Kevin Blank and Brannon Braga Talk VFX for Terra Nova

When executive producer Brannon Braga was hired for Fox's new series Terra Nova, he was the second person brought onboard. The third, before any other writing or producing staff or cast, was visual-effects supervisor Kevin Blank. "That shows you how important we knew he would be to the success of this series," says Braga. "Because if we couldn't pull off this world, there would be no show."

Watch a scene from Terra Nova:

Terra Nova  actually comprises two worlds. In an overcrowded, filthy Chicago of 2149 ' where humans require rebreather devices just to stay alive ' an accidental discovery of access to a wormhole to the past allows settlement of the Cretaceous period, to give man a second chance. That's the 85-million-years-ago Cretaceous period, when deadly dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. "They're two very different worlds, and they're completely separate," Blank says.

The issue was not so much whether these worlds could be created on a television budget, but whether they could be created on a television schedule. "The issue here wasn't the money," Braga explains. "It comes down to time ' that's the bigger issue."

There was plenty of time to develop the effects for the two-hour pilot. "But we didn't want to see a dramatic downturn in the amount of visual effects the audience would see week to week," Braga says. "So Kevin discovered that he wasn't going to be able to do things in any way that had been done before."

No problem for the Emmy-winning visual effects supervisor of series/films such as Fringe (pilot), Alias, Cloverfield and Lost. Deconstructing existing pipelines and giving them a redux is one of his favorite hobbies. "'This is how this is done here, and this is how long and how much it takes to do that.' Okay, how do I find efficiencies to make it go faster and cost less?' That's kind of my specialty," he says.

The Difference Between TV and Features

With experience in both the television and feature worlds, Blank began looking at what worked and didn't work in both production pipelines, to see what could be applied to the Terra Nova universe. Quoting John Parenteau at Pixomondo, the visual effects vendor chosen to produce the show's animation and effects, he notes, "In feature films, it takes three people to do one shot. And in television, one person does three shots."

He explains. "In feature film, the visual effects disciplines get compartmentalized. One team does rotoscoping, one team does tracking, another does modeling, another animation. It's just an assembly line. And moving those things in and out of those departments is something that can take time."

In visual effects for television, Blank says, it's much more common for effects shots to be created by individuals referred to as "generalists," who have skills in all of those areas. "Rather than having experts in 10 fields working on one shot over four to six months, you might have one person taking it all the way through, over a course of two to three weeks. So essentially, what we did was try to build a new pipeline that combined a little bit of each ' to figure out what the areas were that would require the feature pipeline, and what could be done with the television pipeline."

To assist him in the process, Blank hired former Pixar artist and ILM animation supervisor Colin Brady as the show's animation supervisor. "The challenge here was to try to create the same level of quality of effects as a $100 million feature film, but for TV, on a TV budget," Brady explains. Working with the bigger studios, and seeing the bigger pipeline, Brady had had a chance to learn a lot of efficiencies. "Here, we were essentially given the freedom to create the most efficient pipeline imaginable. That's what drew me to this. We didn't have the baggage of a large infrastructure that's resistant to change. So we took the best of all the processes from big companies and reduced it to the leanest team, while still retaining the same quality."

Two tools not normally seen in TV effects ' concept art and storyboards ' have helped Blank and his team in planning. "Normally, television can't afford something like this. But it helps us by giving us a point on a map to point to," preventing choices which might not be recoverable. "In feature films, you can go down a path and go, 'Mmm-hmm, maybe not that direction,' and you back up and go another direction. Television just can't afford to do that. It's gotta be real clear where we're going, because if we go the wrong direction, we'll run out of money."

In initial planning, Braga and Blank mapped out the effects needs for each episode. "We looked at what was the budget per episode, and how much did we think we could pull off?" Braga says. "Are we going to do a dinosaur every week? Will there be two dinosaurs a week?" [There is typically one new dino per episode, plus or minus.] And dinosaurs aren't the only part of the Terra Nova effects universe. "This wasn't Jurassic Park. This was a whole ecosystem. If you go to the Amazon, you don't just see lizards."

On the character side, character designer Dan Katcher models and sculpts the show's dinosaurs and other assorted creatures using Pixologic ZBrush. "We're modeling as part of the design process, rather than taking a lot of time doing orthographic drawings," Brady describes. "So we're starting very efficiently from the design process, using pretty much off-the-shelf software."

