By Ann Fisher
Issue: April 1, 2005


On TV episodics, visual effects supervisors are lucky if they have more than a week to create up to four dozen shots per show. With such tight deadlines, efficiency is the name of the game. They have a wide array of animation and compositing tools at their disposal, and some very distinct thoughts about how to make the process work.


Lance Wilhoite, visual effects supervisor at Cost FX ( in Santa Barbara, CA, promotes the Super TD theory. A veteran of Showtime specials, Wilhoite came up with this idea when he was a producer at the former Santa Barbara Studios.

"A Super TD is one of the five or six guys at the big shops who have done everything," he explains. "They're incredibly smart and have the ability and wherewithal to do the entire shot themselves - everything except matte paintings. I have found it a lot more economical to give a gifted TD a group of like shots and you'll get it done in much quicker time. None of my artists are on staff, they're all project hires." Wilhoite started Cost FX three years ago because he was determined to bring low-cost visual effects to the industry with his Super TD theory. He found it expedited everything to have smart guys multiprocessing production tasks rather than, for example, high-paid animators sitting around waiting for elements from the modelers. And his Super TDs actually do the work, rather than supervising junior people to do the various production jobs as is commonly done at other shops.

Clear communication is another key to his process. Wilhoite records all meetings so there is no confusion about what has been decided. "So much of getting it done cheaper is all dependent on clear communication," he says.

"I put these guys, who've been in the business for 15 years and are just brilliant, in touch with the director and we talk about it. Some of the coolest ideas come from the Super TDs and the same person that's actually going to get the shot done. I supervise it all. I take two to three people on set, get lots of data on the scene, and get in and out very quickly."

For Reefer Madness, a 108-minute Showtime special airing this spring that is based on the successful New York stage play, Cost FX used two Super TDs to wrestle with a couple of tricky visual effects shots. The opening sequence pans off a character puffing, and follows the smoke as it turns into the title. Proprietary software running on PCs provided the flexibility with the particles needed to match the look and feel of the practical smoke. A second shot involves the classroom as the teacher lowers the light to screen the drug movie for parents. Since the movie screen had to be greenscreened, Cost FX used custom screens with phosphorus mixed in which, with black lights on each side, allowed the screen to pop out in the darkly lit room. Wilhoite had used that technique on a previous movie, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. A third shot involved removing wires on an actress playing a flying angel. Unfortunately the wires ended up in front of her feather wings not behind which meant Cost FX had to model, track and comp 3D wings, using Alias Maya 6.5 on custom PCs.

"My company is called Cost FX for lots of reasons: the equipment's getting cheaper, the software's getting cheaper, there's a bigger talent pool and a lot of these great people don't want to work for the man anymore. They are spread out all over the world and I have some of the best people working for me - the best matte painters and TDs," says Wilhoite.


Zoic Studios ( is very involved in the creative for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the uber-popular one-hour drama in its fifth season. This is Zoic's first season on the original show; visual effects supervisor Andrew Orloff worked on CSI: Miami last season. This HD show is a bit more technical and heavier into the forensic scenes, says Orloff. Visual effects shots average 30 to 50 per episode and range from simple cleanups to helping explain the science portions. Zoic has added smoother transitions from first-unit footage into and out of visual effects, among other things. "We're really big with animatics," says Orloff. "Every large shot is done as an animatic, all the way through. They cut it in with dailies so there are timing references. We bring those animatics to the motion control stage, and sometimes we use the actual animatic curve data from the animations. On a more technical level, the animatics get the CG started earlier. We also use different platforms for compositing, mostly Combustion and Flame. It's really helpful to do a lot of the bulk work, the simpler shots, in Combustion, and do more difficult, lengthy shots in Flame. It works out really well for us to be able to bounce back and forth. We also have a lot of support artists in Combustion now that the softwares interface so well, and evening shifts to help the Flame artists with cutting mattes and color freshen passes and stuff like that, things that can be passed off to another artist in the morning."

Zoic provides a number of effects for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Combustion is used for compositing.
The biggest effect for the show so far this year, a 1,000-frame visual effect, involved a fly. The regular CSI teaser helicopter shot over a mountain is interrupted by a fly, which the camera follows instead, getting into its head for a unique point-of-view. The fly zooms down into a dead body - a motion control shot with gross details like beetles. Then the shot pulls up into a sequence where time speeds up and the body decomposes over two weeks. It was shot at a very low frame rate, about .5fps, on a Cooper motion control rig that went back and forth over the prop to mimic the sun rising and setting. The body was shot in several different passes and morphed to create the decomposition. Timelapse sky stock footage was a separate layer. The fly was created in Maya 6 and rendered with Mental Images Mental Ray. The whole shot was put together in Flame with a little help from Combustion on the rotoscopes.

