The Good Ship Phaeton talks to Gary Hutzel

Gary Hutzel, who’s worked as Visual FX supervisor on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica and Virtuality, recently talked to us about his work on the show.

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Jimmy Bing: First off, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk. I’m a Star Trek fan from way back, so it’s good to talk to somebody who was so involved with that.

Gary Hutzel: Somebody who was there back in the day.

JB: Yes.

GH: I got started on that back during The Next Generation. Right after the pilot, I was hired onto that.

JB: So one might say that you’re experienced?

GH: I have officially been around the block, I think.

JB: For those who might be getting the job of a VFX supervisor mixed up with someone who works in the art department, how involved are you with the design of ships and sets that are going to be computer animated?

GH: Well, in the case of Virtuality – it’s different for different shows. For instance, since you brought up Star Trek, in working on Star Trek, the art department developed all of the design work for the different ships. It was exclusively Herman Zimmerman’s territory and the artists’ and the art department’s. That was quite a bit different when I came over to Battlestar. Basically, Richard Hudolin, the show designer, basically said, “You do the spaceships, because I’m busy.”

JB: Nice!

GH: He was very nice about it and we’re still working together, moving ahead on Caprica. He’s just a great guy to work for. So as far as being connected with the art department, I feel very fortunate to be working with someone like Richard, who’s not only a great designer but also is actually happy to have me do the spaceships. Now, on Virtuality of course it’s a different designer. On Virtuality the ship design, except for the interiors, was really left completely in my court. We had the ship design and then, obviously, the virtual backdrop designs as well, which was interesting in itself.

So, the basic design of the Phaeton was based originally on a couple of NASA white papers about doing interstellar travel and the way it would be accomplished. I believe the documents were dated 1983, something like that. When I read those, and about the history of nuclear propulsion, it began to form in my head what the spaceship might look like. I then had Richard Livingston, who is an artist who actually works out of Florida, who I’ve worked with quite a bit in spaceship design, work with me on developing that. Once he started directing those ideas, at that point the set was beginning to be put together and we were able to integrate the set design with the ship itself and viola, we had the Phaeton. Part of the Phaeton is based on the basic science, and part of it was based on, you know, dramatic purpose as well. What would play best as far as playing up the go/no-go scenario which was the fundamental element of the show and what the mechanics would be. So we took some license with the mechanics of the part of the ship that takes the impact from the nuclear explosion. We made that a little more fussy than it probably would be in real life, to help us with the storytelling.

That’s kind of how that was all formed. The concept of the ship being driven by nuclear explosions, of course is a sound science fact, to reach certain speeds. But the element of the…one of the things that was added last minute was the sequence where the nukes are loaded and fired. That was originally taken out of the script to save money and when we got to post [production], it became apparent that we really needed an action set piece. So we completed a complete CG environment to demonstrate how the missiles are loaded and fired from the ship. Then we had the virtual environments, which were great fun because there was very little art direction. As far as laying out the sets were concerned, the only real set pieces were what the actors actually came in contact with. So for instance, if there was a bedroom scene there was basically a frame where the window was, and they could walk through an imaginary door, and there would be a bed and a light that they could turn on and off. And in the case of the bedroom scene, a phone for them to pickup and interact with. The rest of it was completely virtual. So because of the schedule and the desire of the art director, a lot of that stuff was just left in our court to do, which was great fun for us, for our team. We had a lot of fun doing those backgrounds and making those work.

JB: Would you be able to explain that process a little bit more? Exactly what you have to do from the moment you’re handed a script until we see the finished product on TV.

GH: Well specifically, first there’s the element of what it is we’re trying to achieve dramatically with this. And what I mean by that is, one of the things Ron Moore and I discussed quite a bit was, ‘What is the tone of this–what sort of arena are we creating here?’ And the decision was to go with backdrops that would play naturally in the scene, that wouldn’t steal anything away from the drama of the scene, but would clearly be artificial. So your goal is that you’re suddenly aware that you’re in the virtual environment. The benefit of that from a CG standpoint, particularly if the show were to go to series is that we can manipulate that during the scenes, and we did that during several scenes in the show. You can subtly manipulate the background up to actually having things change shape, color, lighting–we can do that all in real time during the course of a scene. And we did that in several scenes in Virtuality to great effect. It’s subtle enough that unless it’s really pointed out, it’s not noticed. It’s somewhat like musical direction, so there’s this sort of subtle, underlying thing that’s occurring in the scene that doesn’t pop right out at you, but does help to direct you in what the scene is about. And those were the discussions that I had specifically with Ron Moore in pre-production. So we got into that.

