TV f/x take cue from movies

If you really want to see top-of-the-line special effects on television, watch the commercials. But with the advent of computer-generated images, even television shows themselves are beginning to demonstrate movie-style magic.

“Quantum Leap,””Young Indiana Jones” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” have led the way and, suddenly, there’s a fleet of new effects shows, including the “Star Trek” spinoff, “Deep Space Nine,””Space Rangers,””Time Trax” and “Babylon 5.”

The Post Group handles effects for “Quantum Leap” using a piece of equipment called the Video Toaster.

“It’s a $ 3,900 home computer,” says The Post Group’s PeteMoyer. “This machine gives us a high-end computer-graphics look for a low-end price.”

Moyer had custom softwarewritten for the equipment so that he can use the highest form of digital tape. For many years, the effects on “Quantum Leap” were done optically. Then Peter Moyer went to see the producers. “I felt I could match anything they could do on an optical printer in a digital environment and make it more cost-effective,” says Moyer. “They gave me all the elements for a shot that would normally take three days. I did it for them in an hour and a half.”

Don Belisario, who produces “Quantum Leap,” says it was purely a dollar decision. “You can save so much money on tape over creating the effects optically on film,” he says. “You just save so much, there’s no contest.”

Trilogy Entertainment Group, which produced the movies “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Backdraft,” is responsible for TV’s new “Space Rangers” on CBS.

Pen Densham, one of the show’s creators and executive producers, says that special effects play an enormous part in the show because the major opportunity to create the future and to tickle the imagination comes out of the special effects.

Densham used Industrial Light & Magic for the pilot, and The Post Group and a company called Stargate for the series.

“I wanted to give space a different look and they’ve taken that challenge on, ” says Densham. “In a couple of our episodes we have spaceship shots that are extraordinary compared with anything you’ve seen except very high-quality features. The Post Group has been a tremendous ally.”

Densham says Stargate came in toward the end when he was having problems with some of his model shots.

“Stargate has been able to shoot the models and actually put a laser-fed, fiber-optic lighting system into them,” he says. “They’re really lively and eye-filling, including flares off the lens from the models. They put laser-created galactic kind of aurora borealis on a single piece of negative. They took my desire to make the show fresh-looking, and they really slung their

camera around.”

For “Deep Space Nine,” visual-effects producer Rob Legato says that since the style of the show is a little grittier and darker than “Star Trek,” with more conflict, the lighting and the way things were photographed had to reflect that.

All the models for the new show were created from scratch, using a company called Image G for the motion control camera work. Composite Image Systems handles film to tape transfers and bluescreen compositing, and Rich Thorn’s Digital Magic does all the final compositing.

“All the elements are shot on film and then transferred to D-1 tape,” says Legato.

“It’s being composited digitally. It’s very similar to the way you’d do it on a feature except that the final step, instead of being composited on film, is being composited digitally on tape.”

Although Paramount has a considerable amount of stock footage from the two “Star Trek” series, Legato says he’s producing original effects for the new show.

“We mostly re-invent it all the time. The original plan, when we first did “The Next Generation,” was that ILM was hired to do the pilot only and they would create all the stock shots,” he says. “But the very first episode had 20 new ship shots that you couldn’t draw from stock and if you tried to do it, you ended up compromising the shots. We ended up always having to shoot new things anyway.”

On “Deep Space Nine,” Legato used a couple of stock pieces, but everything else was generated for the first time for the show.

For “The Next Generation,” they’ve already created some 450 Enterprise shots, so there’s a greater chance of using stock shots.”Even so,” says Lagato, “three-quarters were brand new.”

“Babylon 5” is a new two-hour sci-fi project from Warner Bros. that will air as a pilot on Feb. 22 on the Prime Time Entertainment Network. Writer/creator/producer J. Michael Straczynski says that all the effects in the show, a thriller set in a United Nations-style space station in the year 2257, are computer-generated under the supervision of Ron Thornton.

“Normally the way effects are done, you have a picture, say, of a star field, a picture of a planet and a picture of a starship, and you overlay them, but there’s no perspective to it,” says Straczynski.

“What Ron did in his computer was create a solar system: the sun is here, the planet’s here, ‘Babylon 5’ is here; ships are coming in here and they’re all in proportion to each other in the correct size and scale, so when a ship moves away from you it recedes and gets smaller at the proper perspective.”

The result, he says, is a more three-dimensional look. “The eye accepts it as being more real. You can do things more flexibly than in model-type animation,” he adds. “Ships can open and close, and you can get much closer to them. There’s a shot at the beginning of the show where we go from 10 kilometers away from Babylon 5 to within about 30 feet in one continuous take. It’s a very impressive shot.” (“Time Trax” is another Prime Time sci-fi series, from Lorimar, which debuts Jan. 27.)

Dale Midkiff stars as a futuristic lawman who returns from the year 2093 to 1993 to hunt down fugitives from the future. He’s accompanied by a hologram named Selma (Elizabeth Alexander). The show is produced in Australia. Co-executive producer Jeffrey Hayes had experience there working on “The New Mission Impossible” and “Dolphin Cove.”

“On ‘The New Mission Impossible,’ we started running out of locations so we started to use all the old tricks they used in the ’20s and ’30s, which was miniatures and glass mattes,” says Hayes.

“They never really left the backlot, but created all the illusions. We had to do that because it’s such a tropical environment down there and we needed different parts of the world. We kind of developed our own special-effects house , with all the model makers and matte painters on staff.”

On “Time Trax” there are no computer generated images. Instead, Hayes uses Quantel’s Paintbox process for certain optical effects. Mostly, he uses hand-painted matte paintings and foreground miniatures and models, and motion-control work.

“I’ve found that the old way is just as effective if it’s done properly,” says Hayes. “I carry a matte painter on staff and we do new mattes periodically on the episodes beyond the ones we did for the pilot.”

Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the biggest effects shop in the business, has found a way to combine the traditional techniques with modern equipment.

For the pilot of “Space Rangers,” and on most episodes of “Young Indiana Jones,” matte artists worked directly on Macintosh computers. “We’ve actually come up with quite a number of different matte shots for each episode,” says Scott Squires, ILM visual-effects supervisor. “It seems to be growing on a weekly basis.”

Squires’ team will take scenes, shot at a deserted airstrip, and his matte artist will add in all the additional things needed around it. In some cases they shoot with only half-a-dozen people in a scene where they really want hundreds, and the matte artists use the computer to provide them, says Squires.

The matte artist starts out with a frame or multiple frames of what the live action is, and then he starts painting, literally, onto it all the things he wants to add to that scene, cloning different sections of the existing footage or creating from scratch. That is then matted with the video itself.

“Quantum Leap” producer Don Belisario says he’s learned a lot on that series about how to use effects to create movements for the Dean Stockwell character, who’s a hologram.

“At first we had him walk through walls instead of going through a door,” says Belisario. “Then we discovered that by moving objects through him it became more interesting than him moving through objects.”

Special effects come in all shapes and sizes and Belisario is proudest of one of the most simple. “We go into the future a few times this year and my problem has always been, on a television-show budget, how do you show the future?” he says.

“Everytime we tried to create the waiting room, the room on the show where everything generates from, I could never come up with something equal to the imagination of the people,” says Belisario.

“Finally, I said, ‘Let’s shoot him against pure, blue screen with simply a modern, contemporary, mirrored stainless-steel table in the middle of it. It’s a very strange, deep-blue look. No one ever sees it because you use it simply to put another picture in. So we did it. Now, the waiting room on ‘Quantum Leap’ is nothing but a plain blue screen. You can see into it forever. Of all the special effects, that’s the one I like best.”

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