So, several months ago, I gathered questions for Playback Supervisor Krista McLean and sent them her way. I didn’t hear back for some time and simply assumed the worst: she’d been kidnapped, joined a cult, or was trapped under a refrigerator and desperately in need of help. Thus, I put it out of my mind – until I ran into a Krista in January who, it turned out, was none of the above; only inordinately busy. Well finally, last night, I received her completed Q&A. And I presented here, without delay, for you rabid playback fans.
Now for those of you wondering “Exactly what is playback?”. Well, you know when the team is in the jumper and they bring up the heads-up display containing all that information? That’s playback. Or when they access some wraith tech and McKay starts reading all those weird green onscreen scrolling wraith symbols? That’s playback. Or we see the timer on the bomb count down to detonation? That’s playback. And the Ancient text on the various systems throughout the city, and the in-progress love letter on Zelenka’s laptop, and the display on the handheld wraith-detector. Etc., etc., etc. Oh, and Krista has, for as long as my time with the franchise, either been directly involved in/overseen the various incredible matte shots and establishers Stargate has made use of over the years. “And what,”you’re undoubtedly asking, “are matte shots and establishers?”. Well, you know when the team creeps over the ridge and, you stay with them and see them in their tiny selves in the foreground peering down at a fleet of enemy ships below? That’s a matte shot. Or when the team wanders through the wraith facility and suddenly come upon hundreds upon hundreds of stasis chambers? That’s a matte shot. Or when our heroes decide to head off world and, off a wormhole transition, we go to a three second shot of the vilage exterior? That’s an establisher. Or, once they’ve saved the day and plan to head back home, we go to a shot of the cit of Atlantis surrounded by water? That’s an establisher.
Anyway, it gives me great pleasure to turn today’s blog over to Krista who is not only an enormously talented part of Team Stargate, but a friend I can always count on for a good book discussion, anime recommendation, and emergency cash loan whenever I’m running low on funds.
Oh, and today’s entry is dedicated to upcoming birthday gal AMZ.
Enzo Aquarius writes: “Oooh, I have a very curious question for Krista. As it is known, some of the screens have hidden things in them, such as jokes in Ancient text. What are some memorable things you have placed in Atlantis displays, perhaps some we don’t know of?”
KM: The one that sticks out for me is the “oh where oh where has your little dog gone” which remains to this day in the Ancient text that appears on our Atlantian holo screens. The funny thing was, it wasn’t really intentional, just something that was running through my head as I put the graphics together. I had totally forgotten about it until the fans translated the language and it showed up on the internet. Honestly, we have been much more careful what goes into them in the last couple years, as we know people can actually read them! For the most part, we try to keep direct english translation out of them. Not to say it doesn’t sneak in from time to time :)
Ytimyona writes: “First off, thanks so much for your awesome work on SG-1 and Atlantis!!!
KM: You’re welcome! But truthfully, they’ve been great shows to work on.
“How did you get into special effects?”
KM: I got into visual effects somewhat by accident. I was actually working at a video game company in Munich, Germany and met someone who was, at that time, working on SG-1. In a round-about way he hired me, and well, the rest is history.
“What was your major and where did you go to school?”
KM: I actually did an Honours Visual Arts degree at the University of Victoria here in Canada. I didn’t really touch a computer for any kind of artistic purpose until after I had finished school.
“Are you fluent in wraith and replicator?”
KM: Unfortunately, probably not.
“Do you get to choose what images/words/codes go on the playback screens?”
KM: Often, yes. Though the directors and producers will sometimes have something specific in mind.
“What is your favorite part of your job?”
KM: Um, lunch? :) No, I love the fact that it is so creative – We have been lucky at SG-1 and Atlantis to have people who trust us to use our own imaginations. I really love matte painting though, that’s what I enjoy most.
“Thanks for answering our questions”
KM: No problem!
Fsmn36 writes: “1) What brought you into this specialization?”
KM: I sort of answered this already, but really I was and am an artist in the more traditional sense – taking those skills and combining them with the technology just sort made sense. But as I said before, I worked in gaming before visual effects.
“2) Is sci-fi something you always wanted to try? Just good at it? Totally fell into it by accident?”
KM: I admit, it was an accident.
“3) What kind of schooling/training does one get for such a job?”
KM: There are so many different ways you can go. There are schools out there that teach vfx or design. I have hired playback artists that come from a web design background. Some people, like me, have a more traditional art background – then pick up the computer as just another tool and teach themselves.
