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June 24
2018

ISSUE

Summer 2018

VFX Explosion Brings New Excitement to TV, With Demands and Rewards For Pros

By PAULA PARISI

Star Trek: Discovery (Image courtesy of CBS All Access)

Real-time compositing, full CG character animation, virtual sets – visual effects that were until recently in the vanguard of feature films – are now in demand on series television, whose practitioners are charged with delivering the same caliber of mind-blowing visuals, but faster and cheaper. VFX Voice asked top practitioners to share their perspective on accomplishing that feat.

VFX Voice: What are the primary considerations in managing VFX for an episodic TV series and maintaining a consistently high level of quality with such frequency, and how does it compare to working on feature films?

Sam Nicholson, ASC, Founder/CEO Stargate Studios, Syfy’s Nightflyers

We do both features and television, and while the quality of the work is much the same, there is a huge difference in terms of the pipeline. On a feature you might have six months to finish the effects, where on a television series you’re prepping an upcoming episode while you’re shooting one and posting another. Even something as simple as getting shots approved can be very different. In the television pipeline your visual effects supervisor is most likely on set during production and can’t really be approving shots while in the midst of principal photography. The way around that is generally to have producers in a more creative role, where they are creatively approving shots. The feature pipeline is extremely specialized: you have a motion-tracking department, you have hair, match-move guys, a roto team – the shot goes through, then it goes to compositing. In television, we do have specialists, but we have a lot more generalists that can take a shot, own it and finish it. You have multiple people working in conjunction so there are no bottlenecks to get a high volume of top-quality shots in a short period of time. Your quality control has to be very stringent. It has to be perfect the first time, because it may be going on air the day after you deliver.

“Your quality control has to be very stringent. It has to be perfect the first time, because it may be going on air the day after you deliver.”

—Sam Nicholson

Nightflyers (Image courtesy of Syfy Channel)

“The primary consideration is to be flexible, have multiple strategies for all visual effects issues and keep it simple. Then we need to have a safe, primary strategy for every shot that is achievable under somewhat unpredictable conditions.”

—Paul Graff

Paul Graff, Senior VFX Producer, Netflix’s Stranger Things Season 2

With over 2,000 visual effects shots, Stranger Things Season 2 is as big as any huge visual effects movie in terms of volume. What is different is that we are in pre-production, production and post production at the same time. That means that while we were shooting episodes 201-204, we did not have the scripts for episodes seven, eight and nine yet. The primary consideration is to be flexible, have multiple strategies for all visual effects issues (plan A, plan B, plan C, etc…) and keep it simple. Then we need to have a safe, primary strategy for every shot that is achievable under somewhat unpredictable conditions. It was important for us to have a good, creative relationship with the vendors and have them in the picture on how we are planning to shoot the shots. For particularly challenging sequences we would invite the vendor to set to make sure they got what they needed. On heavy visual effects sequences, we try to identify hero shots and have the vendors start working on them immediately before editorial even finishes with the cut. This allows us to have a head start at defining the look and feel of the sequences.

Stranger Things (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Christina Graff, Senior VFX Producer, Netflix’s Stranger Things Season 2

Communication between the departments is essential. One needs to have many sidebar meetings to keep things rolling while we’re prepping, shooting and delivering. We work very closely with the Duffer brothers [Stranger Things co-creators Matt and Paul], the art department and the practical effects team on the show. We also worked hard designing the shots before they got to the vendor. We created many concepts and storyboards (which needed to be approved by the Duffers) before they went to the vendor. We did as much previs as possible for both vendors and production, and we also asked vendors to provide some postvis for editorial.

Stranger Things 2 (Photo: Jackson Davis. Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Communication between the departments is essential. One needs to have many sidebar meetings to keep things rolling while we’re prepping, shooting and delivering.”

—Christina Graff

“For episodic TV you’re always up against that air date, in our case 15 of them – not just a single entity but a season’s worth of shows.”

