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Death and Visions: A Look at the Paranormal on Cable TV

Karen Raugust looks at how TV shows with paranormal themes rely on vfx to give them a distinct look and drive the story forward.


In this train crash sequence from Dead Like Me, a train interior was shot on a stage with a bluescreen while the end of the train compartment, the door and the front ripping off were animated in Maya. The train section was then composited into the production plate and debris was added at the composite stage as well as the lighting and shadows to achieve the final effect. All Dead Like Me images © Showtime.

Cable TV series with paranormal themes such as Showtimes Dead Like Me, USA Networks The Dead Zone and HBOs Carnivàle represent a showcase for visual effects. In fact, effects act almost like a character in the show, as well as giving the series a distinct feel and enabling real-looking flashbacks or visions of the future.

Dead Like Me, produced by DLM Prods. and MGM Television, is about a young college dropout in the Pacific Northwest, George (played by Ellen Muth), who is killed when a toilet seat from the MIR space station falls on her. She becomes part of a group of grim reapers, all of whom died with unresolved issues. The reapers collect souls as they roam the Pacific Northwest learning the lessons they didnt in life, so they can ultimately move on.

Each episode features a CG character, the Graveling, as well as the glowing CG touches where they remove the souls, according to Jennifer McEachern, DLMs visual effects supervisor. In addition to these recurring elements, there are unique effects. Basically its killing people, says McEachern. We look to the writers to come up with some great deaths. One example, coming up at the end of the second season, depicts a demise that occurs when three panes of glass fall 11 stories to kill a person on the street. The effect combined stunt men who fall over as if theyve been hit and glass falling in front of a bluescreen until it hits a blue-painted armature. The team put the two together in compositing and added some touches. It turned out really well, McEachern reports.

The Dead Zone, starring Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny, is based on characters from the Stephen King novel and is starting its fourth season. Johnny was in a coma for six years after a near-fatal car accident. When he wakes up, he finds he has psychic powers, forcing him to experience visions of the future set off by touch. Lions Gate Television and Paramount International produce; Stargate Digital creates the visual effects.

The vfx play an emotional role in telling the story, says Jaison Stritch, visual effects supervisor. From the beginning, the producing team, including creators Michael and Shawn Piller, Lloyd Segan and Robert Petrovicz, emphasized the three Hs: humor, heart, horror, says Stritch. The vfx was actually like a character in the story. At the same time, each effect must be realistic and subtle. If theyre glitzy or call attention to themselves, they get cut.

When Johnny touches objects or people and has a vision, the environment transitions to a frozen-time scenario with a captured-motion, array-type feel that includes suspended CG objects, such as 15,000 floating raindrops. The Dead Zone has a signature look to it, says Sam Nicholson, visual effects producer and president of Stargate Digital. Its sort of a photoreal virtual reality.

The show includes many different environments and dramatic situationssuch as a dam blowing up many of which are created in CG. The series has featured CG mine shafts, a dozen CG tornadoes, CG lakes, trees, animals, vehicles and buildings, CG fire and digital stunt doubles. Weve totally pushed the envelope on what we can do in seven days, adds Stritch. On the other hand, sometimes you cant do things in CG. Weve done CG water very successfully, but we found it was too CPU-intensive.

HBOs Carnivàle is set in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression in 1934. The main characters are a young fugitive, Ben, who is taken in by a traveling carnival, and an evangelist, Brother Justin. The two find out they are key players in a battle of good versus evil that they dont understand.

The effects in Carnivàle are somewhat different from the other shows in that the lead character Bens visions are about real events. The effects are all based in reality, said Barbara Marshall, director of visual effects at ENCORE Hollywood, which does the shows vfx work. They are spare, but well thought-out. There are no glows or anything. A typical effect would depict a dust storm in the 1930s or a field of crops that wither and die. (As in the other series, death is a recurring motif; whenever Ben heals someone, something else dies.)

Tools and Techniques

The productions primarily use standard effects tools. Theres no proprietary plug-in per se that creates the look. Its how you combine the different tools, explains Nicholson, who adds, its crucial to start with excellent design work.

On Dead Like Me, the primary tools include LightWave and Maya for 3D, Boujou for tracking, and compositing tools including Digital Fusion and Discreet packages, especially inferno. Its just all the little pieces that we put together to be able to see each death, McEachern says.

She credits high-dynamic range imaging (HDRI) with helping CG characters fit into their environments realistically. The technology essentially takes light readings for all stops at once, producing a 360-degree image of the lighting set-up. You can insert the character and its quite seamless.

Tools and techniques used on The Dead Zone include Maya and After Effects for compositing, motion control, laser tracking systems, multi-pass techniques and greenscreen. Stargate also has a digital backlot for sequences involving photoreal CGI sets. Stritch says the team uses a new black box technology that shoots 1,000 frames per second at high-definition resolution, with no moving parts; data goes straight into the computer. This technology allows longer vfx sequences that are extremely polished.

