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High Concepts On Low Budgets: Visual Effects Trends On The Small Screen

Rick Baumgartner talks with the VFX artists behind TV series like Enterprise and CSI about how they come up with big screen wizardry on small screen budgets.

The world of visual effects on TV takes global proportions as evident from this shot from CSI: Miami. Photo courtesy of Zoic Studios. © CBS.

If you think innovation in visual effects production comes only from teams cranking out blockbuster feature films or high-end commercial projects, think again.

Teams creating visual effects for episodic television scripted primetime serial dramas, comedies and action shows broadcast on network or cable consistently generate solutions to a wide array of production problems.

Most of the people interviewed for this article were understandably reluctant to discuss specific upcoming shots for their shows. However all were very open about what they thought were the biggest challenges facing them this season in keeping their customers satisfied.

How Its Done

Television visual effects production takes a lot of coordination, attention and energy to get right even under ideal circumstances. Production typically starts in late summer some companies already have their first few shows in the can and work on shots by the end of August. Providers are on the hook for up to 22 consecutive shows (13 in the case of mid season replacements and cable series), with a short hiatus over the year-end holidays. Teams have as little as a few days to conceive, create and deliver dozens of visual effects from wire removals to greenscreen composites to full-blown CG characters and environments.

Constant change is a given. Sometimes teams need to switch production priorities at the last minute due to preemptions, late scripts, network politics, talent availability and a thousand other reasons. Sometimes teams need to replicate for a fraction of the costs and schedule an effect used in feature films only months ago (as in give me one of those Matrix-style frozen time shots or can you do a Lord of the Rings-style battle sequence by Friday?). The pace is exhilarating theres nothing like knowing millions of viewers will see your work next Tuesday at 8:00 pm to light the creative spark under you.

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2003 will see digital characters appearing on Enterprise. Photo courtesy of Eden FX. © UPN.

Its important to note a key distinction between feature film production and television production. As Enterprise visual effects producer Dan Curry says, Television is a producers medium; features are a directors medium. This means that the shows producer team, not the director, is primarily responsible for maintaining the visual production value and look of a show, including visual effects.

Also, there is no typical television visual effects production organization. Television visual effects are delivered by: single- or multi-show teams who work directly for the shows production company, visual effects companies acting as providers to production companies, post-production facilities with in-house visual effects teams, and people working out of their homes across the world.

High-Definition

Underlying many of the trends this season has been a major shift in the technology used to record and deliver images high-definition (HD). Mainstream episodic television has embraced HD as its lower resolution predecessors have been put out to pasture. HD delivery requirements are a major driving force behind innovations in television visual effects production requiring major changes in tools and approaches in the production of visual effects.

Why all the changes? The great thing about HD (detail, color, realism) is also its biggest challenge to the crafts visual effects as well as its sibling production departments (props, production design, makeup, hair). Everything needs to be carefully considered because everything will be seen. For visual effects teams, increased detail means increased processing power needed to render images within a television schedule, increased storage to hold the elements and final images, increased skill levels by artists, new hardware and so on down the pipeline.

Managing the increased size of HD images in a production environment is also critical. Modern VideoFilm turns to a data management team to prepare workstations before artist sessions and archive them after sessions. Modern VideoFilm visual effects supervisor David Carriker says HD calls attention to the smallest flaws in production from cue marks on the stage floor to scuff marks on set walls to glitches in costumes, makeup and hair. Youve got to be that much more careful, says Carriker, since everything shows up. Modern VideoFilms post-production clients often turn to Carriker and his colleague, visual effects supervisor/producer Mark Spatny, to fix the flaws resulting from technology meant to make things more detailed.

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See how a nondescript city transforms into Paris in this shot from Alias. © ABC.

Kevin Blank, vfx supervisor for the hit series Alias, delivers about 10 shots per show with some episodes having as many as 50 shots. For Blank, HD means that his garage band of freelancers cannot get images as easily as they used to. Says Blank, The biggest cost factor and hindrance of HD production is the fact that all of the original source materials have to come off the D5 (an HD tape format). A D5 machine costs tens of thousands of dollars so my artists cannot afford them. So we have to pay several hundred dollars an hour to transfer plates to Firewire drive. For less complex shots like wire removals, sometimes its more expensive to get the shots from the D5 into the computer than it costs to do the shot!

