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TV follows film into the f/x pool

Lower costs, better looks lure producers

A few years ago, digital visual effects were the province of expensive studio feature films.

Now technology has improved and costs have dropped, and digital visual f/x have become an important part of TV production.

And unlike bigscreen effects that have sent costs soaring as studios try to sell spectacle, TV f/x are improving production values while actually saving productions some money.

Visual effects companies say they’re doing more work on TV than ever before.

“Desperate Housewives” hardly seems like an effects-heavy production, but Modern Videofilm digitally removes a six-story parking garage that lurks behind Wisteria Lane.

A slew of shows that shoot in L.A. but are set in other cities use digital f/x: the “CSI” franchise, “Cold Case” and Fox’s “Bones.”

Even sitcoms are on board: “How I Met Your Mother” and “Malcolm in the Middle” are two using the technology.

Skeins need the f/x because the pressure’s on to make shows look better and better, says Steve Beers, co-executive producer of “Bones.”

“Back when we had three networks, they competed against themselves,” Beers says. “Now you’re competing against features, you’re competing against HBO, you have to bring the gloss and quality of your show up as high as you can.”

Once Hollywood and its environs could stand in for almost anyplace. Now viewers want authenticity.

Paris Barclay, co-exec producer of “Cold Case,” says that the show’s look got a boost from digital visual effects.

“We could change the season,” he says. “We wanted a fall look, and there’s no real autumn in Los Angeles.”

For “The Unit,” which sends its characters all over the world, such compositing is essential, says the show’s visual f/x supervisor, Dave Alteneau, since the show can’t send a crew jetting to Rio or Sydney each week.

“Digital background replacement adds a lot to the show, because it puts the viewer wherever the characters are at more effectively.”

Alteneau, who also works on “Deadwood,” says, “It’s really part of the set decorating.” On the HBO Western, digital backgrounds make the set appear to be in the Black Hills. “It adds a different feel to the whole show.”

Henrik Fett of Look FX, which is doing digital backgrounds for “Bones” and “Criminal Minds,” says his company has been using the technology since the days of “Dawson’s Creek.”

“We made North Carolina look like Boston,” says Fett. “It was just not talked about much. Nobody really thought about the fact that it wasn’t shot where it looked like it was shot.”

But as CG visual f/x become better and cheaper, more shows have begun using them.

Shooting in Canada? Digital retouching removes Canadian street signs and Americanizes license plates.

It’s also now cheaper to use digital backgrounds and set extensions than to fly series regulars to far-flung cities and put them up for location shooting.

Instead of taking the cast to those locations, producers can send a crew to shoot background plates. The actors play the scene in an L.A. location with a greenscreen backdrop and the plates are inserted later.

Barclay says he’s excited about the technology. “If this gets really good, it might start squeezing into our other trips. We might do more of that visual replacement.”

But Barclay doubts those location trips will ever disappear altogether. “There’s a benefit,” he says, “to have the cast go to Philadelphia.”