As each series add episodes, the vfx work tends to evolve. Stritch pointed out that The Dead Zone team is using the greenscreen more effectively as time goes on, and using the virtual backlot more to create CG scenarios that would be impractical to shoot live on a seven-day shooting schedule.

Fantastic deaths and ghosts, and supernaturally induced natural disasters are the kind of signature effects that can be found on Dead Like Me and The Dead Zone respectively. All The Dead Zone images © USA Network.

On Dead Like Me, the artists incorporate new technologies wherever they can, although how the effects are shot hasnt changed much since the show started. We dont lock down the camera any more, suggests McEachern. Theres really no need for it. We have great tracking software.

The longer a series airs, the more sophisticated effects become. The vfx teams use more hybrid technologies and stack and cross different effects. We can do incredibly complex designs that wouldnt have been achievable in year one, Nicholson offers.

Sometimes an evolution in effects is the result of changes to the story and characters. In the first season, everyone was trying to find the voice of the show, contends Marshall, who is currently working on the first four episodes of the second season of Carnivàle. In the first season, the characters were still evolving. Ben was trying to get used to his powers, and both Ben and Brother Justin were trying to figure out their role in the conflict between good and evil.

Brother Justin, for example, isnt certain if he is good or evil; he starts to have visions that include real places and events, but, unlike Bens, they have a certain surreal quality; their purpose is to drive him to take action. You have to decide what kind of flare you bring to it to make sure its a vision, Marshall says, noting that the look has to be distinct from Bens visions. As a result, effects are increasingly combining 2D and 3D, with CG elements playing a bigger role as the series goes on. The vfx team relies primarily on inferno, After Effects, Digital Fusion and, increasingly, 3ds max.

Importance of Teamwork

When vfx play an important role in the sensibility and plot of a show, its critical that all members of the cast and crew understand and are supportive of the vfx team. Such is the case on all three shows.

We have a really good relationship with the producer and writing staff, says McEachern. The team discusses and plans for vfx early; a lot of planning can occur just through simple communication, although a large sequence may require storyboarding. We usually try to go as big as we can in concept, then scale back [due to budget and time constraints]. Theres a lot of trust.

Kent Feeler, lead compositor for ENCORE Hollywood, says writers, producers and directors are very involved in the team effort on Carnivàle. The vfx supervisor works closely with the compositors, and all the work is viewed by the various producers.

On The Dead Zone, the cast and crew didnt understand vfx fully at the beginning, according to Stritch, making it difficult to shoot necessary sequences. But now everyone from the stars to the producers are interested and supportive. Theyre all totally into it, says Stritch. They try to bring everything they can to it.

These digital tornado shots are an example of the f/x work being done on series like The Dead Zone.

That includes supplying the vfx team with enough time and resources to complete the effects. The producers let us have what we need to make spectacular effects, explains Stritch, citing as examples helicopters, a 15-ton water dump tank, 150-foot cranes and permission to climb a 30-story building and install a catwalk. We did a whole day of a guy in a car getting shot, he recalls, noting that it was a complicated, slow-motion, reverse sequence. It sounds like a cliché, but we couldnt do that without that support and trust, or without the right equipment.

Influences and Inspiration

Television vfx teams often look to features for inspiration. In a sense, films serve as R&D departments in that they develop proprietary software for certain effects, which then trickles down to television when the larger studios sell the plug-ins to smaller post and vfx houses.

If we see something cool [in film], we may want to try it, says McEachern, who notes that effects sometimes have to be scaled down to fit within television shooting schedules.

We look to feature films for inspiration, agrees Stritch. But its very competitive and everyones copying everybody. Were trying to get away from that. Our goal is to beat features.

We dont mimic films, stresses Nicholson. One thing Im very proud of is that we see films mimicking us.

The vfx team on The Dead Zone studies the past for ideas. Were looking to the original architects of illusion, emphasizes Stritch. Were doing the same things on the computer as they did 70 years ago, but were pushing the limits of what they did. He notes that photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge tripped a still camera to get a sequence of still shots that stopped time, enabling him to prove that horses have all four hooves off the ground simultaneously. There are parallels between that technique and the edited sequences of array shots in each episode of The Dead Zone.

Greenscreen work on television gets better and better as each season passes.

The vfx team on The Dead Zone studies the past for ideas. Were looking to the original architects of illusion, emphasizes Stritch. Were doing the same things on the computer as they did 70 years ago, but were pushing the limits of what they did. He notes that photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge tripped a still camera to get a sequence of still shots that stopped time, enabling him to prove that horses have all four hooves off the ground simultaneously. There are parallels between that technique and the edited sequences of array shots in each episode of The Dead Zone.

Unlike in film, television vfx teams have time to develop their techniques, which allows them to continue improving with each episode. After about four years of that, concludes Nicholson, you come up with some pretty magic stuff.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).