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July 09
2017

ISSUE

Summer 2017

A GOLDEN AGE OF EFFECTS ON TV

By IAN FAILES

Game of Thrones might be leading the pack in TV visual effects, but there are an increasing number of episodic series where VFX are also front and center. With several highly-anticipated shows launching or returning this year, some current visual effects supervisors working in episodics reflect on how the industry has changed in effects for TV, how they’ve handled the high workload, and what some of their toughest shots  have been.

 

SUPERHEROES LEADING THE CHARGE

Amidst the many fantasy (Game of Thrones, Black Sails, Vikings), sci-fi (Westworld, The Expanse, Doctor Who) and zombie (The Walking Dead) TV genres – all of which feature multitudes of visual effects work – one genre has capitalized on the use of VFX to help tell grander stories: superhero and comic titles.

Consider, for example, the many CG character enhancements and powers present in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Legion, or the detailed super-humans appearing in DC Comics TV series Supergirl and The Flash

Grodd the gorilla, a CG creation by Encore VFX for The Flash. The creature regularly battles Barry Allen (Grant Gustin). (Photo copyright © 2016 The CW Television Network/Warner Bros. Television. All Rights Reserved.)

Digital Domain’s work on Black Sails includes computer generated boats and stormy seas, mixed with practical elements and some digital doubles. (Photo copyright © 2016 Starz Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.)

Dan Stevens as David and Rachel Keller as Syd in Legion. The show is connected to the Marvel X-Men series. (Photo copyright © 2016 20th Century Television/ Marvel Television. All Rights Reserved.)

And get ready for more TV superhero action with Marvel’s The Defenders, The Punisher and Inhumans, while DC has shows like Legends of Tomorrow and Krypton. Perhaps just like their movie counterparts, these superhero and comic book shows have been leaning more and more on VFX, delivering deeper environments and more complex characters than ever before.

“For Grodd in The Flash,” outlines Encore Visual Effects Supervisor Armen Kevorkian, “marrying a CG gorilla with live-action plates definitely requires a substantial creative and technical effort. Fortunately, the actors we work with do a fantastic job performing against nothing, and that’s half the battle. We make sure the quality of our renders and models are on par to meld seamlessly with the live-action plates.”

TV TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Indeed, television shows may only be limited in time and budget, but not imagination, in terms of visual effects. For ex- ample, for the final episode of the first season of FX’s Legion – a show that also leans heavily on practical effects – FuseFX was called upon to create several shots featuring a laser force field.

“We needed to develop a progressively building laser forcefield effect and have it develop over time within the edit,” says FuseFX Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Adkisson. “This was especially challenging due to the tight post schedule for the show. Using a universal template for the effect allowed us to create initial versions of each shot, review the shots in context of the edit, and then adjust the effect levels accordingly.”

Similarly, Digital Domain had some challenging water-simulation shots for season three of Starz’s Black Sails.“From early on, I wanted to be able to art direct our water sims, something anyone working with simulations knows is not particularly common nor easy,” notes Visual Effects Supervisor Aladino Debert.

American Gods features effects ranging from blood-filled field battles to hallucinatory God appearances, and visions of the afterlife. (Photo copyright © 2016 Starz Entertainment/Fremantle Media North America. All Rights Reserved.)

The tortured neighborhood kids are back for the second season of Stranger Things on Netflix. (Photo copyright © 2016 Netflix. All Rights Reserved.)

“For Grodd in The Flash, marrying a CG gorilla with live-action plates definitely requires a substantial creative and technical effort. Fortunately, the actors we work with do a fantastic job performing against nothing, and that’s half the battle. We make sure the quality of our renders and models are on par to meld seamlessly with the live-action plates.”

— Armen Kevorkian, Visual Effects Supervisor, Encore

“In the end we were able to import basic sims into Maya from Houdini, tweak things within Maya, animate ships and cameras, and then export those settings back to Houdini.”

SPECIAL (EFFECTS) DELIVERY

The common theme here is that TV budgets and schedules tend to be restricted. Kevorkian says, “Sometimes you’re faced with schedules when episodes air 15 business days after the shoot wraps.” It’s a stunning achievement that the shots even get done.

Most of the supervisors interviewed credited their artists and pipelines for being able to deliver shots on time. But they’re also conscious of the increased ‘savviness’ of producers, and viewers, in knowing what visual effects work and don’t work.

Breakdowns of Iloura’s visual effects work for the “Battle of the Bastards” episode.

Says Debert: “While 10 or 15 years ago you could get away with sub-par work under the excuse of ‘it’s a TV show’, that is, for the most part, not possible anymore. As an artist and consumer of such shows, I welcome that development, and by the same token, as a VFX supervisor I constantly try to figure out ways to improve the quality of the work without breaking the bank.”

The supervisors also note getting involved early, working on concepts and previs, and being part of the production have also helped make complex TV VFX easier to navigate. Some supervisors, like The Flash’s Kevorkian, have even had the chance to direct episodes and therefore have a well-rounded visual effects perspective going in.

“I am mindful, however,” he says, “to sort of take off my VFX hat and focus on telling a good story and letting the performance stand out. Action and VFX are great but those are secondary to good storytelling. In terms of advice for directing, I’d say it’s important to be passionate. It requires fitting a lot of pieces of a puzzle together and is more work than a lot of people realize.”

Breakdowns of Iloura’s visual effects work for the “Battle of the Bastards” episode.

COMING TO THE SMALL SCREEN NEAR YOU

While things will heat up in visual effects in July for the new season of Game of Thrones, audiences have already been witness to the surreal, mythological and often brutal visual effects in Starz’s American Gods.

Then there is season two of Netflix’s Stranger Things coming at Halloween. The first season dazzled audiences with nightmarish creatures and paranormal happenings using mostly subtle VFX work. A collection of startling effects – practical and digital – should also permeate season seven of American Horror Story soon.

And while it might be delayed, that doesn’t make CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery any less anticipated. The franchise has a rich history on television – a place where it pioneered the use of miniatures and model photography, and then digital effects, to explore the final frontiers of space.

Of course, there is a mountain of work in just about every TV show of the invisible effects variety. With that in mind, and with other ambitious and creative shots and sequences being designed around the clock, it feels like there is no sign of visual effects in television slowing down anytime soon.



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