Interview with Keith Bomely of dbox - RISING: Rebuilding Ground Zero TV Series
By Jeff Mottle
CGarchitect interviews Partner and Chief Creative Officer at dbox, Keith Bomley, on their recent work on the Discovery Channel TV series RISING: Rebuilding Ground Zero
CGA: Tell us about your background and how you got started in the industry.
KB: Well, I went into university in the early ‘90s, and that was kind of the beginning of CGI. We had a computer lab with these high-end UNIX boxes with MicroStation loaded on them.
The university didn’t really have any staff that were able to teach it, so they just kind of recruited the students – including myself – they started learning it out on their own. I picked up a bit on my own and then I learned from the students that had learned on their own before me.
CGA: This was in architecture school?
KB: This was in architecture school, yeah. I went to a Catholic university in D.C. for architecture. I have a Bachelor of Architecture degree. Because of that experience, I got a job at SOM, who at the time were using a semi-proprietary CAD system based in the AIX operating system, which is UNIX essentially. I worked there for three years before joining dbox in ’98.
CGA: So you’ve been in the CG industry for quite a while then.
KB: Yeah. I’ve basically been involved my whole career, really. The CAD software at SOM, they used it for 2-D drawings, but it was inherently a 3D program. You’ve got to learn model first in Microstaton and then the MMS software and then after that 3D Studio max.
CGA: Were you one of the original founders then of dbox?
KB: No, I wasn’t. The founders were all Cornell grads, and dbox has been around since ’96. They were all friends from school. I’m not sure you’ve met all of them – Matthew was one. I joined shortly after in ’98. So it was about a year and a half to two years into their existence.
CGA: How did dbox actually get started? What was the impetus for that?
KB: Well, dbox was started by, as I said, the Cornell grads. Cornell at the time was also a hotbed of CGI. Matthew, Charles, and James all being very smart and talented really gravitated toward that part of the education and embraced that as a way to represent architecture. Early on, when they graduated, they decided to form a company that specializes in that. That’s how dbox got started.
CGA: You guys are traditionally known for your still image work. Obviously you’ve done this big project with a lot of animation for the Rising. Is that something that you guys have always done or is it a move in another direction?
KB: We’ve been doing animation for pretty much our entire existence. We’ve done a lot of animations for competitions and real estate projects. A lot of times, though, that work was confidential and we couldn’t show it, so we can’t really have our whole animation portfolio out there.
CGA: With the project that you guys just finished up here on the Rising, maybe tell me a little bit about that project and how it came about.
KB: Well, the genesis of the idea came from Danny Forster who was one of the executive producers on the series. He pitched the idea with KPI, who is the production company, to Discovery and Science and they loved the idea of the show and started shooting a couple of years ago.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Danny Forster, but he’s an architect and he has his own show, “Build it Bigger,” where he travels the world looking for these massive construction projects and goes with kind of a kids enthusiasm to the project talking to the guys working on it and standing next to big machines and big trains.
CGA: Is that the fairly young guy?
CGA: Okay. I totally know that show. That’s a good show.
KB: I don’t know how old he is. It’s irrelevant, I guess. He and the guys at KPI who are the production company, they were the ones we really dealt with on a day-to-day basis throughout the course of the process.
Our involvement started probably about eight months ago. I’d say we were involved in the project for eight months starting probably around January.
These guys – Danny Forster, KPI, and Discovery and Science – they found us because they were asking around who had created most of the recognizable imagery of the World Trade Center site. That was us. So they found us and we started meeting and it quickly became apparent that we were like-minded entities and we could really do great things together. We both got excited about our involvement, spent almost four or five months talking about how we can be involved. Finally, in December or January, they pulled the trigger and we were off and running.
CGA: At that point, was most of the show shot and you were just given CGI shots based on what was already created or were you really involved in the whole production process?
KB: The filming that we did was all the aerial shots. We did all the helicopter aerial cinematography, but KPI did all the filming, every other bit of filming – all the interviews, all the filing on the site, the filming of the construction workers, etc.
They had been filming for about two years, so a lot of it was done, but they were still heavily involved in the filming when we got involved. They had a wish list of shots and that’s how we negotiated how much scope we would do and whatnot.
