Image courtesy of Zoic Studios

Zoic Studios optimizes its pipeline for Superman & Lois with real-time visualization

Craig Laliberte |
July 8, 2021
When tasked with creating the action-packed visual effects sequences for Warner Bros’ new TV series Superman & Lois, Emmy award-winning VFX company Zoic Studios knew they were facing a challenge. The sheer scope and scale of the scenes, combined with the tight timelines typical of episodic television, provided the impetus for the veteran studio to find new ways of working.

 

The series, which is currently airing its first season on The CW in the US and on CTV SciFi Channel in Canada, sees the eponymous heroes facing one of their greatest challenges ever—dealing with being working parents in today’s society. Life is never simple when you’re a superhero, and Clark continues to be called to save the world from catastrophe and battle his nemesis, all while juggling the demands of his family.

The plot line leaves plenty of scope for the high-velocity, larger-than-life action sequences you’d expect from the Superman franchise. Despite having two decades of experience in visual effects for episodics, film, and commercials under its belt, Zoic had its work cut out to realize them at the level of cinematic quality the show’s creators required while still meeting deadlines.

“The sequences were all written on the page, but we had to establish how to bring them to life in motion,” says Andrew Orloff, Executive Creative Director and Co-Founder of the company. “This meant identifying what the shots were, what the key storytelling elements were, what the fully CG elements were as well as what the production team needed to shoot and how to best light and frame those shots.”
To achieve this, Zoic turned to real-time visualization in Unreal Engine, a tool they were using for the first time on this project. For a company that prides itself on having a deep understanding of story, process, and relationships, the benefits were immediately clear.

“The interactive visualization process allowed us to collaborate with the show’s creative team in real time, making time for crucial decisions regarding lighting, camera angles, and more to be made before even stepping on set,” says Orloff.

“Unreal Engine really allows us to explore lighting and layout in previs in an interactive way that was never before possible,” he continues. “It provides us the ability to hold real-time sessions and work directly with creatives to get technically and creatively complicated shots set up. The physical simulation of lighting and lenses is also tremendously helpful when it comes to getting the right plan established prior to shooting that will seamlessly translate into post-production.”
Another huge benefit of being able to use high-quality assets for previsualization is that those same assets can be refined into the ones used for the final frames.

“Traditionally, the animatics created during the pre-production process serve as helpful guidelines that allow the entire creative team to have a better understanding of how the visual effects sequences will be integrated with the overall visual storytelling,” explains Orloff. “With this new interactive visualization process, the entire pipeline is cohesive; the assets can evolve in real time and continue to be iterated upon until they reach final frames.”
Zoic’s traditional VFX pipeline consists of animation and lighting in Maya, rendering in V-Ray, and compositing in Nuke. Now, Unreal Engine is being used for some elements of asset creation, shot design, animation, and final output, and Orloff envisages adding real-time compositing and camera tracking next.

“The fundamentals of our pipeline are the same as traditional VFX, but the process has been significantly streamlined given the real-time aspects of the game engine,” says Orloff. “This stands to not only be a major asset when it comes to tight timelines and budgets, but it also really opens up the possibilities for a more intimate filmmaking relationship.

“It’s a giant step forward for what we are doing creatively at Zoic Studios. As a company that is equally impassioned about storytelling as we are technology, these tools really give us the ability to bring our vision to the table and truly integrate ourselves into the creative process.”

The prospect of using Unreal Engine for final rendered output in the future is something that also excites Orloff immensely. “The ability to turn real-time director sessions into final shots will be such a game changer in the film and television production industry,” he says.
When it comes to creating new efficiencies today, Orloff attributes particular significance to Sequencer, Unreal Engine’s built-in multi-track editor. “It’s really allowed us to streamline and improve our collaboration with filmmakers,” he says. “It has been pivotal to combine all the things the filmmakers need to change, allowing for our team to adjust the edit and layout and then play back and edit in real time.

“Establishing this shorthand of how the creative and technical elements will ultimately meld together really makes the transition to the shoot and post-production much more efficient.”

Orloff also calls out the Landscape system and the Foliage tool as being key in enabling the team to generate large-scale real-time environments, helping them to visualize large establishing shots and larger crowd scenes.
Since working on Superman & Lois, Zoic has used Unreal Engine to help develop Netflix’s upcoming comic-based fantasy series Sweet Tooth, with their virtual art department providing assets in previsualization that gave the series’ creative team the ability to optimize set design, lighting, lensing, and camera ahead of shooting. These pre-rendered assets, combined with on-set virtual production, helped the team craft film-quality visual effects for the series while continuing to deliver on an accelerated television timeline.

The newly optimized pipeline has also been used on See (AppleTV+), Season 2 of the hit series The Boys (Amazon Prime Video), and Season 2 of Stargirl (DC Universe | The CW). “We leveraged our full scope of real-time filmmaking offerings to continue to push visual storytelling to the next level,” says Orloff of Zoic’s work on Stargirl.

When asked what excites him about the future of real-time technology in film and television production, Orloff is unequivocally enthusiastic.

“I think that real-time technology in film and television is going to be wildly transformational for both filmmakers and post-production teams,” he says. “Having the ability to work with creators to light, render, and create CG material in real time is a huge creative leap forward. We are able to work in close step with creatives to iterate drastically quicker in the engine, which tightens the communication loop and allows for more time to be dedicated to pushing the limits of what is possible visually and creatively.” 

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