Old-School Miniature Photography Augments and Inspires CG Solutions for Seth MacFarlane's Spacefaring Series

The Orville presents a marked departure from creator Seth MacFarlane’s usual fare. While never short on his trademark irreverent humor, this starship-based series set in the 25th century is surprisingly earnest in its presentation of a better and brighter future. The series has also not shied away from difficult contemporary subject matters presented in a sci-fi light, demonstrating a willingness to deliver non-pat resolutions to thorny ethical dilemmas, as seen in the episodes “About a Girl,” “Majority Rule” and “Krill.”

The push-me/pull-you aspects to this balancing act has been divisive for devotees of space shows. Some fans find it a comfort-food equivalent to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) — or at the very least, less jarring than CBS’ Star Trek Discovery — while others find MacFarlane’s contemporary colloquial humor out of place in space.

Recruited by MacFarlane to serve as VFX supervisor for the series was Luke McDonald (Alice in WonderlandGangster Squad). McDonald worked with the series creator as digital effects supervisor on 2014’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. “Except for this and Cosmos, I have mostly worked on feature films,” says McDonald. “After Seth approached me, I started finding out what the time crunch really is in television. One show needed eight weeks for the effects, but we wound up only having three. That made for long days and was a big part of the challenge of this first season. The look we tried to achieve was a new twist on old genres that we all like, with Seth as the driving force to get what he wanted visually. It wasn’t specifically original Star Trek or Star Wars — and he definitely doesn’t want it to be Star Trek Discovery, because this has to be a more uplifting type of universe.”

Long Ago, In a Galaxy Before CGI …

Visually, the show reflects MacFarlane’s favorable take on TNG, ranging from the cozy shipboard environs (aided and abetted by TNG director of photography Marvin Rush, ASC) to the beauty shots of the starship’s exterior. That show’s space shots relied upon motion-control miniature photography, a technique pioneered in the 1970s by Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra and subsequently raised to a fine art at Image-G by the early 90s. While that technique has fallen largely into disuse during the last two decades, it was revived for initial shots of the titular starship Orville, with Trek veteran (and three-time Oscar winner) Rob Legato, ASC, spearheading the project, aided by his The Jungle Book colleague Glenn Derry and the latter’s Technoprops, since acquired by Fox and renamed The Fox VFX Lab. (That facility now acts as the studio’s virtual production facility.)

The Orville Ship

The Orville Ship
Michael Becker/FOX

“Working with Rob Legato was nice as we had done a ton of work in the past together, including The Aviator and Shutter Island,” notes McDonald. “And with Jon Favreau directing the pilot and his affinity for old-school effects, the decision to do a model shoot of the Orville was a popular one. So [Technoprops] built a five-foot Orville and did a six-day motion control shoot against blue screen, with separate passes for beauty lighting, fill and matte passes, plus others for exposing the various window and engine lights built into the model.” Moves were previsualized by Halon and exported to stage.

“That process really let us get a good idea of how all those speculars and reflections roll off a physical object and what sort of natural interactive effects happen as it passes between camera and light source,” explains McDonald. “It really helped us lock down the look and feel of the thing, knowing what to emulate for our CG work.

“The human eye and brain are very complex devices. Even if people can’t put a finger on what bothers them about a VFX shot, they will still decide something is off, which is the ‘CG-itis’ of a shot. Using those model shots as reference to get our CG close to that reality was so beneficial in offsetting that feel. The pilot actually used six or seven of these model shots, but now we’re moving away from that, using perhaps only one per episode, because we can replicate the model and lighting so well via digital means, most often handled by CoSA VFX. They have done a great job matching the lighting of the motion-control and thus setting the look of our space environment.”

Scott Grimes, Mark Jackson, J. Lee, Seth MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki in <i>The Orville</i>

L-R: Scott Grimes, Mark Jackson, J. Lee, Seth MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki in The Orville
Michael Becker/FOX

The Color of Space

The show’s deep-space backgrounds have to deliver a level of credibility along with the requisite dramatic spectacle. “Getting a bit of reality into what we do is something I want whenever possible,” McDonald relates. “NASA photography and Hubble imagery often form a basis for some backgrounds. Our supervising producer, Andre Bormanis, was the science consultant for Cosmos and, before that, on various Trek series. When I call him up and ask for some bit of information that will help make things look more real, he understands and is a real godsend.” Also on hand to bolster the ‘street cred’ for scientific accuracy and extrapolation is futurist Taylor Faulkinberry, who interfaces with both the art and VFX departments, providing research on speculative design aspects.