—Jason Zimmerman

Jason Zimmerman, VFX Supervisor, CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Discovery

For episodic TV you’re always up against that air date, in our case 15 of them – not just a single entity but a season’s worth of shows. While we don’t necessarily have all 15 scripts in hand at the beginning, it’s essential to know what’s coming, what sequences are going to require more time and attention and how that can fit into the pipeline. A lot of it comes down to time management and resource allocation, ensuring your team manages the vendor workload appropriately to get everything done on the next episode while also making sure the larger sequences that will air later are being addressed. We usually have two to three months to work on each episode, but there’s overlap, so we may be working on three or four things at once that have their own time frame. At any given time, we’re working on four or five episodes that will deliver within a week of each other. For season one of Star Trek: Discovery we used well over 10 vendor companies for the series, but we expand and contract on each episode, based on the shot count and things like that. That’s a standard workflow these days. Our main house is Pixomondo. My internal team is eight to 10 people. I have another visual effects supervisor that works with me, Ante Dekovic, and a visual effects producer, Aleksandra Kochoska, and they’re my right and left hands. We’ve been a team since [Fox’s] Sleepy Hollow in 2013. Working with them as long as I have, plus being friends, gives us a shorthand that allows us to accomplish a lot. I believe we had more than 470 artists working on the show our first year.

Star Trek: Discovery (Image courtesy of CBS All Access)

David Stump, ASC, VFX Supervisor, American Gods Season 1

The schedules in television are crazy, and so are the budgets, which are much lower than film. Last year for Season 1 of American Gods they handed off the edited shows in mid-January and we had three months, till about mid-April, to do the visual effects for all eight episodes. That’s very compressed. It required a lot of begging, a lot of late nights, and a lot of people who cut their profit margin to the bone. Features are definitely more profitable, but if you augment features with television  work where you do better than break even, or at least don’t lose money too fast, you can keep a lot of your artists on staff longer for the juicier projects, so it’s kind of an amortization. It’s like the old 1960s advertising slogan: “How do we do it? Volume!” What TV lacks in profitability it makes up for in volume.

American Gods (Image courtesy of Starz)

“We had three months... to do the visual effects for all eight episodes. That’s very compressed. It required a lot of begging, a lot of late nights, and a lot of people who cut their profit margin to the bone. … It’s like the old 1960s advertising slogan: ‘How do we do it? Volume!’ What TV lacks in profitability it makes up for in volume.”

—David Stump

“Anytime someone climbs up on a dragon is a multi-step process that takes tremendous coordination and planning. Normal TV parameters could not support the way we do things. Our methods and our artists are the same as on high budget VFX-heavy features. Aside from that, there is a commitment from production to do everything right, to go the extra mile in service to the visuals.”

—Joe Bauer

Joe Bauer, VFX Supervisor, HBO’s Game of Thrones

I’ve worked on over 20 features prior to joining Game of Thrones, and I would say there is shockingly little difference. If anything, I believe TV operates on a more successful functional level with no waste, no fat. Every pre-production and production moment and every penny is represented on the screen. The primary considerations are time, money, planning and inspiration. We are very fortunate on this show to have consistently excellent creative material to work with, great story, performance and production value. Our job becomes not screwing up everyone else’s hard work! While we move faster than most features, we generally have the time and resources to put our best foot forward. That said, we must be both clever and realistic in our goals. An added advantage, which goes back to the quality of the material, is that the show is very popular and many of the most talented creatives in the business want to work with us. This makes possible things we could not otherwise endeavor toward. Anytime someone climbs up on a dragon is a multi-step process that takes tremendous coordination and planning. Normal TV parameters could not support the way we do things. Our methods and our artists are the same as on high budget VFX-heavy features. Aside from that, there is a commitment from production to do everything right, to go the extra mile in service to the visuals. The results are immediate and obvious.

