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A Supernatural Season: VFX for Must-Flee TV

Christopher Harz examines the latest spate of supernatural and paranormal shows, and discovers how the vfx tickle the imagination.

Threshold is one of a handful of new shows that focuses on the supernatural. © 2005 Paramount Pictures Corp. All rights reserved.

Pretend youre the vfx supervisor of a new TV show about supernatural beings. You have to make sure the audience can tell the real beings apart from the non-real beings, and you have to set the mood and style of the show, such as the traditional dark and spooky with lots of fog and ghostly-light outlines.

Doesnt seem too hard, right? But what if there were half a dozen other supernatural shows also premiering your first week? How do you distinguish your spooks from theirs?

Thats the challenge that a number of vfx producers faced this year. In an apparent reaction to the glut of reality shows available on TV, a whole slate of un-reality shows came into demand, partly due to the enthusiastic viewer response to shows such as Medium and Lost. Here are some of the new entries, and how they are effected.

Mat Beck, vfx supervisor and president of Entity FX, believes vfx should tickle the viewers imagination instead of overwhelming with effects. Entity FX is credited with vfx in the Night Stalker pilot and series.

Night Stalker is an ABC TV remake of the classic television series about Carl Kolchak, who chased a new type of evil monster each week, including vampires, werewolves, Native American spirits, robots, reptiles and space aliens. The first show fell victim to constant tampering by network executives, who apparently could not live with unhappy story outcomes, and lasted only one season, but long enough to build a cult following, and several spin-offs by the people that had worked on the show, including The X-Files. The new show appears to be cast in the cheeky spirit of the classic, with much left in the murky unknown, and features Stuart Townsend as a reporter fated to be confronted with eerie phenomena. The show has a dark look to it, with hints of what is lurking in the darkness, said Mat Beck, vfx supervisor and president of Entity FX, which did all of the visual effects for both the pilot and the series. We believe your imagination should work for you there should be just enough present to tickle the imagination. Peoples brains make great render machines. The effects could be compared to an animated fan dance.

The show uses both puppets and computer-generated creatures. One of the challenges is to make the transition between practical and CG elements absolutely seamless, Beck noted. When asked what tools his team uses, he laughed: Its almost easier to list the tools we dont use, he said. We believe in letting artists use whatever tools they really need. We primarily use Maya, running on PCs and Macs, but also use some Houdini and LightWave, and render in Maya, mental ray or RenderMan, which ever works best for the particular scene. The team also uses Flame, Inferno, After Effects, Shake and Combustion. Rendering is done in-house on PCs running Linux. Here, as elsewhere, the much-talked-about option of outsourcing rendering is not in evidence. We have to make sure everything matches perfectly, Beck said. All of our machines are optimized and tweaked and running the same images. When youre combining different kinds of footage, you have to be right on the mark. If you look closely, youll see Darren McGavin and elements from the original series we used old film images, as was done in Forrest Gump.

Night Stalker uses both puppets and computer-generated creatures and must make the transition between practical and CG elements seamless. Crevasse (left) is a CG creation. Courtesy of ABC.

Beck uses pre-visualization extensively. Previs is extremely important to us, he added. In the cave sequence in an early episode, for instance, we used it to decide what to shoot and to make sure we were all on the same page. We literally got down to the detail of placing a virtual camera with a 20mm lens 4 feet off the ground, and deciding how fast the creature should move in front of it. We do previs in Maya, which has a great toolset for that. An important part of our equipment is the portable computer we always bring along on set for previs, which we sometimes call Maya con Dios.

Beck believes in a team with broad experience. We like to have our team members get time on set as well as on box, so we rotate them between the two, he noted. Having fx supervisors that are set-experienced has led to much better results during production and post production.

Entity also did the effects for the pilot of The WBs Supernatural, and is doing the vfx-heavy show Smallville. Our team is very good at turning around large shots quickly, Beck commented.

The vfx team tries not to overdo it in Supernatural, according to Scott Ramsey, vfx producer. He believes the effects should help the story along and not be the primary focus.