Reconciling reality with what looks good is another balancing act the series manages. McDonald recalls that, while working on The Force Awakens, “JJ Abrams told us to look at reality, but then put our own twist on it to perhaps make things a bit more cinematic. If a starship flew through a real nebula, it would take forever, plus you wouldn’t get any sense of progressing through it visually. So we scale the immensity down to make it work for the drama, perhaps including a gas cloud the ship passes over to provide additional depth. Seth and [executive producer] Brannon Braga looked back at plasma storm VFX and other gaseous visuals on older Treks and asked if we could do something in that vein, with those pinks, purples and pastels.

“In the case of ‘Firestorm,’ we wound up with a color space very much influenced by the Mutara Nebula [created principally via cloud tank work by ILM] in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But we took it to the next level, beyond what could have been done back then with the practical physical limitations of a tank.”

Critters & Vendors

Another aspect hearkening back to pre-digital methodology is the show’s commitment to creating many of its extraterrestrial characters through the use of prosthetics. “We started out knowing there’d be a practical approach with makeup for most aliens,” acknowledges McDonald, “but we have an ongoing exception with our gelatinous crewmember Yaphit [voiced by Norm McDonald], who is handled in CG by Tippett Studio. That was a natural given their work on Seth’s Ted movies. We also had a huge alien spider in ‘Firestorm’ that seems to eat our crew, and that obviously had to be done digitally too.”

VFX presence on set is essential, but also relatively unobtrusive. “For every scene, as soon as the lighting is up, I go to the 1st AD and ask for two minutes,” reports McDonald. “We shoot Digipan, capturing a 360-degree HDRI pan. That works out to be between 65K and 75K in a medium format, with 11 gigs per dome, each containing 16 stops worth of information. So for nearly every set, we have all the lighting references, from which we can extrapolate a point cloud that can be converted to GEOS [Geometry Engine Open Source], giving us a poor man’s lidar scan of the environment. Getting in there with that robotic head to capture the set-up saves us so much effort down the line in post. A lot of these sets are only 12 feet high, so whenever you see a room that goes up 30 feet — like the ship’s hanger, or the walls and roof of engineering — there’s always a set extension. It’s nice to have this data in hand when approaching vendors. I can say, ‘here’s the asset, ready to go in full linear color space.’”

Victor Gasbar and Seth MacFarlane

L-R: Victor Victor Garber and Seth MacFarlane in The Orville

In addition to Tippett’s involvement, the show’s principal vendors include CoSA VFX, Pixomondo, CraftyApes, FuseFX, EightVFX and Zoic Studios. “Most of these vendors are selected to provide specific kinds of shots,” says McDonald.

McDonald informed all vendors that the pipeline would be Maya, with compositing via Nuke. “I didn’t say they couldn’t use proprietary tools — those are how they get the job done on time and for a price,” he allows. “But I was also very up front with everybody, telling them to please make sure their work is sharable. ‘You’re going to benefit from this as well as the other parties, because there will come a time when somebody has created an element that you need.’ Now and again there’s a giant space battle, like in ‘Cupid’s Bow,’ creating too large an amount of work for any boutique, so that’s where the big Orville VFX family comes into play. I make a point of inviting the various supervisors at facilities to meet and discuss, because that exchange will help get us all across the finish line faster.”

McDonald notes that renders differ from vendor to vendor. “With Tippett it is Renderman, CoSA uses BridgeShift, and Pixomondo renders using V-Ray,” he says. “Since we want to always be able to get back to our established look for key assets like the ship, we made three versions, all unbelievably similar, coming out of those three renderers.” McDonald’s unit works with ProRes as their viewable format. “We render all the CG in floating point, then go log to linear,” he states. “On final output, we go linear to log, winding up in LogC for our final archive master at full 2K, 2048×1152.”

He recalls that Cosmos was mastered as 1920×1080 even though VFX were again done at 2048×1152. “That’s a minor upres, but Blu-ray is so unforgiving that even slightly more resolution gives you a better result, and that extra edge can make the difference whether the image is going to shine or fall apart on the Blu-ray release.”

Adrianne Palicki and Charlize Theron

Adrianne Palicki with guest star Charlize Theron in “Pria”
Ray Mickshaw/FOX

Looking back on The Orville‘s maiden voyage, McDonald sees the breadth of the project as being among the most important aspects. “This is just season one in the process of building out a whole new universe,” he declares. “So whenever we found the opportunity to improve on things as we went along, we’d keep versioning up, sometimes creating version 2.0 or 3.0 of a shot that we’d seen earlier on, so we find ourselves trying to keep refining the ship and showing greater detail. Making things continue to look as amazingly cool as possible is just one of the ways we’re trying to keep building on the world Seth’s established.”

Fox recently renewed the series, but those who found 13 episodes to be too short a season should check out The World of The Orville, available from Titan Books.