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Visual Effects Are on the Rise in TV

Variety logo Variety 6/1/2017 Karen Idelson
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You could call it the “Game of Thrones” effect. In the years since the HBO show premiered feature-quality visual effects, pushing the standards and expectations for television, other shows have aimed to crush it with their visuals to attract audiences in a competitive environment.

When you add tight TV budgets and an intense episodic production schedule, it can make for an intoxicating mix of demands on the vfx teams that conjure everything from science fiction mysteries to magical creatures.

“Visual effects puts asses in the seats,” says Bob Munroe, vfx supervisor for Syfy series “The Expanse.”

“Audiences are more sophisticated now and have higher expectations for shows that are trying to adhere to the laws of physics on top of making great visuals.”

Such shows as Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle” are anchored in research as well. Visual-effects supervisor Lawson Deming pored over the plans Hitler made for buildings he intended to build. After all, any history nerd could tweet out inaccuracies.

“We’re grounded in a real version of our fake history, if that makes any sense,” says Deming. “You have to do it because the audience will sense it if it’s not right because they’ve seen so many effects already.”

“Sometimes it’s about not doing it the way audiences expect,” says John Ross, visual-effects supervisor on FX series “Legion,” which is based on a Marvel comics character. “We were trying to avoid having powers come out of someone’s hands in the way you’ve seen it every other time.”

Kevin Rafferty, vfx supervisor for NBC’s “Timeless,” goes from one famous historical event to another in the series. One week he’s at the Alamo and another he’s at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

“We’re doing something completely different each episode,” says Rafferty. “I don’t think they would have attempted this on this scale years ago but now we have the tools and the pipeline.”

James Cooper, vfx supervisor for Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” likes the challenges that come with complicated, ambitious effects. “Not everybody has a ‘Game of Thrones’ budget, but not everybody needs one,” says Cooper. “TV is a great opportunity to do incredible effects and budgets have become better in the last few years.”

For Jay Worth, vfx supervisor on HBO’s “Westworld,” continuity fixes and de-aging the actors are just part of the challenge. “I think it’s pretty accurate to say ‘Game of Thrones’ changed things, made you think of what could be done on television,” says Worth. “You want to push yourself to another level when you see something great on a show.”

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