To Infinity & Beyond: A Walking Dead Veteran’s Take on the Future of VFX

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

By Alicia East, Crew Connection

We’re in a time when live actors share the screen with puppets and avatars, shows like The Orville are taking onscreen space travel to a whole new level, and armies of walking dead are taking over the streets of Atlanta. And with real-time rendering behind the scenes, post production crews are doing it all at the fastest pace of all time. It’s an exciting time to be in visual effects. With technology advancing rapidly and many of the previous obstacles falling away, it’s also a highly competitive and challenging time. For more on the subject, we talked to an industry veteran. Sam Nicholson is the founder of Stargate Studios and has been an up close and personal participant in VFX and all its evolutions since the 1970s — notably producing VFX for everything from the groundbreaking early Star Trek films of the 1970s to The Orville an upcoming spoof of the same. He has made grounded spacecraft fly and the dead walk. And of course, with a few decades under his belt, he’s produced a whole lot of great work in between. Nicholson shared his take on where VFX is going, the differences between VFX for TV versus film, VFX as storytelling, and more. 

Alicia East: What groundbreaking advances are happening with visual effects right now?

Sam Nicholson: Traditionally, VFX rendering has been like watching paint dry to see how it actually worked on screen. It’d be like having a picture take 24 hours to develop on the screen. A lack of creative feedback slows your productivity and therefore, the learning curve. Being able to view work with real-time rendering is incredibly powerful. It may not be at the highest resolution, but because you have so many iterations and the feedback loop is so short, you learn really fast. Real time feedback is critical to develop new techniques for VFX, VR, and AR. 

We have avatars that look like people and movies that look photoreal. In the Marvel movies, you really can’t tell when it’s a virtual animated shot or a real one. When the Flash says a line, he’s a real actor, but when he takes off running, he’s an avatar. The line between live action and visual effects is disappearing. 

AE: What challenges do these advances present?

SN: Thirty years ago, you had optical printing and everyone was shooting film. It was a stable platform. Then computer graphics came into the mix and everything decentralized. 

There’s high-quality work going on all over the world and instead of 10 great companies, you have 10,000—and that’s just in post production services. Everyone is embracing globalism all at once and everything is changing so fast. Film distribution and television broadcasting are evolving. You now have 8K resolution and real-time rendering. On top of all that, technology is more accessible, faster, and cheaper. 

Even when costs go up, budgets don’t, and people look for alternative solutions and ask for much more out of you. One of the big questions is how to survive the disruptive business models that are changing things all the time. Everyone is in kind of a survival game in an increasingly challenging environment. 

AE: What are some of the biggest differences between VFX for TV and VFX for features?

SN: It’s kind of like the difference between a symphony and a jam session. A jam session (episodic television) is very creative and amazing things come out of it because you need to think on your feet and improvise to learn. On the other end, the symphony (feature film) is very precise and everyone is playing exactly the note they’re supposed to play. They are two similar but at the same time very different artforms which complement each other. 

With TV, you’re always in pre production, production, and post production at the same time for different episodes and you still have to maintain a continuity of look. Pages are being delivered wet to the set. Actors and directors don’t have as much time so everyone is thinking on the fly. The turnaround time is probably six times faster in episodic television production than feature film production so it’s a fantastic area to develop a very efficient creative delivery pipeline. The main disadvantage in television production is that the final product is less polished. 

You can take all your knowledge from TV to features, you just have to slow down. On a feature, you get to sit down and really dig into all the details of one scene or one shot. There’s much less improv in feature film than TV, but the end result of all the careful planning is fantastic. 

That said, the real time systems coming online today will necessitate more real time improv in the future. This is exciting, but terrifying for artists, who are not used to performing live. They can’t disappear for three months with their headphones but they still have to come out with a great product! 

AE: How are visual effects a part of the storytelling? 

SN: I worked with Al Whitlock, who was the last of the great glass painters. He would spend a month on one painting for an Alfred Hitchcock feature. His rule was if the painting didn’t have a critical storytelling point to it, he wouldn’t do it. When they tighten up the show, anything extraneous is going to end up on the cutting room floor anyway.

Visual effects are like icing on the cake, serving to complement the story and characters. The drama is the cake, but nobody wants to eat a cake without icing. Sometimes we do VFX for main characters and they become part of the story. When someone’s leap goes airborne in a Marvel movie, that becomes part of the story. If they jumped and didn’t go anywhere, those movies wouldn’t work very well.

Just like icing, you can have too much. I want to know that the visual effects are seamless and properly balanced. If there are too many, I get tired of watching them because I want more story. Whatever the balance, it’s a style of filmmaking. It’s like spices in food: Every nationality has its own recipe. Western movies have a particular balance, and while we use more VFX than European films, we use way fewer than China, where movies can sometimes be like one big effect. 

