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Visual effects artists doing much more with less

Road to the Emmys 2012: Creative Arts - Vfx

In a television landscape overrun by ghouls, alien invaders and fire-breathing dragons, there’s no shortage of opportunity for visual- effects artists.

The trouble is they’re expected pull off feature-quality work on a TV production timetable and budget.

But many have found ways — from putting together crack teams to automating the more tedious parts of the work — to do just that. The results have made the smallscreen one of the best places to see cutting-edge vfx.

“What you really want is for the person who loves spaceships to be the one designing them for the show that needs them,” says Andrew Orloff, vfx supervisor for TNT’s “Falling Skies” and ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.” “You want someone who is inspired by the material or has a special connection to it.”

Rainer Gombos, vfx supervisor for HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” nommed for vfx for a series last year, followed that same rule when putting together a team that would create images of fire-breathing dragons for the show. He also staffed the group with veteran vfx artists.

“When you know you’re going to have to meet TV deadlines and the budget might not be what it would on a feature, you can’t afford to make mistakes,” Gombos says. “We put our best people on this show so we got feature-quality effects.”

It also helps if there’s a clear vision expressed in the writing so the vfx team can chart its course based on the specific details of the story. From there, these groups can also become collaborators and elevate the work they do.

“We’re sometimes right there in the writers room letting them know what’s possible so they know which techniques we can use to tell their story,” says Orloff. “It’s also good for us to get going on things right away because we don’t have months to noodle around like you would on a feature.”

And in TV vfx, there’s truly no rest for the weary. With production moving like lightning and story tweaks happening all the time, everyone must stay flexible and be willing to make adjustments until the moment it simply becomes impossible to deliver any more changes on time.

“You’re always talking about how to make it better,” says Alexis Martin Woodall, producer of FX’s “American Horror Story.” “You just keep going at it until it’s where it needs to be to tell the story.”

For David Taritero, vfx supervisor on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which took home last year’s Emmy for vfx for a series, it’s crucial to have the workflow as set as possible so he’s not fighting against the influx of footage coming to him.

“(Having your workflow established) also gives you more time to concentrate on creating believable work that the audience may or may not notice,” Taritero says. “There’s a lot on our show that’s very subtle, that you might not even realize is an effect and you try to give yourself as much time as you can to do it.”

Despite the budget and time crunches, there are also advantages to working with vfx in TV. In a strange way, the speed of TV production aligns with the speed at which vfx tools are developed, making it possible for those manipulating these pixels to take advantage of the very latest techniques.

“That’s a big part of the fun of this. You get to be the ones on the front lines using these new ideas to take things a step further,” Orloff says.

“When you work on a feature you might have to commit to a workflow and software that could be completely out of date by the time the movie comes out.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: Creative Arts
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