Ode to Zoic and District 9

I recently got a chance to see District 9 and I think it's worthwhile for BSG fans and sci-fi peeps in general to go out and see this. Yes, I was pleasantly and very enthusiastically surprised. I'm not going to get into a review of that, and don't want to give away any spoilers because it's really best to watch with fresh eyes.

It wasn't necessarily the story of District 9 that impressed me as much as the incredible visual style and effects that were employed throughout the film. This movie was filmed entirely in digital high-def with a Red camera (interestingly also in unmatted 16:9 format for theater projection, which will transfer superbly for "home video", i.e. DVD and Blu-Ray, for HDTV viewing) and relies heavily on computer generated imagery to make the movie work. I have to say it's the most impressive CGI melded to live action I have seen yet. It's a testament to the evolution of high-def digital technology that we have today. That of course, is thanks to the outstanding special effects work done largely by three Vancouver based FX houses. Image Engine held the main contract, followed by The Embassy and then the Zoic Studios Vancouver branch which opened in 2006. Peter Jackson's New Zealand company Weta Digital, who are credited for their work on Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, handled the remaining FX (close to a third). Check out this Vancouver Sun article for more details on the VFX production, but not if you don't want spoilers! Battlestar (the recent one) fans will surely recognize the CG work in District 9 to be in the same style and spirit that we see with the all CG Cylon Centurions of the series. It's inspired me to post a little about the history of Zoic with Battlestar Galactica here.

Way back around 2001, Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer (who coincidentally is a hot news item right now as he has been confirmed to direct the Larson BSG theatrical movie - see previous post for more) had been approached by Studio USA (under the USA Television Production Group) to develop a reboot of the 1970's Battlestar Galactica TV series. Zoic Studios was reportedly indirectly associated with this project through one of it's owners, but largely due to the events of 9/11/01 the series came to a halt before production could get a real start and it's pilot could be aired, which was to be hosted by Fox Television (Phew! Thankfully *that* never happened). The project was awash, and just as the smoke began to clear Studio USA turned to David Eick, who reuptook the project on the premise that he could redesign Battlestar apart from what DeSanto and Singer had begun. For the longer version of this story, check out this article on battlestargalactica.com.

David brought in Ron Moore who was fresh off the Star Trek franchise, which Zoic Studios had done a considerable amount of work for. With that in consideration, Zoic was brought on to do the special effects for the Battlestar Galactica miniseries Eick and Moore were developing. Zoic's Emile Smith, who is a professed fan of the original Battlestar series from the 70's, worked on the pre-visualization of the miniseries, and helped develop the look that was retained throughout the series. Smith worked closely with Zoic's Gary Hutzel, Visual Effects Supervisor for BSG, co-supervising mainly for digital effects and remained involved in the series. Kristen Brenan, Head of Production for the Zoic team that worked on District 9, held the same position for Battlestar in 2004. The Zoic team earned the Visual Effects Society's 2004 award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Television Miniseries, Movie or a Special for their work on the miniseries, along with several other nominations.

Previous to their work on Battlestar, and in addition to Star Trek, Zoic had also gained recognition for their work on two Joss Whedon series; Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both earned them Emmy nominations for their VFX work, and Firefly also earned them a 2003 VES award for Best VFX in a TV Series as well as a 2003 Emmy for Best VFX in a TV Series. Buffy won them the 2004 VES Best VFX in a TV Series. Battlestar earned Zoic additional nominations for a VES and an Emmy in 2005, and in 2007 they received a Constellation Award for "Best Technical Accomplishment in a 2006 Science Fiction Film or Television Production for VFX in Battlestar Galactica".

Because of Zoic's earlier work on Star Trek and Firefly, a keen eye will spot both the USS Enterprise and a Firefly class ship (or perhaps serenity herself) in the Battlestar Galactica miniseries. To find out where they are, and for more tidbits on Zoic's work on Battlestar, see their entry here at Battlestar Wiki.

Sometime after the new Battlestar Galactica sailed through it's first season, VFX Supervisor Gary Hutzel decided to make the formal departure from Zoic to create an all in-house VFX team for the show, in order to save time and money. Even though Hutzel's (and Smith) team was no longer under the Zoic name, they still retained the style and look consistently throughout the series, and Zoic did step back in to the series at later points to help supplement the in-house team for heavier loads in some of the season premieres and finales as well as doing work on models and miniatures.

Aside from their involvement with District 9, Battlestar, and the other projects mentioned above, some of Zoic's other work includes Joss Whedon's Angel, The Day After Tomorrow, Spiderman 2, Van Helsing, Serenity, Jericho, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Hello Bear McCreary!), Fringe (already nominated for an Emmy for the pilot! - and I think they already took home a VES for this), Eureka ( More Bear! Zoic also nabbed a Leo award for this), Prison Break, Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, True Blood, Dollhouse, and Chuck... just to name a few!

Edited 8/17/09


maj said...

Zoic only did about 30 shots which only involved the holographic thats all.

The Embassy did about 100 shots with the mech suit and a few other bits and Image Engine did the bulk of the work, over 300 shots, mainly with the aliens. Credit where credit is due dude.

starthunder said...

Thanks for the info maj. I should've done more research and given credit to the other houses that did work. Will edit for that info now.

I was a bit distracted while watching the credits roll at the theater since there was an officer present who seemed to be busting someone for trying to record the movie illegally. I caught the Zoic credit listing and mistook them for top billing for FX, and it made my research afterward slanted in that regard.