Vfx Emmy contenders do more with less

Teams deliver impressive shots with few resources

At February’s Visual Effects Society Awards, VES chairman Jeff Okun spoke out from the podium about the miracles being performed in television f/x.

“They’re doing great work,” he said to the packed ballroom, “and they’re doing it with no money and no time.”

With viewers demanding ever-higher production values and networks cutting costs, vfx Emmy contenders find creative ways to deliver more with less.

“Battlestar Galactica” was plagued by vfx budget problems over its first two seasons, even though the company doing its effects was willing to lose money on the job.

Vfx supervisor Gary Hutzel attacked that issue by building an inhouse vfx department to do the shots at cost.

“In a series, you’re going to be doing similar work over a period of years, so it pays to have people who are familiar with that work,” says Hutzel.

His small team soon was able to deliver better effects in less time. The result: “BSG” took the last two series vfx Emmys.

Eventually, that meant Hutzel and his team were able to make a greater creative contribution to the show.

“I can add completely new setpieces, I can add to setpieces, way beyond what I could do with an outside facility,” he says.

In the series finale, for example, where the script talked vaguely of cutaways to see the battle, the vfx team came up with shots of the Galactica crew rappelling off the ship into the Cylon stronghold.

Before Hutzel built his team, some of the “BSG” vfx work was done by Zoic Studios. Zoic is a contender this year for “Fringe,” which took home a VES Award.

Andrew Orloff, executive creative director and vfx supervisor for Zoic, says the shingle also relies on a small, tight group.

“We handcraft the teams to make sure we have the right person on the job,” Orloff says.

Instead of a large-scale assembly line staffed with specialists, Zoic uses “shotmakers” — artists with more general skills.

“We work with what we call finishers: people who have the ability to take a shot from start to finish.”

Another entry in this year’s race is NBC’s “Knight Rider” and its battle between hero car K.I.T.T. and evil K.A.R.R.

Master Key VFX, which created the sequence, also gets enormous creative control and relies on small teams.

“It allows them to know how everything is connected,” says Elan Dessani, effects producer for “Knight Rider.”

Master Key was able to choreograph the K.I.T.T. vs. K.A.R.R. battle to put the focus on the cars, keeping the fight in one location so artists would only have to create one background landscape.

“We didn’t expect to have that much power, but because we had proposed this larger sequence, (the showrunner) let us go,” Dessani says.

Look for TV vfx to continue improving even as budgets shrink. Making TV competitive with features leaves no choice.

As Zoic’s Orloff explains: “Nobody is going around saying, ‘Eh, it’s just a TV show.’ It’s ‘I want to make a feature every week.'”