STAR TREK BEYOND: Seth Hill – Environment Supervisor – Atomic Fiction

Seth Hill joined Atomic Fiction in 2013 as a matte painter. He has worked on films such as TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, GAME OF THRONES or THE WALK. He became Environment Supervisor on DEADPOOL.

What is your background?
I actually started with traditional illustration, good ol’ painting and drawing. From there I segued into matte painting. Being in a studio full of people on a collaborative team was much more exciting than freelance at my own desk alone. When I started at Atomic Fiction I had the opportunity to really branch out beyond just matte painting. Once we started work on season 5 of GAME OF THRONES, I had my first big start as a supervisor, and from there all that kinda pushed me to where I am now. I love every bit of what I get to do. I mean, we’re making movies!

What was your feeling to be back in the Star Trek universe?
While Atomic Fiction did work on STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, I unfortunately joined the studio just a few months too late to work on that one with them. So this was my first foray into the Star Trek franchise… I could not have been more happy or excited! I might be a tad bit of a Trekie. So I ran into this project as excited as I have ever been. And when it ended it was actually really bittersweet. All projects must end, and from that comes a great feeling of accomplishment, but I didn’t want my time on Star Trek to end. I would take the next twenty films if I could!


How was your collaboration with director Justin Lin, VFX Supervisor Peter Chiang and VFX Producer Ron Ames?
Justin, Peter, and Ron were great! Peter has an eye of a hawk, and can so quickly identify what would make or break a shot. I took several notes from him that I will keep with me through my career on what he saw and the approaches to addressing it. What was really great (striking the Trekie in me) was how open they were to discussing what was correct or not. Peter joked that in every studio was a “Yoda” (Yes, we were working on STAR TREK) and I had the honor of being the Yoda at Atomic Fiction. In the middle of a review they would occasionally just ask “Hey, Yoda, does this work?” It was incredibly honoring to be in that spot, and really showed patience on their end to endure the 20 minute breakdown on Star Trek lore that would follow.

Can you describe one of typical day during the pre-prod, on-set and then on post?
At the beginning of the show, it was mostly just planning. The planning stage is a fun puzzle where we’d look at the plates, go through the cuts, and determine what was needed or how we would pull it off. All possibilities are on the table and it’s about what will work best and what sells the story most. Our art director Brian Flora and our CG supervisor Laurent Taillefer really were able to set up a great foundation technically and artistically that we could run with to start the asset build. At this point we were all super focused working away trying to make cool stuff. During this stage Our digital effects supervisor, Jonathan Harman, and visual effects supervisors, Kevin Baillie and Ryan Tudhope, would have a lot of conversations with us about how do we make this as good as possible, where can we get inspiration from, who is best suited for each challenge, etc…

By the end of the project I was working directly with Jonathan and Ryan a lot more. Most everything is in place on how it’s all getting done / going to look, so in those last couple months of the project it’s not so much about planning out how to tackle a technical or artistic challenge (granted that does still come up) as much as it is about who is doing it and how do we help them. One piece of advice I got a while back was from Rudy Grossman, who is another supervisor at Atomic, was that at the end of every show each artist should have something to be proud of. In the last couple months of the project, it’s sort of the last chance to make sure that is possible. Granted it’s Star Trek, so that part should be easy.


What are your sequences?
We worked on a lot of the interiors for the Enterprise, before and after the crash. We also did several sequences in the forests, the old vine covered temple, the Yorktown terminal and we even were able to collaborate with Double Negative on the final sequence in the center of the Yorktown.


How did you organize the work at Atomic Fiction?
Most of the work was divided per sequence. And sequences were grouped by content. From there we would have teams that would work on the different sequence groups. For example we had the ET and the KD sequences which both involved designing and building out the interiors of the enterprise. So they would be grouped and have a team that would be associated with them.

How did you work with the art department for the various interiors of the USS Enterprise?
Our art director Brian and concept artist Marc Gabbana would design out the majority of what we needed to build and I would support with some designs for few sequences also. Most of the Enterprise interiors came from Marc, which was awesome because he is an incredible draftsman and would with ink just sketch out these designs that were so solid we could bring them straight into Maya on an image plane to build directly from. Brian would oversee the whole process and help us really nail the feeling the enterprise. Often the asset team would block something out and see it in shot context all composited together with the plate and the art department was able to go back in and refine the designs further, and we would refine our 3D environments based on these iterations of drawings. This back and forth process would actually empower the modelers, texture artists, lighters (anyone on the sequence really) to also have creative input and pitch their own pieces of design rather than only following a an existing design.


Can you tell us more about the filming of the real sets?
The on-set production team really did some impressive work on the sets, which established a high bar to match to. For example the interior of the Enterprise shots, when they are in the Manual Release Room as the Enterprise tumbles through space, was actually built on a series of gimbals so the entire set would rotate and spin as the actors ran around and interacted with each other. What this did was create a great reference for how we would extend these sets or add to them.

