New Technology Brings More Visual Effects to TV


Peppy new technology is rapidly changing the look of television and expanding markets for companies involved in visual effects production, bringing artists in the field gratifying assignments--and a few they didn't quite anticipate.

Emmy Award-winning effects supervisor Ron Thornton said his best work last year was creating a computer-animated, 9-foot-tall, three-legged alien for UPN network's "Star Trek: Voyager." But another assignment kept him tied up for a couple of days digitally removing armpit stains from an actor who had been perspiring heavily.

"It was a waste of technology," Thornton grumbled, but it turns out that producers are calling on visual effects artists to perform both the sublime and mundane to spruce up their shows.

The visual effects field--referring to computerized digital animation and picture-layering processes known as compositing--is evolving so quickly that producers sometimes have trouble keeping up with the technology. Only two years ago, for instance, the ABC series "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" premiered with a magician in the crew, said series executive producer Paula Hart.

"We were trying to do some in-camera magic, but that doesn't quite work as well," she said. "Now we just use special effects."

Veteran effects artist Steve Kullbeck was brought in to help "Sabrina"--animatronic cat, magic spells and all--rack up two seasons of solid ratings and a green light from ABC for two more seasons.

By another measure of the field's rapid growth, its largest professional organization, Los Angeles-based Visual Effects Society, is barely 18 months old.

"We've seen an explosion in the number of members who are involved in doing TV effects," said the group's chairman, Jim Morris, president of Lucas Digital Ltd., the parent company of Industrial Light & Magic of San Rafael, Calif., which creates effects for high-end feature films and TV commercials.

Indeed, computer-generated animation in TV production will be worth $270 million in 1998, a figure that will double within five years, according to forecasts from Machover Associates Corp., a White Plains, N.Y., computer graphics consulting firm.

Visual Effects Society Executive Director Tom Atkins said he hears anecdotes reflecting a brisk pace.

For example, Air Age Images Inc. of Valencia, doing business as Foundation Imaging, doubled its annual revenue for three straight years to $4 million in 1997, said president and co-founder Thornton. He expects revenue to nearly double again in 1998.

Most of Foundation Imaging's business is in creating visual effects for the syndicated series "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager." The firm recently added work on another effects-laden series, "Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog" for the new Fox Family Channel.

The lion's share of TV effects work is done at a handful of large shops such as CBS Animation Group at CBS Television City, where visual effects director Craig Weiss made jaws drop recently when he pitched an idea for a supernatural storm sequence for "Charmed," a new prime-time drama about a trio of sibling witches that's scheduled to premiere in the fall on WB network.

"There is a whirling vortex of dust, and ogres and a snake and morphing and terror and a ring of fire," said series executive producer E. Duke Vincent of Aaron Spelling Television, whose job is to order visual effects within a low- to mid-six-figure budget per episode.

"We said, 'Holy mackerel! It looks like it'll take a month to do that,' " Vincent recalled.

Weiss eventually convinced Vincent he could do the shot with digital animation quickly and cost-effectively--the key to success in TV visual effects--so the storm will air in October as one of 70 effects shots in the "Charmed" pilot.

Impressive work is also emerging from small, independent shops.

"With the technology now, you can use $3,000 software and a computer that costs maybe $5,000, and you buy a bunch of those to do your effects," said James Castle, a governor of the visual effects and title design peer group of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

A notable success in the boutique segment is Lynch Entertainment of Los Angeles and its 1994 breakthrough children's show, "The Secret World of Alex Mack," about a teenage girl able to morph into a liquid form. The show was created with a group of freelance animators working in a tiny guest house, said Lynch Entertainment Chief Executive Thomas W. Lynch.

"We had computers rendering images 24 hours a day, eight and nine days a week, just to come up with 10 seconds of a morph," he said.

After four years, Lynch's crew mastered new programs and stepped up the effects content from seven to 20 shots per episode--and got to where they could show Alex as a puddle of liquid moving around doing things.

Lynch's pioneering work opened doors in network TV to more visual effects artists.

Among the new effects-packed shows this fall will be ABC's "Fantasy Island"--with a character played by Madchen Amick who greets guests and morphs into the woman of their dreams--and Fox's "Brimstone"--with a character played by Peter Horton who returns from the dead to recapture escaped souls from hell.

Techniques honed in feature film production have helped artists create effects quickly and cheaply for the small screen.

"The software gets stronger, capabilities get better, and the trickle-down from the big guys happens faster," said Kevin Kutchaver, a partner in Flat Earth Productions of Burbank, which performs visual effects for the syndicated "Xena: Warrior Princess" and Universal Television's "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." Flat Earth recently added work on a third series, "Young Hercules."

Castle, at the television academy, said the industry is abuzz with word of powerful new animation and compositing programs being developed in anticipation of high-resolution digital TV, which will roll out later this year.

Today's equipment and software are too slow to maintain the current level of effects for higher-definition television formats. Michael D. Most, who created the acclaimed dream sequences for Fox's "Ally McBeal," predicts that HDTV will actually result in fewer effects for a time as the new technology is phased in.

Nonetheless, Weiss said CBS Animation recently added a program that allows tracking shots with a 3-D matte--that is, the computer-generated background appears to change perspective as the camera follows a moving performer. He put it to use right away in a movie titled "Purgatory" for Turner Network Television.

That allowed him to build a 3-D canyon of fire and hell and move the camera up for a crane shot. "Traditionally that was something that would be very, very hard to do," Weiss said.

Such effects are only part of the visual effects supervisor's art. Just as marketable are invisible effects like Thornton's work erasing the armpit stains. They also include common tricks such as correcting mistakes--erasing boom shadows, for instance--or even changing a shot when the director has second thoughts about the way a particular scene plays out.

For instance, Laurie Kallsen-George, visual effects supervisor for the past two seasons on Fox's "The X-Files," said one of her best effects was done on a close-up of a character who opens a door and says, "Come in."

"They decided they don't want this guy to say anything, so I had to morph his mouth shut," Kallsen-George said. "It was flawlessly executed, but no one ever saw it."

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