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Keeping Superman Flying on 'Smallville'

Entity FX makes the most of superhero action in the show's eighth season.

In this scene from Season 8, Episode 9

It's not easy making Superman look so fantastic on the small screen. Film directors Richard Donner and Bryan Singer had multi-millions, respectively, to make the Man of Steel's powers of super speed, incredible strength and his ability to fly look… well, super on the big screen. Yet for the last eight years on television, the creative team behind Smallville (airing Thursdays at 8:00/7:00 p.m. Central on The CW Network) have been able to make Clark Kent (Tom Welling), the young Superman-to-be, look pretty amazing for a fraction of the cost.

Granted, it hasn't been easy. Jean Luc Dinsdale, Smallville's new Entity FX visual effects supervisor, is the man in charge of making ever more eye-popping visual effects for the series, now in its eighth season, and he admits the show has kept him and his crew on their toes.

"One of the biggest challenges this year is continuing to raise the bar of quality, given all of the work done in years past," Dinsdale explains. "Of course, in the eighth season everyone has greater expectations of the visual effects, as do we, and naturally everyone these days is wanting to do more with less."

A phantom comes toward Kara at the portal in Episode 9,

For Dinsdale, there has also been the personal challenge of having to leap onto the already moving Smallville locomotive. "I was brought in about five episodes into the season," he details. "They had the same supervisor as last year for the first five episodes. So this is my first year at Entity FX and I was hired specifically for Smallville. Prior to this year, the only exposure I had to the show is what I've caught on TV. So my first few weeks at Entity were just watching all seven seasons on DVD, going through budgets and then the project files and the Maya files, learning all the assets and the vocabulary of the show."

Once he was settled, he then had to get into the business of doing more with less.

"We have an advantage," he explains, "because we have a legacy of seven years worth of effects, a lot of the standard effects we can get through quickly and cost effectively and then take time to invest in the shots that are more challenging. With Entity FX's Vancouver team spearheading the effort this year, these and other tactics have helped myself and the new artists work adapt to the seven-year learning curve."

Maxima is summoned to Earth on a deadly search for a soul mate in Episode 4

Dinsdale adds that they have been successfully bringing the writer's visions to life despite some new hurdles. "Overall, every episode has been a challenge because the producers are still looking to maximize the production value on every single episode. Even though we know some episodes may be smaller than others, we are still pushing to see how far we can take the production dollar."

Dinsdale explains that the Entity pipeline for Smallville is designed around After Effects for 2D and Maya for 3D. "But we also have enough flexibility to rely on compositing and 3D packages as required. We have a crew of about ten artists in Vancouver and as required we can rely on our artists in L.A. if time gets short."

Smallville is a rare show in that it has an interesting mix of staple effects and brand-new effects needed for the roster of new characters and arch villains that roll through each week. Dinsdale says it keeps the artists excited. "The bread and butter effects are Clark's powers. Even though we have new bad guys and stuff, Clark's powers basically remain the same throughout the season. We do the super speed effects, or Clark Time, where the world is in slow motion and he's running through it. They've progressed a bit in terms of the look. Every year there is a bit of a tweak in how Clark Time works and how X-ray vision works. It's been great to develop our own little twists on the Smallville effects.

In the first episode of Season 8,

"And then some of the recurring character effects we are seeing this year are, for example, the Black Canary and her scream effect. Linda Lake is a character who changes from a watery form to a human form. Other recurring characters are the Wraiths, who are from a different dimension and a prison planet. We've had numerous shots of them coming back to Earth and interacting in this environment. But this season I am most proud of the new character of Doomsday (Sam Witwer). He's a very interesting character and he has a lot of mythology in the Superman lore. The character is basically achieved by using a combination of visual effects and special effects makeup. Bill Terazakis and his team have done an excellent job of building a full body Doomsday suit. It holds up extremely well and is a stunning piece of work. In terms of the visual effects work involving the suit, we are responsible for the transition from character in his human form to his alien form. In this case, the first time we even hint at Doomsday in when Davis [Doomsday's human name] is lying in an alley and literally the producers just wanted to see a subtle transformation happening to his skeleton. We ended up animating the bone plates under his forehead by moving those. That led to the episode 'Bride,' where we see the bone spurs, which is different from the comicbook. We have bone spurs coming out of his hands, which is one of the flourishes that we did. It's some of the best work we've done this season."

In Episode 10,

Dinsdale says another vfx highlight of the season airs Jan. 15: "In Episode 11, we've got three characters called The Legion introduced for the first time. It was an interesting challenge in that DC comicbook writer Geoff Johns, who also wrote this episode, came out and supervised on set while we were shooting it. He gave specific examples from the comicbook on how The Legion's effects are supposed to work. We each put our own Smallville stamp on those effects, so it's been an interesting challenge taking the established look from the comics then altering it and bringing it into a 3D environment."

Expanding on what that Smallville "look" is, Dinsdale continues, "The show has a kind of high sheen, colorful, high key look to the effects. Going back to the challenges of this year, one of the things I am finding is that it seems to me that the effects are more sci-fi than they have been in previous years." He explains that as Clark matures and strays farther from small-town Kansas into his life in Metropolis, Dinsdale adds that the producers are pushing the former look to new places.

As Clark Kent inches ever-closer to his superhero destiny, Dinsdale says he's really enjoying his foray into Superman's world. "It's definitely very exciting to be involved in a long-running and popular show. Even though we have seven years of history of established effects, we are still finding ways to put our own personal imprints on the show. The quality of the work and the writing makes it a great show to work on and we all feel privileged to contribute to the Smallville legacy."

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.

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