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Interviews
The Atlantis Effect THE ATLANTIS EFFECT
GateWorld talks with Mark Breakspear
In 2003, he won a Gemini Award in the Best Visual Effects category for his work on the groundbreaking Season Five finale, "Revelations." Then an artist on the effects supervisor James Tichenor's team, now Mark Breakspear has worked his way up to the supervisor's chair on Stargate Atlantis in 2004. That makes him one of the bosses when it comes to flying space ships, exploding cities, and leaping through the Stargate's event horizon!

In our interview, Mark talks about his work on SG-1, how he made team captain for the new spin-off show, and what viewers have to look forward to as Atlantis enters the second half of its first season. He also talks about the dynamics of his working relationship with the show's on-set crew.

Be sure to visit Mark's visual effects industry site on the Web at vfxsoup.com!

GateWorld: Tell us about your previous Stargate experience! What episodes have you worked on?

Mark Breakspear: I first started working on Stargate in 2001 when I joined Rainmaker in Vancouver. Before that I worked on The X-Files and Star Trek down in L.A. at a company called Digital Muse (which became EdenFX).

Stargate is a great show to work on as a compositor, as you get a lot more creative freedom than on other shows. You get to come up with how things look, rather than have the VFX supervisor tell you what they wanted; they just let you get on with the design. Hopefully, you would come up with something good!

When I composited on the show, I remember that there were always lots of puddle shots and zat blasts, but the things James Tichenor (then VFX supervisor) had me work on was those shots that had an effect that hadn't been seen before. I'm more of a designer, so I tend to be more useful coming up with stuff.

GW: You worked on the SG-1 Season Five finale, "Revelations," which was groundbreaking in its visual effects -- especially with the introduction of Heimdall, the show's first entirely computer-generated character. Tell us about your experience on that episode.


Stargate breaks new ground with its first entirely computer- generated character, Heimdall, in Season Five's "Revelations."
MB: I did it all! Nah, obviously joking. "Revelations" was all about the CG dude, but I managed to get a Gemini along with the talented folks at Image Engine because I did a million little holograms through-out the show. (... I can still remember watching them render.)

Whereas the CG dude was groundbreaking in the sheer volume of shots and the quality of the effects, I like to believe that that Gemini was awarded based on the outstanding ripples that I added to the hologram. (Again, I jest!) Honestly, the show was great to work on with James -- he's a quality supervisor who knows how to motivate people. He's left a big gap moving off to the U.K. ... but I hear he might be returning [to Vancouver]!

GW: How did you become the visual effects supervisor for Atlantis?

MB: Rainmaker got together with MGM and decided to partner up on the visual effects. Rainmaker could offer MGM way more as the facility lead on the show, as opposed to what many smaller facilities could offer on their own. It's an interesting experiment that has seen some amazing effects for the show.

That's how I got involved. Rainmaker put me into the roll of VFX supervisor at Rainmaker, and I took over the show after John Gajdecki finished the pilot. I had just finished "The Collector" and was honestly ready for a long nap ... but alas, chances to work on a first season for the Stargate universe doesn't come along that often!

GW: And just what does a visual effects supervisor do?

MB: It's the roll of the VFX supervisor to make sure that the direction of the visual effects happens in the way that the producers of the show want to see. Producers speak in terms of money versus time versus story, but the artist hears in terms of cool versus glow versus space ship. It is a natural fact that if we reduced us all down to animals, producers would be lions and artists would be killer whales. The two rarely share the same philosophies on life.


A photo taken on set, which when composited together with different exposures of the same image helps the animators to realistically light the Puddle Jumper.
It's the VFX supervisor's job to bridge the gap. It's also the VFX supervisor's job to up the creative aspect of a shot, and not get bitten by either the lion or the whale.

GW: Well production on Stargate Atlantis's first season is wrapping up now. Tell us how the second half of the season looks!

MB: It looks like the guys at Rainmaker have out done themselves yet again.

