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From shambling zombies to parting the Red Sea, FX guru Sam Nicholson has done it all

Special effects for movie and television have evolved dramatically over the past decade, due to major advances in digital imaging – video, photography, computer-generated graphics, and even virtual reality.

One of the leading figures in the industry is cinematographer Sam Nicholson, head of Stargate Studios, an international production and visual effects company he founded in 1989. Stargate has worked on some of today’s most well known shows, including The Walking Dead, CSI: New York, Ray Donovan, and the upcoming 24: Legacy.

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As Stargate’s CEO, principal director and cinematographer,  draws from his thirty years of expertise in film, television and visual effects production to lead his company of over 125 talented artists and technicians. A member of the SanDisk Extreme Team, Nicholson is currently working on multiple television series, national commercials, and feature films, and has overseen the visual effects for series, such as Scandal, 24, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Walking Dead.

Recently, Nicholson’s team worked on The Ten Commandments, a Brazilian production that received three-times more pre-sale tickets than Star Wars: The Force Awakens in that country.

Digital Trends sat down with Nicholson to ask about Stargate’s work, the technology behind today’s productions, and what goes on behind the scenes of a major production, like The Ten Commandments.

Digital Trends: Can you talk to your team’s work, the technology employed, and what goes on behind the scenes in a feature production?

Sam Nicholson: Digital effects are essentially complex problem solving for both television and feature production. There are a variety of unique personalities on any set and each department collaborates with the others to put their artistic mark on the production, so keeping everyone happy can be a challenge.

As a visual effects supervisor, it’s your job to come up with a balanced plan of action before the director calls, “action,” My team starts with the script or storyboard and then interfaces with the other departments. We conduct several feasibility studies with various approaches and come up with the best technical and creative production plan to bring the script to life.

There is no single approach to digital effects, and you must take into account all the different nuances of a production, including the variety of technologies on each set. We can have as many as 10 to 20 cameras on set, including drones, GoPros, and crash cameras; each play a specific role in capturing a scene. The continual advancement of technologies plays a critical role in determining our approach. For example, VR has become increasingly popular and has led to virtual production techniques where we have the technical capabilities to decide what goes into a scene and what doesn’t. As technologies such as VR continue to grow, the digital effects and approaches that were once ideal for a show may no longer be relevant for the current season. For example, The Walking Dead has gone through an arc of technologies. At the start, six years ago, we didn’t use virtual zombies or virtual sets, but now we’re using them on a regular basis because of the virtual production advantages we have today.

Can you highlight the production processes and technology that allow for this type of production?

When shooting, we typically use up to 20 4K cameras to capture the immersive data and cover the cinematic needs for virtual production. With this many cameras shooting simultaneously, you are creating an astronomical amount of data very quickly. It’s the same problem with high-res VR systems. These files are all moved to a central storage device we keep on set, which we use in turn to transfer the data into our data pipeline. From there, it’s a matter of moving that data efficiently, working with it and connecting it to our clients.

The beauty of shooting in a higher resolution is that we were able to really manipulate our images in post-production.

Over the last 20 years, Stargate Studios has developed our Virtual Operating System (VOS), which syncs all of our computers, storage, and software in our facilities. This system moves all of our data and automates the source footage, CG elements, renders, and deliveries. It truly links artists, producers, and clients around the world so we can create and share digital assets seamlessly. Fast, dependable, economical equipment is essential. Solid-state drives (SSDs), flash memory, GPU-based rendering, and cloud storage have become important parts of our virtual production process. We need the best flash memory in our cameras, great 3D and compositing software, high-speed CPU and GPU rendering, and great memory throughout the system. SSDs in our computers and tiered storage in our servers complete our data pipeline. We ensure we don’t lose any data and our digital assets are secure against any unforeseen crisis, like power outages.

Twenty-four hours just to render one frame is not unusual by today’s standards, so [for example] Intel’s latest CPU and Nvidia’s GPU rendering combined with SanDisk latest SSD’s can truly change the dynamic of what is possible on a tight schedule.

What were some of the challenges with The Ten Commandments movie?

The biggest challenge was the high demand of a daily drama. An IMAX feature was actually edited from over 150 hours of programming. The Stargate VFX team had to create a large number of highly complex shots in a few months. Delivering digital effects like fluid dynamics and digital fire effects on that schedule – which is much more challenging than traditional episodic television – we had to constantly be thinking on our feet and needed the best possible tools to work fast and handle all of that data.