Hayloh writes: “How do you create the amazing playback that we see? Do you use a program like After Effects? (That’s prolly a bit of a silly question but until this year I thought it was a power point thing).”
KM: We do use After Effects, but also Photoshop, Illustrator and sometimes a 3D package like Lightwave or Maya. Once the graphics are designed and animated we actually use Director to script them so that they can be used on set.
“Do you ever have to work with the scenics if one of your matte’s need to be translated to the set or is it all done digitally?”
KM: More often than not I am matching something that has been built or shot, or making things that we will never see outside of the vfx world - but there were parts of the inside of the Ori ship in Flesh and Blood that were done as mattes first. I have to say, there is nothing more strange than finding yourself in a set that for all the world looks like something you built digitally. I suppose that is how the art department must feel every day.
“Do you find that SF allows for more creativity and allows you to stretch your imagination more than run of the mill television/film?”
KM: Probably, though every kind of matte has its own challanges.
“How do you apply the playback? Do you load it into the computer meant to be showing? Does it have to be edited into the footage in post?”
KM: The playback works live on set 95% of the time. The graphics are programmed so that the playback operator on set can make them work with the action and dialogue. Sometimes the actors have to hit the right buttons, but it is usually better if someone else does it – we try to avoid being in the middle of a big emergency in the control room, someone hits the wrong key and all of a sudden all the monitors turn orange.. you get the idea. Sometimes video must be added in post production if we haven’t shot it yet.
Kelvin Heine writes: “When can we get a decent-official screensaver that looks like the ancient displaces in Atlantis? I have been asking for one since SGA started and nobody can find one or make one that looks good enough.”
KM: Unfortunately, as a general rule, we can’t release our files and such out into the world. I’ve seen some pretty good stuff on the internet though…
ZeroPointBatteries writes: “When characters like McKay and Carter are working on a program that requires ‘interaction’ to perform an on-screen function, does the pressing of a key actually effect the screen or is it timed?”
KM: I think I’ve answered that a couple of questions up. As a general rule, don’t make the actors hit buttons.
“P.S. Any chance you would like to share a file of some of the Atlantis ’screensaver’ with us?”
KM: I think I’ve answered that one too.
Green writes: “Matte, to me, seems to be a sort of establishing shot. It feels like a landscape painting whenever I see one of these on screen. Do you paint at all? Do you sketch what you want to be seen beforehand? Are you given what needs to be established by the director or do you read the script and decide for yourself?”
KM: What I love about matte painting is that often you do get to make a lot of creative decisions yourself. Usually you are given general direction by the producers and vfx supervisors, but you generally have a fair amount of freedom. Matte paintings in both TV and film are often a combination of many different kinds of elements. Digital painting, 2D compositing, as well as 3D work comes into play. Every shot is different. Sketching out ideas is always a great place to start.
“The playbacks seem like a lot of fun. You get to invent a whole language (I think)! I know that there have been reports of some pretty interesting things being spelled out on some of the screens in either ancient or whatever other language is being used. Are you responsible for any of the folly on the playbacks? Anything else that you tend to flash on the screen that might be humorous or interesting in the background?”
KM: Some of this I answered earlier – but sometimes there are photographs of crew and others that make it into the playback as well. Actually there is a funny picture of Paul Mullie on our pinboard in the office that was used in playback some time ago. He’s dressed up as some sort of military man.
“How many maps and radars do you have saved? And how often are the same images used again on playbacks?”
KM: The maps are reused – as well as the generic radar screens, but most of the playback of that sort is built in layers and is often changed for each episode. I think we probably have a couple terabytes of playback from the last few years.
“Are you more isolated from the cast and crew or are you on set when the playbacks are used? How often do you and the special effects team get to discuss what you’d like to see for one of the mattes?”
KM: We are isolated in the sense that the artists don’t work on set most of the time, though are often there to show graphics, talk to the directors, or just to see how the playback is being used. There are people (playback operators) who control the graphics on set. That’s their full time job and they are on set every time there is any kind of playback graphic being used. As for the mattes – sometimes I like to be on set to see what is being shot, especially if it is a set extention. It’s great to be able to talk with the director about how they are planning on shooting something like that. We also talk about this stuff in meetings before we ever shoot anything. If we are out on a location it’s great to be able to go and get reference photos too.
“Are you a fan of lists and/or numbered questions? Does it make it easier to answer things if they’re concisely numbered? I’m usually pretty good about that.”
