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August 2014
Issue: October 1, 2007

'BATTLESTAR GALACTICA': INSIGHT INTO ATMOSPHERE'S AWARD-WINNING FX

VANCOUVER - Founded in 2003 by Andrew Karr, Jeremy Hoey, and Tom Archer, Atmosphere has quickly grown into an effects studio with more than 20 employees. The facility was recently honored with VES (Visual Effects Society) and Emmy awards for its work on Battlestar Galactica. Here, Atmosphere's Brenda Campbell talks about the series, the award-winning Exodus episode, and the challenges of creating effects for television. 

Post: Tell us about Atmosphere's work on Battlestar Galactica.

Brenda Campbell: "Battlestar Galactica is run through the Sci-Fi Channel and NBC Universal. Our direct clients are Gary Hutzel (VFX supervisor) and Michael Gibson (VFX producer) from whom we are awarded individual shots and episodes." 

Post: What is your role on the show?

Campbell: "At the time of episode 303 Exodus my role was lead compositor. I've since been promoted to comp supervisor with Atmosphere." 

Post: What does a typical show entail?

Campbell: "This is our third season working on Battlestar. I honestly can't give you a total count for how many shows we've worked on... it's been a lot. In our peak time, we can be delivering upwards to 20-plus shots in just one week. This all, of course, depends on the episode and how many shots we have been awarded." 

Post: What is your pipeline?

Campbell: "Our pipeline for Battlestar starts off with previz - depending on the show. Sometimes we do previz and sometimes the in-house team will provide it for us. The next step is for CG to start breaking down the shots and for comp to start any prep work. The CG is done in LightWave and Maya. All comp work is done in Fusion. Once comp starts receiving layers from CG, we slap them together. From there we get into a lot of back and forth between comp and CG as to 'Ok, this element is working... this one's not,' etc.  For our big space shots we breakdown the CG into multiple passes for each ship so we have full control in the composite. This is where Fusion is very powerful; it gives us the ability to handle huge comps with hundreds upon hundreds of layers. Our final stage is adding all the great little finishing touches in comp - shakes, flares and a very fat heavy grain to give it the gritty look the show has." 

Post: Atmosphere is one of several effects houses working on Battlestar Galactica. How tightly do you collaborate with the other studios?

Campbell: "With multiple shops working on Battlestar Galactica we do need to collaborate for continuity and time management. Depending on the episode we share models, elements and previz. For example, sometimes we create the models and share them with the in-house team and sometimes they provide us with ones they've created. This happens much more on the 3D end of things rather than in comp. With the comp side we share elements that have been shot specifically for the show. The biggest challenge with sharing the elements (models, etc) would be to ensure that we are all using the same version of the software. Another plus for having multiple houses working on the show is that if one gets overloaded the other can usually jump in to help out with a shot or two." 

Post: Are there any specific challenges?

Campbell: "With Battlestar Galactica, we always have a very tight deadline. It's just how the show is.  So keeping that in mind we know we're always fighting against the clock. Whenever we can do a master setup for the look of a ship, a particular effect, we will do to get us 90 percent of the way there in a fraction of the time. Some minor tweaking and finessing is always needed, but having these setups to throw into a slap comp gets you a lot further along right off the top. This also helps with continuity among various artists to keep the same look throughout the whole show." 

Post: Tell us about the Exodus episode.

Campbell: "This episode was a large undertaking and we needed the whole Atmosphere team to pull together to get it done on time. It was a huge effort on everyone's part, and communication between all departments was key - without that we wouldn't have met our deadline. As for the compositing side of things, we were able to create a master setup for the look of an element - be it the sky, ships, cylons, etc. -  and  with Fusion we were able to combine any number of elements and setups into one flow quickly and easily." 

Post: What are you using for compositing?

Campbell: "We chose Fusion as our compositing package for not only this show but for our entire shop because of its versatility. There are a million and one ways to do anything in Fusion; some, admittedly are better than others, but the huge benefit in this is that if something isn't working there's always a work around. A few of the other  reasons we've chosen Fusion include: capabilities of working in any resolution and mixing resolutions; working in multiple depths as well as multiple formats; the Grid Warper; the render nodes; the Particle System; and now the built in 3D system, among many other features. All of the above features were very important for us to get the show done." 

Post: What has been the most rewarding shot in the series for you to date?

Campbell: "By far the most rewarding shots for me have been the Pegasus destruction sequence at the end of episode 303.  It was just sweet explosion eye candy and so much fun to work on. It was a lot of layers and I was worried that it would be painful to work in but Fusion held up great.  Unfortunately, because all the elements were so intertwined, I wasn't able to precomp a whole lot, so I ended up with 250-300 elements in each flow. Times that by 10 shots and a week and a half to do it all in.  When I look back at those shots and think about everything that went with them, I'm very proud of how they turned out." 

Post: Can you point to any time-saving features?

Campbell: "Fusion's roto capabilities are extremely vital to us at Atmosphere. The fact that we can track our object we need to roto and then apply that path to our poly is huge, it takes a lot of the drift out of the roto and allows us to set key frames at extreme  movement frames. This saves us from having to frame-by-frame roto in the subtle movements of the element." 

Post: How do film and television effects differ, if at all?

Campbell: "In my experience, the major differences between creating effects for film vs. television is definitely the timeframe and budget. Now with most episodic shows going to HD and a lot of features shooting in HD, there really isn't a huge difference in regards to resolution, etc.  If you think about how much time you have for a feature - say roughly a year for 200 or so shots and for an episodic show you have a month and a half to do 50 shots with a fraction of the budget - maybe, if you're lucky. We aim to create feature quality effects on the budget and timeline of an episodic. It's not always easy but that's the standard we've set for ourselves." 

Post: What qualities or elements of the Exodus episode do you think made it such a success, leading to the nominations and eventual awards?

Campbell: "Exodus was a huge episode involving a massive space battle which had tones of pyro eye candy, shipyard set extensions, cylons firing upon civilians, ships jumping out of the sky and everything in between. I think the sheer volume, variety and quality of the shots that were done for this episode are a large part of why it's been a huge success." 

Post: What can we expect from you in the future?

Campbell: "Hopefully great things! For myself and for the team at Atmosphere we are always trying to learn new techniques, advance our skills and keep up with the latest features and products.  This helps us bring our A game to each and every upcoming show."