Virtual Production at Zoic Studios

Virtual Production at Zoic Studios

feature | May 21, 2018

In celebration of the series finale of ABC’s fantasy-drama series “Once Upon a Time,” Emmy-winning Zoic Studios has released a VFX reel highlighting their eye-catching work in all seven seasons of the fan favorite.

fxphd has visited Zoic many times and discussed with them both their virtual production pipeline and their incredible production management tools. Zoic started with the pilot in 2011 of Once Upon a Time. Unlike feature film work, episodic work has an enormous overlap of episodes. Crafting up to 400 VFX shots for an episode of Once Upon a Time is no easy feat, especially when there are 22 episodes each season. At any one time multiple episodes are in various states of pre-production, filming, post or visual effects.

Zoic has been a pioneer, not only in virtual production, but in managing and producing episodic material on this scale. Their technical innovation has only been matched by their producer’s skill at running complex overlapping projects. With tight schedules and budgets it is fair to say Once Upon A Time was only possible due to Zoic’s commitment to automated innovation and building vfx production IP.

Continuing to helm the visual effects on the series throughout its entire seven seasons, Zoic has been a part of the fairy tale-woven saga since the very beginning.


Zoic’s proprietary virtual production pipeline, ZEUS – short for Zoic Environmental Unification System, is a combination previsualization and on-set realtime compositing that relies on Lightcraft’s Previzion tech for realtime camera tracking and keying (see below).

ZEUS has been paired with a specially designed iPad app, allowed them to pioneer virtual sets for television. The system is a pre-visualization process that combines the benefits of real-time compositing with an integrated editorial and CG funnel, providing camera tracking and virtual environment rendering on set. This not only allowed their team to create feature-quality work on accelerated television timelines, but also amplified the real-time creative collaboration.



As we reported a couple of years ago when we visited, the process starts with the pre-production process. Zoic’s visual effects supervisor and Creative Director Andrew Orloff,  explained “the art department put together a SketchUp file and a piece of concept art for each of the virtual sets that we’re going to use, and we build those for real-time 3D playback. We convert them through Unity to our ZEUS:Scout app.”

“We upload all of those into a protected FTP site for Once Upon a Time and they have their whole library in the Scout app,” adds Orloff. “So when we’re in pre-production we’ve got the ability now for the director to pull up any of the sets, move around the sets with the controllers that we have in the app, and also use the gyroscope in the iPad to do real-time tracking. If they’re sitting on a chair and they start moving around, they can look around the set as though they were standing in one spot on it and moving a magical window around it. If you’re on a greenscreen we can do a realtime composite as well.”


Zoic’s work on Once Upon a Time has garnered widespread industry recognition, including a nomination for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program and three Visual Effects Society Awards.

fxphd visited Lightcraft for Background Fundamentals in 2014. Zoic has built extensively on top of the Lightcraft system with ZEUS. “ZEUS is also our conversion process and a bunch of proprietary tools that let us deal with that data,” Orloff told us when we visited. “Once they edit the show we have some tools to take those edit points and extract the data from Lightcraft and put all the scenes together. When an edit list comes in we go to our asset library and to the greenscreen footage and we compile that and put it altogether automatically for the artist to just start doing their compositing and 3D work right away.”

The series finale of  Once Upon a Time aired on Friday, May 18, and featured a slew of cameos, with guest stars including Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White, Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan, Josh Dallas as Prince Charming, Jared Gilmore as Young Henry, Emilie de Ravin as Belle, Rebecca Mader as Zelena, Sean Maguire as Robin Hood, Tony Amendola as Marco, David Anders as Dr. Wale, Lee Arenberg as Leroy, Jack Davies as Pinocchio, Faustino Di Bauda as Sleepy and Keegan Connor Tracy as Blue Fairy.

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