For episodic drama aficionados, Joss Whedon's recent return to the television fray with his new series Dollhouse is a real reason to rejoice. For close to a decade, Whedon was responsible for some of the most unique, genre-defying series to ever appear on broadcast television. With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and then Firefly, Whedon earned his reputation in the industry as one of the most respected creators of contemporary television drama.
A third-generation screenwriter, Whedon got his big break as a staff writer for the sitcom Roseanne and only five years later was one of the seven Toy Story writers nominated for an Academy Award. Since then, he's hopped back and forth between film and television, but he's achieved his greatest professional successes, not to mention a very devoted fanbase, for his work on the small screen.
After a five-year, self-imposed break from episodic work, Whedon was lured back by Fox, his old collaborating studio, to explore his latest idea -- that of identity and how it defines and controls us in a myriad of ethical and moralistic ways -- in the show Dollhouse. Actress Eliza Dusku (Buffy, Bring It On) plays the young woman known as Echo. She resides in a secret, luxurious underground compound in Los Angeles where an omnipotent group of handlers employ her and others, called "Actives," to fulfill the role of whatever a wealthy client requires them to be. Be it hostage negotiator, perfect date, or assassin, at the end of the services the "Active's" memory is wiped, never to remember the play they were paid to act out.
In order to create the many lives of Echo and others, Whedon turned to frequent visual effects collaborator Zoic Studios to undertake that aspect of the production. Rocco Passionino, Dollhouse's visual effects supervisor at Zoic, won an Emmy working with Whedon on Firefly and he says their long, successful relationship brought them together again.
Yet unlike Whedon's other, more sci-fi series, Dollhouse has a much more naturalistic tone that belies a more subtle approach with the visual effects. "They wanted to keep it very grounded," Passionino explains. "They wanted to keep most of the effects that we were doing fairly invisible. They didn't want it to be in-your-face effects outside of the mind wipe. Most of our work is used to augment the show and make it look fairly seamless.
"Overall, we've done some set enhancements and environment adjustments," Passionino continues. "It is very grounded and not a show with fanciful worlds, so mainly the effects have been helping whatever being an "Active" means. In some episodes, Echo had to do some stunts that were over the top. Like in the second episode ("Target"), Eliza had to do some rock climbing so we had to give the sequence the sense that there is more danger than originally intended."
The one consistent visual effects trope in Dollhouse is the mind wipe process, in which an "Active" is put in a chair that literally zaps their memories into a recorder that's archived by the Dollhouse proprietors. Audiences get to see what that process looks at from Echo's perspective.
"The mind wipes are the biggest effects of the show," Passionino explains. "Joss has said over and over again that the goal in accomplishing the mind wipes is that he wants the imagery and feel to be that whatever is going on inside of Echo's head is being sucked and pulled and ripped from her mind as she gets cleaned every end of episode. When she becomes inactive, the idea was to suck as much imagery out and to highlight from a story standpoint iconic imagery of what has been going either in the episode or any sort imagery that would help to highlight plot points. If there are certain things they want the audience to remember and focus on for when thing plays out down the line, they wanted to highlight those images."
Passionino says they initially missed the mark on how to accomplish the visual effect. "We tried doing it as a 2D solution but realized right off the bat that Joss wanted more depth to the whole thing, so we ended up going with both 2D and 3D solutions. We are using both Maya and After Effects to accomplish the look. And we have about two to three compositors working on the show to do it." As for shot counts, Passionino says each episode can vary wildly. "There are a couple episodes that don't have any visual effects and some that have had 20 or 30 shots."
When asked to compare Zoic's work on Dollhouse as compared to Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Serenity, Passionino explains that "they all had a surreal supernatural theme running through them. Dollhouse somewhat does in that some of the actions she does are above and beyond what a normal human being would do. But it's nice that it's not something as in your face and over the top as far as visual effects go. Now it would be good to broaden it a little bit more than what it is, but the scope is definitely not one that gets too crazy."
Already in production on the last episodes of the 13-order run, Passionino says the mind wipe effect has matured as the story has. "The concept of the mind wipes definitely progress and we're off-setting that in some of the later episodes as far as what the ultimate goal of that concept is. Joss always wanted the concept of picking out snapshots of your memories and then having them play out and be drawn away from you. In future mind wipes, we take that same stock idea and twist it a little bit to make it unique and play with it differently. As the series progresses, it finds its voice. In the later episodes, it's nice to know exactly what the scope of the work is supposed to be and I think the later episodes the visual effects are much more fun."
In particular, the season finale has already been floated by Whedon to be a completely surreal break from the norm for the series and Passionino vouches for that description.
"The last episode is very interesting," he chuckles. "The intention of that episode is bizarre and it's done for half the price of what a normal show is done. They contained their resources and the environments to not make it as expansive as a normal show. For us, I think the concept is phenomenal. I would have hoped that they could have brought the concept in earlier but it opens up everything and allows us to run away with the fact that technology has done more than they intended it to."
Tara Bennett is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.