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Production focus: Spartacus: Vengeance and War of the Damned

By 3dtotal staff

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Date Added: 13th December 2013

Spartacus VFX art director Peter Baustaedter and matte painter Jean-Baptiste Verdier reveal how Vue software was an essential tool in the production of this awesome TV series


We are pleased to offer a first look at an exclusive behind-the-scenes feature on the production of Spartacus: Vengeance and Spartacus: War of the Damned here on 3dtotal.com. Spartacus VFX art director Peter Baustaedter and matte painter Jean-Baptiste Verdier talk to E-on Software about the show's unprecedented challenges and workaround solutions to bring this amazing TV series to our screens.

Production Background

Over the 39-episode, 4-season series of Spartacus 13,255 VFX shots were created. In the final season there were 4,350 VFX shots, and the epic 53-minute series finale featured 935 VFX shots. The TV series follows the story of Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator, who was one of the slave leaders in the Third Servile War, a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic.

While the visual effects shots were by far not as complex as in the average summer tent-pole movie, their number was unprecedented. The logistics of tracking and producing thousands of shots in less than 12 months were quite a challenge. Where, in a feature production there is ample time for R&D, the Spartacus VFX team was thrown into the project head-first. Since time was so limited, picking the correct methodology was of the essence. Even a seemingly insignificant wrong choice had the potential to snowball into a major headache through the course of a season.

Watch the full Vue in Spartacus making-of

Missions Given and Workflow

The main tasks of the VFX art department were the following: creating concepts for environments and effects, creating environment assets like matte paintings or 2.5D, 360 degree layered environments. Another important part was to come up with look-development key art for all VFX sequences of an episode.

Additionally, the VFX art director was involved in color grading and look continuity of the VFX shots. Peter also accompanied the VFX supervisor to different vendors for shot reviews and was the artistic liaison to other departments of the production.
Next to shooting VFX reference photographs on set, he was also responsible for gathering environment reference – one of the few cases where a camera actually ventured outside the studio.

During the entire production of Seasons 2 and 3, Vue was used in many capacities – from creating quick concepts and lighting studies to fully fledged 360-degree, multi-layered environments. Vue's great looking synthetic water was also used for one or the other shot.

Season 2 'Vengeance'

Peter Baustaedter: In pre-production, I used Vue to quickly design environment concepts to be presented to the production designer and executive producer. For example, I imported geo from the art department so I had their set design as a base. I then quickly whipped up a landscape, vegetation and a nice atmosphere to give the concept an appropriate dimension. The render is refined and nudged into the final direction by a few Photoshop manipulations.

These 2 images are early concepts for a forest featured in episodes 3 and 4.

This is one of the earliest concepts that were created in Vue to get a first impression of a proposed environment design

Here we see a later concept of the forest, closer to what we see in episodes 3 and 4 of season 2

For the forest, the production designer wanted a very stylized look. That's why you can't see any real branches in the second image – which was one of his requirements. Vue was a great tool for me to quickly realize different ideas for environments with realistic lighting. This quick turnaround allowed me to run through many iterations.

The other example is an early version of 'The Road' environment from the beginning of episode 1. This was the first time that the show ventured outside and left the walled-in sets of the Ludus and the city of Capua behind.

We quickly needed to come up with a design for a 360-degree environment that fit the set and worked in all directions. The background was to be mostly sky with some mountains in one direction, so the audience had an easier time knowing where they were looking. The production designer wanted to pursue a very stylized, simplified look.

I rendered out a spherical image, mapped it onto a sphere and created a Quicktime with a 360-degree camera move. Very simple, but during the design meetings I could just point the animation in the right direction to illustrate our discussions.

In general, Season 2 was a challenge for the newly assembled team, since there were several legacy issues that carried over from the previous seasons.

Because of the pace, there were no real opportunities to change a lot of the approaches from scratch. 'Field modifications' during the production took care of the most pressing issues to satisfy the new demands of season 2.

For this reason, 'Vengeance' mostly employs matte paintings – but some of them are severely oversized, projected and extensively layered to accommodate multiple shots and views in a scene.

Jean-Baptiste Verdier: At the beginning, I was mainly doing look development, using assets and other approved elements in order to define the style of the shots. Pretty soon I was assigned my first matte painting which was an establishing shot of the Ludus at night, occupied by Roman soldiers.

Vue render / Matte painting

The geometry of the Ludus and the terrain was provided by the art department, but there were no 3D tents available, so we decided to create them using simple geometry and cloth simulation. The animation of the wind on the cloths allowed us to generate variations in the models.

The scene was set up externally and then imported to Vue for rendering. It was really easy to get the mood of the scene in Vue just by playing with light, atmosphere and materials from the collections. Once the render was approved, I started the painting using the lighting established in Vue as a guide. The final matte painting is the result of the combination of many textures and photographs merged with the initial render.

During the painting work, it was important to keep the different elements layered, so that we had flexibility if the supervisor decided to create a post camera move or to insert any other elements. In terms of productivity, it's really important to always think 3D when you create a matte painting, even if the final shot is supposed to be static because you never know if someone is going to change their mind. The different layers and passes were also necessary for the compositor to integrate live elements in the shot like torches, soldiers and horses.

Ludus - Final shot

The next shot I would like to talk about is part of the opening sequence of the last episode of the season 2. Spartacus and his friends have escaped from the temple to the top of Vesuvius and Roman troops have established their camp at the bottom of the volcano, blocking the only existing exit. Spartacus is trying to find a way to escape again and climbs halfway down the volcano to observe the Roman camp.

The point of view for this sequence is located quite high, looking down. It was important for this view that everything was very recognizable; the camp, the temple, the forest and the catapults since they are locations where action is going to happen later in the episode.

We did a basic track of the shot. Then we created a camera covering the visible area and we started to import the various basic elements of the environment provided by the art department. As most of those elements were low poly, we spent some time to improve the geometry of some of the objects.

Then, once the scene was correctly established, we exported everything to Vue, the geometry and the cameras.

I started working on the lighting and atmosphere first to match the lighting and mood of the plate. Our executive producer wanted to see the whole landscape up to the horizon; there was no way to hide things in the darkness or in haze. Even during a night shot, important elements must be visible and easy to spot to get story points across to the audience. What good is a nice matte painting if it doesn't serve the plot?

Vue render

Matte painting

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