Supernatural features two brothers (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) who venture on a road odyssey to find out what supernatural forces were responsible for the immolation of their mother and the disappearance of their father. They follow their fathers trail and encounter a series of what appear to be urban legends, and tackle each one to advance further. The effects for the series run of Supernatural are being done by Stargate, which has studios in Pasadena, California, and Vancouver, Canada. The vfx team tries not to overdo it in Supernatural. The fx should help the story along, not be the focus of the story, said vfx producer Scott Ramsey. The story and characters should generate the sense of fear.

Added vfx supervisor Ivan Hayden: There is a juxtaposition of day and night much of the exploration and investigation by the brothers is done in the daytime, when its relatively safe. Then at night the lighting becomes more moody, and the situations more threatening as they encounter and fight the monster.

There are some difficult shots too. An upcoming episode has a demon in the shape of smoke, Ramsey stated. It was really challenging to keep a true 3D look while the creature was entering and exiting through openings. Another challenging shot was an early episode that had a Native American demon named Wendigo, who lived in a cave and could only be killed by fire. We put flame gel on an actor in a prosthetic suit and lit it on fire, said Hayden, but the consensus was that it was over too quickly and lacked the desired punch. So we created a wrought iron mannequin and skinned it in steel wool, which we set on fire with the arc from a car battery. The steel wool had an eerie glow when it started burning. We shot the actor against a 20x20 foot black background, applied the look of the burning steel wool onto his body, and also motion tracked a skeleton into him. We then added the elements of the flare from the flare gun hitting him, additional CG flames around his body and the background of the cave. Finally, we composited all the different layers with proper color corrections. It turned out really well.

Ivan Hayden, vfx supervisor for Supernatural, tries to present something fresh to viewers. The ongoing challenge is to create a believable effect.

The team uses Maya for 3D-related work and After Effects with lots of plug-ins for the compositing. It also uses extensive previs. We work on a really tight schedule, with a week or less for turnaround instead of the normal two weeks, so we have no time for mistakes, said Ramsey. We use animatics early, for the timing, look, motion and feel of the characters, to get approvals before we render the scenes in full detail.

Every episode has great challenges, Hayden noted. What will the monster look like? Can it die and if so, how? How will it move and interact? Were always trying to do something thats not the typical floaty glowing ghost. Were trying to do something fresh, to present something the audience is probably familiar with, but in a manner they have not seen before. That often requires making a monster look more real. Its probably easier to create an effect that looks like pixie dust or laser beams, Hayden said. But we dont want to use that kind of effect. For us, the ongoing challenge is to create a balance, to make the effect seem believable.

CBS Threshold stars Carla Gugino as the head of a government team investigating reports of a massive alien invasion of Earth. The invading aliens co-opt humans into their dastardly cause by using sound waves to change the humans DNA and thus turning them into semi-aliens and quasi-Quislings. As a precursor of whats coming, infected humans dream of alien landscapes. The pilot shows a forest made of glass, with crystalline creatures. Zoic Studios is doing the effects for the series (the pilot was done by Eden). The look of the show is not especially dark, and the effects are more direct, in your face, said Rocco Passionino, the vfx supervisor for Zoic, which has an extensive line of credits that include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and CSI: Miami series and the films The Day After Tomorrow and Serenity.

For Rocco Passionino, the vfx supervisor for Zoic Studios, his work on Threshold up to now has been mostly limited to the experiences of humans after they are infected by the aliens. But soon the aliens will make their grand entran

Passioninos team uses both Maya and LightWave toolsets along with Combustion, Shake and After Effects. Up to now, the effects have mostly been limited to the experiences of humans after they get infected by the alien audio waves. But the aliens are getting closer to making their grand entrance. Things are going to get worse much worse, Passionino noted ominously.

NBCs Surface has Lake Bell and Jay Ferguson investigating attacks around the planet from the depths of the ocean. Eden FX creates the effects for the show; other credits for the studio include Lost, Alias, Navy: NCIS and Commander In Chief. John Gross, the co-president of Eden, has to be one of the most qualified people in the world to work on a show such as Surface, since he did many of the genre-defining effects for SeaQuest DSV.

Gross has a preference for the LightWave 3D toolset (with Fusion and After Effects for compositing). I started with LightWave in the SeaQuest days, he said. It turned out to be especially useful for underwater shots, where it can get tricky matching green or blue colors. It also has a great particle generator, and the render nodes are especially cost effective theyre free. I know the developers, and can call them to get needed changes made to the toolset, or help in critical situations thats really worth a lot to me. He also likes the fact that LightWave has a large users club, with many members working in TV series.