But that list was almost a little premature because they still needed to do a lot of filming in order to know exactly the points that they had to communicate in the series. Really, it was maybe 20% of the shots that they thought they wanted that we could actually get started with when we were starting. And that was a little scary because we had to rely on them to get us what we needed in order to do our work.
CGA: Did you have access to all of the footage that was filmed to help build the scene that you guys did for those shots?
KB: Well, we didn’t have full access to whatever they had done, but what was really helpful and what they were really good at is if there was a point they were thinking to make, they would give us those particular clips. So we would have either the audio of what somebody was saying to go with what we were doing, or they would give us the footage to go along with it and we would use that as a way to come up with our shots and the timing of it.
CGA: Given everything you guys were doing was around the construction of the site, were you given blueprints at all for reference on any of the work?
KB: We were. We really only wanted to get what we needed, because for some understandable reasons there were a lot of security concerns around the filming information, so we had to jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops to get the files. And even those files were stripped down. We were only given the information that we asked for. There were some really strict protocols on how to handle those drawings. We didn’t want to be responsible for anything that we didn’t really need to be.
CGA: How was developing the shots for a series like this different than working for an Architect or a developer?
KB: Well, it’s sort of the same in a lot of ways, because at the end of the day the goal is to represent architecture. The one thing that was probably different than working on a real estate project where you’re trying to sell real estate is that we got into some construction topics that you would never broach if you were on a condo type project, for example.
So we really got into the nuts and bolts in a way that we hadn’t done before, which was exciting and fun. And we were really showing the exterior of a building or the interior, or only the parts of a project that the end user would see. But in this case we were kind of stripping away the facades and showing the structure, what’s underneath the concrete, how these things come together which was actually pretty interesting and exciting for us, because many of us are architects.
CGA: Were the people that you got to work with all on the production side or did you get to work with the actual project architects as well?
KB: Wwe’ve been working on that site since 2002, I guess the first thing we did was the new entrance for the World Financial Center. Since that point, we have worked with pretty much every entity down there.
So we already had these relationships with the architects and the developers and the government agencies that are controlling the site. That way, it was a little bit easier for us because we knew these people and we didn’t have to prove ourselves as much to them in order for them to give us the information that we needed.
And actually, during the whole process, everybody was extremely supportive and we were actually very grateful for that.
CGA: Did you get to go down to the site a fair bit to try to get your bearings or were you pretty familiar because of all the work you’d done already?
KB: I was pretty familiar with the site. I personally have been involved with it for about nine years. I did get to go on the site a few times. It was interesting because the last time anyone of us got near the site, it was kind of a hole in the ground, and this time there had been so much progress on the construction and there was actually a plaza and platform that you could walk on, which is the memorial. It was a little eerie at first. I’ve been in New York for 16 years, and being on that plaza again is a little reminiscent of being on the original World Trade Center plazas. You can see the two pools, and when you stand in between the two pools it’s almost like when you used to stand in between the two towers while they were still there. That bit brought back some memories, and it was a little emotional, actually.
But one part of the project, which you can’t see unless you actually are able to get into the site, was a museum which was a huge surprise for me. That was much further along than I had expected, and it was an amazing space down there. It’s going to be an incredible new asset for the city, and it’s going to be one of the most heavily-visited destinations in New York once it opens next year.
CGA: The museum itself was actually below grade, right?
KB: Yeah, the entire museum was below grade. The bottom of it is actually at bedrock. The ceiling is essentially the plaza for the memorial. So you have this almost six story high space of this nothing, because the only thing that is being held up above it is this plaza, which structurally is not that much. You have this big cavernous space without that many columns, and it’s actually pretty powerful.
CGA: How many shots were you guys responsible for creating throughout the whole series?
KB: To be honest, I haven’t counted them. I know it’s over 70. The thing is the list of shots is constantly evolving throughout the process. Depending on the footage that they would get, it would depend on what shots we would do. Until the end, until they were done shooting, they didn’t really fully know exactly which ideas they could cover or not.
It was up until two weeks before the show was going to air before we decided on the last list of shots we were going to do.
