F/x wizards unveil worlds of mythology

Hallmark brings tales to life with 'Argonauts,' 'Arabian,' 'Kingdom'

TV’s special events are going all out on special effects.

Where once the multinight epics unfolded period pieces and adapted complex novels too long for a standard feature, today’s miniseries are bringing fantasy and myth to life with a barrage of f/x wizardry.

Leading the charge is Hallmark Entertainment, producer of effects-heavy mythological fare such as “Arabian Nights,” “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The 10th Kingdom.”

In bringing “Jason and the Argonauts” to life, Hallmark turned to London-based effects house FrameStore to turn out 600 effects in a post-production period of 12 weeks, says visual-effects producer Fiona Walkinshaw.

FrameStore worked on three major computer-generated effect sequences in bringing the story of Jason’s quest for the golden fleece to life — the Dragon, the Bronze Bull and a sequence where dead soldiers spring to life from their graves.

Of the three, Walkinshaw says the Bronze Bull offered the biggest challenge because it required a mixture of animatronics and CG to make the final sequence.

FrameStore had about 15 people working on CGI for the project, with a team of six working on compositing; the crew was dedicated to the project for 12 weeks.

The soldier scene benefited from FrameStore’s 3-D expertise from working on “Walking With Dinosaurs,” the acclaimed documentary that aired on the BBC last fall and on U.S. cabler Discovery in April, Walkinshaw says. The Jim Henson Co. pitched in to help out on a scene involving the Harpies, monsters with the bodies of women, and the wings and talons of birds.

While still rooted in mythology, the demands of “Arabian Nights” on the FrameStore crew were quite different, requiring more effects on human characters and fewer beasts.

The best example is the genie characters, the Ring Genie and the Lamp Genie, played by John Leguizamo. Each had to appear and disappear in way that kept with their personalities.

“They had to be very different characters,” she says. “The Lamp Genie had to be very dramatic and intimidating, while the Ring Genie was more comical,” she says. “The Lamp Genie was very dark; one of the best effects.”

The project shot for 18 weeks and had 20 weeks for post-production with the f/x work on the project supervised by France’s Eve Ramboz Also working on the project was Media Lab in Paris, which handled the flying carpet sequences, and more help from Henson.

“One of the biggest challenges when working with Steve Barron, the director, was he very much wanted to bring to life a whole style. But he leaves it to you to bring creativity to it,” Walkinshaw says.

Not all effects are run through a computer processor, and even those that are need to merge seamlessly with physical effects.

That’s where Jim Francis comes in. At first, the demands of supervising effects for “The 10th Kingdom,” a series retelling European myths and fairy tales, was an intimidating project.

“When I read the scripts, I was absolutely bowled over by the content because it covered virtually every effect I’d ever done,” he says.

A strong believer in the need for physical effects to combine seamlessly with CG, Francis had to play a bit of catch-up in joining the crew six weeks after computer f/x work had begun.

Particularly difficult was a scene in which the dwarves create time-traveling mirrors mined from quicksilver. The shot was originally planned to use a CG effect and blue screen, but with more than 80 extras in the live-action shot, it was deemed too difficult, Francis says.

Instead, the scene was changed so the mirror emerges from its molten birthplace encrusted with crystals that explode off to reveal the mirror inside, he says. That way, the CG and physical elements could be more easily and better combined.

But other problems developed as they had to figure out how to blow off the crust without endangering actors who were only 10 feet from the blast, he says.

The final decision was to make the encrusted mirror of the same resin used in breakaway bottles, which turned to harmless dust when detonated.

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