Engine Room Tackles Hallucinations in New FX Series

The new FX series Dirt, which focuses on the world of Hollywood
celebrities and the tabloids rags that alternately honor and vilify
them, features recurring scenes that every filmmaker loves to create:
those depicting an altered mental state, in this case that of one of
the main characters Don Kinney (played by Ian Hart) who is the
tabloids' schizophrenic photographer.
To bring the viewer into the character’s delusions Engine Room, a
hybrid studio, known for housing both a specialty shooting unit, as
well as digital effects team based in Hollywood, CA, was called on to
handle the visual effects.

The drama, which is centered around Lucy Spiller, an obsessively driven
tabloid editor played by Courteney Cox); Don Kinney, a schizophrenic
photographer, and the celebrities who’s secrets they expose within the
pages of “Dirt” magazine, often features unique effects-driven scenes
that help define the show’s slightly dark and off-beat

Along with Andrew Honacker, Michael Caplan is visual effects supervisor
on the series and executive producer at Engine

In the pilot, the schizophrenic Kinney goes to a pharmacy to pick up
his medication. As he walks down one of the aisles, the women whose
pictures are on the covers of hair color boxes start coming out of the
boxes toward him and taunt him.

With all 3D work done in Autodesk Maya and compositing in Adobe After
Effects, Caplan explains how the scene was created. “We went in and
modeled the entire row of boxes in 3D and animated the faces of the
women. A handheld camera was used to walk with [Ian Hart] and track the
entire wall. Then we went in with footage of the live-action women,
shot in front of green screen, and mapped it into 3D

Another scene that also centered on Kinney featured the paparazzo
trying to get shots of an actress who had died. During one of his
schizophrenic episodes, he watches as she is being pulled into a
crematorium oven by skeletal arms, which emerge out of the oven’s

“We modeled and animated 3D skeleton arms,” explains Caplan. “We used
that geometry to emit the particle fluid system for the fire. It was a
very tricky scene because it’s very difficult to get fluids to behave
properly and look realistic.”

Caplan adds, “Maya is in a place now where it can get [fluids] to look
good and realistic. Maya has sort of become the industry standard for
3D. It’s what we used since the beginning and it’s the tool we get the
best results with. All our 3D is built around

Shot with a pair of Panasonic AJ-HDC27 Varicam HD Cinema cameras (The
Director of Photography is Geary McLeod, and the Digital Imaging
Technician is Ethan Phillips), Caplan says the HD footage is delivered
to Engine Room, is pulled into their system and converted to digital
files, either QuickTimes or frame sequences.
“We add whatever CG elements we need to, which are also created in HD
resolution and then are delivered back to [the network] in the same
format they gave to us. So, it’s a seamless

Part of this seamless process is due, in large part, to the way the
network and studio work together. Caplan says Engine Room is part of
the planning of each scene right from the beginning

“We do as much prep work as possible before shooting and we figure out
the right approach before the shooting even begins,” he explains. “So
much of a successful result is about how a scene is shot. Often, the
networks don’t have the time to talk to an effects house first, and
they’ll just shoot a scene, and then send it out to a company. Then,
you end up spending more time trying to figure out how to fix it than
you do on coming up with cool, creative looks. On ‘Dirt,’ we’re able to
participate in making the decisions for how to shoot it. We’ll even
send someone over to supervise. The one thing about working on this
show that’s been great, is that they let us run with these concepts.
They write them and just say, ‘show us something cool.'”