CGA: Did the budget evolve with all the changes as well?
KB: No, it didn’t. The budget was a fixed thing. What I do know is we did create about almost exactly a half an hour of CG, which is a lot as you know.
CGA: From all the work that you did, what was the most important part of the creative direction you had to go with?
KB: I think the biggest move, at least in terms of the CGI, was to create a distinction between two types of shots that made themselves evident when we looked at the list. One was showing the site as a completed project, and we decided for those shots, to treat that completely realistically.
The other – and this is the greater part of the shots that we did – was to show some diagrammatic architectural and construction concepts. For that we decided that we needed to have – since the shots were diagrammatic, parts would be moving. It couldn’t be 100% real world, realistic environments so we wanted to take the viewer into this other space to explain those concepts. But we didn’t want the actual rendering to be diagrammatic. We had this idea: when we were doing shots that would explain those concepts of showing it and what it looked like, architectural physical model on that table so at least then we can make the CG look real, but in some way it was abstracted.
That was the distinction between the two types of shots we did. It’s not always apparent when you look at it there’s this 3D model or physical model sitting on the table. We didn’t think that was that important. We thought that the viewer would get the idea, or the idea would reveal itself over the course of the series.
CGA: A lot of the shots were camera matched. How important was the camera matching in what you did?
KB: It was really important, but the only shots that were used that we incorporated CG into real footage was the helicopter shots. Everything else was all CG. In those cases, yeah, it was important. It was very important to match the camera accurately and be exact.
CGA: Did you have to work off survey data?
KB: No. It needed to look correct. We had some information about the heights of the buildings around there, so we were able to get the scale correct and we knew the placement and we used SynthEyes to do the camera tracking.
CGA: One of the shots that you did, there was always a background of the New York city model. Is that something you guys modeled from scratch as well?
KB: The New York City model?
KB: We had been working in New York for 15 years, and we’ve had to build various parts of New York for different projects for many things for a long time. We actually built downtown for all the work that we had done on the World Trade Center, and that’s the stuff that you saw more closely.
But since all the shots that were in the physical model world, they were done with depth of field, that model didn’t really need to be that accurate outside of downtown. It was supposed to look like a model on a table.
CGA: Was there a favorite shot out of all those 70 or 80 shots that you did?
KB: It’s funny. We always love the helicopter stuff. I wish we could’ve done more of that. Our scope was so big and so overwhelming at first that we were really concentrating on working through the list. We couldn’t add shots to it. There was a limit to the amount of helicopter stuff that they actually wanted.
After the show was aired, people have really responded well to those diagrammatic shots where buildings are getting pulled apart, the buildings are building themselves. It’s almost like we’ve gotten a better response from that stuff than the stuff that we would think as our favorite which is the helicopter.
CGA: You guys were mentioned in the credits. Did that add to anybody contacting you and talking about the work that you did on the project?
KB: We’ve had a few people, like yourself, ask about it. We haven’t had anybody else approach us for anything else on television yet.
CGA: One of the things it said in the credits was that you were responsible for series branding. What does that entail?
KB: Well, we created the graphic identity for the series. We went through an internal design process to come up with a direction that we thought would work best. We had a meeting with the entire team from the production company, to Danny, to Discovery and Science. They loved it, which was great.
So from that point on, the graphic language was set. However, there was some discussion up until like a month and a half, two months before the series was going to air about the name, so we couldn’t really create the graphic, the series title, until that had been set in stone. We did that probably a month and a half before the series was going to air.
The way it worked is we didn’t do the actual production of the graphics of the series in terms of doing all the names and what they call the lower thirds, which is where they’ll have people’s titles. If somebody’s speaking and they want to tell you who it is, – that’s lower thirds.
So we just created a set of graphic standards for the production company to follow. But every once in a while there would be a unique situation that would come up, so I was constantly getting calls or e-mails about how to treat this unique situation, and they’d send me three or four different options of what to do and we would answer it that way.
CGA: Were you guys also responsible for the opening sequence as well?
KB: We were in discussions with Danny, KPI, Discovery and the way it worked out was that they had a certain way they wanted to open every episode and we were trying to push them in a certain direction for what they’re calling the title sequence, which is you have a cold open, then the title sequence.
