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July 09


Summer 2017


Magic on the Small Screen: VFX for Episodic

On June 1, the VES presented “Magic on the Small Screen: VFX for Episodic,” an overview of episodic VFX at the Frank G. Wells Theater on The Walt Disney Studios lot in Los Angeles.

The panel of pros touched on such topics as the current production landscape for scripted series and the trajectory of the business. The event was presented jointly through the efforts of the VES New York and LA Sections. Speakers and panelists included: Chris Brancato (keynote speaker), Co-Creator of Narcos; Lauren F. Ellis (moderator), Visual Effects Producer and head of the Los Angeles office of The Molecule; Armen Kevorkian, VFX Supervisor and Executive Creative Director, Deluxe’s Encore VFX; Christina Murguia, CG Supervisor, Zoic Studios; Tammy Sutton, Visual Effects Producer/Supervisor; Peter Davis, Senior VFX Coordinator, Stargate Studios; Paul Rabwin, Executive Producer, Post Production, ABC Studios; and Eli Dolleman, Senior VFX/Post Executive, Amazon Studios. Sponsors included The Molecule, Encore, Annex Pro, Lenovo, Zoic, Sassoon Film Design and Blackmagic Design.

Panelists for the “Magic on the Small Screen: VFX for Episodic” presentation included,
from left: Eli Dolleman, Amazon Studios; Peter Davis, Stargate Studios; Christina Murguia, Zoic Studios; Armen Kevorkian, Deluxe’s Encore VFX; Tammy Sutton, VFX Producer/Supervisor; and Paul Rabwin, ABC Studios. Photo by Brent Armstrong

As evidence of the growth of the episodic industry, audience members learned that between 2009 and mid-2017 the number of scripted episodic series had grown dramatically, particularly due to online services. In 2017 it is predicted that there will be approximately 520 scripted episodic shows on all platforms, many of them infused with VFX.

“We are in a beautiful time for episodics and for the VFX community,” stated Andrew Bly, Co-Founder/CFO of The Molecule, who introduced the panel. “There are nothing but endless possibilities for us on the horizon right now. Now the question is ‘how’ will we use visual effects on our show, not ‘if’ we will use visual effects.”

Chris Brancato told attendees that VFX have become more commonplace in television and that VFX houses are now often able to present ideas to improve storytelling. The story is still king, added Brancato, but VFX can supplement story very dramatically.

In addition to Narcos, Brancato has written or produced over 200 hours of television, including such series as X-Files, Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Hannibal. He also wrote and co-produced MGM’s popular gangster feature Hoodlum and the sci-fi thriller Species II.

“We are in a beautiful time for episodics and for the VFX community, there are nothing but endless possibilities for us on the horizon right now.”

-Andrew Bly, Co-Founder/CFO of The Molecule

“Today,” said Brancato, “I know if I write it, you guys can figure out how to do it. I don’t hold back on the writing anymore. Your excellence has pretty much allowed me to have carte blanche in letting our imaginations run wild. We are in a 500-channel universe. We have to strive for imagination and world building. Because of the advancement of technologies we get to see shows like Game of Thrones. Visual effects can help build and supplement those worlds. Audiences are also coming to expect more. But you guys have to turn around visual effects for episodics on an in- sane schedule and you do it. Visual effects can make you feel something. Added to a story, that packs a double wallop.”

Brancato’s main message to the VFX community relative to storytellers was “Don’t be afraid to tell us what you can do. I can’t tell you how many times a visual effects person has said something to me which does drive what I write. Often times I find that visual effects people, after they have read a script, will not suggest to go smaller on an effect, but to go for a bigger and better shot. You guys support creators and, at the same time, you are creators yourselves. You teach us what is possible.”

Lauren F. Ellis of The Molecule moderated the panel. Photo by Brent Armstrong

In terms of how the industry has changed during the last 10 years, Sutton said that today there is no let-up in supplying content to clients because of the constant year-round, 24/7 streaming. Years ago the cycle was more September to May with a summer slowdown.

Rabwin added that the technology ‘curve’ of acceptability has gotten so much faster. “I can’t predict where we are going to be in a year, never mind five. We are also starting to see VR work its way into main-stream entertainment. I think VR will get out of the headset world and be a shared experience. Right now VR is very isolating, but it will come out of that shell. Things are happening in months, not years.”

Dolleman said he thinks Game of Thrones “redefined” viewers’ expectation of television visual effects. “That to me felt like the tipping point to when people would expect feature-grade effects as to what they would watch on a daily basis,” he said. “But viewers still expect a pace that they are accustomed to in television. They don’t want to wait 10 months for another episode. They want to continue to binge. This is what is feeding into the release of the 500-plus series.”

The audience listens to the “Magic on the Small Screen” presentation. Photo by Brent Armstrong

He also added that the ability to pinpoint audience tastes via streaming has propelled more diversified genre programs. “The appetite for certain types of content has been identified so now they are being serviced,” Dolleman said.

Davis said the Internet was largely responsible for driving the landscape to 500 shows. “The more people have easier access, the more access they want. You give people one thing and they want the next thing, including more streaming content and more mobile content.”

In terms of deadlines for VFX and episodics, said Kevorkian, “It is really the relationship you have with your clients and getting as much information on what is coming up early on. From lock to air is about two to three weeks, but if we can know what is coming up we can get a head start on things.”

Communication is the main element for turning around shows and deadlines for shows with VFX, added Kevorkian. At the same time, he said, there should ideally be ‘less cooks in the kitchen’ with fewer people making decisions. “If everyone has a say in what it’s going to look like, everyone loses. It’s about establishing the relationship and having one person letting us know. That is how we are able to make things happen.”

“Communication is huge,” said Murguia, as did other panel members who reiterated that it’s probably the number one ingredient in meeting TV’s tight deadlines.

—Jim McCullaugh

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