Tag Archives: Television Series

Alkemy X: A VFX guide to pilot season

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.

Mark Miller

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.

Mr. Robot

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.

The Leftovers

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.

Behind the Title: DigitalFilm Tree colorist Dan Judy

This color vet finds inspiration for his work in everyday sights, such as sunsets, views of the city and even music.

NAME: Colorist Dan Judy

COMPANY: DigitalFilm Tree (DFT)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
DFT provides cloud post services and software that evolve file-based workflows, simplify the creative process, and dramatically reduce production cost.

AS A COLORIST, WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
How creative the process is — it’s an amazing collaborative effort between the production team and color. Our attention to detail, both broad and minute, are almost surgical. It’s micro and macro. Oh, and having the right snacks available are absolutely critical!

Dan Judy

WHAT SYSTEM DO YOU WORK ON?
Blackmagic’s Resolve.

ARE YOU SOMETIMES ASKED TO DO MORE THAN JUST COLOR ON PROJECTS?
Nearly every project will have requests that are specific and non-color related. I was once asked to dry off an actress who was perspiring too much. At that time I didn’t have the towel function on my color corrector.

We are asked to help out with beauty fixes, add lens flares, light matches, remove footprints in sand . . . you get the idea.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
It is the satisfaction of the finished project, knowing that I got to contribute to the end result. It’s the confidence at the end of that process and putting the piece out there for people to enjoy.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
My first love was athletics, especially football. Would I have been a player? I had my shot and, well, I’m here. I’m sure my path would have continued in that direction.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
I had no clue this position was even a thing. I got an internship at a post facility through my masters program in Florida. They offered me a position at the end of the internship and my career began. A lot of bumps and bruises later and, well, I feel blessed to be where this path has led me.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
The 100, Last Man on Earth, the Roseanne relaunch, Falling Skies and a few years ago, The Walking Dead.

The 100

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I would say with a wink, the next one. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s like saying which of your children do you like better? I have been extraordinarily lucky that all my shows have given me a great deal of freedom to be really creative.

WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION?
Honestly, from life. Watching amazing sunsets, experiencing great expanses of nature. I also like having uplifting music on while I work.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
I would say electricity is a big one, big smile here. Professionally? A bitchin’ hero monitor, a great calibrated scope and Resolve.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Hanging with my family! They ground me every day and keep me honest. Their love is what keeps me wanting tomorrow to happen.

FX’s Fargo features sounds as distinctive as its characters

By Jennifer Walden

In Fargo, North Dakota, in the dead of winter, there’s been a murder. You might think you’ve heard this story before, but Noah Hawley keeps coming up with a fresh, new version of it for each season of his Fargo series on FX. Sure, his inspiration was the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo film, but with Season 3 now underway it’s obvious that Hawley’s series isn’t simply a spin-off.

Martin Lee and Kirk Lynds.

Every season of the Emmy-winning Fargo series follows a different story, with its own distinct cast of characters, set in its own specified point in time. Even the location isn’t always the same — Season 3 takes place in Minnesota. What does link the seasons together is Hawley’s distinct black humor, which oozes from these disparate small-town homicides. He’s a writer and director on the series, in addition to being the showrunner and an executive producer. “Noah is very hands-on,” confirms re-recording mixer Martin Lee at Tattersall Sound & Picture in Toronto, part of the SIM Group family of companies, who has been mixing the show with re-recording mixer Kirk Lynds since Season 2.

Fargo has a very distinct look, feel and sound that you have to maintain,” explains Lee. “The editors, producers and Noah put a lot of work into the sound design and sound ideas while they are cutting the picture. The music is very heavily worked while they are editing the show. By the time the soundtrack gets to us there is a pretty clear path as to what they are looking for. It’s up to us to take that and flesh it out, to make it fill the 5.1 environment. That’s one of the most unique parts of the process for us.”

Season 3 follows rival brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor). Their feud over a rare postage stamp leads to a botched robbery attempt that ultimately ends in murder (don’t worry, neither Ewan character meets his demise…yet??).

One of the most challenging episodes to mix this season, so far, was Episode 3, “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” The story plays out across four different settings, each with unique soundscapes: Minnesota, Los Angeles in 2010, Los Angeles in 1975 and an animated sci-fi realm. As police officer Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) unravels the homicide in Eden Valley, Minnesota, her journey leads her to Los Angeles. There the story dives into the past, to 1975, to reveal the life story of science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann). The episode side-trips into animation land when Gloria reads Mobley’s book titled The Planet Wyh.

One sonic distinction between Los Angeles in 2010 and Los Angeles of 1975 was the density of traffic. Lee, who mixed the dialogue and music, says, “All of the scenes that were taking place in 2010 were very thick with traffic and cars. That was a technical challenge, because the recordings were very heavy with traffic.”

Another distinction is the pervasiveness of technology in social situations, like the bar scene where Gloria meets up with a local Los Angeles cop to talk about her stolen luggage. The patrons are all glued to their cell phones. As the camera pans down the bar, you hear different sounds of texting playing over a contemporary, techno dance track. “They wanted to have those sounds playing, but not become intrusive. They wanted to establish with sound that people are always tapping away on their phones. It was important to get those sounds to play through subtly,” explains Lynds.