Orloff says animatics are done in Maya, as is anything "heavy duty camera tracking/organic/particle-oriented." Hard surfaces are done in NewTek LightWave. Zoic's large renderfarm has up to 850 processors for the whole facility. Its custom built PCs - dual processor with Nvidia cards - are Windows based. It also has Mac G4s.


Visual effects for CSI's new sibling show, CSI: NY, are created by Look Effects ( in Los Angeles. The one-hour show airs on CBS. Each episode averages about 20 visual effects with an emphasis, again, on "micro" forensics with a few Hollywood-style impact shots. The company's specialty is seamless compositing for feature films and television episodics, so it juggles its staff - from those best with nitpicky details to others good at winging it creatively, depending on the particular CSI: NY shots.

Eden FX's John Gross and team used NewTek LightWave, Adobe After Effects and Eyeon Digital Fusion to create this scene for Medium.
A typical shot starts wide and then "crash zooms" into a micro. A recent episode showed poison vapor soaking into the skin. The vapor turned the skin white around a half-dozen hair follicles before the camera goes below skin level to show a cross section of the poison running across the follicles. The look is photoreal skin with more "mind's eye" scientific animations below the surface. Alias Maya 6.5 with Mental Ray on assorted custom-built PCs were the tools.

Another shot is the hook, the first shot after the teaser. For an episode that should air in April, they put a CG skyscraper into a stock shot of New York City, then flew a helicopter right up to the building, and the camera flies right through the building, up to the show's stars at the crime scene. At press time, they were working on this shot and had only decided on using Maya with Mental Ray.

Coors Field in 3D
"We try to find photographic elements that are very close to what we create. We try to make it a short path to the results," says visual effects supervisor Max Ivins. "We're very much the end of the line for anything they do prosthetically. [We do] anything they want to fix... more editorial-like effects, which is knitting together wide and tight shots, and doing whole CG little environments for microscopic level."

Look Effects is also providing all the visual effects for the half-hour Malcolm in the Middle, now in its sixth year. The average is about 10 shots per show, ranging from sophisticated cleanup work to adding 3D. A spring episode has a character breeding caterpillars, winding up with thousands in his room. "Obviously it would have been a logistical nightmare to shoot that practically," says visual effects supervisor Henrik Fitts. "It was tried but it wasn't very successful, so we went in and took over and provided them with as many butterflies as they wanted, complete with interactivity. We landed them on the character, fluttering around and giving them the option to do whatever they wanted them to do, any kind of direction." They used Maya 6.5, rendering in Mental Ray on PCs.

Pre-planning is critical. Look Effects provides storyboards, sometimes even if clients don't ask for them. They created animatics of the butterflies, modeling, texturing and animating them and compositing them into stock footage. They always supervise on set where they do lighting schematics and set surveys. They send QuickTimes of rough cuts to clients to cut into the shows and get execs to sign off on.

Look Effects takes viewers deep into the world of forensic medicine for CSI/NY.
"The only way to do this is to have experienced staff," says Fitts. "There's a learning curve about the specific product or show but that should be the only learning curve that's involved. I can't train people or tell them how to do things. We can, as a facility, do what we're doing because we use a pool of really experienced people. We have Flames in-house, so that helps us tremendously if the time crunch becomes too much. Even if a shot doesn't technically have to go on a Flame, we can run it through Flame, thereby speeding up the shot quite significantly. An absolute necessity if you work in these timelines."


Eden FX ( in Hollywood provides up to a dozen visual effects for each episode of NBC's one-hour drama Medium in which a psychic helps solve murders. A recent show involved a dream sequence about the lead character's daughter, also a psychic. Eden does episodics and film work, most recently over 200 shots on Hellboy. All its visual effects artists can work on both. "We're really resolution-independent," says visual effects supervisor John Gross. "All TV work we do nowadays is HD, including this, so the jump from HD to 2K film is negligible. With things like [Eyeon] Digital Fusion, you can combine video resolution with film resolution. It makes it easy."

For a recent Medium teaser, the art department painted fairy tale book pages of a castle with dragons flying by and a rainbow forming overhead. Zooming in, the camera focuses on the actual daughter in the window. Later on in the episode there's another shot where she's back in the dream castle and she pulls out a gun, shooting it at the camera. The TV screen cracks and breaks before a transition to the next scene where she wakes up screaming. This corresponds to a live action scene where the girl shoots a gun from a window, hitting a man who falls. Eden FX creates the blood flow.

Shopping at NAB
The 3D was done in LightWave Version 8.02 on custom workstations running Windows. Compositing was done with Eyeon Digital Fusion. The glass break also used a little Adobe After Effects to create the cracks.

"The way our pipeline is set up is we have a Digital Fusion renderfarm that's separate from our 3D renderfarm; that helps speed up the workflow," says Gross. "The other thing we have written is prop render control software to handle all the nodes that are rendering the LightWave. Then we've also developed automatic slate generators and things like that to just speed up the pipeline. And we have the ability to automatically generate QuickTimes and upload those to clients and things like that. It helps automate tedious things."