Still, the move to HD has reduced the technical distinctions between visual effects for feature and television in terms of detail, color space and realism. More and more the things separating the two specialties involve budget and schedule rather than technology.

Technology Alliances

Since the time of the nickelodeon, visual effects work has required a combination of invention and artistry. Whats new is the rapidity with which television visual effects teams are bringing to television technologies once reserved for features and high-end commercials.

Some television visual effects providers ally themselves with hardware and software vendors (including non-traditional imaging technology companies such as Lockheed) to cut costs or get the first chance to play with esoteric imaging technologies. This is more than just getting a beta version of the latest compositing software. Being first on the block with a new optical or digital solution might mean an advantage over a competitor as well as opening creative avenues for the shows writers.

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See how visual effects enhance this scene from CSI. Photo courtesy of Stargate Digital © CBS.

Stargate Digital creates effects for a diverse slate of shows such as CSI, Jake 2.0 and the new anti-terrorism series Threat Matrix. Stargate head Sam Nicholson recently used an HD high-speed camera to shoot at more than 1,000 frames-per-second an exploding vehicle for an upcoming show. Nicholson maintains close relationships with vendors of high-end imaging equipment including Arri, Lockheed, Clairmont and other makers, sometimes making custom hot-rod upgrades to the equipment. We were one of the first to work with Avid DS [Avids latest HD nonlinear editing system], we expanded it from four hours memory capability through different striping and other tweaks to 84 hours of memory. Nicholson just finished with shooting key locations in Washington, D.C. for the nanotechnology action drama Jake 2.0 using a proprietary HD camera rig.

Zoic Studios has partnered with motion control house Image G for CSI: Miami at a level unprecedented for television. Long considered too ponderous and expensive a technology for all but the most well-funded shows, motion control works on nearly every episode of CSI: Miami. Orloff and the Image G team have developed new software to make motion control work in a television production environment. The cool thing that we have set up with Image G is a way to have Maya and the moco camera rig talk to each other. Orloff creates an animatic, gets the directors sign off, then uses the animatic data to get the exact motion control passes that they need to deliver the previsualized shot. According to Orloff, We can even run a moco move and feed the data back to Maya in realtime.

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On CSI: Miami, the high seas are rough on the ship Galleon. Photo courtesy of Zoic Studios. © CBS.

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John Gross, partner in CG firm Eden FX. Eden FX helped the pilot for Homeland Security fly. Photos courtesy of Eden FX.

Such creative alliances also help teams educate the producer team. For John Gross, partner in CG firm Eden FX (which provides CG work for Enterprise and the pilot episode of Homeland Security), Producers are starting to see the benefit of getting involved earlier with us because that way they can make it a better shot. For this season of Enterprise, Gross team has developed a new bad-guy race called the Xindi, which manifests in five different forms we are creating two of its five states insectoid and aquatic in CG. While CG characters have appeared before on Star Trek, the level of interaction with human characters is new to the show.

Signature Shots

As part of their increased pre-production responsibility, teams often work with a shows creative team to develop signature shots (for example, the hyper-slow fly-throughs of events in the top-rated crime dramas CSI at Stargate and CSI: Miami at Zoic). These shots are key to the overall look of the show. For the new UPN show Jake 2.0, Stargate uses its expertise in optical and digital imaging to seamlessly blend transitions from the nano world to the real world and back again, helping the audience understand whats going on inside the shows main character.

The move to HD has rendered useless much of the stock footage shows use for transitions. So shows now turn to visual effects teams to help them create their own stock libraries. Says Modern VideoFilms Carriker, A lot of existing stock footage is 4x3 and that a huge problem because it wont work in 16x9 and because it comes from tape it looks bad in HD. Even some sitcoms, which rarely used visual effects in the past (and then for garden variety car window composites), are now turning to providers for unique act-in/act-out and in-show transitions. For example, for the sitcom What I Like About You, the Modern VideoFilm team uses independently moving still photo approach made popular in the documentary The Kid Stays In The Picture. A photographer in New York sends a series of stills to the visual effects team as the show progresses through the year. As a result, the transitions echo the subtle changes of seasons over the course of the year and tell the story better than a stock establishing shot.

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So whats FX-y about this? These shots from What I Like About You are actually collages of various still shots of the city. Photo courtesy of Modern VideoFilm. © Warner Bros. Television.

