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Emile Edwin (Zoic FX Studios) - "Serenity" Movie - Cgfocus.com Interview

Wes Beckwith

Friday 22 December 2006, by Webmaster

We were very fortunate to catch up with Emile Edwin Smith, CG Supervisor for Universal Pictures’ Serenity. You might remember a miniseries called Firefly by Joss Whedon; well, unless you have been living under a rock for the last year, you know Firefly has been turned into a feature film called Serenity, due to be released September 30th.

Emile Edwin Smith is a Visual Effects Supervisor at Zoic Studios who led the teams on such recent projects as Serenity, Century City, Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly. Emile and team members at Zoic won the Emmy and VES award for Firefly in 2003 and were nominated for a second Emmy and won a VES award for their work on Battlestar Galactica in 2004. Prior to Zoic, Emile worked as a Visual Effects Supervisor, Director, and Artist with such companies as Foundation Imaging, Radium, Neo Pictures, and Flash Film Works on various projects and feature films, including Mimic 2 and The Jackal, as well as numerous commercials and music videos. Smith also supervised the well-received NFL “Space Raiders” spots, was the VFX Supervisor for the TV movie Extreme Team for Touchstone Television, the Visual Effects Supervisor for Providence and served as Digital Effects Supervisor on the TV movie Superfire. He has enjoyed contributing his visual effects experience to such shows as Miracles, The Twilight Zone, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Voyager and Deep Space 9. Also listed among his accomplishments, Emile directed several episodes of Starship Troopers: The Roughneck Chronicles.

Serenity centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family - squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.

When Mal takes on two new passengers a young doctor and his unstable, telepathic sister he gets much more than he bargained for. The pair are fugitives from the coalition dominating the universe, who will stop at nothing to reclaim the girl. The crew that was once used to skimming the outskirts of the galaxy unnoticed find themselves caught between the unstoppable military force of the Universal Alliance and the horrific, cannibalistic fury of the Reavers, savages who roam the very edge of space. Hunted by vastly different enemies, they begin to discover that the greatest danger to them may be on board Serenity herself.

An Award-winning Creative Collaboration Continues...

In 2002, Joss Whedon joined forces with Loni Peristere and the folks at Zoic Studios to create an innovative visual style for the special effects for Whedon’s new series, Firefly. The series picked up an enthusiastic audience during its run, as well as critical acclaim for its well-turned characters, stories and dialog, and both the VES and Emmy awards for special visual effects. The DVD has had strong sales, and last year Universal Pictures and Whedon’s production company, Mutant Enemy, went into production on a big-screen adaptation, Serenity. Emile Edwin Smith, a Visual Effects Supervisor at Zoic Studios, helped oversee Zoic’s work on the production of the visual effects for both projects.

We caught up with Mr. Smith and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the film.

How did your team first become involved with Firefly/Serenity? How did your participation in the motion picture version then come about?

I first became involved with the property when it was called Firefly and the pilot for the initial TV show was about to start. I had read about the show and sent my portfolio to Joss Whedon’s company. He in turn forwarded my info to the VFX supervisor on the show, Loni Peristere and one Emmy and one VES award later we had a great partnership. Loni and I had continued to work on other projects both together and separately at his company since Firefly ended; we had been hearing that Joss wanted to do a movie for a while and I was itching to be involved. Joss wanted to have a lot of the same creative team that were involved in the television series involved in the movie since it was such a collaborative effort. We had to convince the head of visual effects at Universal, John Swallow, that we could do the job, and we did; we were ready to jump in and do some serious work!

Can you tell us about the team that worked on Serenity? Was it the same team as for Firefly?

The team I initially put together for Firefly was largely a group of people I had been working with at another VFX facility. That company was closing down and there was an incredible talent resource available that I had all the confidence in the world in. I brought those people down to work on the TV show and they largely made up the crew, with the addition of several people Loni brought on to help us. Most of us then stayed together and came back onto the movie. It was great to have the same base team and everyone was psyched to work on it. We additionally brought on Randy Goux who was the digital effects supervisor on Matrix Revolutions as our internal VFX supervisor to setup the pipeline and make sure everything worked between CG and Comp. We brought down several modelers from ESC to help us out and also used several people out of house for the majority of the modeling involved. Patti Gannon led the compositing team for us and worked with Randy to devise the pipeline for that aspect of the show.

What tools were used in the production of the VFX for Serenity? How was each used?

