Pilot season is an important time for visual effects companies that work in television. Pilots offer an opportunity to establish the look of key aspects of a show and, if the show gets picked up, present the potential of a long-term gig. But pilots also offer unique challenges.
Time is always short and budgetary resources are often in even shorter supply, yet expectations may be sky high. Alkemy X, which operates visual effects studios in New York and Los Angeles, has experienced the trials as well as enjoyed the fruits of pilot season, delivering effects for shows that have gone onto successful runs, including Frequency, Time After Time, Do No Harm, The Leftovers, Flesh and Bone, Outcast, Mr. Robot, Deception and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
We recently reached out to Mark Miller, executive producer/business development, at Alkemy X to find out how his company overcomes the obstacles of time and budget to produce great effects for hopeful, new shows.
How does visual effects production for pilots differ from a regular series?
The biggest difference between a series and a pilot is that with a pilot you are establishing the look of the show. You work in concert with the director to implement his or her vision and offer ideas on how to get there.
Typically, we work on pilots with serious needs for VFX to drive the stories. We are not often told how to get there but simply listen to the producters, interpret their vision and do our best to give it to them on screen. The quality of the visuals we create is often the difference between a pick-up and a pass.
In the case of one show I was involved with, the time and budget available made it impossible to complete all the required visual effects. As a result, the VFX supervisor decided to put the time and money they had into the most important plot points in the script and use simple tests as placeholders for less important VFX. That sold the studio and the show went to series.
Had we attempted to complete the show in its entirety, it may not have seemed as viable by the studio. Again, that was a collaborative decision made by the director, studio, VFX supervisor and VFX company.
What should studios consider in selecting a visual effects provider for a pilot?
Often the deciding factors in choosing a VFX vendor are its cost and location within an incentivized region. Usually the final arbitrator is the VFX supervisor, occasionally with restrictions as to which company he or she may use. I find that good-quality VFX companies, shops with strong creative vision and the ability to deliver the shots with little pain, are unable to meet a production’s budgets, even if they are in a favorable region. That drives productions to smaller shops and results in less-polished shows.
Shots may not be delivered on time or may not have the desired creative impact. We are all aware that, even if a pilot you work on goes to series, there is no guarantee you will get the work. These days, many pilots employ feature directors and their crew. So, when one is picked up, it usually has a whole new crew.
The other issue with pilots is time. When the shoot runs longer than anticipated, it delays the director’s cut and VFX work can’t begin until that is done. Even a one-day delay in turnover can impact the quality of the visual effects. And it’s not a matter of throwing more artists at a shot. Many shots are not shareable among multiple artists so adding more artists won’t shorten the time to completion. Visual effects are like fine-art painting; one artist can’t create the sky while another works on the background. Under the best circumstances, it is hard to deliver polished work for pilots and such delays add to the problem. With pilots, our biggest enemy is time.
How do you handle staffing and workflow issues in managing short-term projects like pilots?
You need to be very smart and nimble. A big issue for New York-based studios is infrastructure. Many buildings lack enough electricity to accommodate high power demands, high-speed connectivity and even the physical space required by visual effects studios.
New York studios therefore have to be as efficient as possible with streamlined pipelines built to push work through. We are addressing this issue by increasingly relying on cloud solutions for software and infrastructure. It helps us maximize flexibility.
Staffing is also an ongoing issue. Qualified artists are in short supply. More and more, we look to schools, designed by VFX supervisors, artists and producers, for junior artists with the skills to hit the ground running.