Using Adobe After Effects running on Power Macs, Encore Hollywood's team of artists conjure up some magic visual effects for Charmed.

Since the pilot episode in 1997, Encore Hollywood has provided the visual effects for WB’s TV series Charmed. Now in its sixth season, the story of the Halliwell sisters’ continuing battle against the forces of evil calls for the Charmed ones to use their witchcraft against a whole host of demons and monsters.

“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.

Key to this explosive growth in the number of effects is Encore’s use of desktop solutions. During the show’s first season, most of the visual-effects work was done on Discreet Inferno systems but over the years this has shifted to the desktop and now 90 per cent of the workload is accomplished using Adobe After Effects on four dual G4 Power Macs running Mac OS X. The shift to lower-cost technology has meant the show’s producers have been able to incorporate considerable more effects in the show.

“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

Many of the effects that Encore creates for the show feature fireballs, energy balls and glows. These require a 2D effect to be applied to the basic plate using After Effects, says Jacobsen, but carefully attention needs to be paid to light and shadow in the scene. “If a fireball is flying across the room, it needs to create a shadow or glow or the effect feels quite flat,” he explains. “If an energy ball is being held in the hand there needs to be reflective light on the face or body. All the attention to detail is what sells the shot.”

"Specializing in certain effects helps us to keep up with the sheer volume of work that comes our way,” explains Fotter. “But in crunch time, when we might have less than a week to turn around a show, we’ll all pitch in and help each other out." Certain types of effects are used repeatedly in the show. One of the most common is ‘orbing’ – the technique that several characters in the show including Paige and Leo use to travel from place to place. Similar to Star Trek’s transporter effect, Charmed’s orbing sees a more ethereal glow around the person as they disappear and appear, and each character ‘orbs’ in a slightly different way.

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.”

Transformation spells

Another staple effect of the show are transformations in which the Charmed witches and their enemies turn themselves and others into all sorts of items including water coolers, mop sticks or pets – or turn one object into another as shown here.Encore’s artists work with two plates – one of the actor (or object) and the other of the object. The artist imports these into Avid’s now discontinued morphing tool Elastic Reality and chooses points on the A plate and B plate that he wishes to transition from one another.

“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.”

Occasionally, the team have to work with plates that haven’t been locked-off or have movement. While mild camera movement or bumps can usually be steadied, other moves provide larger challenges, says Jacobsen. “In these cases, we usually have a mixture of effects that create the transformation (glows, smokes and morphs). The combination of these creates an effect that’s several layers deep,” he says.

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.

If the three witches work together on a vanquishing spell, the demon typically is destroyed with fire, over a series of three or four cuts, explains Jacobsen. “This provides an extra challenge as mapping fire onto a moving person is quite difficult. We do have a couple of elements of a burning man – in fire suit – that we use for these cases. This fire is layered and roto’d onto our demon. Because fire reacts very specifically with moving, it can take many layers to make a demon look like he’s actually on fire,” he says.

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.

Time constraints

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.”