Using Adobe After Effects running on Power Macs, Encore Hollywood's team of artists conjure up some magic visual effects for Charmed.
“Visual effects are very important to Charmed,” explains Peter Chomsky, the show’s co-producer. “It’s a show about magic and without being able to convey the magic of the magic we wouldn’t be Charmed. We’ve gone as big as 150 visual effects in a single one-hour show. They can be as simple as a wire removal, which isn’t necessarily simple, all the way up to the vanquish of a demon spread across five shots, and everything in between.”
According to Encore’s visual-effects producer Tim Jacobsen, the company’s work on the show has changed considerably over the years. In the early seasons, there were on average 15-20 effects in each one-hour episode of the show, whereas the sixth season features around 100 visual-effects shots per episode, which, says Jacobsen means a fairly intense six-month production schedule.
“There was a time when most people used Macintosh’s simply for title or design work – they were not thought of as compositing boxes. Some companies still feel this way, but we’ve transitioned our department into a full-fledged, high definition, compositing bay,” explains Jacobsen. “For a show like Charmed, it’s not cost effective to use Infernos for all of the effects. As time has progressed, the ability to pull mattes (through a keyer program) and to lay off standard and high def materials straight to tape, has made the Macintosh a viable option. And with the downward spiral cost of storage, we can also hold large amounts of frames, an option that was too expensive in the past.”
Having worked on Charmed since the beginning, the Encore team have developed a close rapport with the show’s production team, which says Jacobsen is crucial to keeping pace with the increased workload.
As VFX producer, he attends all of the preproduction, visual-effects and production meetings for each episode in order to plan each shot. The shot list for each episode is then divided between the Encore team of Jacobsen and four artists – Jason Fotter, Trey Freeman, Sean Mullen and Craig Kuehne. Additional support is provided by Encore’s 3D team of Greg Tsadilas, Matt Von Brock, Dan Lopez, Mitch Gates and Kurt McKeever; and by Inferno artists Mandy Sorenson and Bob Minshall. Effects are allocated on the basis of previous work and the particular talents of each artist.
Go with the glow
For each orb shot, the artist receives two plates shot by Stephen Lebed, visual-effects supervisor for Charmed. He shoots one of the actor in the plate, has everyone freeze in the shot and then has the actor step out of shot. The Encore artist’s job is to then transition the two plates with the orb effect – mixture of 3D orbs and a 2D glow effect around the actor.
It’s important, says Jacobsen, that the orbs and glow transition upwards out of the frame or if the actor is orbing somebody with him, the glow starts with the actor first and moves to the person they’re taking.
“We’ve some canned orbs that we use, but if the shot is unusual our 3D guys will create orbs in Discreet 3DS Max,” he says. “Otherwise, the effect is entirely created in on the Mac using After Effects.”
“Obviously there are great challenges when you’re going from a person to an inanimate object. Often the shapes are so radically different that the morph won’t look good,” says Jacobsen. “So we typically add other effects such as smoke or glows to help the transition.”
Another typical effect for a Charmed episode involves exploding demons – although the explosions vary depending on which of the Charmed girls is responsible. If Piper is using her powers, for example, the demon usually explodes in particles. This is created either by Encore’s 3D team who explode the demon with CGI particles, or, a slightly faster option, by the 2D team who explode the demon with a fire blast and explosion.
Beside vanquishes, Encore has created CGI flying bats, tongues, swords and particle effects. In the latest series, an episode in which evil Valkryies cause San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to disappear meant the team was faced with the tricky task off removing the bridge from the stock footage used and replacing the background.
“Our artist had to examine the stock shot and determine the best method for erasing the foreground bridge, whether it was to match the existing background or create an entirely new one. Creating one involves finding water or sky elements that can be roto’d or layered into the existing stock footage,” explains Jacobsen.
“In this case, we entirely replaced the water under the bridge so it would match – easier than trying to match-in to existing water. Our artist also had to paint a background – sky, land and buildings – to match the rest of the shot.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of working on Charmed is the artistic freedom afforded by the show’s producers, says Jacobsen. Key to this is the Encore team’s appreciation of what the producers want, he explains.
“They prefer more organic effects and try to steer away from sci-fi effects. It’s important that the effects look like they’re coming from witches and not space ships!” he says.
“Whenever we can pull-off an effect that’s realistic, we’ve done our job. Even if the effect is ‘other worldly’, if we’ve integrated the effect in such a way that it adds to the scene and is not a distraction, we know we’ve done a good job. The constant challenge is to make the effect look like it belongs in the scene. We don’t want the effect to look like it has been added later. There’s nothing worse than a composite or effect that looks pasted on to a shot,” he says.
With the biggest challenge of the show being the tight schedule, time constraints can occasionally limit the scope of the Encore team. “Although anything is possible, a tight turnaround does make it difficult to have too many design-intensive CGI effects,” says Jacobsen. “The schedule is always on your mind unlike feature films for which you can have months to complete a shot.”
He predicts a growing use of CGI in episodic TV and more blockbuster effects in the style of feature films. “I think for years many producers heard the words CGI and ran the other way. For all the good experiences in CGI, most have had equally difficult experiences, but the CGI world really does open up vast opportunities for TV shows,” he says.
Desktop solutions will continue to revolutionize the industry as people start to understand the capabilities, he adds. “Most people are amazed and surprised that most of the effects are done on desktop Macs. It’s easy for client to think inside a box and to limit their experience to what they are used to. Most are unaware that a lot of plug-ins for the higher end boxes are also available for the Mac. As hardware costs decrease, the ability to have faster machines and larger storage has increased. Though a gap still exists, the gap has grown smaller over the last few years,” he says. “Most Macintosh limitations come from the artist but our team is very strong and we continually do visual effects in these boxes that surprise our clients. Knowledge is power and many companies simply have not researched what’s possible.”