Primetime: SyFy's 'The Magicians'
Issue: March 1, 2016

Primetime: SyFy's 'The Magicians'

Based on the best-selling trilogy by novelist Lev Grossman, Syfy’s new same-titled TV series, The Magicians, is centered around a group of students who are studying magic at the secret academy of Brakebills University in upstate New York. Each episode finds main character Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and friends facing new and dangerous threats they never imagined could be real, all while experimenting and honing their newfound skills. With storylines that include magical spells, secret worlds, and encounters with creepy beings from beyond, you can bet that showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara rely on a good amount of visual effects to literally create TV magic. For that, the production team turned to FuseFX in Vancouver (where the series is shot) as its sole VFX vendor. Here, Jason Dowdeswell, head of production and VFX supervisor at FuseFX Vancouver, speaks with Post about the new series and some of its unique challenges.

What types of VFX are you doing on the series?

“The one thing with Magicians is that these episodes create a platform where we learn about these characters. We see each of them dabbling with their newfound skills as magicians. If you recall from the book, half of them are studying with Brakebills University and the other group are with the hedge witches or other newfound characters. But the biggest brief from Sera Gamble and John McNamara, the showrunners, was really about the fact that everything is rooted in real world. So, nothing is over the top, and it’s really — when we do any of the shots — its describing the force or lack of force that any of these kids have, depending on how much school they’ve gotten with magic. So, in Episode 1, for instance, we meet the dean, and he has very polished skills. So the visuals attached to him are very clean, very elegant looking versus some of the kids when they’re using a style of magic, such as the battle magic, it’s loose and raw, not very clean, but it gets the job done.

“So, the effects are everything from greenscreen to full CG. One of the episodes we actually introduce a whole black hole into a stadium. Quentin has been practicing making small black holes and in this case, he introduces a small black hole but quickly loses control so it floats into the rafters and starts wreaking havoc. There’s a lot of stunt work as well. The magicians sort of throw magic around at each other. And we’re doing some simple gags; at one point, the magician kids are transforming into geese, and Quinten, the main character, falls off of a ledge, and as the camera tracks in to look down, suddenly we’re introducing a full CG goose that flies off into the distance.”

It doesn’t take place in a specific time period, such as Agent Carter, Mad Men or Penny Dreadful, so I’m wondering if there’s any scenery removal, things that just don’t belong?

“Well, with Brakbills, there are matters of the campus, where there are no cars. So, we had to do car removal. Including Porta-Potties that just shouldn’t exist on campus but ended up in the shot. As episodes progressed, there are other worlds. There’s a place called Nederlands, which is a world between worlds and we also created this world of Fillery, which is where these kids are all trying to get to, from the first book, which turns out to be real. So there’s a lot of environments that we’re doing the concept for and taking them to shot completion.”

What did the show’s producers want for this show in terms of VFX?

“Again, it goes to the rawness of the characters themselves — Quentin, Alice, Eliot, Penny and then The Beast. If you remember in the story, you’re introduced to The Beast, he wants to conceal his identity, so he can command elements from Mother Nature. In this case, he uses moths to flutter around his face and make sure that no one can see him.” 

That was super creepy when we first meet him in the first episode.

(Laughs) “Yes, so the visual effects really need to support the story and the characters as we get to know them. Again, it has to look real; it can’t be campy. It’s important that it feels like it could really happen — nothing that’s over the top. Everything’s been dialed in and made so that it tells the story but it’s still subtle enough. That again was the biggest brief and the over-arching idea of what to do with visual effects as a tool in telling the story.”

Is there a specific scene you can walk me through?

“There are so many actually — every episode is so different. I think the moths was rather complex, because the moths equally had to have a very stylized performance. And it wasn’t just the moths that were sticking to the Beast’s head, but there had to be moths that were spinning around, so that’s been a memorable experience. There’s a wonderful scene in Episode 105, where we’re learning more about the relationship with Quentin and his father, and Quentin uses magic in front of his father at the kitchen table. He builds an airplane model with his powers — he’s a physical kid so he uses his ability to move parts of a plastic model plane. You see all the parts spin around in the air and get put together. It’s a beautiful scene — I think it’s my favorite.”

What tools are you using?

“The standards are Nuke for compositing, Maya for 3D, and for some of the effects work for pyro and the black hole and fluid simulation, we’re using a combination of Houdini and FumeFX.”

Any particular challenges involved?

“Sure, as you know, it’s the first season of The Magicians and it’s an adaptation from a book, so SyFy is betting on it to be a success, and you kind of put all your eggs in one basket. You want it to succeed so that it gets picked up for another season. And it did. But before that news was announced, one of the things that often happens with the first season of a new show is that you’re defining the look of the effects. A classic example is the puddle portal on the Stargate series — how that teleportation puddle looked when it would get turned on or off; that look had to be matched through all the remaining seasons. It was a big creative process with showrunners, for each time we would see someone’s magic, that we were setting it for the upcoming seasons. So everything was scrutinized — in a very good way.” 

What format are you working in?

“It’s all digital. Everything’s turned over to us in DPX and we send the same DPXs back to the DI house." (Note: Bling Services, which completes the digital dailies processing, including sound sync, applying and matching dailies color, transcoding, Avid media prep, various backups, deliverables for online screeners and editorial and LTO archiving.)

Are you happy with the final result?

“Yes, I’m very excited. It’s been wonderful working with Sera and John, the showrunners, and finding the right level of subtlety, and just being able to deliver great results. I’m impressed with the Fuse team in Vancouver. There’s a lot of work being done, we are the only vendor and we’re doing a lot of concept work and digital matte paintings. We've built a great team and The Magicians, the show, has allowed us to do that and explore our own growth and success.

“There’s a lot of high-end TV work out there with a myriad of different types of styles of effects. The Magicians is a character-driven storyline and it’s nice to have visual effects be happily married into that world, that universe.”