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.
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