Specifically, parting the Red Sea was probably one of the most challenging scenes. Working with big water stunts (roughly 30 to 50 thousand gallons that are getting dumped on actors and horses) is always a difficult task. Parting the Red Sea was one of those career-changing moments and a huge accomplishment for my team and myself.

What tools were used?

In production, there is typically a wide range of tools and technologies that we use. We primarily shot principal photography on Sony F55s in 4K RAW, mixed with a wide variety of smaller action cameras. On average, we had 10 Sony F55 cameras for any shot, and used SanDisk storage products on most of them. Additionally, we used at least one drone on every single setup in The Ten Commandments, which was great because they act just like an aerial crane without the hassle of repositioning big piece of hardware on location.

Dez Mandamentos - Seventh Plague Behind the Scenes

The last time we spoke with you, we discussed 4K in filmmaking. Were you shooting in 4K for the project? Did you experiment with 8K?

We processed 4K at 24 frames-per-second live-action material and 8K for VFX plates and time-lapse elements in The Ten Commandments. The footage from the Sony A7R II was shot in RAW mode. We would shoot the live-action scenes in 4K, but for visual effects, we used various forms of stitched 8K to 12K with multiple cameras. The beauty of shooting in a higher resolution is that we were able to really manipulate our images in post-production. This gave us more creative capabilities while maintaining 4K resolution output.

What are your early impressions of 8K?

The resolution of the real world is unlimited and I believe we are headed in that direction with high resolutions such as 8K and 12K. It’s the same direction as higher and higher dynamic range and higher frame rates for VR. Originating in 8K is fantastic for VFX work because you don’t lose the quality or fidelity of your work. It is just another step for photo-realism that the industry is marching toward. One downfall with today’s rapidly evolving technologies is that they are outstripping our abilities to creatively design with what is going to be available. The technology available at the end of a film project is generally more advanced than when you started a project, so essentially, we are balancing today’s creative challenges with tomorrow’s technical solutions.

What are the must haves to make production and filming work seamlessly?

8K is just another step for photo-realism that the industry is marching toward.

I shoot a lot of footage and like to think that (during production) data is essentially free. It’s certainly not like shooting 35mm film at $2 per second. Handling big data in the field is challenging, but you have to manage the pipeline of your data throughout post-production, so having a strong data pipeline is essential. The post-production technology available today is very time-consuming – it can take days to render a single scene – so computers with fast CPU and GPUs and equipped with SSDs are great assets. It can help cut down the time for projects and make you more agile. Additionally, having devices equipped with the latest technologies are essential. The standard for high-quality cinema production is 4K, so having a 4K camera that you are familiar and comfortable with is just as important as your data network. If you are not yet familiar with 4K, get out in the field with a 4K camera and you’ll immediately notice why it has become so important for VFX work.

What is it like to handle VFX for The Walking Dead?

The Walking Dead is a fantastic show that we are honored to be a part of. Watching the show develop over the years has been truly impressive. [Executive producers] Gale Anne Hurd and Greg Nicotero review and refine each shot, so it is not uncommon to have 60 or 70 revisions to make each shot perfect. Our Stargate Atlanta VFX team adjusts every single drop of blood, and the digital prosthetic enhancements to every single frame within a shot. The quality and demand of the digital effects have risen dramatically over the years. The production has transitioned into a more feature film-like approach with an array of complex effects and multiple companies involved. We are excited by the challenge and continue to think about new ways to tell this amazing story.

What are some tips and tricks you can impart for budding cinematographers?

Don’t stop shooting and develop your artistic style! Developing your style can be challenging, so my advice is to limit the universe you’re shooting in. Shoot only in black-and-white or only with a single lens for a while. Choose a specific subject matter to focus on and refine your technique. Your artistic style will eventually surface if you have patience and persistence.

Lastly, as a cinematographer, you are expected to be both a creative visionary and technically adept. You must understand your own creative style and your technology inside-out. Develop your vision – understand light, color theory, artistic composition, and framing. When you master these you can combine them with the latest technologies to do amazing things. I tell people, “You’ll become a real cinematographer only when you combine your technical expertise with a great artistic eye.”

Bill Schiffner
Bill Schiffner is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant based in Holbrook, N.Y. He has covered the imaging industry for…
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