The Story of The Story of God
—-I n a little under two months, National Geographic Channel viewers will be in for a treat: Morgan Freeman, who has (at least) twice played God on screen, will host a documentary series about his own quest to explore the world’s five major religions while traveling around the globe, from India to Israel and beyond.
“The series is called The Story of God,” says Dan Schmit, founder of Engine Room (a multi-faceted production company based in Hollywood) and VFX supervisor, creative director of graphics, and DP and director for the live action recreation segments of the aforementioned series. “Not only is it a documentary, it’s also an examination of Freeman’s personal journey. It’s a little less of him being a host and more of him on a quest, searching for understanding.”
Schmit, originally from Minnesota, attended Cal Arts in experimental animation, intending to pursue a career in that field. But after leaving school, he found himself gravitating toward the VFX industry. He worked for a VFX start-up for 10 years, doing everything from miniatures to matte painting, and there also learned how to shoot. “My first job out of school was actually as an optical printing operator, which is compositing, but done the old way,” he explains. “I was very interested in motion control, too, and was then building motion control systems and learning about gear. Lots and lots of gear.”
In 2001, Schmit started Engine Room, a VFX, live action, and design company. Now in its 15th year, Engine Room works primarily in VFX post production, but shoots often, as well. “It’s funny because we have some clients who know us only as a VFX company, and others who know us for other things. Something like The Story of God is perfect for us because we get to use a variety of different skills, working all three parts of the company.”
Amongst Engine Room’s different responsibilities on The Story of God, perhaps the foremost is handling the animation and VFX for the series, of which there will surely be plenty. “We have an in-house team of nine artists, all of whom have different skill sets,” he says. “However, a project this big requires a much larger group than just what we have on our end, so we employ and collaborate with a whole bunch of different off-site VFX artists and small companies to do different sequences. For instance, one group is handling the fluid effects for the parting of the Red Sea, which we’ll then take and do the compositing on.”
For the live action sequences on The Story of God, Schmit and his crew went to different locations in and around the city, shooting the LA Arboretum for The Garden of Eden and at different “movie ranches” in Santa Clarita for Jesus’s baptism. For green screen work, used in the Brahma and Shiva sequences, and to shoot the main titles (which he’s doing today in front of a white cyc), Schmit elected to come to Digital Film Studios.
“Working on documentary TV is tricky because you don’t have a script. You start with a treatment, which is based on research, and the crew goes out and shoots that, but what you get is not always what you’ve planned for. And then that has to get turned into a show,” says Schmit. “While the main unit was shooting with Morgan, we were prepping for the recreations and getting long lead VFX work going, and the tricky part is that as the shows start coming together, the animation often needs to change. Because of that, you have to have people in your corner who can help you adapt and respond to the client’s needs and make things happen fast, which is where DFS comes in.”
Engine Room and Digital Film Studios go way back. “These guys are just great,” he says. “We’ve worked together many times over the past several years, and I appreciate that they can make things happen in such a short time frame.” He gestures to the crucifixes and a Star of David on the table behind him. “I only called DFS up two days ago to arrange the shoot we did this afternoon, and they still put it together for us. It’s a one-stop-shop experience, which makes things really easy on our end. All I needed to do was make a phone call.”
For The Story of God, Engine Room used (through Digital Film Studios):