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VFX Art Director Daniel James Cox talks about the look development process behind cinema quality visual effects delivered on a fast-turnaround HD green screen series on a limited budget. Close collaboration and a well-planned workflow were major factors in the team's success.


The first series of 'Spartacus', titled 'Blood and Sand' had been Starz network's most successful show to date, calling for a second series. When the lead actor Andy Whitfield fell ill, series 2 was put on hold, and a six episode prequel was developed instead, ‘Gods of the Arena’, while Andy underwent treatment. When contacted by the production and after viewing the first season, VFX Art Director Daniel James Cox saw an opportunity to improve the VFX by creating believable, realistic environments that would better support the dramatic needs of the story.

Light and Atmospherics
“Because the show is shot entirely on green screen studios in Auckland, New Zealand, art directing the visual effects was a critical part of the look of the series. Furthermore, to help the episodes flow together and maintain quality from one to the next, all teams on the project had to be working toward the same look,” Daniel said. He took on the role of developing and controlling these environments - before, during and after production - by producing preproduction concepts, supplying a large library of panorama skies that he had collected during his 10 years in the industry, engaging his own matte painting vendor, and creating his own still frame look development reference.   Where Daniel felt he could have a particular influence was in directing the skies and using believable atmospherics to help integrate the composites. These were critical factors because, although the budget wouldn't extend to photoreal rendering, he felt that by maintaining a consistent overall look and adhering to the use of real physics to define the lighting and atmospherics, he could achieve a believable world.

Design Packs
Another important aspect of the project was coordinating the efforts of the Art Department, lead by Production Designer Iain Aitken, the two DPs John Cavill and Aaron Morton who alternated between episodes, and the Producing Director Rick Jacobson. “The process worked both ways, in fact,” said Daniel. “Iain and his team had a specific look for the 72BC Capuan terrain and geography of the story, and created initial colour keys for each episode, developed in conjunction with the DPs.

“I worked with the art team on delivering the design packs I would need to achieve the environments Iain envisioned. For example, they might show me one of the major environmental assets, the Ludus training square, which is high up on a ridge overlooking the town of Capua. Iain wanted the Ludus ridge to be made of certain materials, with particular qualities. This information would then be passed onto Klute, the matte painting vendor based in Sydney, who would need these designs to create the series’ extensive matte paintings.” Daniel worked to an extent with the previs team at 3D CGI as well, who were also responsible for 3D assets for the show.

Still Frame Composites
The workflow began with preproduction concepts done for the main assets and environments in each episode. Once the episode had been shot, Daniel would receive the green screen plates, choose some key sequences and create still frame composites which would be matched in the Inferno by the artists at Digipost, the lead post-production vendor based in Auckland, led by producer Fiona Webb. This part of the process formed the look development stage and was the basis of Daniel’s ability to maintain control over the look of the sequences.   While Daniel got to work in Photoshop with looks, lighting, colours and concept ideas, Klute's artists would produce highly detailed, believable panoramas with the correct textures and lighting, of which they could produce multiple 10K time-of-day versions. Klute also produced one-off matte paintings of the arena - a key story location, familiar to viewers of Series 1 and now seen 'under construction' in the prequel.

Daniel composited the panoramas into the green screen plates to produce still frames, which were supplied to the Digipost team. They imported the still frames into their Inferno suites and used them as a guide for grading their VFX shots in the DI. Once the VFX sequence was completed and submitted for approval, the rest of the footage would be graded to match these creatively art directed shots.
On Set A close relationship with the Art Department was necessary also because of their work with the DPs on the colour palette for each episode. The first episode, for example, has a greenish, 'toxic' look. The Art team would provide their preferred sky swatches and then concept artist John Walters, working under Daniel’s direction and using the toolkit provided, would create 6 to 8K real skies. These would be used on set to help the DP with the lighting cues, then inserted into the comps during look dev and, once the looks were approved by the executive producers, used in the final composites.  While the DP and camera crew understood the value of collaborating on lighting and looks before the shoot, crews on such tightly scheduled productions are committed to complete a certain number of setups on time and couldn't always fit into the plan. Daniel said, “However, a highpoint in the prequel story line was episode 6, when a major fight sequence takes place in the new arena. For this episode in particular, I worked with Iain, the DP, Director Rick Jacobson, and the vendors on improving the look of the arena shots, which included the revised 3D arena, replicated crowds and a composited 'ring of fire' the Gladiators would fight in. In terms of art direction, I made sure he would have pockets of light and contrasting areas of light and dark in the arena, which heightened the drama of the event by adding a realistic sense of scale. 

