The Giant Lobster-Heads of Summer

The Toronto-based vfx team behind Syfy’s new hit series, Warehouse 13, discuss the fine art of creating a cornucopia of paranormal artifacts.

Start with a little Indiana Jones action adventure, mix in some X-Files-style otherworldly elements, toss in a little Moonlighting-style comic banter, and you have Syfy Channel’s hot summer concoction, Warehouse 13. Last month, the series debuted as the top-rated cable show of the night with 3.5 million viewers and most came back the second week giving it a big timeslot win in the ratings war two weeks in a row. And the show’s vfx extravaganza had only begun to kick in.

The series centers on a storage facility in South Dakota where the government has snagged, bagged and tagged all the paranormal artifacts ever discovered. The stars are a warehouse guard named ‘Artie’ (Saul Rubinek) and two bickering secret service agents assigned to find more artifacts, Peter (Eddie McClintock) and Myka (Joanne Kelly).

Initially, Rocket Science VFX created the pilot, which aired as the first episode. Toronto-based Keyframe Digital has picked up the work going forward. Co-founders Clint Green and Darren Cranford lead the effort with Green acting as the on-set supervisor and Cranford the visual effects director. In addition to the supervisors, 12 of the other 15 people in the studio work on the series, using 3ds Max, Combustion, FumeFX, boujou, PhotoShop, Illustrator, SynthEyes and a little Maya.

‘This show always has something different going on,’ Green says. ‘People walking through walls, giant lobsters on someone’s back.’

Although the show has only a 10-day turnaround for effects, work on the project began in January. ‘It’s rare that we get in that early, but we were able to really start hashing out ideas on how the effects could be done,’ says Green.

In meetings with executive producers Jack Kenny and David Simkins, Green and Cranford learned that anything goes. ‘They wanted anything from CG creatures to set extensions,’ Cranford says. ‘But the beauty of it was that we were part of the creative process. We could give them previz that showed a number of ways to create the effects.’

Before preproduction began on the project, Keyframe received the CG model that Rocket Science had created for the pilot, and developed methods for fast renders of the huge object. They also created an fx ‘bible’ that contained shots they had created for other shows as well as new effects. ‘We showed them walking through walls without blue-screen, fire effects, water effects, ghostly effects and other cool stuff we came up with,’ Cranford says. ‘The second episode wasn’t a big effects episode, but the one after that has all kinds of goodies. Ghost characters, particle work, time travel.’ And, Claudia.

Claudia (Allison Scagliotti) is the geek’a young techno-wizard who first appears in the third episode. ‘She tries to retrieve her brother from the netherworld,’ Green says. ‘He’s a ghost until he materializes as a human.’

To create the ghost, Cranford created a human head and torso in CG and animated it through virtual room. Then he pinned on its head a large piece of cloth with tendrils hanging off and ran a 3D simulation on the cloth. ‘I rendered it with transparency, morphed it onto an actor shot on green-screen as an element, and used displacement on the background and a smoke layer to help it sit into the plate,’ Cranford says.

For the other ghost characters, Green suspended actors on wires on against a green-screen so they were floating. ‘We had them wear dark pants, so we could have the pants disappear into nothing,’ Cranford says. ‘And, [in post] we used a lot of god rays and particle work.’

According to the vfx execs, about 10 percent of the shots of the first two episodes were green-screen. In later episodes, the number of green-screen shots jumps to 60 percent. ‘The exterior of the warehouse is only a small fa’ade on the lot in Toronto,’ Green says. ‘Any time an actor was outside the set fa’ade, he was in blue-screen. And, in the interior, we used blue-screen for shots outside Artie’s office set.’ Many of the effects, however, relate to the paranormal artifacts.

For example, in a later episode, Claudia finds a gadget in the warehouse that can project digital photographs onto 3D objects hanging in the air. ‘She always has gadgets,’ Green says. ‘And they’re always messing with her. In one shot she climbs a beam while wearing a magnetic jacket. Certain emotions enhance the magnetism of the jacket, objects start sticking to her, and she gets stuck.’

The crew also attached a CG robotic lobster to people for another episode. ‘We enhanced a prosthetic piece,’ Cranford says. ‘We always try to use as many practical elements as we can, especially for fire. The combination is always better than just one or the other.’

As for walking through walls without a blue-screen, they accomplished that with a camera technique. ‘We have the camera 45 degrees from a wall, not more severe, and have someone step sideways into the area, which makes it look like he’s stepping through,’ Cranford says. ‘We move the camera to the wall, lock it, have the character walk on, then unlock the camera.’ Later, they rotoscope the actors and give the contour line an ember glow, which helps provoke the illusion.

The early success of the series has Green and Cranford hoping for a Battlestar Galactic-type run. The two founded the company in 1997 after a games company laid them off. While they were creating an animatic to help them design the animation for a cinematic, special effects director Colin Chilvers, who was working on X-Men, walked in off the street.

Cranford tells the story, ‘He said, ‘Do you know how good this would be for previz for movies? If you can figure out how to do the camera, I’ll introduce you to the visual effects supervisor.” They did, he introduced them to Mike Fink, the visual effects supervisor for X-Men, and Fink hired them. After X-Men, they created previz for a number of other films. Along the way, they landed the visual effects work for the series Mutant X, which ran from 2001 to 2004, as well as other TV shows, including The Dresden Files, which Simkin executive produced in 2007. All that led to Warehouse 13, and Green and Cranford are as happy as, well, anyone with a warehouse filled with magical stuff could be.

‘We’ve got a full staff,’ Cranford says. ‘The series is well written with good storylines coming up. We couldn’t ask for better producers. Everyone’s morale is high. It’s unreal.’

Warehouse 13 airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m on the Syfy Channel.