Epic adventures make it to small-screen thanks to CG gurus

Judging from the list of nominees in the visual effects Emmy race, creating computer-graphic dinosaurs and state-of-the-art digital spaceships may be the easiest way to reach f/x nirvana. However, just like their bigscreen cousins, many of the nominated visual effects teams have had to come up with ingenious ways of applying the technology to get the approval of their colleagues.

In addition to spinning eye-catching images for futuristic series such as UPN’s “Star Trek: Voyager,” Showtime’s “Stargate SG-1″ and Fox’s “Dark Angel” (all nominated in the special visual effects for a series category), TV’s f/x units have to work with smaller budgets and under tighter deadlines than their counterparts in the feature world.

“We often save our biggest visual effects work for two or three episodes in the season,” says James Tichener, visual f/x supervisor for “Stargate: SG-1.” “And those more elaborate projects are the ones that ended up getting nominated this year.”

Tichener and his team are nominated twice in the same category for two different episodes of “Stargate,” “Small Victories” and “Exodus.” The f/x maestro, who also landed a nom in 2000 for his work on the series, says there are certain visual cues that are likely to impress Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters.

“I’ve noticed that the special effects branch tends to nominate shows with virtual sets, a few years back, for example back in 1998, the show ‘Yo Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach’ won the Emmy, because it had this amazing CG set in which Yo Yo Ma was performing,” recalls Tichener. “In addition to that, I guess it’s a given that sci-fi space travel shows have a good chance of being nominated.”

Tichener says he was particularly happy to be on the ballot this year with another regular sci-fi favorite known for its razzle-dazzle visuals, “Star Trek: Voyager,’ headed up by visual f/x producer Dan Curry.

A veteran of the effects world, Curry has been nominated several times, winning four Emmys, for his work on shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” He’s busy putting the finishing touches to the pilot of this fall’s spanking-new “Star Trek” franchise, “Enterprise,” which stars Scott Bakula as the newest captain on a space odyssey.

“We try to give the viewers the dream of space travel and stretch the possibilities of what the future may hold,” says Curry.

He also notes that the advances in technology and CG possibilities have vastly changed the way his team approaches each project.

“When I first began working with ‘Next Generation’ 15 years ago, we were still using motion-control miniatures and our show was the first series to actually do compositing on tape and not on film,” says Curry. “Now the demands of the scripts make it impossible to shoot miniatures, and we generate close to 3,000 effects shots per year.”

Longform leviathans

This year’s visual effects nominees in the minis, movies or special category are quite an eclectic mix. The obvious contenders are BBC/Discovery Channel’s “Allosaurus: A Walking With Dinosaurs Special” and Sci Fi Channel’s “Frank Herbert’s Dune” mini, which offered as much visual voltage as Jennifer Lopez on an awards night.

Two other more-standard epic adventures are sharing the spotlight with the dinos and the spice hunters: CBS/Alliance Atlantis’ “Haven” and A&E’s seafaring adventure “Horatio Hornblower: Mutiny.” These two less-explosive contenders are a clear reflection of the sophisticated taste of the 30 experts who pick the noms after a special screening offered by ATAS in Los Angeles.

“The TV Academy has experimented with different voting systems for the effects branch,” notes Curry. “The judges are all professionals in the field and that’s why getting the recognition is quite meaningful.”

The Acad held a screening of all the nominated projects Aug. 4 to determine the winners in each race.

Space worms and lizards

Ernest Farino, who has worked on features such as “Starship Troopers” and “The Abyss,” and was Emmy nominated for his work on HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon” in 1998 and “Dune” this year, says that overall, these are heady times for his craft.

“There were periods when it was really hard to find a job, but today with the proliferation of cable and TV outlets, there are a lot of projects that support the development of technology and vice versa,” “More series and specials are developed now because we now have the technology to tell those visually challenging stories,” notes Farino, whose team looked at the 1984 David Lynch feature version of “Dune” only to learn how he dealt with certain challenges, but the main source of inspiration was Frank Herbert’s book.

Nature and biology were the main sources of inspiration for CGI supervisor Virgil Manning, who along with his colleagues at British f/x shop FrameStore brought the prehistoric beasts of “Allosaurus” to life. He says his team tried to take the effects displayed in the first “Walking With Dinosaurs” special to a higher level.

“We got more ambitious and adventurous with our approach,” says Manning. “Even if you look at the ‘Jurassic Park’ films, the amount of CG shots in each picture has doubled, primarily because the technology has become more affordable and user-friendly.”

The best part of getting nominated, according to the 28-year-old Manning is the recognition that goes with the glory. “When I was designing games and told people what I did for a living, nobody knew what I as talking about. But now, when I mention ‘Walking with Dinosaurs,’ they immediately get this spark of recognition in their eyes. And that’s wonderful.”

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