How did you extended and created these sets?
We started simple with drawings. Once we had sketches that were where we wanted it to go, and Peter and Justin were happy, we would break it into basic modeling and start simple. It’s like approaching a painting with broad brush strokes first. A basic layout could start basic comps and help lighting get their thoughts moving. That would often lead to another concept or paint-over to help direct the lighting and mood, and again the back and forth between assets, lighting, and the art department would help refine everything. Seeing the basic first passes go through compositing at such an early stage helped us also see how we could better compliment what was filmed on set. Following the action on sett gave us a great base to work from. This was especially true in areas where the environment was already in motion like the Manual release room. So as the world rotated and Uhura’s hair flew in a new direction we could work with that to add sparks flying in the same direction or little pieces of debris and dust. It was a fun process of trying to see how we could accent a world where the gravity is not normal or consistent. Or as Spock and Bones walked through the temple covered in vines we could sit back and really craft how we wanted the vines to sway as they walked by, or if one would bump their shoulder. It helped us make the environment connect into the storytelling just that much more.


Which interior was the most complicated to created and why?
The most complicated always seems to be the least suspected. And on this film that held true. The corridor that connected the Yorktown and the Enterprise near the beginning of the film was technically simpler than most of our other environments, but artistically ran into some odd hurdles. We started from a great design by Marc and moved quickly through modeling and into lighting. Though, once we starting seeing it composited, we realized that a hallway extending this far is something so rare in the world that it just felt wrong. I remembered a time where I got to visit one of the big aircraft carriers in San Diego and looking down the repeating open bulkheads and seeing a corridor extend for what seemed miles. Standing there in person and seeing something like that with my own eyes felt fake. So the challenge was how do we make what will inherently feel wrong become natural. In the end it came down to some great trickery that our lighter Kevin Couture managed to pull into the scene. He actually pulled in reference from the interior of Bespin in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So Star Wars helped us make Star Trek all the more awesome.

Can you explain in details about the Marauders design and creation?
The design, modeling, and texturing was handled by the artists at Kelvin Optical, and each studio working with them would look develop them into their pipeline. A credit to Kelvin’s work was how well these fell into look development and quickly filled shots!


How did you handle the lighting challenge for the Marauders?
The more reference you start with the easier it always is moving forward, and since onset there were stand in actors for all the Marauders we had perfect lighting reference to match. This was actually one of the cooler surprises in the making the film. The asset was already really strong from Kelvin, and our look development artist, Jonathan Fleming-Bock, balanced it out really well to survive multiple lighting scenarios. So once our team of lighters hit those shots they all seemed to come together really well. This gave us more time to dig in and have fun with them. Our lighters would really play around with light interaction from explosions and weapon fire or hits. It became more artistic crafting than just tackling them looking real.


Can you explain in details about your work on the forest environment of the planet?
Filling the forests on the planet with new plants and vines so it felt alien was deceiving in its simplicity. Some of those were also sequences that were split between Atomic Fiction and Double Negative so that shots cut back to back from each studio. This meant that we had to match the quality that Double Negative had produced and make sure the audience could never tell two different studios worked on the same environment. Thankfully the team and Double Negative was really great to work with and we kept each other updated with changing layouts and modified look of various plants. So when Scotty and Jaylah first meet nearly every part of that environment is modified. There are spiky moss chunks on the trees, little orange plants and these bulbous ferns all over, there are vines in the trees and on rock faces, and even the new lighting painted into the background. Once it was all done the world felt completely different than the filmed plate, but it since it was all enhancement to the real world, it helped us make it feel grounded. In the end, I don’t think you could tell at first glance that nearly all of that environment is edited and covered with new life, it just feels alien, but normal… a subtle but crucial achievement.


Yorktown is a huge environment. Can you tell us more about his Terminal?
The Yorktown terminal is where the Enterprise docks and everyone exits out into the space station for the first time. Once again, Marc designed the environment. The challenge here was clean and simple but interesting. This became a great exercise in minimalism. Too much made it seem crowded, not precise enough, and the design felt cheap. Jonathan Harman was able to draw upon a lot of reference from mid-century architects – especially Frank Lloyd Wright – and use that to help direct the design in a few various parts of the Yorktown that we worked on, including the Terminal. What I especially appreciated here was that I felt it help us visually create another connection to the original series by drawing influence from that era.

How did you created and animated the screens of the Yorktown Control Room?
Brian designed out the room and how the panels floated and the general look of it, while G Creative provided motion graphics that we were able to place in there. The entire environment was then dialed and directed by our compositing supervisor Mark Casey. This all involved creating a strong sense of volumetric light and a right contrast that set the mood. It really was a cool one to see turn around since the enhancements to the set pushed it into feeling like a futuristic control room and allowed us to play with the story telling a little as the damaged ship appears on the hologram and flies to the commanding officer. Little moments like that which help sell the action.

