Entity FX on Making a CG vs Live-Action Fight Sequence Look Real

With each season of Smallville, the visual effects get more elaborate while the production schedule remains fixed. Entity FX, which recently celebrated the completion of its 100th episode, keeps pushing the limits as seen in their work creating CG phantoms that attack Superman in the Phantom Zone.
Not often do episodic television shows have large sequences involving CG characters, let alone ones that interact with live actors like in the two-minute fight sequences in which five CG phantoms attack Superman in the Phantom Zone.

The production came to Entity with the idea of the Phantom Zone being a desolate desert environment with virtually no life on it. The phantoms are Kryptonians that got trapped in the Phantom Zone for so long that they lost their human figure and turned more into a spirit and a phantom.

“We expanded [that concept] from there to be a creature that has eroded flesh, exposed bones, all in the meantime being covered by cloth that they had originally worn so it is all tattered, ” explains Trent Smith, Enitity's senior producer for Smallville. “That presented quite a bit of a challenge to be able to complete a character for a television show in that time frame. There was a lot of character animation, cloth simulation as well as the texturing of their eroded flesh.”

Texturing and modeling of the skeleton structure was done in zBrush, cloth simulation in Syflex and all that put together in Maya for final renders.

“We wanted to stay away from the typical transparent ghost phantom look and wanted it to be a hard and well structured creature” says Smith. “It also needed to fit in with that environment which had an odd color correction to it to give it sort of a glowing, stylized look reminiscent of what we’d seen previously in the show of Krypton, where everything glows a little and there are very stark color differences. Combining that with our phantom was a challenge to make the character look like it was in that environment. We created extra wind with that character that didn’t quite match the environment. Since it was a spirit it had its own sense of wind and turbulent air around him.”

With the CG characters designed, Entity then had to go through the painstaking task of creating the fight sequence where five phantoms attach Superman. On set, the actor that plays Superman simply pretended he was getting attacked. Entity then spent a large amount of time tracking the shots and doing a matchmove with a CG Superman.

“This gave us a better sense of 3D space to figure out where Clark really is and then we matched up animation of those phantoms hitting home at the appropriate times and in 3D space,” says Smith.

But the fight sequence went beyond simply having a CG character throw a punch and the live actor reacting by falling down.

“There’s one wonderful shot there the phantom wraps around Clark and starts pulling on his face as he pulls him out of frame,” explains Smith. “We looked at that shot and tried to figure out what would be the best and most interesting way to show the pull on his face. The actor’s performance is wonderful and we wanted to elevate it a little more. So we researched monkeys jumping around and we used that as our base of what that would look like: monkeys jumping on the shoulder and curling up and around and pulling on the face, having a finger in the mouth and yanking on the mouth really hard. So we referenced real footage of animals attacking and elaborated that with our phantom.”

Other tricks Entity used in order to get the fight sequence to look real involved cutting out frames, speeding up the live action footage and ensuring the shadows of the phantoms fell correctly.

In the original script for the episode Superman escapes the Phantom Zone and that is the end of those characters. But once production saw the CG phantoms it was decided to expand that storyline out so they changed the script to have on phantom escape the Zone and become a recurring character through the season.

“That’s definitely been a challenge now that they expanded it,” says Smith. “We had to figure out how to do the effect more often and in a quicker turnaround process for the other episodes. With episodes like the one with the Phantoms and the Justice episode that had 70 effects shots, that’s a lot to produce for a one hour television show so we constantly have to find ways to do more and more challenging effects and you have to do it all in a shorter time frame.”