|Like everyone else nowadays, I have very little free time on my hands. Nevertheless, I try to find an hour or so to watch my favorite television shows. It is what I do during my wind-down time—the precious minutes at the end of what are becoming very long days. Usually there are not enough minutes to catch all my prime-time favorites, but then again, that is what TiVo and DVRs are for.
In May, when the television season ended and reruns began, I planned to catch up on these shows. But something unexpected occurred: some new series debuted for the summer. I am not talking about Big Brother, the yearly summer reality series that sucks viewers into its vortex for three nights a week. Rather, I am talking about unique programming that made me look forward to an evening indoors. And as a bonus, the shows featured a heavy dose of visual effects.
My favorite of these shows was NBC’s Merlin, an import from the UK where the drama series began last fall. Merlin places a slightly new spin on the famous Arthurian legend, taking viewers to the early days of Camelot, when Arthur was a spirited young man and Merlin was only beginning to hone his magic skills. “We wanted to produce something that merged the legend with big, family entertainment,” says producer Johnny Capps. “We didn’t want to make a 15th-century version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.”
Nevertheless, the production was epic in proportion, and the visual effects grand. There are dragons and griffins. Castles and walled cities. Villages and mountain vistas. Magicians and witches. Tornadoes and plagues. Good and evil. Think of it as “Harry Potter meets Middle Earth,” as some have accurately described it. And the key ingredient is the digital magic created at The Mill in London. Often the effects are composited elements, and at times they are 3D. The Camelot castle is an actual castle: the Chateau de Pierrefonds, a French national monument that has been digitally enhanced for the show’s purposes with set extensions and so forth. The CG star of the show is a dragon, a remaining vestige of magic before it was banned in the kingdom by Arthur’s ruling father. Merlin is often seen speaking to the wise beast, which is chained in a deep, dark cavern. And the dragon speaks to Arthur, thanks to techniques refined at The Mill.
While the second season of this magical show has begun in the UK, it will arrive
in the US much faster this time around, with the second season set to begin in the US this winter.
Another summer show was Warehouse 13, which debuted on the Sci Fi Channel, and is described as “part The X-Files, part Raiders of the Lost Ark, and part Moonlighting.” The show, which wrapped recently, follows Secret Service Agents assigned to the government’s secret Warehouse 13, a holding area for all things supernatural. Keyframe Digital in Ontario, Canada, created an average of 120 to 150 VFX shots per episode. For one episode, titled “Duped,” the studio developed a self-illuminated greenscreen to create one of the warehouse’s historical artifacts, Lewis Carroll’s famous magic mirror. Keyframe mainly used 3ds Max for the CGI and Combustion for compositing and 2D effects. Tracking was done in Boujou.
As I write this editorial, the fall season has just begun. There are some new dramas and new comedies, but none of these are steeped in visual effects. In the past, TV shows that demanded a host of VFX work seemed to disappear quite fast from the prime-time lineup, some far quicker than others. Let’s hope that this summer’s magic moments will lay the groundwork for more VFX work on television.