EMMYS: TV Visual Effects Biz Finds Stability In Predictability And Quick Turnarounds

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.

While television visual-effects producers are far from immune to the same market forces that recently have rocked the film world, the serial nature of TV and its inherent short deadlines allow facilities and effects artists to find a satisfying and stable niche. “The predictability of the television season helps us,” says Andrew Orloff, co-owner and visual-effects supervisor of Zoic Studios, whose clients include TNT’s Emmy-nominated Falling Skies and ABC’s Once Upon A Time. “We built our business model on serving a bunch of different markets, and we’ve done pretty well.”

With shows going from shooting to air in two or three weeks, effects need to be done extremely quickly and to a high standard. “It can be a blessing and a curse,” says Mat Beck, president of Entity FX, which works on Emmy nominee Game Of Thrones, as well as Vampire Diaries, Mike & Molly and The Following. “What is hard is, you have to get stuff done crazy quickly. The blessing is you’re in a disciplined environment, timewise, and you have to zero in on the best solution.”

Finding ways to get effects done in such a short time and on affordable budgets is a tricky task, but one that pays off especially well over time. “Shows are being requested to have upward of 100 or 200 visual-effects shots and deliver on the same schedule as a live-action show,” says Gary Hutzel, a freelance visual-effects supervisor who has two Emmy noms this year for his work on Syfy’s new series Defiance and the prequel series Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome.

As supervisor on Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica miniseries in 2003, Hutzel says they produced 330 shots in six months. Ten years later, Blood & Chrome was shot entirely on greenscreen and required an all-digital environment for its 1,800 shots. “Blood & Chrome cost no more than doing a (regular) pilot, and it was all visual effects,” he says, adding that these days he is seeing shows budgeted for as many as 5,000 shots. “That price point is possible with a full greenscreen approach.” Orloff says the predictability of TV schedules and the volume of work a series brings in, especially the longer it runs, helps in allocating resources and developing and improving digital assets and environments over time.

Nevertheless, tax incentives have had an impact on TV effects, with studios spreading out to the locations that make the most financial sense. Los Angeles-based Zoic has an office in Vancouver, and L.A.-based Entity has a subsidiary in Vancouver and an office in Atlanta. Hutzel says he often does work in Canada, with the Defiance effects team based in Toronto. But the kind of labor outsourcing to places like India or China that’s seen in feature films is less practical on a TV schedule. “The difficulties of outsourcing include things like language differences, and cultural differences and time-zone differences, and those are more of a factor when the time scale is so short,” concludes Beck.

  1. LA seems to be purposefully chasing all VFX to Vancouver. What is the benefit of letting this happen?

    1. @ Erik Bruhwiler: “Let it happen”? Do you have a suggestion as to how to prevent it from happening? Because so far none of the VFX companies have managed to figure that out. Not while staying in business, anyway.

  2. Way to put the effort in to covering these categories. You interviewed two VFX supervisors out of the 12 nominated shows, plus you interviewed a guy who isn’t even nominated and just happens to own a VFX facility. Nice reporting. Very thorough.

    Plus, technically, these two Emmy award categories (Outstanding Special Visual Effects and Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role) are for both the Special Effects and Visual Effects disciplines. It’s a combined category. Your article short-changes the practical special effects crews, who play an equally important role. You didn’t bother to interview any of those guys. Very lazy of you, Mr. McLean. Try to do better next year.

  3. FuseFX has continued to grow it’s operation and do all work in LA. That allows for higher quality work at a faster pace. The talent in LA is still the best in the world and with a super efficient operation, VFX can still be done here successfully, including getting an Emmy nomination this year for Last Resort.

    1. but same issues that plague film vfx. How many clients does FuseFX have? NBC,CBS,WB,Sony,AMC,ABC…thats about it– so they end up being beholden to the client to an unhealthy extreme. Sony gave you a show that got you an emmy nomination, so now when they call with work that should be millions and only want to pay hundreds of thousands..what do you say? No? fat chance.

      Not to pick on FuseFX of course, they do very nice work and have a reputation for treating artists well here in LA. –it was just an easy way to illustrate the problem.

      then you have places like Stargate that chase incentives, and have many “offices” , and a reputation for abusing employees and over charging clients for stock footage that has been used five thousand times over. Thats not helping the problem.