Virtual Locations

With increasing frequency, television visual effects providers are bringing the location to the crew instead of vice versa. As a response to increased transportation costs, security restrictions, and the simple human need to want to work close to home, visual effects firms are creating photoreal virtual environments. This approach, of course, is especially critical for the globe-hopping espionage shows such as Alias and Threat Matrix. As Alias Kevin Blank says, Our main bread and butter is putting our cast into other locales. We find a location that has similar architecture for the foreground and then put an iconic structure in the background (for example Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower).

But its also important for shows such as ER (which takes place in Chicago), because it allows producers to save significant location, transportation costs associated with a large company move to a distant location. We can take the production ER to Chicago, says Stargates Nicholson, and convincingly ride on virtual trains around town. Its just as believable as reality but costs up to half as much and is twice as convenient because everybody gets to go home at night. Equally as important, the virtual backlot approach allows the production team to focus on performance rather than on logistics or other problems associated with location shooting.

Each team has its own way of creating virtual locations. Generally speaking, visual effects teams record environments and lighting data on location with 360-degree surround camera equipment. Teams develop CG environments based on these photographs then later shoot the corresponding live-action elements against greenscreen in a nearby parking lot. Since the environment is virtual, the potential camera moves, lenses and apertures available to the creative team are essentially infinite. Of course, these methods image-based modeling and rendering, photogrammetry, high-dynamic range imaging have been mainstays of major vfx firms for the past few years, but the level at which these methods are now being used in television is unprecedented. Now productions can easily shoot in Paris one day and Victoria Falls the next without leaving the backlot.

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Stargate head Sam Nicholson and crew bring more life to Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Stargate Digital © NBC.

The challenge is that virtual backlot work has to be exact, since there is neither time nor budget for reshoots. Once you go out onto a virtual set on a television schedule you cant make mistakes, says Stargates Nicholson, you have to have researched the techniques that you promised, so that the crew can shoot any way it wants to and that you can finish the shot at an exact price and on an exact schedule.

The More Things Change

So some things about television visual effects production have stayed the same squeezed budgets, reduced timeframes, increased quality. Modern VideoFilms Mark Spatny puts this underlying reality succinctly: Much higher production values for much less money. Expect this trend to continue.

Barbara Marshall, director of visual effects for Encore Hollywood, runs a 28-person visual effects team. Encores visual effects clients run the gamut from prestigious new shows like HBOs Carnivale and Deadwood, to established audience favorites such as Charmed. Each show has its own requirements and demands and Marshall rightfully credits her team with being able to come up with solutions to anything a client might throw at them. For Marshall, the team, not the tools are most important. As she puts it: The only way a company can sustain itself is by trying to keep the clients happy.

Teams doing visual effects for television keep clients happy by saving them time and money and by taking storytelling very seriously. Technology alliances, creative partnering, virtual locations and all the far-reaching results of the move to HD provide more tools for show creators to conceive and realize fresh, exciting high concept stories for television audiences. Stargates Nicholson calls it stream of consciousness filmmaking: You go where your mind wants to go, not where physical boundaries present you from going. And just as with features, sometimes the best visual effects are the ones no one notices. For every overtly effects television show there are a dozen others (ER, Gilmore Girls, West Wing) that use visual effects to invisibly add production value to the show by saving the production money on locations, extras, vehicles, stunts and special effects.

Television-style visual effects production may even be the wave of the future given the realities of plunging budgets and tighter schedules. Loni Peristere, ceo and creative head of Zoic Studios (who also provide effects for Angel as well as CSI: Miami) speaks for many television visual effects practitioners, Episodic television work has a tendency to be seen sometimes as a second class citizen to commercials and features, but not for us. This work allows us to innovate, create and push the boundaries of digital production. Because we are able to do such a diverse kind of work for television we are granted a unique position to develop new techniques for our non-episodic work. Peristere speaks from experience his teams at Zoic recently garnered two Emmy nominations and received the 2003 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Series for its work on the episodic show Firefly.

So the next time you read about the eye-popping effects in the latest multi-million dollar blockbuster feature, realize that theres another side to visual effects that also contributes to its evolution as an industry.

Stay tuned

Freelance visual effects producer Rick Baumgartner was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and also worked on the episodic shows Angel and Miracles. He can be reached at rick@vfxproducer.com or via his website www.vfxproducer.com.

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