Updating Oz, the Emerald City and Those Flying Monkeys

As cable channels get more adventurous with original programming, the scope of VFX jobs for TV is expanding dramatically. For the recent six-hour Sci Fi Channel miniseries Tin Man – a loose contemporary adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – Vancouver shop Anthem Visual Effects ramped up production to crank out no fewer than 1500 FX shots for delivery in the HDCAM SR 4:4:4 format. The high-end approach was not in vain – Sci Fi registered 6.3 million viewers for the first night of the broadcast, the biggest audience in the channel's history.
“Last year, we did six shows for a total of about 1300 visual-effects shots,” says Anthem’s Lee Wilson, putting the scale of the Tin Man job in perspective. Wilson is one of the partners (along with Lisa Sepp-Wilson and Sà©bastien Bergeron) in Anthem, which has made a name for itself in programs like Starz Entertainment’s Masters of Horror and Masters of Science Fiction, RHI Entertainment’s Marco Polo, and horror maestro Dario Argento’s latest film, The Third Mother. Working on Tin Man meant creating a broad array of visual effects, from creature and character animation – the bat-winged, monkey-like “mobats,” or the hovering robot, Father View – to fully CG backgrounds and environments representing the inside of Central City and the entrance to the Twister Cafà©.

Working in 4:4:4 color is unusual for a TV project, which would normally finish in 4:2:2, even if it used HDCAM SR. But the mandate on Tin Man was to preserve as much quality as possible throughout the mastering process. Even though it’s still a young company, Wilson says, Anthem was already outfitted with a 4:4:4-capable Sony monitor. “But we had never had a project where anyone, even remotely, brought it up,” he says. “But [director] Nick Willing was very conscious about what the final quality was going to be. It was shot on the Arri-D20 by Tom Burstyn, and it has a really beautiful film look.”

That decision meant a new investment in storage capacity for the Mac-based shop, as well as a souped-up render farm. “We were doing flying creatures with fur, and fur doesn’t scale all that well,” he notes. “Some of the render times got a little crazy. It might choke on the odd frame, and we’d have to go in and massage just a few frames. Sà©bastien Bergeron, who designed our pipeline, kept all that flowing.” [Anthem animates in Maya with RenderMan and composites in Shake; for more on Anthem’s infrastructure, see F&V‘s Masters of Horror coverage from last year.]

But working in 4:4:4 makes shot review a more rewarding process. As the VFX shots were built, Anthem’s Final Cut editors used cloned masters of all the show’s dailies to maintain a version of the cut that mirrored the work of Allan Lee’s editorial team in post-production. When the director and producers arrived to look at shots, Wilson’s crew would pull the EDL and show them the latest shots with sound, in the context of the edit, and in 4:4:4. “It’s a lot easier sell, and it’s a lot more enjoyable to watch,” Wilson explains. “If they decide to use the final master for that show to create an HD DVD or Blu-ray version, it will be great. You’ll get to see what it really looks like.”

Lee Wilson on Making The Mobats
To me, the scariest thing in the original story wasn’t the witch. It was the flying monkeys. The one thing I consciously tried for – and, thankfully, [director] Nick Willing agreed – was that the monkeys don’t wear little coats and fezzes. In the original they have these little jackets and hats, and I just couldn’t picture them getting ready to go to work in the morning and dressing up in these little coats. So we decided our ‘mobats’ would basically be naked.

We started on them really early, because we knew we would need a long time to get them right. Zora is Azkadellia’s right-hand mobat, and the idea was to give her a look that suggested she fought her way to that place within the rest of the group. She’s got scarring down one side of her face and a cataract eye. She’s been through the wringer a bit.

I wanted specifically a sort of chimpanzee-like body. I wanted something that had fur, but you could see scalp and skin through it. If you look at a chimp’s body, you can see their chests and their bellies and along their arms, you’re looking at skin with hair growing over it, but it’s not solid fur all the way. They’re flying around, they’re hanging in trees, but they’re not pets. They’re working monkeys. I just thought that would make them a little more human.

For the wings, I always wanted sort of membrane and bat-like with veins. I asked for vampire-like bat ears to a certain extent. I wanted to be able to see light shine through them when they’re standing in front of a light source. I asked for bad teeth. They should be a little mangy. They shouldn’t be pretty. They should be scary.

The first scene we did was the one on Askadellia’s balcony, where she gives Zora the fig. I thought it was a nice touch to have her put it in Zora’s mouth – wow, we’ve already seen her suck the soul out of somebody, and now she’s going in for what looks like a kiss with the mobat. We knew what the mobats were going to look like, and I wanted to finish off at least one mobat shot while the actors were still working with them. So we did have a balcony close-up of Zora to give them a good idea of what these guys looked like. The rest of it is acting skill and directing skill.

– Lee Wilson