the industry

How TV Finally Got Its Own Blockbuster Special Effects

The Mother of Dragons demands a big VFX budget. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Last December, Netflix approached Mr. X, a visual-effects house based in Toronto, with a proposition that even a couple of years earlier would have been impossible. They wanted Mr. X to create a pair of snarling, salivating CGI lions that could snap and growl convincingly from a pit in the center of a circus freak show, a feat that would be the climatic setpiece for the second-season finale of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. They wanted these lions to have the same level of detail you would find in a feature film: muzzle simulations, fur simulations, deluxe light and composition, the whole package. And they wanted the work completed in time for the season’s launch at the end of March, which meant they wanted those lions designed and animated from start to finish in less than 12 weeks.

The first thing you notice, watching the Unfortunate Events finale now, is that the lions look good — movie good. They have realistic fur and muscle definition and individual personality. If you compare these animals to the ones in the newly released teaser-trailer for Disney’s live-action remake of The Lion King, which were animated by Mr. X’s sister studio, the Moving Picture Company, the differences are negligible: Individual strands of hair might hold up better under scrutiny in close-up in The Lion King, but in general the results are quite close. Indeed, the Unfortunate Events lions are so dazzling by traditional television standards that they make you wonder what television standards even are anymore. Or to put it another way: What exactly are visual effects of this caliber doing in a Netflix comedy for kids?

Luke Groves, a visual-effects producer at Mr. X, talks about the Unfortunate Events lions with the kind of astonishment and pride ordinarily reserved for stunts you can’t believe you pulled off. “Those lions are photorealistic,” he says. “We did it from the ground up in two months. We built the assets, animated the shots, rendered them, lit them… the whole gamut the same as you would on a feature.” Mr. X even augmented their standard crew with a “targeted unit” of additional artists who focused on just that scene. But while Unfortunate Events and the lions its finale demanded may be exemplary, they increasingly resemble the television norm — a new benchmark for VFX work that over the last five years has radically transformed the landscape of network and cable TV. Today, every effects-driven series expects its monsters and spaceships and dragons to look like ones you’d see on the big screen.

“The line between TV and movies is eroding,” Groves explains. “That’s now the way of the world.”

Ask any producer, supervisor, or artist in the VFX industry about the difference between effects for movies and effects for TV and you will hear the same thing: These days, there is no difference. Most major effects houses work on both Hollywood blockbusters and high-profile television shows at the same time; the same people who bring to life, say, the luminescent lasso in Wonder Woman are the ones who cook up the robotic bulls in Westworld. The effects are developed using the same process and the same tools. “Clients come to us for quality, regardless of the medium,” says Michelle Martin, head of TV at Framestore, an effects house that’s worked on Black Mirror and Ready Player One. “And we make sure the standards are the same.”

Until recently, two main factors distinguished VFX work on TV from VFX work on film: money and time. Television networks couldn’t offer effects houses much of either, and what little they had defined the boundaries of what they could create. Pedro Sabrosa, who has been with Framestore since the late 1990s, remembers the first series he worked on with the studio, a 1999 BBC miniseries called Walking With Dinosaurs. It was, for the time, considered quite cutting edge — it even won an Emmy for outstanding special visual effects. But nobody, Sabrosa included, would have compared it to what was being done in Hollywood. That was the year of The Phantom Menace and The Matrix; Framestore’s dinosaurs didn’t look remotely as good. “Our ambition was at that level,” Sabrosa says, “but our budgets and our time to execute were a lot less. The quality was always going to be lower.”

Two decades ago, Walking With Dinosaurs was groundbreaking … for TV.

Consider Jurassic Park: It came out six years earlier, and as Sabrosa himself admits, “Our dinosaurs don’t hold up as well today as the dinosaurs in that film.” Of course, Jurassic Park had a $62 million budget compared to $9 million for Walking With Dinosaurs. “And Jurassic Park has about nine minutes of actual dinosaurs onscreen,” Sabrosa adds. “Our series had 20 minutes of dinosaurs onscreen per episode.” In order to accomplish that, Framestore had to be creative with compromise: The camera could only move a certain number of times per episode, and dino animations had to be reused as often as possible. Today, that wouldn’t cut it. “Everyone wants to see on TV what they see in the cinema,” he says.