KM: I love lists of numbers :)
Patricia Lee writes: “Ms. McLean,
You been with the SG franchise for many a year, did you start out as a playback supervisor or did you work your way to the top? During that time, what was the most difficult matte painting you’ve ever done and why?”
KM: I have been with the franchise for a very long time. I started as a playback artist in season 5 of SG-1. I started doing matte work in season 7 and supervising playback in season 8 I think. Hmm, the most difficult matte – that’s actually kind of a hard question. Some are more technically challenging – “The Shrine” shots were tricky because they had the waterfall in them, and close to camera water is hard to pull off on the TV vfx timeline. “Vegas” had its challanges because it had to be geographically accurate. That’s what sticks out for me recently. Sometimes you fight with the composition of a shot – really each one proves a challange in its own way.
“What payback proved to be hardest to translate on screen and do you find yourself having to tweak play back on the very day it is being used? Can you give us an example of this kind of nightmare and what you did to save the day?”
KM: We’ve had to tweak playback at the last minute many times. sometimes because it was made for the wrong shaped screen, or the beats don’t quite work out the way we planned. These are the times you find yourself sitting on a crate with your laptop on set hoping that whatever scene they are shooting doesn’t go quickly. :) The very first episode of SG-1 I ever worked on I had to make a gate dialing screen – The art department provided the address, and I was convinced all was well – until I had a frantic call from set from the playback operator saying that the earth symbol was upsidedown. I had to fix it in a big hurry – and needless to say I didn’t make that mistake twice. I suppose I almost ruined the day, and then saved it at the same time. :) oops!
“I really enjoined Continuum and loved the matte paintings,, they were seamless and well done! Thanks for all your hard work! It has paid off in a big way!”
KM: Thanks! Though there were a lot of artists who worked on the movie, and I agree – everyone did a great job.
“Will you be continuing on with the SGU?”
IMForeman writes: “I have a couple question for Krista.
1.) What software packages are used to create the playbacks needed for Stargate?”
KM: I think I answered this up with the After Effects question.
“2.) Where would be the best place to learn to use them?”
KM: Also sort of this one too – but I’ll say again, there’s no right way to learn the software – some folks buy it and learn it, others go to school – some of our artists were familiar with some and learned the rest on the job.
“3.) How does one get into making playback for TV or film?”
KM: That is also a question with a million answers. People tend to be designers, or GUI designers as well. Honestly, I think it is something most people fall into by accident. There aren’t a huge number of playback specific artists out there – there are a few companies who specialize in it. If you get good at it, then you will probably get work.
Nika writes: “I have a question for Krista regarding First Contact/Lost Tribe -
I was wondering if you tried anything new or different to represent languages or database contents of Janus lab or the Asgard screens?”
KM: It’s late in the day, and this question confuses us.
“Also – where do you get your inspiration for the movement or flow of the wraith screens? Artistically they’re very ‘musical’ looking.”
KM: I am passing this question off to the marvelous Mr. Robert William Fitzsimmons, who is standing behind me and apparently has nothing to say.. He makes jazz hands at work and is prone to bouts of interpretive dance. He is rambling about little tribal things – and recalls trying to make the graphics not look like frogger. He was really into Rage Against the Machine when he was designing them initially. (I actually really like those screens, and thought they turned out well)
Linda Gagne writes: “I have always wondered when the hud comes up, and all that small writing scrolls, what it really says, can you share?”
KM: GTF and all of Rob’s family’s birthdays and initials – all verified by our space consultant at the Canadian Space Club.
“Also, on the screens for the heart monitors when used, are those vitals etc the actors or just something you put there yourself? And what does all the writing say on those screens that is supposed to be ancient? I always try to imagine what kind of information it is giving the med team, there is just so much of it.”
KM: The heart monitors are created by us and timed by the operators on set. We have a medical consultant to make sure the data is as realistic as possible. The “Ancient” medical eqipment would be much more complex than what we would have on Earth – often what we see in Ancient is the raw untranslated data – the computer systems, in theory, translate that data into something we understand. Also it is likely that the machines would spit out real-time analysis of the data they are collecting – at least in theory.
Chevron7 writes: “Thanks for all of your hard work on Stargate. I always notice the playback and mattes. My favourites include Dakara, wraith databases and anything on Rodney’s tablet.”
1. How much detail do the writers give with regards to playback and mattes or do they leave it up to you and your team?”
KM: I think I’ve mostly answered this one in above questions – but yes, generally we are given a lot of creative freedom.