AE: What goes into the decision to use visual effects versus live people or brick-and-mortar options?

SN: In The Walking Dead,we use both live stunt people and virtual zombies. The budget factors into the equation. One avatar can cost $100K, but if you’re going to do variations on that avatar and clone it thousands of times, it might end up costing $10 each by the time you wrap. The cool thing about a digital asset is that the more you use it, the less expensive it gets for each instance. That makes using avatars a good business model for a long-running series like The Walking Dead. 

Safety is part of it, too. If you’re going to chop a character in half, maybe an avatar is easier. And it’s probably cheaper to light an avatar on fire. On the other hand, if your character has to say a line in medium close up, you want it to be a real person. The trick is transitioning between real people and avatars seamlessly. 

For the pilot of The Walking Dead, Frank Darabont wanted everything as real as possible. Being a purist and a very talented director, his bullet hits had to have all the imperfections of an organic hit. So we used avatars only in the closing scene of the pilot when we pull up from Rick in downtown Atlanta. 

My prediction was that we’d build an avatar zombie army and by year 7, we were at about 80% digital zombies. Avatars are a good way to see thousands and thousands at once. 

Much of of our job is coming up with solutions like bringing Malibu to the production instead sending the production to Malibu. It’s an enabling thing for writers who can write much bigger than the budget would indicate. We’re doing full virtual sets and set extensions for some shows and we’re helping control the costs and production value without increasing the budget. You don’t really think about visual effects for a show like Grey’s Anatomy or Ray Donovan, but they have a lot of virtual scenes shot on a green screen. That invisible effect is what we strive for. 

AE: What goes into a VFX supervisor’s job?

SN: The VFX supervisor’s job starts in pre production, many times before the director is involved and goes all the way through principal photography and on through post production to the delivery of the final shots. They’re probably the first one on the scene, the last one to see it, and involved in everything in between. 

VFX artists are still delivering shots to the last second so VFX supervisors get an interesting overview of the entire process. Generally speaking, a VFX supervisor meticulously plans every VFX shot, captures everything needed in principal photography, and provides critical creative continuity to the VFX people in post. 

The primary role of the VFX supervisor on set is to get everything shot properly. They’re thinking about the things that no one else is—like recording the angle of the light and the spherical texture mapping of the environment. They’re in a constant state of data gathering with the intention of adding things in post production that nobody ever thought of. 

AE: What’s next for Stargate?

SN: We’re really excited about The Orville, which shows what you can do if you really turn up the quality of rendering. At the end of the day, spaceships are all about detail and rendering. The Orville has a number of complicated visual effects in terms of exterior space, 3D characters, sets, etc. All that requires enormous render horsepower and we’re managing to turn episodes around in about 15 days. They look like what would’ve taken 2-3 months to complete even just 2-3 years ago.

We are also in production on a new feature film, The Happytime Murders —starring a 4-foot tall blue detective puppet alongside Melissa McCarthy. Directed by Brian Henson,The Happytime Murders is very challenging because we have avatar puppets and real puppets acting in photoreal, virtual environments where everything has to be built up three and a half feet on the set. It’s a very challenging but really fun project with a great cast and crew.

At Stargate, we have access to 10 different networked facilities so we can access low-cost labor at one, tax incentives at another, and the best technology at a third. We can distribute the work in a solid, reliable, proven network within the Stargate family and can get a much better product dependably by accessing the best of all these markets. 

We love working on challenging new projects with talented people from all over the world where we can explore new technologies and do our best work on classic films and television shows. The future is bright! 

About Stargate Studios

Founded in 1989 by Sam Nicholson, a distinguished cinematographer and special visual effects supervisor and producer, Stargate Studios was conceived as a high tech production company offering visual effects and production services to the film and television industries.Today, Stargate has 10 domestic and international studios with over 150 artists, supervisors, and producers covering all areas of digital production and visual effects. Stargate Studios provides a turnkey solution to high concept film and television production and is the only independent entity which blends all the available production technologies into one fully integrated, high tech production and editorial service.

About Crew Connection

Crew Connection puts a world of video post production service providers at your fingertips. In just a few clicks you can search, chat with, and book vetted crews local to your shoot—all on your own schedule. Rely on Crew Connection’s team of media experts to organize the crews and gear you need for multi-day and multi-location video projects anywhere in the world. Our professional crew coordinators are on call around the clock if you ever need live assistance. Sign up on CrewConnection.com, call us at 303-526-4900, or shoot us an email. 

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