In keeping with the "generalist" paradigm, Pixomondo's animators also do their own simulation. "Overlap of the tail and feathers, jiggling skin and muscle are all under the animator's control. So not only is it better artistically, it's way more efficient rather than sending it to a different department." In fact, all of the dozen or so animators, plus the 40 other visual-effects artists, essentially work together in one room at Pixomondo's Burbank facility, enabling swift solutions to problems. "Sometimes things break or the puzzle pieces don't fit together properly," Blank says, "and if you have to move between six or seven departments, it's kind of like trying to steer a giant cruise ship to make a turn and change direction. The larger you are, the harder it is for something to turn around. We don't have that."

Guys in Suits? Sure, Why Not?

As part of his study for a speedier way to produce dinosaur animation on a weekly basis, Blank tried something else not typically seen in TV effects animation. "Kevin said, 'What if we try motion-capture?'" Braga recalls. "We put guys and gals in crude-looking dinosaur suits and capture them, and, all of a sudden, you've got your basic gray-scale animation, done immediately."

Though the majority of the dinosaurs' moves are done using keyframe techniques, a percentage of some of the creatures' animation begins with motion capture for one reason: weight. "One of the biggest things about animation is getting weight correct," Blank explains. "When you keyframe animation, that's the hardest thing to do properly. And that's the one thing that's great about motion capture. A foot touches the ground and it's real. You maybe just use that portion of it, and then we keyframe everything else."

The dinosaurs of Terra Nova have one major test to pass in every episode: the approval of paleontology consultant Jack Horner. Horner, in the past, worked with Steven Spielberg to make sure his dinos for Jurassic Park were period-correct. The same goes for Terra Nova, for which Spielberg is an executive producer. "We don't want to get letters from six-year-olds calling 'Fake!' And Jack does get those letters," Blank laughs.

Artistic License

"Generally speaking, we want two types of dinosaurs ' ones found in the fossil record and ones that we invent," explains Braga. The Cretaceous Period in which the show takes place is fortunately ' and purposely ' the period with the least amount of fossil records. Horner, then, is able to direct the animation team regarding proper anatomy and movement for known creatures, such as the Carnotaur and Brachiosaurus found in the first hour of the show's pilot. "But when we needed a big climactic dinosaur for the second hour of the pilot," Braga says, "we created one."

Thus was born the horrifying Slasher — or Acceraptor, a name Braga invented ("That means 'to slash' in Latin"). "I could turn to Jack and ask, ‘But could this animal have existed?'" Interestingly, newly-created Cretaceous creatures afford Braga and his writing team an opportunity to invent not only the animal itself, but also its behavior, which the animators then bring to life. "We realized that just throwing a dinosaur on the screen, especially if it's one you're making up, isn't enough," he says. "They have to have specific behaviors."

It was decided, for example, that the Slashers would travel in packs. "Maybe one scouts the area, and, when it finds its prey, it calls for others." The writers may make some of the animals male and some female. "What's the difference between them? And what are their size and color differences, and behavioral differences. It's fun to get into that stuff."

Other dino behavior can come all the way from the top. Spielberg himself physically acted out the cow-like movements of the gentle giant Brachiosaurus, to demonstrate its behavior, Brady says. Some moves might originate from suggestions from Blank or Brady, while others, as in all good animation, come from the animators themselves. "Our character animators, as creature animators, very often will get out of their chairs and will act out the shots," a practice which goes back to the earliest days of Disney animation, Brady notes.

Brady is not averse to getting his hand in the animation pot each episode someplace. In the first hour of the pilot, for instance, a Carnotaur, having been thwarted from feeding on a human by a blast from an air cannon, turns its head over its shoulder and snaps a growl of disgust before leaving. "It was just to add a touch of character," explains Brady. "These dinosaurs aren't monsters. They're likable bad guys. It's important that each species has its own distinct style of movement and personality."

He admits, "I animated that scene. Even though I'm now supervising, in my heart, one of my greatest joys is animating. On every single show I've ever been part of, I always like to dive in and do what I call 'janitorial work.' I really do enjoy just playing with dinosaurs, just like I was a 14-year-old kid."

Terra Nova debuts Monday, September 26 on FOX.