We used a lot of different tools in this show. The primary animation and rendering package was LightWave. We rendered the majority of the shots and FX in it, utilizing the dynamics system for the explosions, the particle system and HyperVoxels™ for missile trails and firefly FX, radiosity rendering, etc. We used Maya and mental ray as well: the Mule/Skiff chase was rendered in mental ray and we used the fluid dynamics system in Maya for the skiff smoke. The modeling was a good split between LightWave and Maya, utilizing the best tools from each package at what they were suited for, such as the great UV tools in Maya, the great modeling tools in LightWave. For texturing it was Photoshop and BodyPaint. For compositing we used Combustion as our primary package with a lot of the artists’ “slop comps” set up in After Effects. We broke all the rendering down to a base level, rendering out a “beauty” pass for each element as reference, then the Raw RGB, diffuse, specular, reflection, luminosity, etc, all as their own elements so we would have complete control over the images in comp.

Was the team able to reuse the assets from the series for the film? What were the issues involved in doing so/not being able to do so?

We were able to use few assets from the TV show. The Serenity herself was one of the biggest challenges. The model looked good and Joss did not want to really change it, but we needed to add some serious detail to it compared to the TV show. We had one of our texture artists, Peter Pace, paint on top of the old Serenity all the detail we needed in the new one. We had the same modeler who built the TV show model, Pierre Drolet, build this new movie version as well. He started with the old one as the template, and then began adding details such as rivets, handholds, vents, etc. This applied to every aspect of every model in the show. The only ship we used from the TV show that made it through was the Reaver ship from the pilot, which we used as a background ship.

How many effects shots in the film? How many from Zoic?

Zoic did 220 shots for the show. Illusion Arts and Rhythm + Hues each did about 40 shots each for us, PNP FX did about 100 wire removals and green screens, and Grant McCune Design did the crash sequence with a practical model.

Were the deadlines for this project typical for film production, or was the schedule "ambitious"?

Every film is different as well as every budget, but we began shooting in August of 2004 and we were initially supposed to wrap in February, which was very ambitious for their April 23rd opening. Once they pushed the opening to September 30th, we had a lot more breathing room that everyone needed to finish the show to the level we did.

What were the challenges of the motion picture, and how did those differ from the challenges of the series?

One of the biggest challenges is detail, which is obvious, but one of the additional challenges was that there was a lot more time for Joss to make changes which differed from the TV show. On that, mainly because of the schedule, we were pretty much free to do what we wanted and thought looked cool; if Joss liked it, it was done. On this project he had much more opportunity to get his exact vision across because he had time for multiple revisions on ideas and shots to achieve that.

How did your team meet those challenges?

We previsualized every shot from beginning to end. For example, I directed several versions of the main battle sequence, and successively showed each of these to Joss during filming. With each, we addressed his notes and produced the next version, until, for the final version, he had time to come in and lay his hands on it to get his exact look.

What shot or effect gave you (or the team) the most sense of satisfaction in achieving?

The best looking sequence is the travel through Reaver space. The lighting was good, the effects were good, it was moody and spooky, and it looked real. It was one of the more straightforward pieces in the film, but most achieved the realism we wanted. Several single shots come to mind as favorites, including the Serenity taking off in the rain and the way we got the water to sheath off of the body, and the first shot of the Serenity as we see her entering the atmosphere. LightWave was used for all of these shots. Specifically radiosity rendering was used for the base fill lighting, particles dynamics were used in the rain sections along with the engine ignition, along with HyperVoxels and volumetric lights.

What was the biggest challenge that LightWave was able to assist in accomplishing, and how did LightWave help in meeting that challenge?

The biggest challenge we nailed with LightWave was the look of the renders. We did do some work in mental ray, but we were able to get the same results out of LightWave and see those results so much faster that it helped our production immensely. We had huge objects that we couldn’t even load into Maya as complete models. We also had some we couldn’t get into LightWave, but LightWave’s robustness as a workhorse helped us fix these issues quickly.

What were LightWave’s strengths for this project?

The ability to quickly see our work and get feedback was the biggest strength for us in the project. We were able to make changes on the fly and get response and feedback, especially with the FPrime plug-in, very fast.

What’s next for Zoic (that you can tell us about)?

I can’t comment on feature work at the moment, but, in addition to the multiple commercials we have going on, we are currently working away on the TV shows Battlestar Galactica, E-Ring, Prison Break, Threshold, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami and Over There.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about Serenity!

You’re very welcome, and I hope the fans of Firefly like Serenity as much as we enjoyed working on it