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Small screen goes small shop

Television shows are increasingly on small f/x facilities for their visuals

When it comes to choosing a visual effects house for TV, bigger isn’t necessarily better and two is definitely better than one.

The new season will signal that practice more than ever as the freshman fare hitting the airwaves – “Smallville,” “Wolf Lake,” “UC: Undercover,” “The Agency,” “Enterprise” and “Alias” – feature more effects shots than has ever been demanded on television.

And those shows already join other f/x-friendly shows such as “The West Wing,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Roswell” and “Dark Angel,” among others.

But when it comes to awarding shows to effects facilities, drama and action producers not only have an appetite for smaller shops, they typically go with a smorgasbord of choices, shopping out various episodes – even various shots – to multiple facilities.

This small-screen work has become a lifesaver for small shops.

“We generally leapfrog episodes between our two houses,” says visual effects producer Dan Curry of Paramount Television’s system for dividing up work on this fall’s new Star Trek series, “Enterprise,” on UPN.

So while Valencia, Calif.-based Foundation Imaging is busy with computer animation on one episode of the sci-fi skein, Santa Monica’s Eden FX is elbow deep in another.

The reason is cost and attention.

By spreading the wealth between two shops, Curry is able to work with two groups of artists he happens to like and meet his deadlines, all while being cost-conscious for the small screen. An Industrial Light & Magic or Sony Pictures Imageworks would be cost-prohibitive for a weekly TV series.

Ultimately, Curry’s choice to go with both Foundation and Eden had everything to do with performance and almost nothing to do with size.

“The qualities of the individuals supersede the qualities of the facility,” he says. “We look for animators that think like filmmakers, artists who realize that for whatever period of time their shot is onscreen, it is moving stories forward.”

Executive producer J.J. Abrams, who has yet to confirm his choices for effects on ABC’s new fall thriller “Alias,” says that for him, compatibility is a big factor in the decision-making process.

“I look for organic work that looks real, but what is equally as important is how well I think I’ll be able to get along with the person who’s responsible for the shot. Will they get excited about the work and come to me with ideas or will they constantly remind me how much something is going to cost?”

Smaller houses attract the attention of major television directors not so much because they are hungry and willing to please, but because they have distinct artistic fortes and tend to be attentive to quality and customer service.

Take Gray Matter Visual Effects, for example. According to partner and supervising producer Margaux Mackay, her 12-person company continues to earn a goodly portion of NBC’s bids for “West Wing” because of its specialization in high-end compositing, including turning a Korean Airlines jet into Air Force One.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that partner and creative director Gray Marshall goes out of his way to remain creatively in touch with his clients.

“We had three conversations with ‘West Wing’ just this morning,” Mackay says. “Yesterday, Gray met with them to discuss a couple of shots. On the spot he came up with some ideas for cutting costs by creating a particular background out of still images.”

Maintaining such a producer-centric attitude, however, often means smaller houses have to play nice with the competition.

Both Foundation Images and Eden FX have to, as Curry puts it, share files in a “good-natured” fashion.

Likewise, artists at Rainmaker Digital Pictures in Vancouver often find themselves interacting with vendor peers on “Gene Rodenberry’s Andromeda.”

Says Brian Moylan, director of digital imaging, “It’s just the nature of what we do, but competition keeps us sharp. If a particular shot goes somewhere else then we work to expand our abilities in that area.”

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