In the end, it ended up being heavily CG, which was great. It’s just where we were going. But we didn’t have control of that first cold open, so it was hard for us to do the title sequence. So, in the end, it was something that Discovery Channel themselves did.
CGA: What was the most challenging part of this project? It sounds like the timeline was pretty tight.
KB: The scope, really. Yeah. Doing the amount that they wanted to do in the time that we had was the biggest challenge. The thing that was even trickier was that not only did we have this long list of 70 or so shots to do, we also had to, in some instances, accommodate doing the clips longer than we had originally anticipated. Sometimes once it gets into the editing realm and they’re trying to match a certain shot of what somebody’s saying, they’re always asking for it to be longer, longer, longer. In the end, the shots became a bit longer as well. It was a challenge. It was a challenge to get it all rendered in time.
Every second you add kind of gets exponential. You’ve got to render out a max, you’ve got to do post-direction on it, you’ve got to render it out of that, you’ve got to save it to disk and get it to them. It all adds up. It was basically just the sheer scope that was the biggest challenge of the whole thing.
CGA: Were most of the shots completely out of the render engine or did you do a lot of post work on them as well?
KB: No, they all had a lot of post work on them. Every single one.
CGA: Was that the most time consuming part of the process, or was the rendering quite extensive as well?
KB: No, the most time consuming was getting what we would call the raw renders out. Once you get the look and feel down, doing the post isn’t that much time, but you still have to go through it, adjust it for whatever unique situations are going on in that particular clip or frame.
CGA: What specific software and hardware did you guys use for the project?
KB: Well, we use a combination of 3ds Max, V-Ray, Fusion, and After Effects.
CGA: Did you guys use your own internal farm for that, or is that something you outsourced to get it done?
KB: For 90% of it – I would say 95% of it – was done in house on our own farm, but we did have to use for the very first time in the history of dbox an outside render farm for a little bit of it towards the end.
CGA: To meet the deadline?
KB: Just to meet the deadline. Just to be safe. We didn’t want to cut it too close. This wasn’t the only project going on in the studio. We also had a lot of other projects going on and we didn’t want this one project just hogging up all the render farm every day and weekend.
CGA: How many people were involved in this project then?
KB: At any given time, it was between two and four, including myself. We had, for the most part on it, at least two people. Towards the end, we had more like four.
CGA: Living in New York for so long yourself, was this a highlight for your career in the work you’ve done with dbox?
KB: Absolutely. Especially being a New Yorker. It kind of felt like a culmination of nine years of working on that site. A lot of us were here for 9/11 and it was an honor and humbling to help tell the story other people who are making this site a reality. It was an absolute thrill for us, actually, to do this project. We’re very proud to be involved.
CGA: Are you guys still doing work on the Trade Center for visualizations?
KB: Yeah. Our clients are down there, so simultaneously we’ve been working for SOM and Silverstein and Brookfield and these companies that are down in the site themselves, or right around the site.
CGA: What do you guys have planned for the future? Obviously it sounds like you’ve wrapped this up now.
KB: This project was kind of unique because of the scope of CG that was involved. I think we’re still moving forward as a full-service branding and creative agency. We’re working on getting projects. Most of what we do is full-service creative agency, what we call accounts. We’re still getting a few of those accounts. That’s the bulk of what we do.
CGA: Was this a first, this type of project for dbox, or have you done other projects like this as well?
KB: I would say it’s a first. Our work has been in the media and on television for a long time, but this is the first time we’ve ever done anything specifically for a series and have been involved. While we weren’t involved from the beginning of the series, we were involved relatively early on – about halfway through. I could say it’s a first.
CGA: Is that something that you would guys prefer to do this type of work or do you still like the traditional visualization?
KB: This project in particular was actually really rewarding. Even though it was for television, there was still architecture and there’s still appeal to the architects and us, and the lovers of architects and us.
I don’t think it’s going to sway us too much into moving completely into television or anything. I think we want to stay true to our roots.
CGA: I really appreciate your time for the interview. It was a really great project.
KB: Thank you. I appreciate your enthusiasm for it. It’s something that we’re really proud of.
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