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Illusion Arts’ Bill Taylor on "Serenity" FX - Vfxblog.com Interview

Saturday 7 January 2006, by Webmaster

Illusion Arts co-owner Bill Taylor talks to vfxblog about how he shot the miniature crash sequence for Serenity, and about his studio’s digital matte paintings for the film.

UPDATED with matte painting images.

Interview by Ian Failes

Can you give me a general overview of Illusion Arts’ contribution to the film?

BillWe did a couple of big matte paintings, one of which features in the landing of Serenity at the plaza on Beaumonde. The ship comes into the docking clamps, settles, and the docking ramp comes down as our actors walk off the ramp into the city. The camera pans around with them. We built a CG model of Serenity based on something we got from Zoic. We took Zoic’s model and rebuilt it here, with most of the work done by Mary Manning. The background is a 3D matte painting by Kelvin McIlwain. There’s a follow-on to that shot which is a simple pan from the loading bay on Serenity.


Then we did a bunch of aerial shots of the Mr. Universe planet as we’re coming up on it, which then turns into the crash landing. It starts outside the ion clouds, then the camera flies over landscape, toward and around Mr. Universe complex. The Maya model and animation was done by Andrew Tucker, and embellished with matte paintings.

Just before the ship actually comes down is the first time you actually see a traditional miniature of Serenity. It was built by Grant McCune Design. I was the director of photography. The matte artists here provided exterior backgrounds. The background matte paintings were by Kelvin McIlwain, composites by David Williams.

The ship touches down, breaks its landing gear, skids on down the landing strip and into the hangar. That was all done in a large miniature hangar. We used an overhead wire rig. Once it gets into the hangar, the ship is on a track under the model set.

We had a couple of days to shoot the crash landing. The collision of one of the engine pods with a support column was done as a miniature, and then enhanced with some CG animation to break apart in a very specific way. Mary Manning built this engine full of stuff that broke apart and then tweaked the physical simulation to make it as picturesque as possible.

It was a lot of fun, and I think they made a good decision to make the crash landing a miniature. We had some happy accidents that may not have happened if it was totally CG. Certainly, there was a lovely feeling of mass as it thumps down on the runway. You see everything bob and wiggle. It looks big and massive.

The lead modelmaker at Grant McCune’s was Monty Shook. My camera operator was David Hardberger. The gaffer was my longtime colleague, Victor Abbene.

What was involved in your role on the film?

I was the director of photography for the miniature crash landing of Serenity, and my partner Syd Dutton, and his team created all the matte paintings behind the ship. The only set they built for the landing sequence was the runway itself. They just had a greenscreen behind it, which was all replaced by CG.

What considerations did make when photographing the model?

The first consideration was, ’How big does it need to be?’ Model builders have gotten so skilled that they can super-detail a miniature that’s so small, you can’t photograph it. All the detail is there, but it’s physically impossible to shoot it.

But the model makers arrived at a good scale. I went over there and talked to Grant when they were starting to build the model, and agreed on their estimation that a model about six feet long was just about right. I also looked at the set when it was under construction to think about where to put lights. The set was a kind of wrap around. Fortunately, we never have a big pan inside the set, so I was always able to cheat light in from an off-camera direction. The rear wall was metallic in colour, which was good thing, because it was highly reflective and we didn’t need a huge amount of power to get a nice uplighting effect on that wall.

The exterior crash stuff was just lit by (mostly overcast) daylight with a little soft bounce fill. The ship travelled on cables from an overhead carriage. Cameras were all operated wild; motion data was derived from the film with Boujou software and applied to the backgrounds.

The interior was more interesting. The ship traveled on a rail concealed in the deck. There was nothing to match to, so we had a free hand. I put the ship through many little patches of local light as it traveled , from very small fixtures (which you can see below) hidden behind miniature foreground pieces. Uplighting on the back wall silhouetted Serenity’s complex profile. Soft fill light came from Kino Eights above and behind the camera.

Aside from that, we had a whole number of little sources duplicating spotlights and work lights. Local lighting was at the eye level of people who were supposedly working in that hangar. The ship went through all those little lights, which ended up having a nice look to them and also helped in conveying the scale. We just used little slide projector lamps that had built-in reflectors on them. The ship was big enough to allow us to use lighting fixtures of that size on set. Sometimes really small miniatures are used which means you can’t get lights in there, and you have to project lights onto mirrors, and then the mirrors serve as the source.

The only patch of top light came through an overhead port. We cheated the position of this bright patch and re-dressed the model set from shot to shot to give the impression that the hangar is much longer than it actually is. We shot at a 64 to 96 FPS, which required a high light level even at ASA 500. In the end the frame rate was time-compressed to about 36 FPS for many shots, so in 20-20 hindsight the high frame rate was not necessary. Having plenty of extra frames made the compression very smooth, however.

Although the sequence was storyboarded from a high vantage point looking down on the ship, a low vantage point close to scale eye level looked much better.