Digital Matte Painting by Lance Powell

August 28, 2006 12:45 am

Digital Matte Painting by Lance Powell

Article by Kathie Berry - Guest Columnist

Don’t let the title mislead you. This awesome motion picture from Universal Studios is anything but serene. In 2002, Joss Whedon along with Loni Peristere from Zoic Studios collaborated to create an exciting action thrilled adventure that allowed the loyal fans of the television series “Firefly” to follow further adventures of the crew of “Serenity”.  The series “Firefly” had a loyal fan base that was ready and willing to move on to further excitement on the big screen. The television series had already garnered the Visual Effects Society’s award for best visual effects in a television series in 2002 as well as an Emmy in 2003 for best visual effects in a TV Series.  Following this success, Universal Pictures and Joss Whedon went into production on the big-screen project, “Serenity”. You will recognize Joss Whedon from his successful hits "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel".    

Image Courtesy Zoic Studios/© 2005 Universal Studios

Transferring the feature to the big screen was facilitated by bringing a core group of artists from Zoic Studios to collaborate with Universal Studios. Joss Whedon and this group jumpstarted the planning and discussed the many special visual effects as well as matte paintings that were to be incorporated into the new film.  

Lance Powell was the texture supervisor working on “Serenity”at Zoic Studios. Lance attended Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles and Santa Monica College, studying film. His work at Activision and Novalogic in 1992 included titles such as “Comanche”, “Armored Fist” and “Comanche II” as well as “MechWarrior II” and “Mahjong II”.  In 1995 he formed a company named Dreamwaves, Inc. with his sister doing bumpers and flying logos and began his first commissioned work. During the next few years Lance’s work for studios included “The Flintstones”, “GexII”, “Battlestar Galatica”, “CSI”, and “Threshold” as well as working with Stephen J. Cannell to create an interactive television network which evolved into iN DEMAND™  and TiVo™ that we see today.  

In the meantime, Lance had formed a unique website, “The ScratchPost” with co-founder Vivian Palacios. The ScratchPost began as a means to help artists working in film keep a finger on the pulse of the job market and find new opportunities. It is still a wonderful resource today. Lance then joined Zoic Studios in 2004 as a texture artist and moved up to the title of Texture Supervisor.  He first met with the directors and owners of Zoic and discussed what tools, experience and artistic talents he could bring to the project.  

Lance has been on the Advisory Board with Gnomon School of Visual Effects since 1997, and has been an active member with the Los Angeles Chapter of ACM SIGGRAPH as well as a career speaker with the 3D Design and Animation Conference. Lance also teaches Maya Intro and Texture II through the Gnomon School of Visual Effects. His classes are taught in the lab where he takes a very hands-on approach with the students going through production uses with the tools beyond their educational application. His film work includes “Anaconda”, “Contact”,  “Starship Troopers” and “The Postman”, “Snow Falling on Cedars”,  “The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers”, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”, “Shrek 2”, “Constantine” and “Serenity”.   

Image Courtesy Zoic Studios/© 2005 Universal Studios
The Quest 

The digital technology and filming techniques used in today’s movies opens the door for exciting new methods of production. This allows filmmakers and artists to perform digital editing of scenes producing awesome effects in a much quicker timeframe.  Lance stated, “I knew there were things that I could bring to the project that would get the pipeline moving up to speed. I knew that I was efficient and could work quickly if given the latitude to do so.” That latitude would also involve changing the pipeline from 2D paint to 3D paint by incorporating MAXON™’s BodyPaint 3D™. The bottleneck seemed to be with 2D painting alone. This made a huge difference in the workflow and the time involved.

The majority of Lance’s work involved creating exteriors and shading, along with making everything look very good within the two week time frame they had.  Lance’s personal approach of working efficiently and quickly while maintaining the overall excellence that the film required made a huge difference. He was able to streamline the pipeline allowing for a quicker completion of aspects needed. A team of 100 artists had been working on the project including 370 shots for two months before Lance joined the team.  

Image Courtesy Zoic Studios/© 2005 Universal Studios
The Battle Begins 

At the time he arrived the projected deadline was approximately six months. Toward the end of the project they found that a four to six week deadline was an unacceptable timeframe to get the final scenes to those involved in lighting the shots. The team redoubled their efforts and compressed that time down to approximately a week and a half to two weeks.  

Image Courtesy Zoic Studios/© 2005 Universal Studios
Matte Painting for Serenity 

Randy Goux was a VFX Supervisor and his primary role was 2d elements. Loni Peristere was another VFX Supervisor and handled mainly the 3D shots. Loni allowed Lance the latitude to make small changes on his own which facilitated a higher speed toward completion.  

The combination of live shots, photography, 3D modeling and digital matte painting became a wonderful marriage of genre that produced a unique and outstanding visual production. An image would be blocked in quickly, so Loni and others would make some changes and then Lance was able, with the help of BodyPaint 3D, to add the detail in quickly and beautifully. BodyPaint 3D’s 3D painting functions allowed for the completion of scenes considerably faster than when they were merely created in 2D paint.  

Lance explained, “BodyPaint 3D has become a staple in any production pipeline that I have influence over.  I've set it up as a primary texture tool here at Naughty Dog, at Zoic Studios, and at Omation because I feel its broad range of Photoshop like features allow me to block in textures in one environment, with the bonus that it allows me to move quickly from model to paint to shading.  Also, because of the bridge between BodyPaint 3D and my 3D software such as Maya and Lightwave, it provides for more LookDev time since I'm not bogged down flipping between 2D paint, saving out files, and going into my 3D package. I love it.  I like to paint fast, block in the look, and checking out the shaded results.  The process that BodyPaint 3D provides is exactly what I need to move and get results.” 