The final sequence takes place in an airlock chamber. How did you work with Double Negative about this sequence?
So the split between the studios on this one was a bit simpler, Double Negative created the actual Yorktown space station, and we created the airlock chamber, which was called the Zero Point Chamber with Jim Gibbs supervising the sequence at Atomic. So for the final shots we gave the asset of the chamber to Double Negative and they provided us with a series of spherical renders that we could use. The close up shots on the chamber actually became quite a technical puzzle. The chamber was 5 cubes of glass all over each other each refracting the layers behind it. That means in any given shot you could easily be looking through a dozen different layers of refractions and reflections where the actors needed to be layered and properly reflected from the front and behind. So to do this with without renders taking 30+ hours a frame Bruno Gagne our lighting lead and Jed Smith who was the compositing lead on this sequence managed to wrap their heads around the puzzle and worked out a system of layering the lighting renders and passes to properly make it so everything reflected and refracted as it realistically would.




Your sequences have lot of FX. Can you tell us more about the creation of these elements?
Well the first thing you need to know is that our FX lead is named James Kirk. That’s an automatic win!
As for the actual FX created, a lot of what we did was enhancing action on the plate, so adding smoke and dust and falling debris. Those shots are challenging on a shot by shot basis, but we have the benefit of being able to find real world reference. But, Star Trek is a franchise all about new worlds and new things. So some of the effects we had to create were presented with the challenge to not look like anything that exists. This would include the explosion that Kirk starts in the Enterprise, and the holograms that Krall is studying. So each of these had different challenges. For the explosion Peter had some great direction for color shifts and this tendril vortex feel to the flame as it rose toward our heroes. So these all broke into different elements and the concept phase essentially began right in Houdini with James creating various ideas and shapes. It was a complicated environment to also create the effects in since it was a mangled and destroyed section of the enterprise, so the flames and lighting needed to travel with and around the CG set. So James would create passes that lighting could use as an evolving light rig. And then the actual explosion was broken into more than a dozen elements that our compositor Sarah Young managed to meld together to fit in and combine futuristic fire and recognizable explosion so the final feeling was not normal, but believable.


As for the hologram effects, Brian and Marc drove the concept on these and really created a great look target to pursue. Mike Janov in our Oakland studio worked with FX artists to workout a methodology to follow the complexity of the concept. The concept portrayed multiple stages showing an artifact named the Abernath being placed into an apparatus sitting in a pool that looked similar to a birdbath. That apparatus clamped onto the Abernath, pulling it down into a goopy fluid. Then later the pool materialized into a cloud of data that created futuristic multi level panels that had an incredible amount of fluctuating data.

For the goopy pool, the original plates had what looked like substance similar to shampoo, as well as the clamping apparatus. Using that as a look target to hit, we re-created the clamping apparatus so we can animate it’s pinchers and move it downwards into the pool, as well as have FX artist Travis Harklroad generate two fluid simulations using Houdini’s flip solver. One that interacted with the apparatus and Abranath as it was submerged, another where it emerged. The simulations were then passed as a cached fluid surface where shaders, lighting and rendering were done by Deb Santosa and composited by Jason Arrieta. The third stage of the effect had panels of data floating above the pool that Krall had unlocked with the Abranath. Using Nuke, 3D cards were placed at different depths and orientations to create a multi layered slighted curved semi transparent display. A lot of attention was put into the placement, as we wanted the shot to feel incredibly complex in depth and data, but still had a nice composition of Krall looking at the panels. Compositors worked out timing of large blocks of data placement that had subtle movement, and that was used as a foundation to drive small bits of data done by FX artist Todd Dufour. The goal of the small bits of data was to make it appear as if data was coming from the pool moving upwards to draw the panels, and drop back down as if the data was being recycled. The final composite was done in Nuke, by Scott Gudahl.


What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
The main challenge was the same challenge that is common on all shows. How do we make this as awesome as possible in the short schedule we have. STAR TREK BEYOND was on an accelerated schedule, so we needed to plan 2 – 3 steps ahead, and constantly evaluate what resources we had and what technique would work best. This is where we rely heavily on production to keep us creatives from going too crazy. Annie Normandin, our VFX Producer, worked closely with Ron, and we owe a lot to them for keeping us on track.


Was there a shot or a sequence to prevent you from sleep?
I was working on STAR TREK, I didn’t sleep because I couldn’t stop nerding out. There were a lot of busy moments on the show, and the team definitely did some amazing things to makes shots work and deliveries possible. But I can’t say I lost sleep.

What do you keep from this experience?
I work with some of the best artists out there, during every show I am reminded how great of a team they are.

How long have you worked on this show?
Atomic first began in August and finished in July. So roughly 11 months.

How many shots have you done?
In total we did about 450.

What was the size of your team?
About 120 in total. Between both Oakland and Montreal studios. Roughly 100 of those were artists.

What is your next project?
Currently Robert Zemeckis’ new film ALLIED.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Im going to cheat and say the STAR TREK franchise. But that’s a little obvious at this point perhaps. So outside of that: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, RETURN OF THE JEDI and JURASSIC PARK.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Atomic Fiction: Official website of Atomic Fiction.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2016

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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