With tonight's final episode of the fourth season, House VFX Supervisor Elan Soltes gives Tara Bennett their prescription for success.
When the series House gets any type of media coverage or feature write ups, it almost always revolves around the despotically charming, eponymous physician crafted by actor Hugh Laurie. It's actually pretty rare that the impressive visual effects created for the series are even recognized. But then that's exactly the way House's Visual Effects Supervisor Elan Soltes likes it.
In four seasons, House has evolved into a huge hit for Fox existing as a medical procedural that's about the talented doctors at Princeton/Plainsboro Hospital in New Jersey diagnosing and treating some of the most baffling medical mysteries in the world. Despite its sleek glass walls and high-tech hospital room sets, House still feels like an old-school medical show with its traditional, practical style of shooting that's a hallmark of the genre. But Soltes' secret (like that of so many series nowadays) is that loads of invisible visual effects are actually integral to the DNA of the show and much more present than even the most keen viewers might suppose.
"I guess what I am most proud of is the fact that we are able to pull this stuff off without pulling people away from the story," Soltes says about the work he and his visual effects team does for the series. "What we do fits in, so the drama and the characters predominate and it's ironic, but I love that we do this invisible stuff."
Soltes started as the House vfx supervisor on the pilot and he says the visual effects path was really set in that launch episode. "I guess part of the way it began was through Bryan Singer, who shot the pilot and the first episode," Soltes recalls. "He basically described himself as a hypochondriac and he was fascinated with the idea of looking inside the body and seeing what is there." Thus the show's most overt visual effect device was born -- sequences that take the viewer into the body to take an up close look at the malady of the day from the inside out.
"There was a push to try to make things as photoreal as possible so it wasn't stylized and gimmicky and it would look like the camera was in the body," Soltes continues. Rather than being hyper-aggressive with those sequences and taking a pure CG approach, Soltes instead opted for a mixed medium approach melding 3D modeling with motion control elements that would become the template for all those sequences to follow. "It set the parameters for us to work from and it set up a situation where we were building latex models and doing motion control shoots as opposed to trying to pull everything off with CG."
One of the particular challenges of any medical series is to maintain authenticity by recreating accurate body physiology in effects shots to enhance the story but also help maintain storyline credibility. Soltes says medical research is a key in bringing a show such as House to life. "The writers, in setting up the stories and the medical background, do their research. We have medical advisors attached to the show and we also have a medical consultant/writer who works with us on every episode. And we also do a ton of research to make sure [everything] is what it looks like. But the other side of that is the reality… that it is a dramatic television show. Sometimes we are always struggling to be 100% medically correct and 100% visually accurate but there are times when we can not. It's just not feasible because if you are looking for calcium in the bloodstream you can measure calcium but you can't necessarily see the little particles, so we need to come up with a way to differentiate that to tell the story but at the same time be as medically correct as we can."
It's a challenge that Soltes encounters in every episode and finding the right balance often falls on his shoulders. "On the one hand, we start with a story that is medically feasible," he explains. "But what we have found is that sometimes in the telling of the story there are jumps in the medical accuracy. It may be that medically something is not going to happen as quickly as it needs to happen in our story or we are dealing with one patient in 25,000 will react the way our patient reacts, but for the purposes of our story that's the patient we are dealing with. Fitting into that then are our efforts to make it look as authentic and real as possible."
For four years, Soltes and his crew have been asked to do more and more with the visual effects on House despite the truncated schedule that television affords. "Sometimes I'm not sure how we pull it off," Soltes chuckles. "And ironically over the years, it seems to be that we do less and less traveling into the body and what's come up instead are these set pieces, teasers or show opens, which are like mini features. Plus, we do a lot of what I call invisible effects. Like the fact that the show takes place in New Jersey but we shoot in L.A. We just had an episode where we needed to put in the New York City skyline but it wasn't pointed at. It's there in the background, so if you ask where it's happening, you look and see the Empire State Building so it must be New York. We aren't hitting people over the head with it. And then when people bleed, it's hard on set to get the blood exactly right take after take and to get the blood to match angles. So often if people are bleeding, we will often make them bleed by means of a tube running to their ear and we remove the tubes or if… someone's mouth is distorting because of a stroke, this is all stuff we do that you aren't looking at it and seeing as a visual effect."
