Daniel Restuccio and Brady Betzel
Issue: February 2006


LOS ANGELES - Though television may be called the small screen Los Angeles VFX houses are building feature-size effects as was apparent at the Los Angeles Siggraph meeting "A Taste of TV - A Smorgasbord of Effects for the Small Screen." This first of the year event featured VFX supervisors from Zoic, Eden FX, Sway Studios, Brand New School, Crest Digital, Digital Domain and Reality Check, and proved that a slick pipeline makes for snazzy primetime and even with tight schedules and budgets, creativity, quality and keeping the client happy are king.

Event co-producers Julie Janower Klein, VFX producer, and Diana Lee, publicity chair LA Siggraph, put together the speakers with an eye towards finding companies who were doing the most interesting work on television. "We also wanted a sampling from episodic television, commercials, music videos and real time broadcast animation," says Klein.

All the presenters' demonstrations impressively illustrated that the transformation of the television industry to the high definition standard is making TV effects work virtually indistinguishable from effects work created for feature films.

"The expectation now is features for TV," says Andrew Orloff, Zoic creative director and CSI VFX supervisor. Zoic produces 150 effects shots a week, 35 to 50 shots just for CSI alone and virtually all of them are at HD resolution and feature film quality. "They want seamless set extensions. You never see an element that is not integrated any more," says Orloff.

From the technological side says John Teska, Eden FX supervising artist, "We've gone from D1 to HD as routine." Clients, he says, expect them to do blended environments, integrating photorealistic characters into photorealistic scenes, CG characters credibly interacting with humans.

However for all this higher production value: higher resolution, more detailed textures, the downside is that clients still expect the work to be done at the same price.

Rob Nederhorst, Sway Studios visual effects supervisor says from seeing movies with photoreal effects everyone is expecting that level of quality. "The agencies and the directors want high end feature film effects but on this budget in this time frame."

Rob Feng, art director at Brand New School, hopes that the transition to HD will take longer. "Clients," he says, "have not fully comprehended the effects of finishing in HD." Rendering time doubles, triples, and sometimes quadruples. "Costs are still high in comparison to the output," notes Feng.

Korey Jones, creative director at Reality Check Studios has learned that some clients understand the time constraints when rendering at HD resolution. In spite of the longer render time he is however noticing a trend. In the past year, he says, for every SD client he's had three HD clients.

All the presenters had innovative stories to tell on how they are confronting the contradictions of cost effective HD.

What enables his studio to meet the HD challenge, says Orloff, is talent and technology. "The technology has gotten faster," continues Orloff. Zoic built a 600 node render farm for compositing and CG. What used to require very expensive SGI hardware can now be accomplish on Windows based PC's.

Zoic also runs their own motion control system, greenscreen stage and shoots many of their own background plates. There is also a perceptual change, he says, where visual effects artists are being recognized as creative partners in the storytelling process.

Orloff says Zoic has a one-man, one-shot philosophy where artists are responsible for all the aspects - modeling, shading, lighting and composing - of creating a shot. "When I show our demo reel to clients it's the originality, the individuality in the camerawork and the lighting and the composition. You can't get that by segmenting the work."

Another example was NBC's Surface an episodic television show that pushes the envelope by having a CG character, Nim as a regular cast member. "We've done small stuff on other shows," says Teska, "but this was the first character that had to act. You have a character that is not just a background monster, but is front and center a member of family. Someone you get emotionally attached to over time. He has to be cute, relate to the family and grow older over the course of the action and the story."

Teska explained they put a fair amount of work into developing the character. He says Nim started like Pokeman and turned into a more feral creature. Teska explains that Eden FX meets the demands of many weekly character shots by having really good rigging, which includes automated tail controls and a library of presculpted facial expressions, and a team of people that are committed to doing superior work.

In the commercial area Sway studios showed a commercial for Mezzo that was produced completely in a high definition digital intermediate pipeline. In the spot white clad actors run across such a finely detailed CG environment that even after you've seen how it was made you?re still convinced it's real and not virtual.

Working from full 2K film scans instead of a normal telecine transfer Nederhorst used Assilmilate?s Scratch software to do realtime 2K, 10-bit color grading, and a combination of proprietary software and D2's Nuke IBK for compositing. "I wanted to work with film resolution plates so that we could maintain all the detail in the hair for keying," says Nederhorst. "Our environment was not lit with lights in the traditional way that CGI is lit. Through some fancy sampling routines a program from Chaos Group called V-Ray calculates where it needs to send [light] rays and how many it needs to send based on this image data. This enables the lighting to be done from one image."

One of the more intriguing notions presented was Flash animation in HD - but only if it is for the appropriate project, says Sandro Corsaro, creative director at Crest Digital, a current leader in DVD production. Along with creating the insides of a DVD, Corsaro and co author Clifford Parrot have come together to write "Hollywood 2D Digital Animation: The New Flash Production Revolution," an undertaking which enlightens its readers that HD Flash is coming of age.

Corsaro expounds on the conclusion that since Flash uses vector based imaging it is infinitely expandable and portable to different platforms. From web to mobile phones to DVD, flash projects can be scaled to any resolution without any loss of quality. And if you are looking to cut costs on a project, Flash may be your saving grace. He goes on to mention that Flash can be very cost effective when dealing with cartoons that resemble the Hannah Barbara style of cartooning.

If you're looking to make Chicken Little 2 in Flash then you probably have the wrong platform. However, continues Corsaro, if you have a 3D character and are running low on production funds maybe you could put the 3D character into 2D Flash built backgrounds. If time is what you crave to save then vector based Flash's renders HD faster than exporting 2K bit-mapped frames. Creating a high definition template in Flash is as simple as modifying dimensions in the document properties to 1920x1080 and setting the frame rate to 24 fps.

Everyone that lives on the bleeding edge of today's HD production market knows that TV graphics needs to make every pixel pop to match up to that higher resolution and sexier look. Because of its strong legacy in providing feature film effects and graphics Reality Check Studios are the "go to guys" for companies like Fox, ESPN, and CBS. ESPN's pipeline has been showered with stunning HD graphics packages created by Reality Check. ESPN says Jones, have really pioneered the migration to HD graphics in their programs.

Reality Check has also been doing HD graphics packages for shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune who are looking to future proof their shows by upgrading from SD to HD.

As far as the future goes Realty Check is diving headlong into the next level by building an innovative hardware and software system that utilizes Maxon's Cinema 4D to provide live HD graphics packages for sports. That's right, I said live HD graphics! During Jones's presentation he demonstrated how the Reality Check system updates game statistics with glamorous lower thirds, titles, and sparkling backgrounds during a simulated live broadcast in HD.

Quizzed about the future, Zoic's Orloff envisions a streamlined, tapeless workflow where on his laptop he can at any moment see any shot that is being worked on. He also predicts more visual effects centric shows emerging that look like Sin City.

Teska hopes there will be another season of Surface so he can continue the adventures of Nim. "The first season we were building assets and 'know how.'" He wants to keep expanding and developing that. His wish list is having HDRI cameras and cameras that sense depth instead of having to pull green screens or blue screens.

What all the presenters made clear is that while working in television effects may be challenging, it's also very exciting. Orloff probably sums up best what we can expect from television effects in the direction he gives his effects people. "When an artist asks me what I want in the shot I say, 'In five days dazzle me!'"