The environments themselves were relatively passive for this show. In other words, there were no killer robots coming at them, or anything. It was all basically a backdrop for what the actors were doing in the scenes. That allowed us to be pretty fast and loose in post as to how we interpreted what would be in the background. I would say that the process, first of all was, ‘Okay, what is it?’ Second of all was, ‘Okay, is this cost-effective? Can we do this or are we just busting the budget?’ It turns out that by shooting all these VR [virtual reality] scenes against green screens and using this technique, we actually saved quite a bit of money over going to locations and shooting them. There was also the design element, which Ron got behind, which was you won’t get confused. The audience will always be aware that they’re in the VR environment. They’ll never mistake it for a flashback or a, ‘Where are they now?’ We always put heightened elements into every one of the scenes so that the audience would always be aware that this isn’t entirely real. Yet, we balanced it so that it doesn’t take you out of the scene. There’s nothing popping out at you. It’s meant to be subtle enough that you go with the scene without really noticing it, except for actually being aware that you’re in a new environment. Does that make sense?

JB: Absolutely.

GH: Good.

JB: So you’ve worked on a lot of science fiction. What did you feel was most unique about a show like Virtuality?

GH: Certainly the VR environments. One of the things that Ron wanted to do very, very specifically, and I would say he was a man standing alone on this idea, was that we were never going to have a camera off of the ship. All of the cameras are attached to the ship. We could never remove ourselves from the ship. I’ll tell you that the director didn’t agree with that. I had my concerns about it, about the audience not being grounded and knowing that they’re on-board a spaceship. There was a real concern about it. But I think that in the end, Ron was absolutely right. It created a very unique environment, that’s unique to the show.

Then the VR environments themselves, a number of things went very, very well on that. First of all, the shooting itself was very efficient. Sandy Cochrane, our art director, was fantastic. Even with the set–most of it was comprised of the floor space and some minimum set dressing–he was very clever. He built everything on wheels so that as we finished shooting one set we just rolled the set out and just roll in the next one, and we’d move right on to the next setup and the next shoot. That was actually a good thing for everybody, because everybody, including the director, the actors, the DP [director of photography], everybody was on-board with that and kind of enjoyed it because we moved it along at a really good clip and everyone could focus on the performance and less on problems on the set, or how long did it take to get it all lit, or you know, trucks driving by and we have to retake. All of those things were set aside and we could just focus on the performance, so I think everybody was very happy with that.

So there was that element that went very, very well. And then getting into post and of course the design was just pure fun for us. I mean, we could do anything. It was tremendous fun creating the 3D backdrops. It all went very smoothly. We actually finished the show ahead of schedule and under budget, which was quite an achievement. It had 425 shots in it. We actually had 20 minutes of screen time, the visual effects I mean, in the show. Well, you need 425 shots in the show to cover that kind of time. I was just really pleased. And it’s well-balanced–the performances are wonderful. From our standpoint, from the visual effects standpoint, it was a tremendous success and just a pleasure to work on.

JB: In designing the sets, were there any movies or television shows that you went back to, or that you felt inspired you in a certain way?

GH: No. The way that I like to work generally, well, just a quick background on what goes on here. I was originally hired and I worked on Star Trek, obviously, and I met Ron Moore then. And when Battlestar came around, I saw that it had been green-lighted and I was name-attached to it so I sent an email to him just congratulating him on the green light. It wasn’t more than two minutes later he sent me an email saying, “Get down here and interview for this because we need somebody to do the visual effects.” So I got started back with him on Battlestar. It became real obvious early on on Battlestar that there were not the resources to do the kind of shows they wanted to do in terms of visual effects. They simply didn’t have the money for it. So because I’m working for Ron, the job became less about working on visual effects design and more about how do we get enough visual effects done to tell the story.

So I developed the in-house department. Since the last part of the second season, we’ve been doing most of the visual effects in-house, and in going into the fourth season we’ve done them entirely in-house. And it’s worked out extremely well. Everybody noted as we went into the fourth season that there used to be these long debates about what we had to cut out of the show on Battlestar Galactica, in order to get the visual effects budget down, but then that all went away. They basically wrote it and we did it, which was great for everyone. It was great for the creative people who work for me, who were finally free to exercise their skills and not be limited by, well, you only have two days to work on this shot and you can’t do this and you can’t do that. It was all a matter of what can we do. We’re using the same team on Virtuality. We just transitioned the team over to work on that show, and we’ll actually be using that same team again on Caprica. So, I’m sorry, I kind of took a left turn there explaining the in-house department.

JB: No, no. It’s great.

GH: But it is the core of, for instance, doing a show like Virtuality, where you need to do hundreds of shots. And you need to have the freedom to let the camera roam, you need to let the action evolve in the scene. You can’t be sitting with locked-off cameras and counting shots and messing around with that, and being concerned with, ‘Well, if we have to augment this background it costs more,’ or anything like that. It needs to be a loose creative process, which is exactly what it was on Virtuality. It was very successful.

JB: What did you feel was most challenging about the Virtuality shoot?

