Tag Archives: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

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.

VFX supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster on Amazon’s Mrs. Maisel

By Randi Altman

If you are one of the many who tend to binge-watch streaming shows, you’ve likely already enjoyed Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This new comedy focuses on a young wife and mother living in New York City in 1958, when men worked and women tended to, well, not work.

After her husband leaves her, Mrs. Maisel chooses stand-up comedy over therapy — or you could say stand-up comedy chooses her. The show takes place in a few New York neighborhoods, including the toney Upper West Side, the Garment District and the Village. The storyline brings real-life characters into this fictional world — Midge Maisel studies by listening to Red Foxx comedy albums, and she also befriends comic Lenny Bruce, who appears in a number of episodes.

Lesley Robson-Foster on set.

The show, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, is colorful and bright and features a significant amount of visual effects — approximately 80 per episode.

We reached out to the show’s VFX supervisor, Lesley Robson-Foster, to find out more.

How early did you get involved in Mrs. Maisel?
The producer Dhana Gilbert brought my producer Parker Chehak and I in early to discuss feasibility issues, as this is a period piece and to see if Amy and Dan liked us! We’ve been on since the pilot.

What did the creators/showrunners say they needed?
They needed 1958 New York City, weather changes and some very fancy single-shot blending. Also, some fantasy and magic realism.

As you mentioned, this is a period piece, so I’m assuming a lot of your work is based on that.
The big period shots in Season 1 are the Garment District reconstruction. We shot on 19th Street between 5th and 6th — the brilliant production designer Bill Groom did 1/3 of the street practically and VFX took care of the rest, such as crowd duplication and CG cars and crowds. Then we shot on Park Avenue and had to remove the Met Life building down near Grand Central, and knock out anything post-1958.

We also did a major gag with the driving footage. We shot driving plates around the Upper West Side and had a flotilla of period-correct cars with us, but could not get rid of all the parked cars. My genius design partner on the show Douglas Purver created a wall of parked period CG cars and put them over the modern ones. Phosphene then did the compositing.

What other types of effects did you provide?
Amy and Dan — the creators and showrunners — haven’t done many VFX shows, but they are very, very experienced. They write and ask for amazing things that allow me to have great fun. For example, I was asked to make a shot where our heroine is standing inside a subway car, and then the camera comes hurtling backwards through the end of the carriage and then sees the train going away down the tunnel. All we had was a third of a carriage with two and a half walls on set. Douglas Purver made a matte painting of the tunnel, created a CG train and put it all together.

Can you talk about the importance of being on set?
For me being on set is everything. I talk directors out of VFX shots and fixes all day long. If you can get it practically you should get it practically. It’s the best advice you’ll ever give as a VFX supervisor. A trust is built that you will give your best advice, and if you really need to shoot plates and interrupt the flow of the day, then they know it’s important for the finished shot.

Having a good relationship with every department is crucial.

Can you give an example of how being on set might have saved a shot or made a shot stronger?
This is a character-driven show. The directors really like Steadicam and long, long shots following the action. Even though a lot of the effects we want to do really demand motion control, I know I just can’t have it. It would kill the performances and take up too much time and room.

I run around with string and tennis balls to line things up. I watch the monitors carefully and use QTake to make sure things line up within acceptable parameters.

In my experience you have to have the production’s best interests at heart. Dhana Gilbert knows that a VFX supervisor on the crew and as part of the team smooths out the season. They really don’t want a supervisor who is intermittent and doesn’t have the whole picture. I’ve done several shows with Dhana; she knows my idea of how to service a show with an in-house team.

You shot b-roll for this? What camera did you use, and why?
We used a Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro. We rented one on The OA for Netflix last year and found it to be really easy to use. We liked that’s its self-contained and we can use the Canon glass from our DSLR kits. It’s got a built-in monitor and it can shoot RAW 4.6K. It cut in just fine with the Alexa Mini for establishing shots and plates. It fits into a single backpack so we could get a shot at a moment’s notice. The user interface on the camera is so intuitive that anyone on the VFX team could pick it up and learn how to get the shot in 30 minutes.

What VFX houses did you employ, and how do you like to work with them?
We keep as much as we can in New York City, of course. Phosphene is our main vendor, and we like Shade and Alkemy X. I like RVX in Iceland, El Ranchito in Spain and Rodeo in Montreal. I also have a host of secret weapon individuals dotted around the world. For Parker and I, it’s always horses for courses. Whom we send the work to depends on the shot.

For each show we build a small in-house team — we do the temps and figure out the design, and shoot plates and elements before shots leave us to go to the vendor.

You’ve worked on many critically acclaimed television series. Television is famous for quick turnarounds. How do you and your team prepare for those tight deadlines?
Television schedules can be relentless. Prep, shoot and post all at the same time. I like it very much as it keeps the wheels of the machine oiled. We work on features in between the series and enjoy that slower process too. It’s all the same skill set and workflow — just different paces.

If you have to offer a production a tip or two about how to make the process go more smoothly, what would it be?
I would say be involved with EVERYTHING. Keep your nose close to the ground. Really familiarize yourself with the scripts — head trouble off at the pass by discussing upcoming events with the relevant person. Be fluid and flexible and engaged!