SyFlex in hit television series Smallville
Images copyright Warner Bros. Television and courtesy of Entity FX
Visual Effects: Entity FX
VFX Supervisors: Mat Beck, Brian Harding
3D Artists: Kaz Yoshida and Jack Matsumoto
Senior Producer: Trent Smith
Entity FX handles all of the visual effects for the hit television series Smallville, now in its sixth season. The Season 6 premiere, titled “Zod,” called for more than 70 visual effects shots. Work done in SyFlex for the episode was overseen by in-house visual effect supervisor Brian Harding and realized by a team of Entity FX artists led by Kaz Yoshida and Jack Matsumoto.
Senior Producer Trent Smith answered a few of our questions:
Syflex: What effects was SyFlex used for in Smallville? In how many shots did you use it?
Trent: We used SyFlex in the creation of Smallville’s mysterious phantom creatures.
These characters come from the Phantom Zone, the desolate world into which Clark Kent (played by Tom Welling) falls and must escape. The phantoms were introduced in the season premiere “Zod” and used in 15 shots in that episode. They were well received by the client, and have been brought back for subsequent episodes this year.
Syflex: What were the director's requirements?
Trent: We are entrusted with a lot of creative lattitude for the visual effects on Smallville;
our direction on phantom design and realization was simply “make it cool.” Also, as typical for television, production needed ultra-quick turnaround. Our phantoms needed to integrate with performances by the actor that had already been recorded on set. And they had to work within heavily stylized and color-corrected live-action plates.
Syflex: What made you choose to work with SyFlex?
Our artists came up with a phantom look and behavior that was based on the idea that these
creatures had been trapped in the Phantom Zone for a long time. They envisioned them as these kind of erroding forms, not transparent but made up of layers of decaying cloth over a skeleton of real flesh and bone.
After we had done our 3D models, we needed an approach to cloth simulation that was very flexible
in terms of the look. SyFlex was a great option for being able to quickly adjust the cloth to get a character feel.
Syflex: Can you tell us about the most complicated shot involving SyFlex work?
In one shot, five phantoms attack Clark. The phantoms are fully CG, rendered and lit to integrate with the live-action environment. Each phantom was modeled in 3D, with a bone structure, skin, muscles, teeth and other facial details. Artists distressed and photographed fabric from set to get the cloth textures just right. We then created cloth setups in SyFlex, defining cloth collision surfaces that would drive the characters’ geometry. The simulations could be adapted to get the specific animation performance needed. Each character was enhanced with a range of color, shadow, specular and beauty passes, plus sand and dust particle systems, before being lit and composited into the shot. There was very little motion blur on the characters so this made having realistic cloth even more important.
Making cool stuff is a good challenge to have but the biggest challenge overall was the time
crunch. We created fully CG characters with realistic cloth and delivered them with the rest of our effects for the episode in about a month.
Syflex: Was that the first time you have used SyFlex?
Trent: We used SyFlex for the first time in creating the phantoms for Smallville. The application was straightforward to use and very fast. SyFlex helped us meet the need for producing simulations quickly that were easy to tweak.
Syflex: Sounds like SyFlex was a good choice for the project...
SyFlex provided an easy way to do cloth simulation tests, which were essential for our phantom characters. By feeding out of SyFlex, we could use a low-res mesh to drive high-res geometry.
Another helpful feature in SyFlex is the program’s cache file handling. This allowed us to change the value of the simulation frame by frame and get really quick results.
It was a great opportunity to create characters for Smallville that are fully CG and integral
to the action. The results we achieved with the cloth helped bring out the artists’ vision for the phantoms’ unique behavior and look. The phantoms were also well received in the series, and have been written into other episodes of the show.