The work that Lance performed on the matte painting incorporated no 3D models, everything was digitally painted. Some photo reference images were incorporated occasionally to speed up production, but the majority of the work was painted digitally and it worked very well. The primary software used was BodyPaint 3D Release 2.0, Photoshop 7.0 and Photoshop CS 2, Deep Paint 3D, Maya, and Lightwave, with Zbrush entering the picture toward the end. Like most matte painters, Lance finds the biggest challenge is time constraints.  

Image Courtesy Zoic Studios/© 2005 Universal Studios
Flying Out 

Lance added, “We never seem to have the time to do the things that we want to do. A lot of the stuff is blocked in and then tightened up, unless we’re working on a production like “Lord of the Rings” where we’ve got 8 months to knock out 5 matte paintings. We typically don’t have that. As a general rule, we have 3 or 4 days, and it can be a challenge to accomplish the work with photo references.  The next step is to begin piecing everything together. Time is definitely the biggest challenge!” 

BodyPaint 3D was a huge aid in the completion of the work. Lance remembers, "We wanted to have a sense of layered depth in our planet and give the illusion of extreme distance between the action and the planet.  Our camera work for Serenity was a very specific handheld style, and at times had extreme zoom-in's on elements to emphasize the action.  I used the cameras from a Maya scene in BodyPaint 3D, and would place my matte card geometry according to the action.  From there, I would block in the details from what the camera would see.  Then I could port things back and forth from BodyPaint 3D to Photoshop to tighten my painting. I thought “Serenity” turned out exceptionally well. “Serenity” was unlike other projects that I had worked on outside of games or anything. It involved approximately 100 people and the timing was close to a year for completion. There were a few pushes however, especially related to the last 2 weeks where we had around 50 shots to kick out. I take my hat off to Zoic Studios and their artists for this remarkable team effort.”   

Lance has definite ideas about a cohesive production plan. He likes to be involved in the production from the beginning with things being compartmentalized and aspects running somewhat like a factory assembly line.  

He feels, “The aspects of the artwork and film have to be put into specialist’s hands, people that know what they are doing and who concentrate on one aspect of the production pipeline. Zoic Studios had to make the transition from television to film and they did it very well.”  

Image Courtesy Zoic Studios/© 2005 Universal Studios
Foul Weather Background 

A merging of two teams, the television team and the movie team had to take place and thanks to the great artists involved and the leadership of the Directors, it did. The great crew from the television series, having worked with the Directors for a few years, were able to take the ball and run with it and accomplish the lighting, animation and some modeling that was required for the shots. They already knew what the Director wanted and were able to move forward quickly to facilitate the texture artists’ work in blending into the pipeline.  

The end result is a fantastic adventure that truly lives up to Joss Whedon’s outstanding talents as well as showcasing the wonderful artistic work of Lance Powell and other team members. The movie and storyline are cutting edge for Sci-fi, full of jaw-dropping special effects and scenes. 

To learn more about the movie “Serenity” and Zoic Studios just follow the links connected to the names. Visit Universal Pictures  and of course read about the man behind the series and the movie, Joss Whedon himself. Many sites have sprung up started by the “Browncoats” (loyal fans of the series who are called the Browncoats after the garment worn by "Serenity" captain Malcolm Reynolds and the other Independents) who are devoted “Firefly” and “Serenity” fans. 

Having finished “Serenity” Lance is now working with a partner to create a short film called "Teddy Bare" which is a story about a little girl who over time destroys her teddy bear to get her father’s attention.  So far, it has been a great challenge working without the tools for cloth, lighting and texturing that we will see in the near future. Lance is also about to launch a new clothing line which you will be able to find here at Adam Smith Clothing and he is ready to begin work on Playstation® 3, Next Generation and is looking forward to this venture. He says, “I’m excited about that since it’s a whole new ballgame…getting games closer to film. And the work that we’re doing right now is phenomenal.” 

I look forward to seeing more of Lance’s beautiful matte painting work as well as his production and gaming expertise. Of course, we all look forward to more adventures involving the “Serenity” and her crew.

Story by Kathie Berry
All supporting images are courtesy of Zoic Studios/© 2005 Universal Studios, and cannot be
copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission.

August 28, 2006

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Article Comments

Ilian ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 29 August 2006


IO4 ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 29 August 2006

Great article. I'm love Firefly so can't wait to see the film. It's really interesting to get some idea of what goes on to produce such great effects.

Mechanismo ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 30 August 2006

brilliant series and a brilliant film!!! definatly worth owning!!!! :D

Eugenius ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 31 August 2006

Exceptional well produced series & film! I can't believe the show was cancelled. Usually, the wrong audience/wrong TV channel :-(

SndCastie ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 31 August 2006

I love this film I own it and watched all the series. Excellent special affects

slinger ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 31 August 2006

Great looking movie, excellent article.

Damsel ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 31 August 2006

Thank you all, it was really a joy to do. I love the series also and I believe that they are seeing if the interest is out there to resurrect it. The movie is awesome as well and the graphic work done on it by Lance and others is outstanding! I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

nemirc ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 01 September 2006

I haven't been able to watch the film yet but it's been on my "to watch" list. Thanks for taking the time to write this :)

majister ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 02 September 2006

i own the the moive and firefly shows this show should be restarted on sifi just like dr who good shows never die

SevenWraith ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 05 September 2006

What an excellent article. Well written and informative. A few more links to some of the tools used might have been nice, but in no way detract from the presentation.

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