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Issue 2&

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By Briar Lee Mitchell
Professor, AICLA Santa Monica, California

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reating digital visual effects for episodic television is fast-paced and chaotic, with little room to

maneuver when it comes to deadlines. The crew at EdenFX have proven themselves again and again more than capable of slaying the deadlines' dragon without sacrificing quality of work. EdenFX, founded in 2000 by John Gross and Mark Miller, resides in the heart of Hollywood at Gower Studios and has produced VFX for HeI/boy, Get Smart, The
Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Lost, Pushing Daisies, The Office, and Ghost Whisperer, to name a few. Eden was
The EdenFX team, from left to right, Mall Scharf, Rick Ram/{ez, Ben Campanaro, and Ed Ruiz II.

delivered to Eden as a series of plates with notes from the show's Visual Effects Supervisor, Armen Kevorkian. Rarely are boards provided--perhaps one episode per season where more complex shots are needed--and the work usually arrives without a script, just the plates and shot breakdown. When Eden receives the plates and breakdown in-house, their first pass of solving the CG effects requirements for each scene is used as the animatic to fine-tune the shot. The effects supervisor for Ghost
Whisperer, Armen Kevorkian, explained

Episode 4 18 from Ghost Whisperer, "Leap of Faith," follows the lead character Melinda (possessing the gift of being able to see and communicate with ghosts), as an investigation leads her to being trapped in a flooding industrial plant. Through a turn of events, the spirit of her deceased husband, Jim, has been trapped inside the body of Sam, a man who is able to save her. To illustrate how a specialist In the pipeline assumes the role of CG Generalist, Ben Campanaro was responsible for completing 12 of the 25 effects shots in the episode. This included several of the customary appearance / disappearance shots, ghost "walkthroughs," and a few rig removals and paint-outs, all completed in 7 workdays. In one pivotal scene, SamlJim dives underwater to save Melinda from drowning. As he begins to run out of air himself, the near-death experience resurrects hidden memories of Jim's past, shown in a stylized montage buffered by four close-up shots of Jim's face. This important scene was a pivotal turning point in the series' arc, and marked the return of Jim's character to the Ghost Whisperer.

nominated by the Visual Effects Society in 2009 for their work on Ghost Whisperer. I met with Matt Scharf, Visual Effects Producer, and his team, along with cofounder John Gross, in their offices at EdenFX to learn a bit more about this whirlwind pipeline for producing effects for episodic television. Ouickly I discovered they take more of a divide-and-conquer approach to handling the shots than the usual pipeline workflow.
Ghost Whisperer, the ABC production

starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, requires approximately 30-80 shots per episode and Eden has just ten days to deliver. "What works best for our team on Ghost
Whisperer is to forego the assembly line of

to me that working with this team is more like working with family. Armen supplies the plates and notes and usually meets with the team to go over the shots prior to their 1 O-day run for each show. He has complete faith in the team being able to follow the notes for each shot and relies on them to come up with ideas/solutions as well. Each shot is handed off to the team at Eden: Rick Ramirez (CG Artist ), Ben Campanaro (Compositor), and Ed Ruiz II ( Modeler). Although each artist on the team has a specialty, at the end of the day, they tend to take on the role of CG Generalist and complete an entire shot or series of shots solo.

specialists that might be better on a large feature project and instead keep a small group of artists focused on getting the job done every week," remarks Scharf. The deadline is governed by the production schedules and, according to Matt, if more time is required to finish an episode, " . .. it means staying later. Though we can expand our team when necessary, our core team has developed a shorthand with the client that reduces the time needed for notes and revisions. " Each episode for Ghost Whisperer is

lAYS "Leap of Faith" also involved a series of corridors and rooms shot on location in an industrial plant that became flooded with water. Production recreated some sets in the water tank at Universal Studios for shots in which the rooms were already flooded; however, filming the sequence where the water was bursting through doors and gushing down corridors was not practical within budgetary and time constraints. The final sequence involved 14 shots that required digital water effects. Rick Ramirez's first task was to break down the shots into groups based upon what techniques would be required. Four shots could be completed with 20 comp tricks, four shots could be simple 3D geometry with displacements, and six shots would require more complex 3D particle simulations. The crew from Eden were fortunate enough to get time to go on set the day the plates were shot. Rick took measurements of the corridor, which later allowed him to build a low-resolution proxy version of the set via in-camera modeling with Softimage. This geometry was then used for camera tracking in The Pixel Farm's PFTrack. Rather than traditional feature tracking for camera solves, he object tracked the pipes, doors, and walls of the corridor to matchmove the shots. The Softimage geometry was also used later for fluid simulations as hold-out objects when rendering, and then exported to LightWave through Point Oven. Rendering was another area that benefited from time spent on set. Eden's Christian Bloch took high-resolution 360-degree HDRI panoramas of the set. All of the lighting, reflections, and refractions were derived entirely from these panoramas, enabling them to get great results without much tweaking. Each shot was rendered to separate specular, reflection, refraction, and depth passes, giving Rick a lot of control over the final look of the water in compo Most of the notes that came back on the initial version requested more water with a more violent action. Rick had to find a happy medium generating elements violent enough to satisfy the producers without significantly increasing simulation and render time. Storage space also became an issue as some of the mesh sequences were already pushing 12GB, not to mention disk space required for particle cache files during simulation. Ultimately, it was a very challenging task to deliver realistic water effects for over a dozen shots in ten days. Eden used LightWave 3D, Softimage, Real Flow, Fusion, PFTrack, and Mocha. Producing quality work, show after show, within the ten-day deadline is a double-edged sword. Because these artists continue to deliver, they are expected to deliver, so teamwork is paramount for this crew to maintain the tight schedules. Ghost Whisperer produces 23 episodes per season. Eden is always scouting for new talent to bring on board, and do look at Briar Lee Mitchell is a full-time instructor
at the Art Institute of Los Angeles (www.aila.artinstitutes.edu). located in Santa Monica, where she teaches courses in visual effects and animation. She co-owns the gaming/animation company Star Mountain Studios (www. starmountainstudios.com), creator of the game Apparitions. You can view her animation/matte painting/gaming work at www.paisleyshark.com and medical/ forensic examples at www.medicalart­ briarlee.com.

recent graduates as well as seasoned professionals. Understanding the software and having quality work to show in a portfolio is critical; however, as John told me, whoever comes on board, needs to adapt quickly to working with the team. When I asked John how he can begin to get an idea of the artist's personality based on just a reel being submitted, he explained that one of the things he looks for is how it is put together, the storytelling aspect; the care with which the shots are edited speaks volumes about the person behind the work. The effects shots are demanding with deadlines tight as could be, and that is the way of episodic television. Having talented artists in a team that works well together, as Eden does, makes the shows happen in ten days. More information about EdenFX, including reels of their work, can be found on their website www.edenfx.com.