GH: I would say that the greatest challenge was really the production. Production was on a really tight schedule and it was a very abbreviated prep schedule. It was a very complicated show to be doing in a very short amount of time and I think that that was very challenging for everyone. But, fortunately, there were a lot of really great people working on the show, so even that was not to as great a degree as it could have been. But certainly shooting, for instance, shooting the Civil War sequence, which took place entirely on an enclosed stage with 300 feet of green screen, or blue screen in this case, all the way around the stage for the horses. There was more than one time I almost got run over. They put up barriers. They put frames around all the gear, so that whenever the horses came out you would have to go inside one of these frames and they would close it. Well, you know, being the visual effects supervisor, there would be times I would have to jump over the fence and run out and reposition markers or take measurements and all that. And there were a couple of occasions where the horses came charging down the arena and I was in the wrong place. Nothing terribly dangerous, but it was pretty exciting.

JB: I guess that’s what they have hazard pay for.

GH: Well they don’t pay hazard pay to some dummy who’s running around.

JB: That’s a good point.

GH: Yeah.

JB: Are there any Virtuality Easter Eggs that viewers should keep an eye out for?

GH: Virtuality Easter Eggs. Well…

JB: Or is that something you want to keep a surprise?

GH: Well, there’s a couple of things I’m not going to tell you about. There are certain things that occurred on the set that caused some of the set pieces to not be quite the correct period and some other elements like that. But I would say that for people who watch carefully, there are several things to watch for. During the sequence, what we call the Rape Sequence, we did a complete color and environment change behind the characters during the sequence. So for people who watch that carefully, they’ll notice that happening. In addition, one of the, that particular background was designed by Doug Drexler, who’s my CG supervisor here. What he did, which was very, very clever, and if you look carefully you’ll see this clearly–no one will notice it unless they’re looking specifically at it–but when you go to the wide shots in this environment, you’ll notice that it has a very unusual background. And as you begin to study it, what you’ll eventually realize if you look at it carefully enough, that what it’s a stairwell. The background is actually a stairwell, where you’re standing at the top of it and you look down and you take a photograph. We literally did that, went to the top of a stairwell, took a photograph, and that became the background for the sequence. So for those who look carefully, you’ll see that right away.

JB: You’re working now on Caprica?

GH: Yes, that’s right.

JB: You’ve talked about transitioning from Battlestar to Virtuality, so with Caprica, is that a full-time job or do you take on different shows at the same time?

GH: We would actually like to take on more shows. For Caprica, what I’ve done is develop a large team of artists that we can call upon when we need to for larger shows. Which really, going into Caprica, we’re only going to be using about half of that team. So in truth, we could do another Caprica at the same time. Whether that occurs or not is really up to the studio, because the operation here is not a profit operation. In other words, I’m the supervisor, I oversee this and I set up the whole operation. I developed it over the last three years specifically for Battlestar, but now we’re moving into other shows. But there’s no profit motive here, in other words, all the people who work for me are hired on the show on a weekly basis. I don’t get paid any extra whether I do 5 shots or 105 shots, and neither do any of the management people who work for me. The benefit for us is that the more shows we work on and the more shots we do, the more I can keep more artists around. The more artists that I can keep around, the greater the variety of textures I can bring to shots. In other words, I don’t have, let’s say, a full-time pyrotechnics guy any more. I did on Battlestar, but I can’t keep that person on Caprica because there’s simply not that much work on Caprica. But if I were working on a second show, I would then have that person’s expertise standing by, which I could then apply to Caprica and push those shots further. So there’s a great benefit to doing multiple shows. Whether that will come to pass or not is really up to Universal and whatever else is going on here.

JB: Have you read anything good lately?

GH: Let me think. I’m trying to remember the title right now. It just went right out of my head. It’s a book that just came out a few months ago about the mechanization of war. I wanted to read that book, and the name will come to me in a moment, I wanted to read that because I wanted to see what was going on right now, because it’s very relevant to Caprica. Because Caprica takes place at a time where there’s the rise of intelligent machines, which is very similar to what we’re experiencing right now. In warfare in particular, that’s where the newest developments are. They’re making surprising headway. I was really surprised to hear how much automated weaponry there is on the battlefield in Iraq and that I found very informative. I think it’s very relevant to working on Caprica, because the story itself has a focal point, obviously, which is the development of the Cylon race and that particular intelligence. How that comes to be, how that begins to spread, its continued development. The interesting thing to do in doing this research and reading was that that type of deployment in the battlefield is already happening. Certainly there are no killer robots walking around in Iraq, but there are robotic remote-controlled devices that are carrying guns and that are firing their weapons at the enemy. That was a surprise to me. I didn’t know that. I just thought, ‘We’re there already. The rise of the machines has begun.’ So I found that fascinating.

(The book Gary was talking about was Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, by P.W. Singer. Check it out here.)

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Thanks a lot to Gary for talking to us. If Ron Moore’s Battlestar podcasts taught us one thing, it was that Gary Hutzel is a very busy man, so we definitely appreciate him taking some time out for us.

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2 Responses to “The Good Ship Phaeton talks to Gary Hutzel”


  1. 1 BT June 21, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Thanks for getting these great interviews! I hope all these people will have a continuing job with Virtuality as a series.

  2. 2 jimmybing June 21, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Keep your eyes out for another interview tomorrow!


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