Emmys: How VFX Artists Enhancing and Enriching for TV

·4 min read

From extensive world-building to subtle story tweaks, Emmy-nominated visual effects teams do it all.

While movie theaters were shuttered for much of the past year and a half, it was up to TV to provide the grandest scale entertainment. And thanks to more players in the original content game, bigger budgets and better technology, projects delivered in 4K, 5K and even 8K, allowing for stunts and fantastical worlds, specifically, to stand out even more. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the crop of visual effects Emmy nominees.

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Nominated in the season or movie visual-effects category, Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian” continued to wow with its innovative Stagecraft LED walls while building 360-degree virtual sets in its second season. They were all designed to immerse the viewer in the “Star Wars” set universe amid many miniature props, animatronics and practical effects. Meanwhile, that same streamer’s freshman drama “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which picks up after “Avengers: Endgame,” featured more than 150 VFX shots for the first episode alone. This was in great part due to the opening aerial chase sequence shot over a blue screen canyon.

Weta Digital’s Charles Tait, who serves as one of the VFX supervisors on the show, notes that because there was so much VFX right from the start of the show, “it had to be spectacular. Marvel was looking for maximum impact.”

Amazon Prime Video’s “The Boys” also scored for movie visual -effects category. Its second season consisted of everything from a child exploding a Nazi with his mind to a speed boat ramming into a whale. For the latter, the water sequence was all done via computer graphics, says VFX supervisor Stephan Fleet, but the whale on the beach was practical. “It was made from silicon and styrofoam complete with animatronic mouth,” he says.

Fleet collaborated with production designer Arvinder Greywal to help bring that scene to life through that combination of in-camera shots and visual effects. “He stuck to his dogma of using a little blue, green screen as possible,” Fleet says.

The only shot in the entire sequence that uses blue screen is with The Deep (Chace Crawford) riding the whale at the beginning. “I technically visualized and mapped out this shot to match our hero previz shot. We built a giant blue screen cove on our backlot and used a piece of poor Lucy the whale to build a mechanical buck for Chace to ride.”

Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy” picked up a single episode visual-effects nom for the ninth episode of its second season, entitled “743.”

For that, it was up to visual effects supervisor R. Christopher White to bring AJ Carmichael, a talking fish that usually operates a robot-humanoid body, to life. In the sequence, AJ is in a fishbowl.

“It was essential for him to look like a real shubunkin goldfish while emoting a tough-guy persona when in dialogue with the other actors,” White says. “He needed to be believable and not feel cartoony.”

White adopted two fish that helped to serve as reference for realism when creating those effects. “We [spent] many hours studying our goldfish — looking at how they moved, reacted to light and engaged their world,” he says.

Other nominees in the single episode visual-effects category this year include “Star Trek: Discovery” for the 11th episode of Season 3, “Su’kal,” and “The Crown” for the fourth season premiere, “Gold Stick.”

“Discovery” relied on supervising producer and lead VFX supervisor Jason Zimmerman to bring to life a simulated, fantastical world and its monster inhabitant. His biggest challenge in doing so was having “full CG characters up against practical actors and sets, which requires a lot of work to make sure they don’t stand out as unrealistic,” he says.

“The Crown,” on the other hand, is constantly tasked with taking real-life historic events and bringing them to life dramatically. In “Gold Stick,” for example, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) strides out from Buckingham Palace for the Trooping the Color ceremony, which is effectively her birthday celebration.

“It’s a very thoughtful scene with beautiful photography intercutting with period archive footage,” says VFX supervisor Ben Turner. In addition to those elements, what his team provided was vital, as he puts it, “invisible VFX work,” such as extending sets and adding more people into the crowd digitally.”

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