VFX Guru Ron Martin on Creating the Sci-Fi Webisodic Series

While new Sci-Fi series Sanctuary premiered earlier this month, it wasn’t on any TV network. Rather, the show, which stars several familiar faces from Sci-Fi Channel’s popular series Stargate SG-1 (including Amanda Tapping and Christopher Heyerdahl), made its debut on May 14-as an online-only webisodic series.

The mastermind behind Sanctuary is creator/writer/executive producer Damian Kindler (creator of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis) but also features some out-of-this-world visuals by VFX producer Ron Martin.

The show is produced by Vancouver-based Stage 3 Media and features story lines that combine science, fantasy and a garden variety of, well, monsters. However, it’s the visual effects and technology behind the project that’s the real story here.

Click below for an exlusive look behind the scenes with creator Ron Martin of how Sanctuary is created.

The Web site, where the trailer and webisodes are “airing,” is totally interactive and features a proprietary media player created by Stage 3 solely for Sanctuary. The series itself is shot against green screen and all the elaborate and detailed scenery is created exclusively by Martin and his team using Softimage|XSI. With the online Sci-Fi community all abuzz about Sanctuary-calling it “innovative,” “compelling” and “gothic cool,” here’s what Martin has to say about his experience so far.

What’s the response been like so far from the Sci-Fi community?

RON MARTIN: Both elated and surprised that something of this quality is being offered online. And with that there was a great amount of anticipation [before it premiered]. There are huge amounts of Sci-Fi fans worldwide that cannot access the shows on terrestrial broadcast, and have to wait for a year for distribution to reach them. We offered to all Sci-Fi fans, on May 14th, the Sanctuary experience.

What was your response when you first heard the idea?

I was "in" from the get-go, due to the scope of the opportunity. There are very few chances to be included from the script level of a production straight through to the post. After I read the hour-long Sanctuary script, created by Damian Kindler (the CEO of Stage 3 Media), I sat down with Damian and the very talented and open-minded director, Martin Wood, to analyze the amount of effort it would take to create a Sci-Fi series for Internet delivery. The possibilities proved endless and the thrill of collaborating fueled discussions and optimism. I remember thinking, ‘this could be a reality.’ After consulting other seasoned veterans of film and television, it also proved incredibly viable.

How were you approached for this project? How did you get involved with this?

As informally as you can get. I was invited to a luncheon with some of the principles of Stage 3 Media. The goal was to augment the way that series production is executed by employing techniques of computer graphics in order to save money as opposed to increase the budget. The goal was to put the money in front of the camera and utilize some real-time rendering technology most frequently utilized by the games industry. This, of course, was made possible by proto-typing the processes-doing camera tests and creating the most difficult work through tests upfront. After our HD and 3D production methodology was proven, we started planning for our shoot for January. It's only been four months since we wrapped our 20-day shoot, to launch our first 15-minute webisode on the 14th of May.

Can you describe your role?

I am the visual effects producer of Sanctuary and VP of new media here at Stage 3 Media. I oversee all visual production aspects of the CG as it correlates with on-set technical efforts of the show and CG delivery of assets on the Internet.

What can viewers expect to experience/see?

Viewers can expect a world that’s never existed before in which something has gone terribly wrong, inhabited by monsters and creatures as well as troubled humans. Leading the pack for understanding these beings, Dr Helen Magnus (played by Amanda Tapping), her daughter Ashley and the reluctant Dr Will Zimmerman embark on solving riddles of crypto-zoology. We hope the viewers of Sanctuary will appreciate the engaging character development, drama and exciting action plus the huge CG sets and creatures.

How involved are you with the Web site?

Having a vested personal interest, as well as the gothic/Sci-Fi feel of the show’s mood, I feel very close to all aspects of the production. The look and feel of the Web was heavily influenced by our CG art director Todd Van Hulzen and concept artist Yang Ge.

The Web team utilizes aspects of the 3D sets in the user interface and Web site design. The contributions of each effort of production are utilized throughout the Sanctuary experience from props through to costumes. Elements such as textures in some of the garments are used for textural feel of the background images.

Again, this is all shot in front of green screen-Is there anything at all (besides the actors) that’s “real” in these scenes?

We attempted to do as much as possible on green screen. There were some set-decked walls at our disposal in the studio in which we shot. We used what we could to help save throw-away efforts, meaning there are a couple of sets we'll never come back to. So, it made sense to use some painted flats for an apartment, or the raw studio wall as a cement wall. And even then, set extensions and green screens we used throughout.

There are a few interactive props and set pieces with which the characters interacted. For example, a character climbing out of a bed and pulling off sheets is very tough to do in CG.

You’re using all Softimage|XSI here, right? Can you talk a little bit about why you chose it and how you’re using it?

We've chosen to use Softimage|XSI primarily because of the talent pool in Vancouver. I needed well-rounded individuals following the leadership of a few multi-talented individuals.

Stage 3 Media owes its quality to our goals of a mentoring model. As artists, we build, texture and light our own shots. We needed a tool that would allow us to create light rigs that could be manipulated to match the live-action shots. We needed good rendering tools and the ability to update collaborative efforts using proxies to get models into scenes and not have to write any scripts to do so.

Basically, we needed a tool that was artist friendly. Because of the variety of skills that we required from our artists, and the ability for them to turn our assets into composites, we needed software that had a front-to-back solution integrated into the tool set.

How excited are you to be working on this project?

This is the dream project that, with the fans contribution, will continue to get better every day. If I lived closer to our Gastown office, I'd skip to work.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

I was lucky enough to be involved in a breakthrough project with the founder of Softimage, Daniel Langlois, in 1998-2002. I helped with the creation of a studio for digital media called Media Principia in the Ex-Centris complex in Montreal. Daniel's vision of an all-digital production for digital distribution was realized when he executive produced The Baroness and the Pig, an independent HD feature film shot entirely on location in Hungary. I feel really lucky to have been on the beta roster of hardware and software to have made this technological leap. The movie was transmitted to the Toronto film festival via satellite for digital playback and projected with some of the first HD projection technology.

What is your own technology background?

I studied Fine Art and fell in love with CG from the time I started drawing on the Commodore 64, recreating Judas Priest's Screaming for Vengeance album cover.

I started out with a background in Art Education, working in television production at BCTV in 1989. Over the past 18 years, I've worked in multimedia, VFX for film and TV and most recently, before Sanctuary, gaming.

Any last thoughts/words of wisdom you’d like to add?

I hope that viewers enjoy the series as much as we enjoy working on the show every day. I commend everyone who’s given to this production. They are all talented and respected in my book.

As I'm sure any artist who’s seen their work online, in a forum or a TV or film production can attest, the greatest feeling is hearing others find your work engaging-something to talk about. Go check it out.