Gajdecki rises again at Rainmaker

In the myth of Atlantis, the ancient city sinks below the waves, never to be found.

In the myth of Atlantis, the ancient city sinks below the waves, never to be found.

MGM’s Stargate SG-1 spin-off series Stargate Atlantis, however, updates this myth by suggesting that Atlantis instead rose out of the sea a million years ago and flew through a Stargate portal to another universe. It is an apt allegory for the journey of John Gajdecki, the two-hour pilot’s visual effects supervisor.

Last year, following the bankruptcy of Gajdecki’s visual effects company GVFX – leaving angry unpaid employees in offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Los Angeles and the Twentieth Century Fox blockbuster I, Robot on the hook – Gajdecki came out from under and landed at Vancouver post house Rainmaker.

The Atlantis pilot that he worked on (which debuted in July as the highest-rated television premiere on U.S.-based Sci Fi Channel) features 210 FX shots in six major sequences, including the city of Atlantis rising out of the ocean as well as an epic space battle.

‘My first love is visual effects,’ Gajdecki says today, still stinging from the fallout from GVFX. ‘I didn’t want to run a company, (but) the GVFX team was great.’

Details are few about the failure of GVFX.

‘We owed the bank more than we had,’ he says.

World-changing events such as 9/11 and SARS contributed to a slow couple of years for business, he explains. Exacerbating the struggle was GVFX’s expansion into Los Angeles, after opening in Vancouver and Toronto. Getting a foothold in L.A. took longer than Gajdecki expected, though the situation was beginning to improve when the company closed, he says.

Carrying the high capital costs of visual effects equipment proved too much, and he has since liquidated much of his corporate and personal assets to cover the outstanding bills. Issues such as unpaid workers are being addressed, he says without elaboration.

Just three months before GVFX closed, Gajdecki was handed a 10% portion of the undisclosed effects budget for I, Robot, which shot in Vancouver in 2003 and just opened to boffo box office in July. (The film’s total budget has been reported at upwards of US$105 million.)

‘We closed in the middle of the project,’ says Gajdecki. ‘The work was not enough to sustain the company.’

GVFX had shot the background plates and was gearing up for production on the Will Smith project. Rainmaker eventually inherited the GVFX contract, and Gajdecki says Fox was ultimately satisfied with the work. He adds that remaining dealings the studio has with GVFX are being handled through the trustee assigned to handle the FX shop’s file.

‘It was important that that work stay in Canada,’ says Gajdecki.

With some of the dust settled, Gajdecki is back, worrying only about the quality of FX.

Rainmaker gets it all

MGM, following a precedent it set when it gave all the Jeremiah series FX to GVFX, handed a ‘single vendor’ agreement to Rainmaker to do the Atlantis pilot, which had an FX budget roughly double what was available to a Stargate SG-1 episode, says Gajdecki.

Planning the pilot was a lot like planning a feature film, he adds, with the luxury of development time and some surprising creative freedom.

For instance, Atlantis took advantage of ‘pre-viz’ – a ‘pre-visualization’ planning exercise that sees the director and visual artists use low-resolution digital models to play with various camera angles. This establishes how best to shoot a scene long before they actually roll out the cameras. Big movies are done this way, says Gajdecki, but it’s still fairly novel for television series.

‘Pre-viz lets us try all the crazy ideas and to see what we’re not going to do,’ he says. ‘It means a lot of extra work at the beginning, but savings at the end.’

For instance, in one scene tested in pre-viz, a protagonist was supposed to shoot a bad guy across the room in a fight sequence. The pre-viz testing, says Gajdecki, showed that the set as designed was too small to allow for that kind of action. The actors would be right on top of each other. Based on that work, the set designers added 20 feet to the set.

That kind of planning also went into a main action sequence – the 25-shot, 45-second rising of the city of Atlantis.

In the shot, Atlantis – inspired by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s hexagonals – unclasps itself from the seabed and rises to the ocean surface. In execution, the shot required large-scale miniatures. Gajdecki’s team built a black box model of one of the city’s six piers, allowing for digital enhancement in post. The pier, carried to Vancouver’s False Creek shoreline in an 18-wheeler, was photographed as a crane dropped it into the water to optimize the water FX, he says.

The pilot also includes a one-minute battle sequence in outer space between a single ‘puddle-jumper’ ship, piloted by the story’s heroes, and 16 villainous Wraith ships.

According to Gajdecki, the FX team spent a couple of weeks in pre-viz to get the sequence’s details right, and built a full interior of the puddle jumper to enhance the realism.

He adds that the visual artists also worked to render space in new ways, adding more color and bright nebulae.

Despite all his input on the Stargate Atlantis pilot, Gajdecki says he chose not to continue on with the series, and is instead working on the Warner Bros. comedy-drama The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, starring Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia), which is shooting in Vancouver and wraps Aug. 4.