Whoosh! Issue 54 - March 2001

By Bret Ryan Rudnick
Content copyright ©2001 held by author
Whoosh! edition copyright ©2001 held by Whoosh!
2046 words

Author's notes:

George Port is the head of the visual effects department in New Zealand. Flying horses in XENA or Baileys in CLEOPATRA 2525 are all in a day's work, and much more. George Port supervises more computing power on a day-to-day basis than was available to the entire Apollo space program. Whilst in the middle of creating the next whiz-bang special effect, in November of 2000 in Auckland, New Zealand, he took a few moments to explain how it all works.

The Job (01-06)
CLEOPATRA 2525 (07-11)
Computing Power (12-14)
Challenges (15-21)
Thank Goodness for Computers! (22-26)
The Internet (27-29)
Future Plans (30-32)

An Interview with George Port (Visual Effects Supervisor NZ)

Considered for Herc's stunt double

George Port, not in front of a computer in his office at Pacific Renaissance Pictures

The Job

How long have you been the visual effects supervisor?

In my current capacity, about three years, though I did actually start with the HERCULES telefeatures. We were doing alternate episodes with Flat Earth for the first five telefeatures. I was the visual effects supervisor for the New Zealand based part of that. The large sea monster that rose out of the sea was one of my effects. We filmed that with a rubber monster on blue screen, but now we'd probably do that via CGI.

He came... He saw... He ate!
In the very early days of special effects on HERC, rubber monsters and blue screens were used.
Screen caps are from HBKid and his site at: http://members.spree.com/kszonew/h/hindex.htm

So, you saw the whole transition between the older style of layering something in versus creating something from scratch digitally.

[4] PORT:
I started my career, if you like, doing stop-motion animation and puppetry in a whole bunch of Peter Jackson films. Ray Harryhausen was a big influence.

When you have to do effects now do you find out what you have to do in script meetings?

[6] PORT:
The whole process begins with the script. Because some of our episodes are so visually intensive with special effects, we can begin the process quite early. I talk with the producers first of all to see if there are any big problem sequences coming up. Once we sort that out, we deal with the director once the production draft of the script is out. We have many meetings between the special effects crew and the director to discuss various ways to approach the effects. When you do fast turnaround television, you look at the most time efficient way to shoot something rather than the cheapest way to shoot something. With XENA or HERCULES, since post-production is done in the States for those, we'll see the director's cut here and talk about what needs to be done. We can fine tune things from that cut.


[7] With CLEOPATRA 2525 and JACK OF ALL TRADES, we do all the postproduction here in New Zealand, and we consult from an earlier stage. We have a lot more input into how things are cut. Especially with CLEO, we've been averaging over 200 effects shots per half-hour episode. For a live action show that's a lot.

More electroshock!  I still remember I was in this series!

JACK had far fewer effects shots in it compared to CLEO, which can have hundreds of effects shots in a single episode.

On-Star, eat your heart out!

In addition to many energy blasts, CLEO had to do a lot of extra effects shots such as this artificial rendering of a 3-dimensional map.

There are a lot of gauntlet blasts.

[9] PORT:
The gauntlet blasts aren't that hard to do. There are some things with Baileys and shafts that can get quite interesting, that's coming up. There's an episode coming up called JUGGERNAUT DOWN (C22/208) with has 400 effects shots in a single episode.

I've heard from the series producer that on CLEO at first no one was sure what a Bailey would look like. How did you sort it out?

For the last time, I'm not Xena, and quit asking me for an autograph!

Baileys were menacing enough at the start of CLEO, but they appear with alarming frequency (and in the oddest of places) in later episodes.

[11] PORT:
The art department came up with a number of concepts that Rob Tapert looked at and wasn't so keen on. We went away, delved into the nether regions of our brains, and came up with the concept that we finally went with. It ended up looking kind of organic, kind of metallic.

Computing Power

What computer platform do you use?

[13] PORT:
We primarily use Windows NT, or 2000 Professional as it's now called. Our primary software is 3-D Studio Max, which has worked out very well for us because you can have a lot of different plug-ins to make it do a lot of different effects, such as fire and water. We've put that to good use in CLEO and XENA.

It's just not as romantic as the real thing!
This is a blue screen shot. The main picture is the finished product, but the inset shows the scene was actually shot against a blue screen.

[14] We do all the CLEO effects. XENA effects are split between us and Cantina, which is a spin-off of Flat Earth. We try to do all the groovy stuff. They do the bulk of the gods disappearing and most of the compositing work. For the flying horse sequences we recently did [for the sixth season Norse trilogy], that was such a big deal I actually went out and directed what was called the "third unit" which was basically the horse blue screen unit. That involved giant outdoor blue screens, which we had horses racing in front of. Here we digitally did the actual flying horses and all the things you can't get horses on a blue screen to do.


What's been your most challenging sequence to date?

[16] PORT:
The horse sequence was a good challenge. From last season the "Heaven and Hell" sequences were a huge challenge [FALLEN ANGEL (91/501)]. There were all these angels flying about. Just shooting that took three times longer than any other episode. There was a lot of effects work and blue screen work I had to supervise.

[17] Just about every episode of CLEO has been a challenge too, though CLEO has had one particular episode which is screening this week in the States called THE POD WHISPERER (C20/206). I was allowed to go out and direct the aerials unit for that. It's an episode about a flying car being pursued by Baileys that the girls are piloting. We did a whole bunch of helicopter footage, and we shot a lot at the sand dunes on Bethel's Beach. None of the shots are traditional "lock off" shots, which we use a lot because they're very easy to shoot and put effects into. We've got all these flying helicopter shots, which we have the pods flying through, which was challenging because we had to find a piece of software that worked with 3DSMax that would let us be able to do all the 3-D tracking to put the objects in convincingly.

