by Dominick Spina

SPY, a San Francisco-based visual effects studio, is devoted to ensuring its work looks seamlessly realistic. As its web site states: In the world of espionage, the best spies go unnoticed. The same can be said of post-production and visual effects, where doing our job well often entails making the work appear invisible.

To achieve this mission, SPY turns to NVIDIA GPUs.

The studio’s most recent work can be seen on the big screen in “Priest,” the new post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller from Screen Gems, in which a warrior man of the cloth ventures out from hiding when his niece is kidnapped by a pack of murderous vampires.

To bring this story to life, SPY helped create 125 visual effects shots, including a major sequence involving a high-impact train collision. Key to this work were NVIDIA’s Quadro professional GPUs, which delivered speed and flexibility.


“Before” image courtesy of Sony Screen Gems “After” image courtesy of Sony Screen Gems

“One of the things we did extensively in our shots for ‘Priest’ was blow stuff up,” Mike Janov, SPY’s VFX supervisor, explains. “Without Quadro cards, we wouldn’t have been able to interactively manipulate and display shaders, particles and detailed CG effects elements necessary in developing the look of our sequences.”

SPY’s work on “Priest” illustrates their ability to integrate photo-realistic set extensions and scene enhancements that appear as if they were shot in-camera. Accelerated with Quadro GPUs, SPY’s special-effects pipeline consists of Autodesk Maya for hard surface modeling; NVIDIA mental ray for rendering; Autodesk 3ds Max for dynamics and effects; and Thinkbox Software’s Krakatoa for particle effects.  Compositing is done using The Foundry’s NUKE and Autodesk Flame.

Avatar, image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

SPY is currently putting its Quadro-accelerated pipeline on two features and several commercial spots including one for Sprint and the launch of the new HTC EVO stereoscopic 3D phone. Other recent projects include visual effects shots for “Avatar”, “Iron Man,” “The Rite,” starring Anthony Hopkins, and commercials for Exxon, Activision’s “Call of Duty”, and National Geographic’s Feature length documentary, “Collapse.”

SPY has been building CG workstations since the 1990s and relies on optimizing VFX pipeline performance across all of its projects.

“There are a lot of hurdles to overcome when multiple artists are collaborating to produce photo real shots,” said Eric Hanson, co-founder of SPY and SVP at FotoKem Creative Services, which now owns the studio. “We have always been able to overcome those hurdles with NVIDIA GPUs in all of the platforms we deploy. We work with Quadro graphics cards because of what the technology brings to our VFX pipeline and the confidence that we’ll be properly supported by NVIDIA.”

Official Priest movie trailer (in HD):