Dan Smiczek began his visual effects career in 2011 at Rhythm & Hues. After working in various studios, he joined Pixomondo in 2018. He has worked on a many shows including STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, MIDWAY and THE MANDALORIAN.
How did you and Pixomondo get involved on this show?
Pixomondo was brought on very early in the project before filming began. Our modeling team worked directly with the production art department fleshing out their designs of the various vehicles in the show including the Borg Cube as well as the main ship for the series La Sirena.
Can you elaborate about your collaboration with the Director and the Production VFX Supervisor?
We worked closely at the beginning of the project with the Production VFX Supervisor to define the visual style of the Borg Cube as well as when it came time for shot production. There were various directors for each episode but unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to work with them directly.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
At the very beginning I worked with the VFX Producer to break out the various assets we needed to build for the season as well as establish a team to handle the R&D and shot work for each episode. Episode awards can come very late in the process so you want to have a proper team in place to be able to tackle any challenges that may arise.
How did you split the work amongst the Pixomondo offices?
The Los Angeles office handled the majority of Pixomondo assets and shots, but we also had assistance from our Vancouver facility.
What was the real size of the sets?
The Borg Cube physical sets were actually rather small. The main Borg Cube set was two levels but a relatively small footprint inside of a soundstage. There was also another generic Borg Cube set that could be reconfigured by moving around Borg Cube pillars to create multiple environments. The set for the ship La Sirena was quite large covering two floors and filling an entire soundstage.
Can you explain in detail about the design and the creation of the Borg Cube?
There are many different layers to the Borg Cube that each add complexity and detail. Overall there is a skeleton of the super structure that broadly defines the general shape with a lot of detailed cutouts. On top of that there is another shell with different detail cutouts to add depth to the surface. The hangar area of the cube – an area that looks like a bite has been taken out of it — contains a lot of scaffolding and Romulan made hangar bays. The last large detail layer is various pipes that run along the rectangular cutouts going across various faces of the cube.
The extremely detailed surface of the cube comes from our « greeble » library. Greeble is small, highly detailed generic pieces that can be added to models to add complex detail. We used a library of 23 highly detailed cube-like pieces and instanced them 1,888,476 times on the various surfaces of the Borg Cube. The final tally for the Borg Cube was 82,747,447,629 polygons and is approximately 4.7 kilometers long on each side.
What kind of references and indications did you received for the Borg Cube?
We received relatively detailed drawings from the production art department for the general layout of the Borg Cube that we were able to base all of our work on. From there we looked back at the appearances of the Borg Cube in the THE NEXT GENERATION television show as well as the Star Trek films to try and make sure we captured the same feeling, but modernize it to be a Borg Cube that nobody has ever seen before.
Did you use procedural tools to create this vast and complex environment?
All of the modeling and lookdev was done in Maya while Houdini was used for complex instancing to build out the detail of the Borg Cube.
How did you populate the Cube environment with people and spaceships?
Everything was hand animated on a shot by shot basis.
Can you tell us more about the shaders and textures creation?
All of the textures for the spaceships and Borg Cube were created with a mixture of Substance and Mari. All lookdev and shading was done for the Arnold renderer.
The light comes mainly from internal lights and spaceships. How does that affect your lighting work?
It was even more difficult when you take into consideration the Borg Cube was stationary in interstellar space not near a star system or sun for a light source. We took some liberties creating a strong light source as well as some bounce light. Each shot of the Borg Cube had to be art directed to try and bring out it’s complex detail and immense size.
The Cube model is really complex. How did you prevent your render farm from not burning?
There was definitely some challenges but the Arnold renderer is incredibly good about dealing with large amounts of geometric data. We heavily utilized Arnold Stand-ins (including using Stand-ins inside of Stand-ins) as well as general referencing so that the actual maya files were less than 2 megabytes for the shot artists.
How did you handle the challenge for the scale feeling?
What was most effective was to always have a spaceship in frame to help show the large difference in size between a ship and the cube. In other cases we had to utilize various lighting tricks to highlight the detail on the surface of the cube to try and give it scale.
Is there something specific that gives you some sleepless nights?
While the Borg Cube was in development we had to get a version out to be shown at San Diego Comic-Con. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to show fans something so iconic but refreshed for a new series hoping that the choices we made met their expectations. The enthusiasm from its reception was a big morale boost for the team.
What is your best memory on this show?
My best memory is seeing the first shot of the Borg Cube in the very first episode come together. It was a culmination of all the different types of work we did on the show, and a lot of hours by many people went into making it happen.
How long have you worked on this show?
From start to finish we were on the show for a little over a year.
What was the size of your team?
The team increased and decreased over the various stages of production but there was at least 50-75 artists touching the show before it was over.
What is your next project?
We work on shows so far in advance I actually just wrapped up WESTWORLD Season 3 as well as the first season of PERRY MASON. I am now diving back into the world of THE ORVILLE for its third Season.
A big thanks for your time.
STAR TREK: PICARD – BORG CUBE BREAKDOWN – PIXOMONDO
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Pixomondo: Official website of Pixomondo.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020