“The size of the sets in Auckland limited the range of camera moves and angles the episodic director could shoot. If the production wanted to extend a move, for example, rise higher for an establishing shot, a virtual camera and 3D tracking might be required. This required more previs, but these occasions were fairly rare and the matte paintings could normally accommodate the shots.”

Daniel used Photoshop to composite the still frames, also working on them with Painter. He has become skilled at using Photoshop to replicate atmospherics and aerial perspectives. Unfortunately, working for fast turnaround TV meant that he typically had half a day, not weeks, for the concept work. Also, because the compositors and effects artists needed to match his looks, his work had to be accurate, putting pressure on him and his concept artist. His experience on films, including 'Knowing' and 'Australia', also gave him a head start with a library of sky panoramas, textures and looks compiled over time.    
He points out that team effort from all departments was what enabled him to do the job properly and made the VFX much more effective in the prequel. He was assisted by a great VFX team, including concept artist John Walters, set technical coordinator Steve Joyce, VFX editors Grant Kronfeld and Neil Mayo, and assistants Stephen McHardy, Ryan Heelan and Stephanie Chung. 

Matte Painting Masters
When Daniel first approached Klute about working on 'Spartacus', Producer Hayley McInerney was slightly hesitant. The near-cinematic size and quality of the matte paintings he wanted them to deliver, the small TV-sized budget and the need to completely upgrade the effects from the looks of series 1 made a daunting combination. But Daniel persuaded Hayley and the team to consider the project as a challenge and they proceeded with the first batch of shots.
Under Daniel’s direction, set tech Steve Joyce put together a delivery pack for each shot, which included the plates, lighting reference, the skies and related references. The main environments they needed to create were the wide Ludus panoramas, used in compositing, and included 10k versions replicating various times of day including morning, noon, afternoon and sunset. They also delivered a close up 'patch' of the Capua city in 72BC in the day and at night. 

One-off matte paintings included views back towards the Ludus, both at night and at dawn, a training square shot, which would be camera projected onto 3D geometry, two helicopter shots, one in the day and one at night, a shot looking down towards Capua in daylight, and several 'old' arena shots - two in the day and one at night. 

"The Ludus panoramas were the first priority, and set the look and feel for all the following work, so it was important to get them right and we put all of our resources into them. The Art Department and Daniel supplied us with really clear reference about what was required. Dudley Birch took the lead on the panorama, starting with 3D renders in Vue, which gave us a base and correct versions of lighting to detail up. We then sourced a lot of photographic material based on the provided reference, and got them to a really high quality. What helped was delivering a temporary version early, so we could see what areas would need work and what areas wouldn't be seen as much," Hayley said. 
One of the next tasks was tackling the new arena, which would need to be delivered in three stages of construction. Hayley said, "On receiving the delivery pack and looking at the brief versus the asset supplied from the art department, it was clear we would need to do some modelling in Maya ourselves. The supplied model was, of course, the fully completed arena, so we would first need to de-construct it.  

"Also, Daniel had provided a very clear breakdown of the shot design, and we needed to model up the Roman cranes and winches that would appear around the arena. Daniel Bayona, the lead matte painter on this shot adds, “This  document was great because it clearly outlined what the production would be shooting on green screen to help sell the shot. Obviously, with a matte painting, you want to have a clear focal area that includes as much live action - and therefore movement - as possible. We were provided the camera information by the 3D vendor, John Sheils from 3DCGI.”  

After completing the first batch of paintings, Klute was offered a second lot, which included further environments. Hayley said, “One of the more interesting shots showed a new environment looking back towards a 72BC Neapolis seaside port. Again, Daniel delivered a very clear concept, as well as a pack from Steve with lots of set textures that we could use to match the green screen studio shoot, and other useful bits and pieces. 

In 3D, Christian Haley modelled the port and the mid and far background buildings that Daniel had indicated in his concept. He lit them and then painted over them in Photoshop, using the textures supplied. The matte painting was output in as many layers as possible, which would give Daniel and the compositors at Digipost the opportunity to accurately position the live action elements into 3D space in the plate.

Words: Daniel James Cox with Adriene Hurst
Images: ©2011 Starz Entertainment, LLC
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