Stargate’s digital rhapsody – Visual Effects

Stargate’s digital rhapsody – Visual Effects

Daniel Restuccio

PASADENA, CA — Whoosh, zizz and mega-matting are not new surfer-dude words for riding waves but the verbal shorthand for Stargate Digital’s custom designed signature transitions for the new NBC series Las Vegas. The slick, visually intense scene changes use the latest film and video technology, including the new Sony HDC-F950 HD 4:4:4 RGB camera and HDCAM SR recorder, to create hybrid, seamlessly integrated, dynamic effects shots unattainable in one medium alone.

“My intention was to create a really fun show, something that had never been seen before on television,” says series creator/executive producer Gary Scott Thompson (2 Fast 2 Furious, Time Cop 2). “I wanted it to have both style and substance, but I wanted the style to compliment the substance.”

Sam Nicholson, Stargate’s ( CEO/visual effects supervisor, believes we are entering a whole new era of visual effects design. “Writers and directors have been existing in a maze of limitations about what you can and cannot do. With digital technology all the barriers are gone, You can do anything.”

The high concept of Las Vegas is surveillance. James Caan plays the security chief of a major casino and controls an array of cameras that can literally see anywhere. Nicholson asks,”How do you visualize what we call stream of consciousness filmmaking, where you can be anywhere, anytime from two people making love in the elevator to a surfing competition at the Mandalay Bay to a finger camera of a card shark cheating at a table?”

The answer he says is to use every trick in the book, including 3D animation, macro photography, timelapse photography, ultra high-speed photography, 3D motion tracking, frame blending, and then stack those shots on top of each other. “What looks like a simple effect is actually a combination of 30 or 40 techniques,” he says. Nicholson and his team at Stargate have been exploring visual effects possibilities for 14 years.


Stargate runs mostly off-the-shelf apps like Alias Maya for animation and Adobe’s Photoshop and After Effects for compositing. At their Pasadena facility, a high-speed gigabit LAN network provides instant access to 20TB of storage shared by 70 artists working on high performance PCs. These are mostly Stargate-built dual-processor boxes and Dell 650 workstations. Stargate has standardized their workflow around Windows, both on workstations and servers.

Film plates get scanned via Spirit Dab aCine on to D-5 HD tape. All the 29.97 footage gets converted to 24fps image sequence files via the DVS HD Station Pro digital disk recorder.

To organize the thousands of elements and shots, Stargate’s information services team designed its own custom, browser-based asset management and automation system that puts every clip on the server in multiple resolutions. Individual artists work on lower resolution proxy versions of scene elements. For shot rendering, After Effects is configured to reference the full resolution image and the system generates full fez and lower rez versions for viewing and offline editing.

Stargate is linked via Telestream with their new Vancouver digital facility and their studio clients so that executives, producers, directors and editors can review shots and drop them into their off line edits as soon as they are done. Final online effects assembly and editorial is done at the Stargate Pasadena facility on Avid|DS HD and, if necessary, rendered to 35rom on their Arrilaser film recorder.


Nicholson is very proud of his efforts to break episodic television free of the claustrophobic tyranny of the soundstage by championing the virtual back lot. Forever obsolescing the practice of using simple stock footage as backgrounds, Stargate shoots hours of location footage and thousand of still images, then maps them onto a totally photorealistic, customizable, moving, living, breathing virtual environment.

Nicholson says that viewers don’t realize that there are dozens of virtual back lot shots that they are doing for episodics such as ER, Crossing Jordan and The Dead Zone. It can cost up to $150,000 a day to take your unit to shoot in San Francisco. Stargate can shoot the same shots using their virtual back lot and save the producers 25 to 50 percent.

One of Nicholson’s big excitements on Las Vegas is getting to use the Sony HDC-F950 HD 4:4:4 RGB camera and HDCAM SR recorder to help build those virtual back lot composite shots. Stargate’s digital compositing supervisor, Adam Ealovega, took test footage shot with the F950 and turned the RGB image into a three-way vertical split screen that displayed separate red, green and blue channels. Then he studied the image in B&W, even blowing it up to 800 percent. “The rule of thumb is that the blue channel is the one that is going to have the most noise or grain,” he explains.

Ealovega found that the F950 camera has low noise across the board RGB and very low noise in the blue channel. Even though noise/artifacting and grain are not identical, in practical use the 950 camera and SR deck rivals employing the specialty VFX film stock

Another advantage of originating in HD is that you are not going through multiple post processes. Shooting greenscreen elements with the F950, you immediately have your shot and don’t have to scan the film or transfer it to D-5 and then have the 30 frames converted back to 24p images.

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