In order to get it done, Soltes says he leans heavily on the talents of the production crew as well as his visual effects crew. "The production crew understand s what we do to a point that I've never had a crew 'get it' like this before. The camera department and our DP (Gale Tattersall) are fabulous. There is cooperation all the way down the line and it's phenomenal. And we have been at it long enough now that the writers, producers and directors understand that we need to get [shot] counts now so that we don't have to wait for the show to lock to begin working on something. Or in some cases we don't even have to wait for a show to start shooting before we start working on stuff. It's all about finding a balance and being able to juggle resources, so when we have something that is extremely intense we can call in other people to help on the show, but keep people in the loop so post knows we need a heads up. Thankfully, we are able to do a lot of the work in that way."
Breaking down his visual effects crew, Soltes explains, "I'm the supervisor and I basically work for the NBC/Uni house. Then my team is elastic as I do most of the visual effects at Encore in Hollywood. We keep an Inferno going five days a week, lately six days a week, in order to get these last episodes done. I pull in from two to three other Inferno artists as needed. We have Mitch Gates as the 3D supervisor. We have five other 3D artists that we pull in from time to time. We usually have one or two working on something for the episode about to air or, hopefully, working into the future. We also have a Mac artist. Then on the production side, I've got Matthew Mungle who does our prosthetics effects for the makeup people but he is also responsible for body parts that we shoot with motion control. The company Image G is where we do our motion control so I'll have a crew of six or seven when we do a shoot there. But at this point, there's less and less of that. We've combined two or three episodes now to shoot stuff together and we've been doing some inserts for stuff that maybe they weren't able to pick up.
"In general, we probably spend half of our time working with specific gags, whether it's a bus crash or a plane crash or traveling in and out of a body," Soltes continues as he describes the visual effects needs on any given episode. "Then we spend a quarter of our time manipulating dailies to make things work medically, so if someone needs to turn blue we make them do that because we want to see them turn blue in a shot. The other quarter of the work is the visual effects makeup. Then the rest of our work is fixing what we call the knucklehead shots or the bloopers with a boom on set or glass reflections where we see things we don't want to see like a lens or a focus pullers arm."
And while it may seem everything nowadays in vfx is about big improvements to rendering pipelines or software systems, Soltes says one of the most exciting recent additions to the House post process is actually a rather small one. "One of my main concerns [on the show] is that we work here on the visual effects and send them back to post-production and we are working in HD and 2K. In post, we end up laying stuff off to D5 or HD Cam SR and what we end up doing is making a little DV cam at standard def squeezed and then that goes to post where it's digitized into the Avid and then they look at it and say, 'I doesn't look quite right.' I've been saying, 'You guys need to come over here because you don't know what you are looking at.' This year, after dragging people over here, we are finally getting an HD monitor installed in post-production so they will get to see full HD with correct color."
Soltes says the end of the fourth season has shaped up to be really instrumental for the visual effects team. "The last two ("House's Head" and "Wilson's Heart") are basically two-part episodes [concluding May 19] that were intended for the earlier part of the season. What we've ended up with is probably two of the most ambitious episodes in our history. Because of our schedule and that the network wants to run them during May sweeps, we have the shortest turnaround time we've ever had to deal with. Most of what we tried to pull off is basically to eliminate as many vfx as possible. Where we might have shot a lot of greenscreen, I spent more time up front preparing rear projection material so we are sort of doing an homage to Alfred Hitchcock. I think everybody will be impressed that the shows get on the air and look fabulous."
Reflecting on more than 70 hours of House episodes, Soltes says it's all a blur at times but he's proud of what they've been able to accomplish for the series. "I look at a couple of shots where I cringe when I realize we just ran out of time, but 99.9% is stuff that I am proud of and it involves everything from a woman in a flight simulator to make it look as though she's not in a flight simulator at the beginning of the show to a building collapsing. Sometimes it's simply creating realistic bugs. In another episode this season, we needed to establish the South Pole and on and on and on. It's challenging but at the same time I would have to say its part of the fun and what keeps me interested in the job. Even now, whenever I open a script, I think, 'What it is going to be this week?'"
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.