Tara Bennett talks to Heroes vfx producer Mark Spatny about the explosion of awesome work in the series' new season.
Sometimes a sophomore slump is useful. With Heroes, critics and fans groused loudly that its second season was below the standards set by year one. Whether it was too slow moving or there were too many characters, it seems like every piece of the show became a target. But then the WGA strike hit, giving the creative team a chance to assess what was right and wrong. While the strike was resolved in the spring, NBC decided Heroes would stay off the air and instead return with a fresh new season (and volume) this month.
After nine months off the air, absence has definitely made the heart grow fonder for deprived fans. The time off has also reinvigorated the creative team, as evidenced by their energetic return to form in the third season premiere, The Second Coming. Creator Tim Kring has shifted to a more aggressive style of storytelling that also carries over to the series' visual effects.
Mark Spatny, visual effects producer on the Emmy-nominated vfx team for Heroes, says those changes mean that this season is going to look a lot different. "Obviously, since season three is called Villains, or the first half at least, we really needed to ramp up the idea that these are people with superpowers. In previous seasons, a large part of our visual effects -- and in many of the episodes it was the bulk of the work -- was actually invisible effects and establishing locations. When it looked like New York, Vegas, India or Haiti -- a large part of that was us. In addition to the invisible effects work, we had been [setting] people on fire and making them fly. But it was a shot here or there selectively to get the point across.
This season they have clearly put the emphasis for our work more on superpowers and super destruction. From blowing up more cities or creating black holes, you name it, there is devastation worldwide. So, wow, we are able to improve our pipeline to handle more work and bring on a few more artists."
This change in creative focus means the vfx artists are getting to throw more creative ideas into the mix and add more depth to some of the superpowers audiences have only gotten a glimpse of in previous seasons. "We're just delivering the third episode and working on the fourth," Spatny explains. "But we have a lot of ideas on paper because we are shooting the 12th episode. Mostly we are trying to figure out certain people's effects, like Elle [played by Kristen Bell]. She shoots lightning bolts and we see a lot more with her. In past episodes, she might do six or seven bolts in an episode. There is one coming up where we see more than 40. We had one guy who did the lightning before, but that's clearly not enough, so we need to get more artists trained in that technique and see if there is a way we can automate it. In the past, to get a nice look, we hand drew it. There is no automated way to do good lightning. Any kind of plug-ins available looked cheesy. Now we are looking for a process to simplify. And we are training more people now to be familiar with a range of effects. We did staff up a little bit this year. We have three or four more artists in our 3D department and the same in our compositing department."
Yet even with the shift in visual effect techniques, Spatny says their production pipeline is still solid and hasn't changed for season three. "We use After Effects for compositing. Our whole company is based around it because there is a lot of custom scripting that ties into how we render proxies and the way we keep track of data. We are stuck there but we are very happy with that product. Plus, there is a lot of talent out there on After Effects and they are easier to find than Inferno artists. On the 3D end, we are using Maya and a little bit of Massive because we are doing more crowd scenes. In a scene for Tokyo in the first episode, Hiro (Masi Oka) and Ando (James Kyson Lee) are on green screen and we needed to create the whole city of Tokyo behind them. We used Massive instead of shooting extras."
In fact that sequence in the premiere of the destruction of Tokyo is one of the team's greatest achievements to date for Heroes. Spatny says it really excited the group to do something special. "We read that and knew there were two ways to go about it," he explains. "In the script it was written [similarly] to a shot in season one where we are looking at a POV and a nuclear bomb goes off and buildings collapse and a dust cloud comes in. We knew that we could create that shot again with buildings in Tokyo, but it was same old, same old. What we wanted to do was to give more of a sense of the Earth splitting in half. In the episode, there is graffiti on the walls around the world that shows that event. We didn't want to cover up everything with dust. We decided to just go crazy. The sequence could have been a bunch of matte paintings, a flash of light and some dust. Instead, we created six blocks of Tokyo with animated signage and cars and people walking around. The street erupts and all the buildings crumble, which is reminiscent of 9/11. We spent probably 100 man-days of work just on that sequence."
With such a huge amount of time spent to create it, Spatny says it was essential that they were able to start early in order to turn it around for airing. "We saw the script in May ('08) and had a lot of discussions. In pre-production, we committed on a number for the sequence but we didn't entirely spec out what it would look like. Over the course of weeks, after it was shot, we played around with some pre-viz and showed [the producers] some ideas and ultimately agreed what they would get for their dollar value. But then we went way over budget because on our end we thought it was an amazing shot and we wanted to make it special, if for nothing else but for our reel. We have never seen anything like this in television before and we wanted to set the bar for what can be done for television."
Of course raising the bar also means another TV season with little rest for the vfx team. Even early in the season production cycle, Heroes is demanding a lot in terms of shot counts. "It's about 100 shots an episode," Spatny laughs. "It's a little scary. That was a very big episode in season two, but that's the norm now for season three." And as always the turnaround time remains tight. "With the first episodes, because of Tokyo -- and there is a character that is frozen to death and shatters -- we had six weeks on Tokyo and then we had three and four weeks for the frozen guy. A normal turnaround now is about ten days."
Now prepping the effects for episode four, Spatny says fans should look out for some amazing sequences, as it's "a big one for us. It is the biggest showdown between the heroes and the villains that anyone will have seen to date."
Asked if working on a huge network hit puts more pressure on his team, Spatny says no.
"The fact that it's seen by a lot of people doesn't really affect me at all. For me and for our team and our vfx supervisor, Eric Grenaudier, what's great about this show is that every episode is different and every episode presents a new challenge. We push ourselves to the limit and tax ourselves with better ways to solve our problems and communicate ideas. If nobody saw it, if it was on the worst-rated cable channel on Earth, it would still be a fantastic show to work on because it challenges us so much."
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.