      1. @notignorant, just because Stargate fired you for not being a very good artist is no reason to trash them.

        Companies go where the work is, and whether people want to acknowledge it or not, the studios dictate where that work will be. And if you don’t think that tax incentives are almost the only thing that studios care about, you’ve been staring at a monitor too long!

  4. Why does the author only mention logistical issues, when writing about a category that awards artistic excellence? These nominated teams have created some of the greatest artistic achievements ever seen on television. Shows like Game of Thrones would be impossible without an army of super talented artists working day and night. In the case of Blood and Chrome, they’ve replaced practical sets and production design entirely. That’s a more interesting story than the number of shots per episode and which city the artists live in, don’t you think?

  5. Sadly, this is the debate framed by the visual effects industry and the media. What a shame this story is not more focused on the actual work. As I recall, Emmys are awarded for excellence in craft, and the business climate of that craft is really not the issue…and, in my humble opinion, should not be the issue.

    Mr. McLean, this story should have been all about the work, yet to had to bring in the business…why?

  6. Yo remember that show Spartacus where they had a 10,000 person frozen dead body bridge? Yeah no need to nominate them.

  7. For film, the talent is not longer in LA. London, New Zealand and San Francisco lead the charge. The demise of r&h and dd has left Sony as the only big player in town.

    1. The film talent is still right here my friend. The companies are no longer around, but all those people that worked through the 90’s and 00’s are still around. Many have tried to make a go of staying here. The facilities have folded or shrunk to become roadkill on the tax credit freeway, but there are still a lot of artists in L.A.. Many more would come back home if they could find work here. No one wants to become a vagabond migrant worker, there are few choices. Also Sony is sending everyone to Vancouver or laying them off. So, no, there’s no real Imageworks in Culver anymore that I’m aware of.

      Also pretty sure that Zoic is L.A. based, I’ve had friends that work there, and that company started by leaving some other company. Many other local shops are born of Zoic people. I’m sure it is just an oversight.

      1. Zoic doesn’t have an LA TV department anymore. And the way they treat their people, it’s a wonder that anybody still works there. Obviously it’s a testament to the desperation of artists that anybody would work there!

  8. So we have David Altenau talking about how great Fuse is, well guess what, he works for them! Is the Fuse marketing plan, have employees go onto the Deadline comment section and praise them and have other employees trash companies like Stargate? It’s so obvious, nobody with a brain is buying it.

    1. Chris Mullhearn – If that is your real name since you have no credits that I can find. Clearly your comments are grossly uninformed and your agenda is to belittle Fuse. First, Dave Altenau is an owner at Fuse FX. He’s a total straight shooter and genuine talent and doesn’t need employees writing comments on Deadline Hollywood for him. Second, I used Fuse on my last project and they are the lead house on my current television show. All of the companies mentioned in this article I have used in one capacity or another either working for or hiring them.

      Now, I want this to be clear, I don’t work for Fuse FX. I am their client. Fuse, in my opinion, is one of the top VFX facilities helping to produce some of the best seen work on television.

      I can tell you that Dave was only speaking positively on his experience owning a company in Los Angeles and he was not attacking any of the other companies mentioned. Next time try understanding the words written instead of making up your interpretation.

      1. Oh I see, because I don’t have an IMDB page, I don’t exist? Contrary to your opinion, Mr. Kolpack, it isn’t just the egomaniacs such as yourself that get to participate in the discussion!

        Your relationship with the owner of Fuse notwithstanding, you’re another obvious shill. You even admit as much. You claim he doesn’t need employees commenting here – I assume that’s because he does it himself and has you to try to pimp for his company. Do you have some vested interest in the company’s success? I wonder if your current employers know that?

        But I do think it’s cute that you feel a need to come to Fuse’s rescue.

        1. I agree with Chris, you don’t get to discriminate about who is entitled to comment because you think you’re more important than somebody else. You don’t have the right to flame somebody just because you don’t like their point of view.

  9. I’m not sure where the facts of this article are even coming from. Pixomondo is the lead VFX house for Game Of Thrones, not Entity. Zoic had to leave LA in television, although they aren’t admitting it. Don’t kid yourselves that China and India can’t participate in the TV VFX biz, that was true five years ago, not anymore.

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