“2. Do you also do the designs for the menus on the DVDs? If so, the Atlantis ones are fabulous.”
KM: We don’t actually make those menus, but we are often asked to send assets to those who do.
“3. Do you use certain colours for the playback because they work best for television or convey a certain emotion?”
KM: A bit of both – also aesthetically we consider the sets and look that the art department has come up with for each new location/ship/people. Some colours don’t work well on TV – so we would avoid those – a lot of bright reds can be problematic.
“4. Artistically, what or who inspires you?”
KM: I am inspired by all sorts of visual art – painting, sculpture, photography – I like old movies – and anime. Really I’m inspired by a lot of things…
“5. What piece of technology could you not live without in everyday life?”
KM: My PVR (DVR) and my wacom tablet.. I know, that’s 2 things..
Sector 24 writes: “Hi Krista,greetings from Bulgaria. I really enjoy all playbacks and mattes. Since I work in the area of graphic design and digital painting, I’m interested in the playbacks. Can you describe the process of how a playback is created. For example a screen of a Jumper, what kind of software is used to create the graphics and so on. Thanks a lot.”
KM: I think I’ve pretty much covered it in the after effects question. Maybe also I should add flash, as that’s often used on the smaller handheld devices.
Valexie writes: “For Krista, it’s hard coming up with an original question, so many good ones have been posted already but: Most interesting and most taxing project? Any favorite episodes?”
KM: Hmm, I enjoy the big 3D builds, and the big architectual builds. “Search and Rescue” this last season was a big organic 3D build – which I enjoyed.. plus then I got to blow it up. :) “Whispers”, hands down, favorite episode – oh wait, whose blog is this again..? :)
“What’s next? Will you be involved in the SGA movies or is that too far off to commit?”
KM: I’m working on Universe now.
“What type of educational background is required to do what you do? I find all the behind scenes stuff fascinating. I’m the geek that always listens to commentaries. Doesn’t matter who’s giving it. Love the perspectives. Thank you for all your hard work.”
KM: I am also a geek who likes commentaries. I think I’ve answered most of that in previous questions though…
Thornyrose writes: “Questions for Ms. McLean: When being given a playback or matte to do, how much information are you given about what is wanted, and how much of it is your creative imput? How long does it take to do the “average” playback? Which mattes do you consider your best/favorite, and which one or ones were you disappointed in after viewing the completed project? Is the SGA franchise work a full time job, or do you work on other projects as well? Thank you for the many small touches you make on my favorite episode, that help it rise above mediocrity and into somethng that will be enjoyed for decades to come by present and future fans.”
KM: A playback graphic that would be considered “hero” – so one that is interactive and tells a fairly involved story might be worked on for a couple of days. The more simple graphics get finished in a 1/2 day or so. We usually have about 7 days to finish a full episode – and in season 5 of atlantis there were 3 full time playback artists. I try not to get hung up on the shots I am disappointed in when they are done. Tv has tight deadlines, so there’s always more I’d like to do with a shot.. It would be rare for me to really think there was nothing I could do to it to make it better. I actually hope that is always the case, as I think it keeps me striving to keep learning and to keep pushing myself. I do work on other projects here and there when we’re not shooting, but SG is definately a full time job.
SparrowHawk writes: “Questions for Krista McLean? I think everyone else has covered it already, so I’ll just say thanks! I’ve always paid attention to the matte paintings in TV shows and movies and enjoy them as an art form. I like the other-worldly – alien, ethereal – effect of the SGA mattes.”
“I had no idea that the person who does the matte work also does all those “playback” computer images. I didn’t even know they were called playbacks! This blog is very educational.”
KM: Honestly, I don’t actually “make” all those graphics anymore – there’s a 3 person team of artists, as well as 2 playback operators who get all the playback graphics to set.
Sulien writes: “For Ms Krista McLean, I don’t have any questions but I do want to convey my thanks for all of the hard work she and her team put into Stargate. All of the playback and matte shots have been beautifully done, but my favorites are always the establishing shots of the city of Atlantis and shots with the city in the background. I wish MGM would sell some prints of some of those shots, because I would love to have a couple hanging on my walls. Thank you so much for all of the beautiful shots of Atlantis that you’ve given us! You make me believe the city is real.”
KM: Thanks so much. There’s a great team of artists, both in-house and external who have been responsible for all the great vfx over the years. I feel lucky to have worked along side them.