Thomas J. McLean reports on vfx upgrades and improvements to Heroes, Smallville, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Stargate Atlantis.
One of the benefits of VFX for TV is the opportunity to evolve the work from season to season. For the vfx crews and supervisors on those series, a show's hiatus offers a unique chance to upgrade, refine and tweak their approaches, techniques and technology.
For example, after making a big splash in its freshman season, Heroes is back with a new direction and a new vfx supervisor. Replacing first-season Supervisor Mark Kolpack is his Stargate Digital colleague Eric Grenaudier, who is no stranger to the show having worked as a compositor on its first season. "Obviously having already spent a year with Heroes, you learn some subtle things like the styles the producers are looking for and the type of effects that seem to be working well for them and for the audience, so you build on this," he says.
Grenaudier adds that Stargate has worked on upgrading the show's obvious effects as well as its more subtle ones. "We've improved simple things like how to light a really big greenscreen, what tweaks we could do to the matte painting later," he explains.
The show on average requires more shots in terms of quantity and complexity this year. Grenaudier cites as an example a scene in an early episode in which a crowd of Japanese warriors races down a hillside, as well as a flying scene involving a new character Wes.
Getting a jump on the more complex shots is essential, Grenaudier emphsizes. "That is something I'm trying to do as much as possible, which is when a sequence is heavily complex, trying to do animatics, working with the storyboard artists and doing simple 3D animation and really blocking camera moves, camera angles, lighting as early in the process as possible."
On Wes' flying sequence, Grenaudier says Stargate created an early animatic shot of the helicopter plates in-house. "That was tricky. That was a combination of greenscreen wirework and avatars with, hopefully, a successful trans between the various pieces," he says of the final shot.
Another challenge came from a sequence in which Claire cuts off her small toe with a pair of scissors, only to watch it grow back before her eyes. Grenaudier says the vfx crew collaborated with the prosthetics department that created a foot to be used on set. Getting the toe to grow back convincingly was difficult because, Grenaudier says, "there was not model for how it grows back." Stargate did a number of passes before getting it to look realistic without being too gross.
Entering its seventh season, meanwhile, the biggest change in the visual effects on The CW's Smallville occurred behind-the-scenes, as Entity FX opened a Vancouver branch called Entity FX North.
The Canada branch thus allows Entity to split the effects work on the show between Vancouver, where the show is shot, and Los Angeles. For the idea to work, the company had to set up a system that uses high-speed Internet connections and ISP phone service to ensure an instantaneous working relationship between those offices.
"Any Canadian working on a shot can instantly transfer it down to our office and we can review it and work as if they're in a room next door to us, and that definitely has improved our show this season," says Trent Smith, Entity's senior visual effects producer.
On screen, the biggest change obviously comes from the addition of a new character: Supergirl. Entity scanned actress Laura Vandervoort to use as a model that they could apply the character's wardrobe changes to without having to rebuild the model for each use, says Rizza Go, visual effects producer.
But wardrobe wasn't the only problem Entity encountered with the Maid of Might. "One of the unique challenges with Supergirl, with Kara, is she has long hair," adds Smith. "With our Clark model, we've always been able to get away with cutting corners and not having to worry about hair flow. But this season, she flies out to outer space and zooms around everywhere and we needed to see her hair moving around, so that was something we stepped up this season."
Entity also is constantly trying to find ways to improve the effects for Clark's various superpowers and to do those established effects more quickly. The opening of the Canada facility and the new talent it brought in has been a boon in this area. "It opens us up to new techniques, new ways of doing these iconic images," he says.
One of the biggest challenges facing any long-running show is how to keep things fresh, especially one as influential as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
"Every season, it's our job to update that look and bring something new to the franchise," says Andrew Orloff, vfx supervisor at Zoic Studios, which has done the effects for the show for four seasons now.
To keep on the cutting edge, Orloff says the CSI crew uses its summer hiatus to look for new technology and techniques. The results are presented to the show's writers and executive producers in a kind of show and tell that has resulted in many of Zoic's ideas being written into scripts.
A lot of effort also is applied to improving and expanding the use of show's signature effect: Zooming in close to a body or piece of evidence to show the intricate details and then zooming back out.
Orloff says they have both improved the motion control technology used for those shots and integrated it better with the CG elements. "What we've done this season is we've worked with a medically accurate body scan that we've purchased, a male and female body scan," he offers. "What we're able to do is take that motion control data, feed that directly into our CG program, use the photorealistic body interior, and have the organs appear as layers over the top of the actual filmed body."
Zoic also has worked to expand the use of such camera techniques beyond close-ups of bullets penetrating organs. "We've been really playing with motion control technology to use it for more than just diving into things, but to hook up different locations that might be shot in completely different spaces," he says. Zoic has also been actively working on ways to improve the show that has made it an essential part of the show's production. The show sets aside one production day per episode to shoot visual effects footage as a first unit.
Raising the bar on both the creative and technical sides of things is a major part of the season-to-season transition for Rainmaker's work on SCI FI Channel's popular Stargate Atlantis.
"We try to update not just the efficiency in actually creating the content, but also the creative content so each year you're pushing the boundaries not just for the quality of the end product, but also for our own entertainment purposes," says Debora Dunphy, digital effects supervisor and lead artist on the series. "It keeps us wanting to keep producing something that is of higher quality for us as artists, so we can be proud of our work."
Off-season tasks include going through models that are likely to be re-used in the upcoming season and optimizing them so they are easier to work with and look better.
That can have a big impact on a show where a fictional location is a key story element, says Justin Gladden, visual effects producer. "That's something that we're constantly trying to improve both the quality and the efficiency of, so we can do quicker set ups and see the model in its new environment."
Software upgrades also have been made this season more efficient, particularly with the increasing number of shots that require 3D tracking, resulting in shots that are more interesting and complex.
"Because we're now using a variety of software packages, we need those packages to communicate among themselves," Dunphy says. "So we're getting 3D data from the plates as well as the render side of things and trying to meld them together."
Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.