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'Sanctuary': The Experiment Continues

Now that Sanctuary has been picked up by SCI FI Channel, the virtual environments hand creature work have been cranked up by Anthem Visual Effects. Tara Bennett finds out how.

Anthem Visual Effects was charged to carry on the visual effects work when Sanctuary transitioned from webisodes to SCI FI TV series. All images courtesy of Sanctuary 1 Prods. / Anthem Visual Effects.

Last year, the webisode series experiment called Sanctuary debuted online with the intention of shaking up the traditional model of producing high quality television for niche audiences. Overall, the subscription-based show wasn't a blockbuster success in terms of audience or revenue, but Sanctuary has since proved to be an unmitigated success in transforming the Internet into a viable tool and conduit for alternative television pilot development.

In the end, the webisodes served as a provocative spec pilot for the creative team and proved that its top-notch producers (Damian Kindler, Martin Wood and Amanda Tapping), scripting and impressive virtual set environments were worth investment. Cable net SCI FI Channel saw the potential of the content and acquired the concept and hired the creators to turn it into their next original programming series. Retaining the same producing team and lead actress (Tapping) to play the series enigmatic heroine Dr. Helen Magnus, Sanctuary launched on Oct. 3 to the network's best series premiere numbers since Eureka in 2006.

The hallmark of the webisodes and now the television series is its use of vfx to create the vast majority of environments, including Dr. Magnus's creepy underground creature lab to the darkly gothic look of the world outside and all the creatures featured in the storylines. The original webseries visual effects work was done by Vancouver's Stage 3 and when Sanctuary was picked up for series, Anthem Visual Effects was charged to carry on the visual effects work. Lee Wilson, Anthem's visual effects supervisor, says his company's work on SCI FI's miniseries Tin Man led them to Sanctuary.

"Once SCI FI Channel showed interest in doing the show, the feeling was obviously that it had to be more broadcast friendly," Wilson explains. "The [producers] had seen some work that we did for Tin Man, which was a six- hour SCI FI Channel miniseries, and there was a fair amount of virtual environments. We created the interior of a palace, the outside of a nightclub and Central City. I guess they liked the work and said they'd like the virtual work on Sanctuary to be of that level."

Wilson says he researched the web-based Sanctuary, and then dove into the new series scripts to really determine the potential and depth of the work Anthem could do for the project. Unlike the webisode series, which was almost 100% virtual except for actor costuming and props, Wilson pared down the broadcast version's reliance on the technique. "If you have a couple characters sitting in a room in chairs having a conversation, why would you want to do that virtually?" Wilson poses. "You want to save the greenscreen work for big, expansive sets that are impossible to physically build or for exotic environments. That's where you pull out all the stops with 40-foot high ceilings and 80-foot sets. If it's literally a few pages of dialogue in an office, I think that's a misuse of screen time."

Lee Wilson.

Working closely with the producers, Wilson says they pour over the scripts in production meetings to work through the practicalities of what to produce with visual effects that enhance the concept yet don't break the budget. "In early versions of scripts or beat sheets, I would comment on things from if [an effect] would be better saved for Sanctuary: The Feature or just making suggestions on creature counts," he chuckles.

"We have lots of creative meetings and they are looking to me for the bar," he continues. "For us at Anthem, we want to keep it raised. When we hired new artists to supplement this team, which is the same from Tin Man, we showed them our work on Tin Man and they asked if the work would be like that show. My response was that we have to do stuff that's cooler than that and keep moving forward. As proud as we are of Tin Man, Sanctuary has to take it further and I think in all modesty we are succeeding with that on a TV series that has hundreds of effects shots per episode without getting in the way of story.

"The important part for us is that we really like the show. I'm a co-producer, as well as the visual effects supervisor. We love the scripts and the characters but because we are so enthralled, we want to take it as far as we can. For example, the producers might like to have the Ashley character (Emilie Ullerup) standing on top of a building or a bridge. We know what that looks like with greenscreen; shots with a comped city skyline behind them. But we wanted to take it farther and make those environments so rich they could easily survive in a feature film. It's a matter of taking that point in the script, and taking it to a place where people go, 'Wow.' Hopefully not to the point of stopping things dead because story is everything and visual effects should further the story and not grind it to a halt. In this case, if a character is in a precarious situation, we want the effects to leave you feeling breathless but not at the expense of the story and characters."

Anthem wanted to make the environments so rich they could easily survive in a feature film. They wanted the effects to leave viewers feeling breathless but not at the expense of the story.

The series is still made in Vancouver and Wilson says he works on site to help ensure the production is conducive to the heavy demands of the post process. "From early script stage to final delivery, I'm involved in it all," he details. "I'm on set. If it's a simple shot we've done many times, I may be in the office at the studio but I'm just upstairs. With anything more elaborate, I'm involved. We also use a certain amount of existing geometry from the original webisodes and some of the footage that was shot, but we recomposited, re-lit and re-textured everything to a higher res version."

As for turnaround, Wilson says they have a little more time than the webisodes production had, but not by much. "With the sheer number of effects, it was important for the material to be razor sharp," Wilson explains. "(DP) David Geddes' lighting is great so the keys work really well. My partners at Anthem, Lisa Sepp-Wilson the visual effects producer and Digital Effects Producer Sébastien Bergeron, have put together how it's scheduled using Sebastian's pipeline for how we move the data through and how best to group shots together. We are using some geometry from the webisodes and that is the sanctuary itself but everything else is being re-lit and textured. It saved us some pre-build time. Also when they did the webisodes they used a tracking system that we are not using. I didn't find it that effective so our guys are using 3D Equalizer and good, old-fashioned hand tracking."

Another huge factor in the efficiency is the producers' and Anthem's decision to exclusively use the Red Camera, which is capable of recording at resolutions up to 4096 horizontal by 2304 vertical pixels, a first for broadcast TV. "We hadn't seen any examples of Red Camera pipelines for series work, so Sebastian had to come up with his own," Wilson suggests. "He wrote some scripts for it and then some is out of the box Red Camera software and some is stuff we have written to make it efficient in our environment. But we have 4K images at our disposal, which is really nice. In the past, if we were doing things for TV and shooting on film, I would ask to have a shot rescanned at 4K in order to get information I needed but now we have everything that we need. It's certainly made that a lot easier to deal with. And the quality of the images means that I will be hard pressed to use anything else in the future.

"We're happy with the overall level of the show. Someone recently came in and was looking at the work that we did and they thought it was the feature version. It was gratifying to hear that reaction. The stories and characters are unlike anything on TV so it was important to us that the quality and detail in the effects work is able to support it."

Anthem delivered 1,000 vfx shots for the pilot and the last episode called for almost 300, which is no small feat for this small company. 

No small feat considering the sheer number of shots required of Anthem for every episode. "We did the pilot that once we stopped shooting, I think it was three months to delivery and there were over 1,000 effects shots," Wilson explains. "Once we delivered that pilot, then every episode now delivers a week after. The last episode we did had close to 300 effect shots. There is nothing on television like that! But, on the other hand, the audience has to watch it and not notice. You have to totally buy into the concept and where they are. There is also a lot of creature work and audiences have to buy it and it seems to be working."

For a relatively small company, Anthem says they are making due with their massively talented crop of artists. "The new people we brought on support the work level that we have. We have great creature artists with the guys that did the mobats for Tin Man and they do the creature work for this. We really love creature work! We just had one episode jam packed with creatures but when you have two or three major ones and all the other environments it's a lot." Wilson smiles and adds, "The guys don't sleep a lot. They can sleep at Christmas."

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.