Fx techs forge lasting careers on TV

Craft jobs mix computer savvy with traditional effects

Catapulting a speeding SWAT van end over end may not be a problem for those of us with superpowers–like “Heroes’ ” telekinetic Sylar–but for mere mortals, like special effects supervisor Gary Damico, it’s a bit more of a challenge.

“(Mechanical effects) is a complex craft,” says Damico, who’s charged with breaking the laws of physics each week on NBC’s globetrotting superhero show. “You have to be well-versed in carpentry, electricity, plumbing… electronics, welding and fabricating. There’s a lot of physics, a lot of math skills. It’s a combination of everything.”

Damico should know. When he first started in the business more than 30 years ago, he was making Volkswagens pop wheelies for “Herbie Goes Bananas.” Today, he’s using pneumatic rams to launch SWAT vans through the air. Of course, as effects and technologies have advanced, so have the skills needed to control them. And both veterans and newbies alike are racing to keep up.

“It’s the marriage of visual effects and mechanical effects,” says Damico. “We’re working a lot more with visual effects than ever before.”

When Damico’s pneumatic ram flipped the van, for instance, he knew “Heroes’ ” visual effects department would be able to alter the footage by digitally removing the ram and its rig. Without this technology, the entire shot would be near impossible.

Even shows that don’t seem immediately effects-heavy are embracing new frontiers of visual effects, which often require skill sets unfamiliar to more seasoned producers. “CSI,” for example, melds high-tech camera moves and computer animation to achieve its groundbreaking bullet-through-the-body shots.

“We shoot (them) in three moves,” says “CSI” second unit director Brad Tanenbaum. “We shoot one shot where (the camera goes) all the way up to the actor’s forehead. The (next) will be inside his head: computer animation. The third, which is the bullet coming out… is (shot like the first).” Computer animators then upload the shots into a computer and “align them together” into a single “shot.”

“It’s about seamlessly integrating what we do with stuff that’s shot (on set),” says Andrew Orloff, creative director/vfx supervisor at Zoic Studios, the effects house behind “CSI,” “24” and “Traveler.” “People breaking into the industry often have a good mastery of software skills… [but they don’t have] an eye for what it takes to convince viewers they’re looking at something shot in the traditional sense. People [need] that traditional background. Lighting, direction, camera movement–those practical elements come into play when you’re trying to create something for television.”

Knowing how to combine the traditional and the high-tech can make or break careers. When “CSI” began, Tanenbaum explains, “my producers didn’t understand it at all. So I educated myself on what computer generation is and how green screen works. I found a niche that was untapped.”

This is good news for those hoping to follow in Tanenbaum’s shoes, because learning new skills and technologies has never been easier.

“The tools are certainly out there for newbies to grab hold of and teach themselves,” says “Battlestar Galactica” co-producer Paul Leonard, who oversees much of the show’s post-production. “Whether that’s paying close attention to commentary tracks on (DVDs), going to an extension program, or just… getting your hands on some equipment and shooting and editing some things.”

A good mini-DV camcorder costs only a few hundred dollars, says Leonard, and many of the animation and effects programs used by professionals (Lightwave 3D, Combustion, After Effects) are available to the general population.

“It’s a new breed of television,” says Tanenbaum. “If you understand the technology, there could be a job for you.”

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