In this golden age of television, visual effects are so cleverly woven into the visual artistry they’re often invisible. Vfx teams working in TV are doing exactly what’s expected in features — extending sets, making practical effects look even bigger, or replicating historical backdrops behind the scenes. They’re just doing it with a more frenzied schedule and less coin to spend. With all these pressures, they still deliver shots that stun viewers. Five of this year’s Emmy-nominated artisans in the category of special visual effects in a supporting role walk us through some of the most challenging work from the past season.
William Powloski’s work on AMC’s “Better Call Saul” has been consistently subtle, even delicate at points, and the Emmy-nominated “Fifi” is no exception. One of the most complex vfx shots of the last season arrives without fanfare in this episode when the camera appears to make one continuous move following a truck transporting ice cream (along with some more illicit cargo) across the border from Mexico.
>The shot is inspired by another border-crossing scene from the classic Orson Welles film “Touch of Evil.” But Powloski had to pull off his sequence with a TV budget and schedule and he had to please producers who didn’t want vfx that would become a spectacle. He relied on the talents of a committed team and extremely detailed planning to make sure everything would come together just as they wanted.
“The thing I’m happiest about is that they said yes to what we wanted to do because it would have been easy to say no to something this complex that would take so much time and effort. It gave us the opportunity to do something special,” Powloski says. “And Guillermo del Toro even reacted to that shot on Twitter.”
For the eight-part Hulu limited series “11.22.63,” visual-effects supervisor Jay Worth found himself carefully tweaking the look of the show in the Emmy-nommed episode “The Rabbit Hole” to give the audience the feeling of being present in the early 1960s with JFK. Worth’s careful research paid off as he gently recreated Dealey Plaza, the Dallas location of JFK’s assassination, and even parts of the infamous Zapruder film by learning about the type of camera used on that day.
Adapted from a Stephen King book of the same name, the time-travel tale was shot in Dallas and Toronto, which presented their own sets of challenges for Worth and his team. Everything from the street lights to the heights of trees and the way crosswalks were painted had to be altered to their original 1963 appearance to visually sell the audience on the location and the decade.
“It’s a time period and event most of us feel like we know, so viewers bring a lot to history to those moments,” Worth says. “We shot our version of the Zapruder film on 16mm to get the same feeling as the original, which was shot on Bell & Howell 8mm.”
“We chose this episode for submission because it had the largest breadth of work,” says visual-effects supervisor Robert Crowther of the “Primavera” installment from the NBC series “Hannibal.” “We’re moving into the psyche of [FBI agent] Will Graham and so we get glimpses into his imagination.”
Graham’s mind is populated with a veritable horror show of images that include a strange beast that appears to be part stag and part human. The creature started as a type of puppet and then the vfx department was asked to put some finishing touches on the beast to make it more real and more chilling.
Crowther and his team focused on layering their effects, using as many practical elements as they could in any situation. When in-camera work and CG come together, Crowther believes you get a more believable, more powerful result. The audience also tends to stay more focused on the story.
“We tried to make the movement look more natural, with muscles underneath the skin, and we added antlers that grow out of the stumpy neck of the creature,” Crowther says. “Something that’s purely CG can have too much of a feeling of being CG. [Series creator] Bryan Fuller wanted us to do something that wasn’t just good, but really beautiful and special.”
Visual-effects supervisor Danny Hargreaves was thinking about the main character in “Sherlock” long before he began planning effects shots for television and film.
“I followed the books when I was a child so it’s something very special to be asked to work on this story,” Hargreaves says. “And seeing this character develop over the course of the series, we’ve really developed a sense of what his world should be.”
This year’s nominated installment, “The Abominable Bride,” was a 90-minute PBS special that featured some of the most skillfully created and composited vfx seen on TV. Modern-day London was transformed into Victorian London by creating a digital matte painting street extension of Ludgate among other places. There was also enhancement of a practical waterfall as well as the atmospherics and steam in keeping with the period.
Hargreaves acknowledges the pressures of TV are intense because budgets and schedules are smaller than features, but film-quality vfx are still expected. It’s still a challenge he enjoys and even seeks out.
“We all come back to work on ‘Sherlock’ because we love the show,” Hargreaves says. “Just making London in the middle of Bristol was quite a journey.”
In the episode “No Way Out,” vfx supervisor Victor Scalise had to enhance scenes of 10-15 actors wielding weapons while exploding heads fire off throughout the action, and heighten the drama of a lake fire sequence in which the stuntmen are actually on fire.
“The kills go by really fast in these scenes,” Scalise says. “Sometimes you have those beautiful kills that linger on screen but we had something different here and lots of challenges because of it.”
The vfx crew took their planning seriously since it was the only way to manage the rapid-fire action of more than a dozen extras battling and dying in their fight sequence. It was also the only way to orchestrate the lake fire, which involved increasing flames and adding elements to houses near the lake, all while moving the story forward.
Though the show is high drama and demands new and interesting ways to kill “walkers” all the time, Scalise is careful not to go overboard with the vfx in AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
“Yes, you want the best head explosions, but the writers are pretty specific about what the visuals should be. We’re there for the story and so is the audience.”