Smash-hit kill-by-numbers TV show Dexter got a visual-effects makeover from US studio Topix for the teaser promo for upcoming third season.

“The biggest challenge we faced was making it all fit together,” reveals Topix VFX director Marco Polsinelli of the team’s full-on work behind the creation of the third season promo spot for hit serial thriller Dexter.

“Two days, different locations, different cameras, many different lighting set-ups, and loads of greenscreen footage – all to match and composite seamlessly. On top of that, we had the opening sequence that was built entirely out of digital files of sky, clouds and matte paintings that needed to cut with previously shot footage,” he says.

The task of heralding the return of television’s favourite mass murderer was a tough one – but one that US-based visual effects studio Topix was gunning for.

The spot, called Funhouse, is a darkly humourous exposé of the life to date of serial killer Dexter, as he walks through a series of surreal rooms that mix footage shot at different frame rates, matte work, 3D modelling and colour effects.

The spot opens with Dexter walking across a barren desert toward the stylized funhouse that was digitally created from the ground up by Topix digital matte artist, Andrew Nguyen.

“The scene was then brought to life by including moving clouds, shadows and sunshine to build the atmosphere,” explains Polsinelli, who also created CG animated lights, added flags and faked camera moves to finish the look.

“The first six scenes were entirely shot on greenscreen and composited with a matte painting for the fun house,” adds Polsinelli. “The sun was created using lens effects and glows along with enhancing highlights on Dexter to integrate him into the scene.”

The sky was treated with a multilayer composite of clouds that moved ever so slightly to convey an open desert. Shadows of the clouds were added, and a post camera move helped finish the scene, he explains.

“The matte painting of the funhouse was brought to life with 2D animated lights,” says Polsinelli. “A matte was then generated of every lightbulb on the funhouse, and a pattern was animated using mattes generated on the Flame. This was then treated with glint and glow filters to finish the lighting effect.”

Real flags were shot at multiple angles on greenscreen and composited into place. Adding some depth-of-field and rack focusing to some of the scenes helped create the final composite.

The promo was shot with a dual-camera system that fired off at two different frame rates, creating the effect of a split between the real and surreal within the same scene.

The effect is further enhanced with series of digital sleights of hand, including upside down rooms and characters transforming into pop-up shooting targets.

“The idea here was that Dexter’s mind is toying with him, blurring the lines of reality,” explains Topic co-VFX director Julia Deakin. “The viewer thinks Laguerta and Angel are pulling their guns on him, until we pan across to reveal the façade of the set and the payoff: they are merely the kind of pop-ups one would encounter in a shooting gallery.

“To achieve this surrealism, we shot Laguerta and Angel on greenscreen, so that we would have ultimate control in how they looked and behaved in the scene,” says Deakin. “We experimented with scale and colour-grading a bit before settling on this look of near-reality.”

She continues: “Reflections on the window were added using reference stills of the adjacent wall that I took on set, in anticipation of the need for them to appear behind glass. Footage of Dexter walking from the preceding shot was manipulated and comped into the reflection as well.”

With the shoot for the scene in the can, the pop-ups were then tracked, textured, modelled and rendered in 3D using Softimage|XSI, and then comped in Flame, adding shadows, grain, mimicking the light flashes coming from the door, and generally finessing the 3D renders to integrate them into the scene.

Time for reflection

A clever concluding scene rounds off the effects work, and sees Dexter in various guises approaching a hall of mirrors – demanding a high degree of rotoscoping to accomodate several wardrobe changes.

“The mirror sequence was a matter of split-screening and a bit of rotoscoping,” says Deakin. “We built a practical hall of mirrors on set, covered the entrance with black board, and cut a hole in the board for the camera lens. One of the challenges here was that Michael needed to do two wardrobe changes, and we needed to change the lens between the medium and wide shots, so having a true locked camera was impossible.

“We lined up the shots as accurately as possible using the monitors on set, but there was inevitably some warping and rotoscoping that needed to be done in Flame, as there was no way around moving the camera between each shot. Also, we did a little subtle time warping using Flame’s Motion Estimation to make sure that the feet and hands were moving in synchronicity,” she adds.

The promo aired in the US in the run-up to season three of Dexter, which debuted its first episode in late September.

Step inside the mind

Serial killer Dexter returns for a third series with a promo that attempts to portray the complexities of his mind, using as a metaphor a funhouse.

Mirror mirror

The mirror scene was shot on set with a real hall of mirrors. Medium and wide angle camera shots were used to take into account wardrobe changes. Warping and rotoscoping were then completed in Flame.

To create the pop-ups of Laguerta and Angel, the actors were first shot against greenscreen, and the pop-ups were then tracked, textured, modelled and rendered in 3D using Softimage|XSI, and then comped in Flame with shadows, grain and 3D renders added to help incorporate them into the scene.


Project: Funhouse
Client: Showtime: Dexter
Studio: Topix,
Software: Adobe Photoshop, Softimage|XSI Autodesk Flame
On the CD: You can view the sequence on this month’s cover disc.