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April 2014

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Crazy Horse Effects' Christina and Paul Graff: The studio will be back for the second season of Black Sails. honest dialogue about what I think is feasible and what isn't. I want shows to look good with quality VFX — I've seen too many with too much stuff going on, and the VFX suffer." Sleepy Hollow Revolutionary War soldier Ichabod Crane has awakened in present-day Sleepy Hollow, but he's still pursued by The Headless Horse- man in Fox's new hit series that mingles eras, history and mystical practices. Synaptic VFX, which has offices in Burbank and New Orleans (, provided a wide range of VFX for Season 1, including the villainous Headless Horseman, digital envi- ronments and a demonic possession. "For a number of VFX, my brother Sha- hen did the concept art," says Shant Jordan, a 3D artist and compositor who founded Synaptic VFX with Shahen Jordan and Ken Gust. "Synaptic provided a complete solution for the show, from concept to execution." Jordan notes that the company's roots "are in TV and film. In TV we expect to do feature-level VFX for smaller budgets and faster turnarounds. But we can do 300 shots in seven days instead of four months because we have an established pipeline that can be tailored to a show's needs. The most impor- tant part of the process, though, is communi- cation. Without that, even the most refined pipeline falls apart." Synaptic already had close ties to long- time friend and show VFX supervisor Jason Zimmerman, who worked on-set in North Carolina for the duration of Season 1. "We could ask him questions at any point in the day" as live-action plates were funneled to Synaptic, says Jordan. "It's what defined the success of the show." The Headless Horseman, a key recurring player in Sleepy Hollow, was performed by several stuntmen wearing green masks. For his sequences, Synaptic removed his head, replaced it with a bloody stump and painted in the background. In one scene, for which Shahen did the concept art, The Headless Horseman gallops through the woods as the environment catches fire around him, embers flying in the air. "The challenge for this character is that he's always moving," notes Shant Jordan. "He's rid- ing, swinging an axe or other weapons — there's a lot of animation. We have tracking markers on his head and around his collar; we put in a CG collar to anchor the neckpiece." Episode 4 flashed back to the Boston Tea Party, with a Synaptic digital matte painting depicting the harbor and ships. "We used pro- jected matte painting techniques along with 3D geometry to achieve the desired look, just like we do with films," says Jordan. Reference material helped create authentic geography. For the horrifying demonic possession of a teenage girl, Synaptic replaced her arms with CG limbs and altered her already distorted face. "When the make-up wasn't scary enough, we built a model of her face, warped it and replaced it," Jordan explains. Earlier, the com- pany augmented the make-up for Serilda the witch, adding fire and glow under her skin. Synaptic's toolset includes LightWave 3D, 3DS Max and Maya, with Nuke and After Effects for compositing and Science D-Visions' 3DEqualizer for match moving. As Sleepy Hollow heads into its second sea- son, Jordan tells fans to "look for more" VFX as the plot lines of the cliffhanger season finale are explored. By operating with a different paradigm, with "teams of multifaceted artists who understand a sense of urgency," Synaptic will prepare for Season 2 as it crafts VFX for a "very demanding" Fox pilot, Hieroglyph. Black SailS The new eight-episode Starz series, Black Sails, tells the tale of early 18th-century pirates in what's now Nassau, The Bahamas, and their quest for gold from the legendary Urca de Lima. Crazy Horse Effects, Inc., in Venice, CA (, was one of the lead VFX vendors for Season 1, creating the environ- ments for Nassau and nearby islands. "Production had a clear idea of what they wanted: the shape of the bay and Hog Island (now known as Paradise Island) that protects the bay, the beach with shacks below the fort, the rocky area with shipwrecks," says Crazy Horse VFX supervisor and creative director Paul Graff. "This wasn't Pirates of the Caribbean. Starz wanted it to be realistic. Previs from the VFX department and a few sketches from the art department helped direct the look of our work, but our creative team also ran ideas by them. It was a very collaborative process." The panoramic view of Nassau and the bay was a big Photoshop matte painting with CG models, created in Maxon Cinema4D, embedded with After Effects. When Graff thought the shot needed real water plates, he flew to The Bahamas to direct a live- action shoot and compile a library of water plates, palm trees and other native vegeta- tion to populate the 3D environments. The series is shot in Capetown, South Africa, where show VFX supervisor Erik Henry was busy on-set. Paul Graff and Crazy Horse VFX executive producer Christina Graff had pre- viously worked with Henry on the award- winning John Adams series. "We got as much for the library as we could — shots of beaches, surf from all angles, water from the perspective of a tall ship and low from a skiff," he explains. "We still created some CG water with 3DS Max, but CG water tends to look a bit repetitive while real water is infinitely random." Graff notes that with freeways in close proximity to the Capetown location, it was hard to get the camera any distance from the set. "So whenever there was a shot in the bay looking back at Nassau, we had to patch together images from the set with plates of our own." Crazy Horse did a roof replace- ment on a real Capetown farmhouse to change its architecture. The company also built out the big fort from "a bit of raised set with a turret and a few crenellations," says Christina Graff. The fort was seen in a num- ber of shots: big reveals of the island terrain, crane moves and approached from behind by a character walking up a hillside. A spec- tacular high-angle view from the fort over the bay showed CG ships, beaches and Hog Island. Paul's real water plates were com- bined with water-tank plates that were roto- scoped and painted below the surface to give the look of greater transparency. Paul Graff observes that many VFX shots were "creative journeys" for the Crazy Horse team and the production. A night shot of Nassau by torchlight evolved to versions overlooking the bay and a view of a gloomy area on the edge of town. "Then the matte painter said, 'Let's lose the background of the town and the island, and focus on the silhou- ette of ships, like in a graveyard,'" he recalls. "The shot went from defining territory to being a vehicle to tell the story." All of the VFX for Black Sails went through Crazy Horse's LA office, which was also working on the features White House Down and Vice. The New York office was busy with HBO's Boardwalk Empire and the feature The Wolf of Wall Street. "There's no difference in our workflow for a movie or a TV series," says Paul Graff. "There's only one way to work: as good as we can. This is never factory work. Every shot offers new possibilities and a new learn- ing experience." Post • April 2014 21

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