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‘Falling Skies’ … Know Your Enemy

A closer look at the special effects that make up the hit show


Building molds of giant, insect-like legs, directing puppeteers and motion-capture performers, creating computer generated imagery that looks realistic next to the actors? That’s all in a day’s work for the team behind alien invasion show “Falling Skies.”

Visual effects are often integral to a production’s story and appeal. Going into Season 3, the visual effects crew of “Falling Skies” is handling such monumental tasks with style. The primary aliens, the multi-legged reptilians nicknamed Skitters, look deliciously creepy. The Espheni Overlords also have newer, more powerful mechs, and there are these seemingly harmless creatures called eyeworms.

Here’s a who’s who breakdown of the creepy crawlers in the “Falling Skies” universe:

Skitters
Skitters are the foot soldiers carrying out orders to capture and enslave children. They are captured slaves from Earth and other colonized planets. Their features resemble both insects and humans, and are created with a combination of animatronic puppetry and computer animation. On set, the actor puts on pieces of the skitter costume, starting with the torso, arms and the head. Puppeteers then control its legs and facial expressions.

“And when the skitter’s moving around and doing all these crazy things, climbing up walls, jumping on ceilings, doing all those massively frightening maneuvers, that’s where we are,” special effects supervisor Andrew Orloff said.

Mechs/Megamechs
They are mechanical fighters built to kill and destroy. Fans can anticipate an even more menacing six-armed version in Season 3. Because they are so large and unhuman-like, the mechs are created soley in digital form using traditional key-frame animation.

The massive, helmet-like part of the body acts like a shield, while each arm serves one purpose: one is a claw that can rip open doors or grab harness factory-bound children. The other doesn’t hold a gun … it is a gun, so there’s no weapon that can be knocked out of these robot-like creatures’ hands.

The Eyeworm
They say big things come in small packages and the next tiny creature is no exception. Eye Worms are also referred to as probes by the Espheni, are small six-legged biomechanical insect-like parasites that earned their nicknames by hiding beneath the skin covering the eyes of their unfortunate victims.

They appear to be designed to track people’s locations and can influence their victims’ minds by leaving the skin area and entering the ear and manipulating their brains. Their hosts are capable of resistance but there are consequences.

The Harness
Harnesses are bio-mechanical organisms created by the Overlords to control other species. Its skeletal shape allows it to attach seamlessly to the spine. Once attached, skitters use the harness to control their victims minds as well as their emotions.

It is believed the harness releases a form of opiate into the blood stream which may play some part in ensuring submission to the aliens’ orders. Once attached the harness is very difficult to remove and may result in death.

“Falling Skies” features the work of two visual effects companies: MastersFX, which primarily works on the show’s practical effects, and Zoic Studios, which focuses on the digital side. The two companies have teamed up before for such shows as “True Blood” and “Fringe.”

“Falling Skies” is a “character-driven show,” so the show’s effects artists have to make creatures that will service the characters’ story and that can interact with members of the 2nd Mass. That presented the challenge of making these aliens both daunting and sympathetic, both grotesque and human-like.

“It’s very rare in television to have our CG characters interact and perform with the non-CG cast members in a very deep and personal way,” Orloff said. “So it’s not just action scenes or chase scenes. These creatures act and react against the cast members.”

Animation supervisor Scott Fritts has been involved in the show since its inception, saying this season promises more interaction between the actors and the aliens. During a special presentation at Zoic Studios, he demonstrated how they are integrating everything from live-action, to computer graphics, to compositing and lighting in order to seamlessly integrate their visual effects into something that’s completely believable and realistic.

It’s a hybrid approach – the marrying of the practical and the computer-generated – that’s becoming increasingly popular in the entertainment industry.

“The mix of CG and practical is a whole new way of dealing with monsters in Hollywood,” said Todd Masters, president of MastersFX. “We’ve come to the point where we see the benefits and the liabilities of both.”

“Falling Skies” Season 3 airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on TNT.

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Could they be a gh...gh...gh...ghost? Rut-ro! Shaggy
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