In the animated sequences, Gloria’s voice narrates the story of a small android named MNSKY whose spaceman companion dies just before they reach Earth. The robot carries on the mission and records an eon’s worth of data on Earth. The robot is eventually reunited with members of The Federation of United Planets, who cull the android’s data and then order it to shut down. “Because it was this animated sci-fi story, we wanted to really fill the room with the environment much more so than we can when we are dealing with production sound,” says Lee. “As this little robotic character is moving through time on Earth, you see something like the history of man. There’s voiceover, sound effects and music through all of it. It required a lot of finesse to maintain all of those elements with the right kind of energy.”

The animation begins with a spaceship crashing into the moon. MNSKY wakes and approaches the injured spaceman who tells the android he’s going to die. Lee needed to create a vocal process for the spaceman, to make it sound as though his voice is coming through his helmet. With Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Lee tweaked the settings on a “long plastic tube” convolution reverb. Then he layered that processed vocal with the clean vocal. “It was just enough to create that sense of a helmet,” he says.

At the end, when MNSKY rejoins the members of the Federation on their spaceship it’s a very different environment from Earth. The large, ethereal space is awash in long, warm reverbs which Lynds applied using plug-ins like PhoenixVerb 5.1 and Altiverb. Lee also applied a long reverb treatment to the dialogue. “The reverbs have quite a significant pre-delay, so you almost have that sense of a repeat of the voice afterwards. This gives it a very distinctive, environmental feel.”

Lynds and Lee spend two days premixing their material on separate dub stages. For the premix, Lynds typically has all the necessary tracks from supervising sound editor Nick Forshager while Lee’s dialogue and music tracks come in more piecemeal. “I get about half the production dialogue on day one and then I get the other half on day two,” says Lee. “ADR dribbles in the whole time, including well into the mixing process. ADR comes in even after we have had several playbacks already.”

Fortunately, the show doesn’t rely heavily on ADR. Lee notes that they put a lot of effort into preserving the production. “We use a combination of techniques. The editors find the cleanest lines and takes (while still keeping the performance), then I spent a lot of time cleaning that up,” he says.

This season Lee relies more on Cedar’s DNS One plug-in for noise reduction and less on the iZotope RX5 (Connect version). “I’m finding with Fargo that the showrunners are uniquely sensitive to the effects of the iZotope processing. This year it took more work to find the right sound. It ends up being a combination of both the Cedar and the RX5,” reports Lee.

After premixing, Lee and Lynds bring their tracks together on Tattersall’s Stage 1. They have three days for the 5.1 final mix. They spend one (very) long day building the episode in 5.1 and then send their mix to Los Angeles for Forshager and co-producer Gregg Tilson to review. Then Lee and Lynds address the first round of notes the next morning and send the mix back to Los Angeles for another playback. Each consecutive playback is played for more people. The last playback is for Hawley on the third day.

“One of the big challenges with the workflow is mixing an episode in one day. It’s a long mix day. At least the different time zones help. We send them a mix to listen to typically around 6-7pm PST, so it’s not super late for them. We start at 8am EST the next morning, which is three hours ahead of their time. By the time they’re in the studio and ready to listen, it is 10am their time and we’ve already spent three or four hours handling the revisions. That really works to our advantage,” says Lee.

Sound in the Fargo series is not an afterthought. It’s used to build tension, like a desk bell that rings for an uncomfortably long time, or to set the mood of a space, like an overly noisy fish tank in a cheap apartment. By the time the tracks have made it to the mixers, there’s been “a lot of time and effort spent thinking about what the show was going to sound like,” says Lynds. “From that sense, the entire mix for us is a creative opportunity. It’s our chance to re-create that in a 5.1 environment, and to make that bigger and better.”

You can catch new episodes of Fargo on FX Networks, Wednesdays at 10pm EST.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.

EP Blythe Klippsten returns to Zoic for series work

Blythe Klippsten has joined Culver City visual effects house Zoic as executive producer, working on television series. This almost-15-year VFX vet has worked with other busy LA studios in the past, including Psyop, MassMarket, Stardust Studios and Ntropic.

Actually Klippsten isn’t new to Zoic, having worked there near the start of her career — she was a VFX producer from 2006 to 2008. Klippsten, who is now working with EP Gina Fiore to continue building Zoic’s list of television clients, has an extensive background in both commercial and television visual effects.

Prior to joining Zoic in 2006, she coordinated VFX for CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. She gained experience working on a number of TV series, including HBO’s True Blood, and CBS and Jericho, for which she was nominated for an Emmy.

Klippsten spent the next eight years leading teams at a variety of VFX shops, overseeing the production on major campaigns for Pepsi, BMW, EA, Nintendo, Sony, Sprint, Starbucks and Honda, as well as a Super Bowl spot for Cars.com.

“Television has always been a first love of mine and I’m excited to return to Zoic where I really got my start in visual effects,” says Klippsten. “It’s a dynamic time in television, with a much wider distribution landscape and a more diverse range of creative content.”