GW: And as you wrap up the year, what are your overall thoughts on the visuals of the show's inaugural season? The storytelling, acting, and production?

MB: I think the show looks great. The visual effects for "The Eye" are groundbreaking and many people will not realize what they are watching is completely computer-generated. The overall level of quality in visual effects has been high. Of course, there are a few shots that could have been better, but that's VFX. This is TV -- I fill the black spaces between commercials. For a Season One, it's great -- dare I say bigger than SG-1's first season?

I predict great things for Atlantis. So long as there is a strong creative lead and a willingness to spend the money needed to do the great effects, you're going to be in for a great ride!

GW: Visually, which is your favorite episode of Atlantis so far?

MB: "The Eye." The Rainmaker team created their own CG software to create the stormy water for the ocean. The level of detail and control has never been seen in TV effects before. Dan and Jose at Rainmaker pulled out all the stops and created mind-blowing shots. I think we went about 3.5 times over budget on that one -- but you can't get away with crap. You guys can spot that a mile away, and nothing kills a show quicker than cheap looking effects.

GW: Does Atlantis use existing templates for some items (like the Stargate puddle) from Rainmaker's established designs, or did you start from scratch?


Visual effects assistant Hamish Hamilton passes the time by playing a PlayStation 2 game on the Stargate.
MB: Everything is new. There was a lot of pressure on me as a supervisor to do everything the same way as was done on SG-1, but a new show needs new ideas and new ways of doing things if you want to create something fresh and exciting. I think I managed to do both, keep the essence of the tried and tested SG-1 method, but also allow the artist the freedom to create something new.

GW: How does your relationship with Stargate Productions work? Are you on the set often?

MB: The Atlantis crew is great. They put up with a lot from the Rainmaker VFX team, but we do try to return the favor. I'm the type of supervisor who doesn't want to hold up the set unless it's for a good reason. Endless measurements that you might not need, or stopping the shoot for an hour to fix blue screens -- these are things that I know I can fix back at Rainmaker.

Having 10 years of compositing experience behind me is the foundation of my confidence on set. I can't imagine how you could do this job and not know how to composite or do 3D ... yikes!

GW: Then how much of the visual effects work is hands-on working with the cast and crew, or shooting real-world elements, versus sitting at a computer?

MB: How long is a piece of string?

GW: Are you a fan of Stargate?

MB: Not a fan, no, but my brother is a massive freak for the show. When I first started working on the show, James Tichenor told me I was going to do an effect for the Asgard. I asked, "The As-who?" My brother wrote me a long, long, long essay on their history and put me straight.

I like the show enough to be harmful, but not enough to be dangerous.


Breakspear and the Atlantis visual effects team on the foggy set of Season One's "Home."
GW: So what has been done to give Atlantis it's own identity on the effects side, rather than simply continuing Stargate's established look?

MB: The two shows share so much, it would be wrong not to let them influence each other in a little way. Gates in SG-1 are round, so obviously the gates in Atlantis can't be square ... or could they? (Mark starts up the Inferno ...) Atlantis is in a different galaxy, and with that comes new technology, new places to blow up, and new people to attack or be attacked by. It's all really excitingly new.

GW: What are you hoping to do in this show to push the boundaries of visual effects? What can we expect out of your team for Season Two?

MB: We are working on a lot of Atlantis-related crowd simulations at Rainmaker, but I can't say too much right now. However, Season Two will no doubt offer as many spectacular opportunities for visual effects as Season One.

GW: At last, the big question: Do you think Atlantis has the chops to carry on the franchise on its own, if and when SG-1 ever ends?

MB: Atlantis absolutely has enough umph to go it alone. But SG-1 will never end -- it will probably hit Season 10. No way you're going to pull the plug at the end of a Season Nine. Think how cool a Season 10 T-shirt would look with the zero in the "10" being a gate! Once the SCI FI execs see this T-shirt idea, they'll announce what's happening for sure!

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