Now where is it... I know that tag is here  somewhere... They said there'd be an alt tag on this thing... Ah, here it is!
This Steadicam shot follows Mauser all around the table, and effects rotate as he moves.
This gives the impression that Mauser is walking around a real three dimensional image.
But the image Mauser appears to be looking at is all computer generated after the scene was shot.

[18] The last thing you want to do is have things flying through that look like they're people on blue screen, something like that. There are some episodes in the deep dark past of Renaissance that have looked a bit "naff".

[19] Now we have a little plug-in called SceneGenie for 3DSMax which I have been working with the software writer on developing. We know nothing about the camera or the lenses or how high we are off the ground or how fast the helicopter's going. This plug-in can extract all the information about the shot, so we can put 3-D objects in and they'll appear correctly.

So, your perspective is automatically computed.

[21] PORT:
Yes. We use it quite a lot even in the more mundane hologram type of shots. Directors like to use a Steadicam shot while everyone is standing and they can move around. This particular piece of software makes it very easy to identify where a table is, where the girls are.

Thank Goodness for Computers!

How much have the new generation of hardware and software freed you to do things that are more creative?

Old character actors never die, they just become special effects

A special effects shot from THE FRIGHTENERS.

[23] PORT:
We couldn't do a show like CLEO five years ago. I was shooting supervisor on THE FRIGHTENERS (1996), a Peter Jackson feature film. For that, we had computers that cost $100,000 each. We had software that cost $50,000 per copy. For every shot where we had one of the digital ghosts in it, after the shot we'd have to survey every shot from the camera's point of view on the set so we knew exactly where it was. There were 500 effects shots in that film. Going into something like the CLEO episodes POD WHISPERER or JUGGERNAUT DOWN consider we had five weeks to do the work, as opposed to one year on FRIGHTENERS.

[24] The last shot is going down today (Thursday), and it's supposed to be on the air Monday. We just couldn't do something like that until the present because the software just wasn't there, and the hardware, despite being so expensive, still wasn't fast enough. I've actually got one of the old computers I had on THE FRIGHTENERS down in the visual effects department, and we never use it because it's too slow. It looks really nice and it has a lot of software on it, but it won't keep up.

Imagine what will be out in a year or two.

[26] PORT:
Playstation 2 is coming out and even it has some of the core 3-D Studio Max stuff in the Playstation hardware. What amused us to no end was that the $100,000 computer we bought for FRIGHTENERS, the updated chip from that was what went into the Nintendo 64 for $200. That sort of thing scares you a little.

The Internet

Have you surfed the web to see some of the amazing things people are making just on their own, as a hobby?

Post-Quake Pre-Quake
Now it's routine to take an existing shot and enhance it digitally, no blue screen required.

[28] PORT:
A little bit. With the fact that computers are now so cheap and can do so much, and the fact that DV (Digital Video) is here, DV has liberated people who would previously make a film on VHS or Hi-8 and it would be fine, but you couldn't really show it anywhere because it was always a little soft on the edges. DV is now routinely seen on broadcast television. You can go out and shoot with your DV and either put it on the `Web or you can even blow it up on film.

[29] When I do get a chance to surf the `Web I'm generally looking for new technology and new, interesting software. There's a lot of freeware out there now I was paying thousands of dollars for five years ago.

Future Plans

What projects haven't you done yet that you'd like to do?

[31] PORT:
Children's television, doing completely animated shows. I started doing animation and stop motion, mainly in commercials. We did branch out into children's television occasionally, and that quite interested me. Even shows like XENA and JACK, though they're great shows, there's a certain level of realism you have to go for because you're matching to previously existing footage or working with a real actor. I'd like to do something like a THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE where you define the world and go from there.

[32] And of course, there's the old cliché: I'd like to direct. I've done my share of little short films that have gone down quite well, but I'd like to go to the next step. At the moment I don't have an outside project I'm passionate about, so I'm quite happy to keep doing visual effects here and help to make other people's projects look as good as they can.

Sometimes those hot peppers are just a little *too* hot

Special effects can enhance or create explosion effects altogether, as in this shot from JACK OF ALL TRADES.


Schmoozer Spice Bret Ryan Rudnick
WHOOSH! staff
IAXS Executive Committee
"You can never have too much money or too many Amazons"
When he's not working for a big Science/Engineering company that (amongst other things) designs, builds, launches, and operates exploratory spacecraft, Bret writes fantasy novels and short stories. Bret is a man of many skills, having also previously been an Olympic-qualified archer, a drummer in the Butch Grinder Band, a news reader for Public Television Station KVCR, and a Deputy Sheriff for the County of San Bernardino, California. He also collects Japanese swords, armor, and art. He and his dog hunt down stray Bacchae in New England.
Favorite episode: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110), WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (30/206), and THE QUEST (37/213)
Favorite line: Xena: "What's this?" Gabrielle: "I'm... an amazon princess?" Xena (rolls eyes): "Great." HOOVES AND HARLOTS, 10/110; Xena after being goosed by Joxer: "Are you suicidal?" WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (30/206); Joxer: "Ha. Ha." A COMEDY OF EROS (46/222); Autolycus: "I'm not just leering at scantily clad women, you know, I'm working!" THE QUEST (37/213)
First episode seen: CRADLE OF HOPE (04/104)
Least favorite episode: IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404)

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