To VFX aficionados, television effects didn’t used to be considered feature film quality, but now they can exceed those old bigscreen standards, as demand and standards keep rising.
“Supervisors that aren’t working on Marvel shows are working on episodics,” says Jim Rygiel, a three-time Oscar winner for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Now exec VFX supervisor at FuseFx, the Emmy-nominated shop behind “Lost in Space,” Rygiel says TV VFX work is surpassing what once was considered feature quality. “They’re being done at 4K resolution, while the legacy of features is 2K. For ‘future proofing,’ some shows are even asking for 8K.”
High-res television ups the ante, because visual effects have to blend seamlessly with photography, notes Emmy-winning supervisor Erik Henry.
“The real magician is someone who can deliver shots where nobody knows the difference from reality,” says Henry, who supervised VFX for “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” The trend is moving away from matte paintings and physical models and towards a blend of photographic images applied to 3D-CG shapes.
“The Man in the High Castle,” overseen by Lawson Deming of Barnstorm VFX, contains vintage New York scenes shot with moving camerawork, so traditional back-lot building facades wouldn’t work. Lawson’s approach includes mapping textures of brick or stucco onto virtual models that can be re-used.
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“We have pieces we can mix-and-match together like a Lego set,” he says.
“No existing locales can fully sell the story points of our later episodes, so visual effects must play a greater role in selling the realism,” says “Game of Thrones” supervisor Joe Bauer. “The digital back-lot plays more and more often.” What still remains most daunting is integrating actors with digital elements, especially when humans ride astride CG dragons.
While VFX studios can draw from growing databases of elements like explosions, virtual sets and weather simulations, the volume of shots they need continues to skyrocket. As Bauer says: “Season 3 in ‘GoT’ required 800 VFX shots. Season 8 required over 3,000.”
To keep pace, there’s been a proliferation of VFX studios around the world that can afford industry standard software.“You can find amazing companies in Moldavia and Bulgaria,” says Rygiel.
Henry agrees. “I use companies in Sweden, Norway, Ireland and Spain. It’s made for a global post experience.” As Bauer observes: “Face-to-face interaction is becoming rare.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the short turnaround times in television effects production. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Deming. “You have to get things right immediately. Of course, there’s less time to second-guess yourself!”