However, Gross and his team are creating the effects, they appear to be right on target. We get a lot of people convinced that our computer generated creatures and elements actually exist, he asserted. For instance, we have a small lizard-like creature named Nimrod that is CG, but many viewers are convinced its a puppet. We also had a scene on an aircraft carrier, where we mixed CG sections with shots taken aboard an actual carrier. We were told the actual carrier shots didnt look real enough, and were asked to make them look like the other shots (the CG ones) in the sequence!

John Gross, the co-president of Eden FX, has kept very busy with Surface and Invasion. He did many of the genre-defining effects for SeaQuest DSV.

The look of the series is one of careful balance, according to Gross. We try to make underwater scenes look realistic, since many viewers have seen Jacques Cousteau and similar shows, and know what underwater looks like, he reported. But you cant see very far underwater. To show an underwater city spread out before you, for instance, we have to take some artistic license. Water effects on the surface get even harder to create, such as when a creature is in a swimming pool or in a bathtub the refractions under the water and the splashing as the creature emerges all have to be perfectly matched up together.

Eden also is doing ABCs Invasion, starring William Fichtner and Eddie Cibrian, in which aliens gain a beachhead on Earth in a small Florida town, under cover of a hurricane. The devastation from the hurricane will recall chilling images from Hurricane Katrina (footage from that area is used in the show). The aliens start taking over humans. It has a feeling somewhat like Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the 1950s, Gross remarked. The aliens presented special challenges. Its relatively simple to create a CG helicopter or aircraft, Gross noted. But an alien creature is more subjective, and you have to make sure that producers and management up the chain get a clear picture of it and agree on its final form.

The vfx in Ghost Whisperer barely exist. Ghosts appear and disappear in the scenes, looking much like real people. All Ghost Whisperer images courtesy of Touchstone Television.

Eden is actually doing the series episodes of Invasion; Zoic did the pilot. This kind of practice may sound confusing to vfx crews that work on feature films, where switching effects houses is like switching horses in mid-stream almost unthinkable. But it appears to be fairly common in TV, where studio executives may appoint their own team of producers and directors to a show after the pilot has gotten a greenlight, and the new team may want to work with an effects house that they are familiar with. The new effects house then has to re-create the characters and settings, taking into account the studios notes. The bottom line: If someone tells you that studio X is doing the effects of a show, learn to ask, What part of the show are they doing and when? Apparently television and steadfast should never be used together in the same sentence.

Eden also makes extensive use of previs. Especially for underwater shots, all CG work should start early, Gross said. We explore different motions, different versions of characters, different camera angles and movement speeds. Sometimes we have to take into account the viewers expectations. Airplanes, for instance, need long lenses to look real because viewers usually see them from far away.

David Fogg, the vfx supervisor for Flash Film Works, takes a less-is-more approach to Ghost Whisperer.

CBSs Ghost Whisperer, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, takes a polar opposite tack to vfx. There are almost none to be seen, other than ghosts that appear and disappear in the scenes, looking much like real people do. Talk about invisible effects. The ghosts appear in the scene as soon as you get the point of view of Jennifer Love Hewitt, stated David Fogg, the vfx supervisor for Flash Film Works, which is doing the show. The studios credits include Holes and The Last Samurai as well as the TV series 24. This type of less is more approach appears to fit in well with the casual matter-of-fact attitude of Mary Ann Winkowski, the ghostbuster-for-hire who inspired much of the show and serves as a consultant to it. Winkowski, who is based in North Royalton, Ohio, is booked for many months in advance to help eliminate ghosts from places where they shouldnt be. She claims that she can speak only with spirits that have not yet crossed over, and that most stay around only a short time. When she first met with John Gray, the shows exec producer, he asked her where one could find ghosts, and she replied that some were sitting right near them. Incredulous, he replied, Right here in the Starbucks?

Whether the lineup of new supernatural shows is a reflection of the prevailing Zeitgeist or a reflection of the fact that people like be scared and to give their imaginations a good workout, there is a lot of production value and diversity to be found in these productions. Check them out you are much more likely to enjoy them than finding out which candidate is lucky enough to get a job working for Martha Stewart (now that could really be frightening!).

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.