Game of Thrones (Image courtesy of HBO)

Jabbar Raisani, VFX Supervisor, Netflix’s Lost in Space

I went from features straight into shows like Lost in Space and Game of Thrones, and it definitely feels like the gap between features and high-end episodic work is getting smaller. The main differences are quantity of shots and a reduced budget, though the TV budgets are getting larger every year. On Lost in Space, we had spaceships, robots, alien landscapes, various alien creatures, and a ton of simulation work needed on our first season and everything in large quantities. My primary concern was to figure out which vendors were the best fit for the types of work and to dole out the sequences so we didn’t end up with any vendor too taxed to keep us on schedule. I attempted to convince the showrunner to give us a smaller VFX episode or two, but ‘small’ turned out to be a relative term for Lost in Space. Our small episode includes a ship escaping from a collapsing glacier, and that was only one sequence. There were also CG creatures attacking the Robinsons and devouring their fuel.

Lost in Space (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“It definitely feels like the gap between features and highend episodic work is getting smaller. The main differences are quantity of shots and a reduced budget, though the TV budgets are getting larger every year.”

—Jabbar Raisani

“[T]he ability to accurately anticipate the show’s needs and getting the vendors in sync with that as early as possible are the two primary considerations for success [in episodic TV].”

—Christopher Scollard

Christopher Scollard, VFX Supervisor, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead

Most of my TV work has been on hour-long episodes – in essence we’re shooting a mini-feature every two weeks. On features, I’ve rarely begun actual show work until we have a locked cut. In TV, however, after we get a few episodes in the can, our work begins, so we are working while we are shooting new episodes. That’s the main difference – the schedule. TV allows for much less development. Usually on features the principal photography is the time at which we can test various looks and methods that will be applied once the digital work begins. TV requires immediate execution. Episodic schedules are grueling, so a clear understanding of what the show wants, mutual expectations, and being able to communicate that to your vendors is key to turning in high-quality work on a tight schedule. It helps to eliminate, or at least reduce, the trial-and-error of finding what works. I’d say the ability to accurately anticipate the show’s needs and getting the vendors in sync with that as early as possible are the two primary considerations for success.

Fear the Walking Dead (Image courtesy of AMC)

Tammy Sutton-Walker, Visual Effects Producer, Amazon’s Man in the High Castle

Most of my career I have worked on features like Avatar, Elf and The Conjuring. When I made the shift to TV two years ago, I knew the biggest challenge was going to be the shorter deadlines. A TV show that is not considered a VFX-heavy show may only have a week or two to turn around the work. On a feature you have more time to work on shots, but this also means global changes can occur later in the process which can significantly derail your schedule and budget. With episodic work I find the hard deadlines for each episode can help to lock in creative decisions more quickly. Heavier VFX TV shows like Man in the High Castle have longer deadlines and feel closer to the way a feature film works. Such shows are becoming more common. On Man in the High Castle we have a much longer turn around time, and we’re brought into the creative discussion early on. Our team at Barnstorm VFX and our VFX Supervisor, Lawson Deming, are heavily involved during pre-production. We are able to start building the larger assets before production starts shooting, which helps us get a head start. After finishing up on season two we jumped right back in where we left off and are now halfway through season three.

“When I made the shift to TV I knew the biggest challenge was going to be the shorter deadlines. … With episodic work I find the hard deadlines for each episode helps to lock in creative decisions more quickly.”

—Tammy Sutton-Walker

Man in the High Castle (Image courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“We’ll typically be working on five different episodes of Vikings at a time, delivering an episode every 10 to 14 weeks. The TV schedule keeps everything fresh and provides a sense of satisfaction as we complete each show.”

—Mike Borrett

Mike Borrett, Mr. X, VFX Producer, History’s Vikings

We’ll typically be working on five different episodes of Vikings at a time, delivering an episode every 10 to 14 weeks. The TV schedule keeps everything fresh and provides a sense of satisfaction as we complete each show. We are now in season six of Vikings, and our VFX crew has essentially been the same since season one. Because of that, we’ve developed a shorthand within the team on how to quickly approach a massive battle, a huge city environment, or a Viking fleet on a stormy sea. We’ve built a very trusting relationship with our clients at Take 5 Productions, MGM Television and History, which translates into a clear focus on making the shots as good as they can be.

Vikings (Image courtesy of the History Channel)

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