That’s possible in part because television budgets are bigger than they’ve ever been. The big premium cable networks, HBO chief among them, have not been thrifty with their lavish marquee programs, pumping huge amounts of cash into shows with production values comparable to big-budget Hollywood movies. Right now, Framestore is working on His Dark Materials for HBO and BBC, due to air some time in 2019, and Martin describes the visual-effects budget as “right alongside what we would expect from a major feature,” or well into eight digits. Jordan Soles, VP of business development and technology at the Montreal VFX house Rodeo, has been working with HBO on Game of Thrones since its fourth season. He tells me that the expectations were clear from the start: “HBO wants trophies. They want work that will win them an Emmy for visual effects.”

HBO can make that happen because they’re willing to spend what it takes to ensure it does: At $15 million per episode, Game of Thrones’ forthcoming eighth season costs almost as much as a Marvel blockbuster. The higher the budget, the bigger the team of VFX artists the houses can earmark for the work, and in the time they have allotted to them, the greater the number of hours billed. A flagship cable series that can afford a 100-person team of dedicated VFX artists will look better than a more modest production that can only afford ten. Effects work is serious labor, and labor isn’t cheap.

But while budgets have expanded enormously, VFX houses are still constrained by the schedules inherent to the world of TV. With few exceptions, television is simply made much, much faster than film. In fact, one of the reasons Soles characterizes Game of Thrones as “not really television” is its unusual production timeline: All of the episodes are written way in advance, coherent as one season-long story, and made at once, like an eight or nine-hour feature film. Most TV is produced more haphazardly. Take another high-profile, effects-driven TV drama from a major cable network: Fear the Walking Dead, the spinoff to the hit series The Walking Dead, now entering its fifth season on AMC. Rodeo has been developing visual effects for this sleek apocalyptic action extravaganza since its pilot, and Soles calls the show and what it tries to accomplish on its comparatively limited budget “very ambitious.”

What’s really ambitious, though, is not so much its effects as the incredible haste with which Rodeo is obliged to make them. The studio would be contracted to work on the series for four to six months, but owing to the rushed production, would not know in advance what exactly would be expected of them. “The scripts were only getting written weeks or in some cases days before they were being shot,” Soles recalls. “We had no idea what it was that we needed to do. So how do we crew? How do we anticipate what we’re going to need for a show that hasn’t been written yet?” This unpredictable schedule, Soles says, helped the studio become more responsive, flexible, and open to change. The quality of the VFX work they were delivering was still at the level of a Hollywood feature — just a whole lot faster.

As speedy TV schedules put pressure on VFX houses to get quality work done fast, they must also get more efficient and streamlined, hence a company like Mr. X and its photorealistic eight-week lions. Less time means fewer hours billed, which means cheaper VFX work. The problem, or at least the risk, is that doing good work so fast raises the bar for all work going forward, regardless of whether it’s for TV or film. “If we do something on time, on budget, and it looks good, it becomes a calling card,” Luke Groves explains. “Someone on a movie might call up and say, Oh, you did lions in eight weeks? Great, now do that for us.” Nor are things likely to slow down. “You might feel like, Oh my God, we did lions in eight weeks, next time it’ll be half that. But it’s not a bad thing necessarily. Progress is good.”

Of course, the effects houses aren’t churning out movie-grade VFX in half the time just because they’re working twice as fast. There are still time-consuming niceties that a luxury TV shows can’t afford: A creature dreamed up for the small screen might only be seen from certain angles, say, or there may be fewer opportunities for the client to come back to the VFX house with notes for another draft. (The lions in Unfortunate Events look as good as those in Lion King, but we don’t linger on them in extreme close-up for minutes at a time.) But more than any concession, the difference in time is made up for by advancements in the way visual effects are made. That is to say, the ability of VFX houses to make movie-quality effects for television is truly a new phenomenon.

“Think about this,” says Wes Sewell, a visual-effects supervisor at Spin VFX, an industry veteran who worked on Iron Man and The Avengers before moving into TV. (His most recent production is Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.) “The big movies I used to work on were extraordinarily expensive, in terms of effects. I used to have producers ask me, Why are they so expensive? It’s because it’s hard work and it takes a lot of time.” But in the last five to seven years, things have changed. “There’s this digital revolution that’s really begun to mature, and what’s happening now is we can do those same effects with off-the-shelf software and with young talent that’s really digitally nimble.” The result is simple: “We can do those kinds of effects now much quicker, and because it’s quicker, it’s more affordable, and because it’s more affordable, it can be done for TV.”

VFX houses like Spin, Sewell says, are getting an influx of young people out of colleges and trade schools who are more adept with the technology than the previous generation, which makes it possible to achieve extraordinary things with relative ease. “You could say the industry is changing,” Sewell says. “I would say the industry has changed.”

How TV Finally Got Its Own Blockbuster Special Effects