie," he laughs.

Yet Goux hopes a lot of other people do head to the theaters to see the next level of Zoic Studios visual effects. "For Zoic, it's great because we have a huge following and fanbase for all our work. If you say Battlestar Galactica, and anybody that knows anything about the effects in that show, they are going to say Zoic. If you say Firefly, you know its Zoic. You go into space -- you call Zoic. My goal now is to say if you are doing something more natural and organic, well look at us now -- go to Zoic again. Pathfinder is a complete departure from what we are used to doing and it shows that we have a lot more depth. It's been a great opportunity."

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.