I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad
VFXW: Have you been thrown many curveballs over the course of the show, and found yourself with footage that looked radically different from what you’d expected?
JF: Oh never. They shoot everything perfectly! (Laughs) Yeah, it happens all the time. It’s the nature of the business. You can only plan for so much and you can only expect so much. Once stuff gets shooting and once you’re out there, things change all the time. You learn very quickly that you just have to roll with stuff like that.
VFXW: Can you describe the pipeline you use to complete your projects?
JF: Well, the nature of visual effects is a very complicated process. There are many pieces to the puzzle of completing a visual effects shot, especially the more complicated ones. If you’re just painting out a wire or removing some production equipment from a scene, that’s pretty simple, but when you talk about a scene where you need to create a full CG environment with a bridge and a train it gets very complicated. So, what we’ve done at FuseFX is develop procedures and steps that everybody adheres to. We follow a pipeline. We have very specific conventions for how we name stuff and how stuff goes through the system, so there are no questions. It takes the technical decisions out of the artist’s hands and really just allows them to focus creatively on what they’re doing. I think it helps with our schedules, it helps to avoid errors, and in the end you spend more time making the shot look better.
VFXW: What software do you use? The Foundry’s Nuke system?
JF: Yeah, we do all of our compositing in Nuke. All of our CG is done with 3D Studio Max, and we use FumeFX, which is the plug-in for 3D Studio Max, for all of the smoke coming from the smoke stack of the train. We pride ourselves in our simulation work, which includes smoke, fire and water work.
VFXW: It doesn’t seem like there are many limitations to what can be done digitally these days…
JF: No, the sky’s the limit, really. There’s not a whole lot that can’t be done with enough time.
VFXW: …even on a television budget?
JF: That’s the thing: yes, anything is possible, but how much money do you want to spend to make it possible? That’s always the give and take when it comes to TV, especially. We try to give our clients as much of that Feature work as they can get within their budget and we will always give options. We’ll say ‘what you’re asking for is going to be really hard - how about we simplify it a little bit and you still get the shot that you want, but maybe it’s not the grand shot that would be time consuming and expensive.’
VFXW: Given that you work in both Features and TV, do you have a preference? Do you maybe you get a thrill out of working on television and having a week to turn over an episode?
JF: I like having a mix. You hear stories of people who work on Feature shots for months and months and it can be very difficult to stay motivated for that amount of time when you realize you’re getting nowhere on a shot. But it’s also very challenging when you see a bunch of shots that you need to finish in a week. The stress and the will that it takes to get those done can be very hard, so it’s nice to have a mix. It’s nice to have the Feature work where you have the time to spend on a shot, and it’s nice to have the TV work where it’s a challenge to get the work done on time and at the level of quality that we all expect.
VFXW: Now that Wheels has been picked up for a third season, have you started thinking about what effects might be needed down the road?
JF: I have heard some ideas that might be coming up in season three, but we haven’t gotten into many specifics yet.
VFXW: Is there’s anything that you’d like the chance to do on the show?
JF: I would love to do CG water. We’ve developed a really, really good water pipeline for Last Resort and I think it’s something that has set us apart in the TV world – the ability to do CG water for episodic TV. I would love to be able to incorporate that into any show we work on, and if there could be a chance for us to do a river or some kind of waterfall that would be pretty fun.
VFXW: Maybe the train falling down the gorge and landing in the river?
JF: Sure!Hell on Wheels looks to return for a third season on AMC in 2013. For more information on FuseFX, visit www.fusefx.com .
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.