Visual storytelling

Visual storytelling

By Michael Pickard
January 24, 2024


As visual effects play an increasingly prominent role in television production, how do those working in this sector see the state of the industry and how can producers best work with them?

There’s no denying visual effects (VFX) have become an important part of television production over the last decade. No longer simply an additional element – or an afterthought – to filmmaking, VFX are now key to the storytelling process, from development all the way to post-production.

“Visual effects is one of the first departments that should be involved with the director once the scripts are in, even if it’s not at the final draft, because you’ve got to work out, ‘Can the script be made?’” said Duncan McWilliam, founder and CEO of Outpost VFX (The Wheel of Time, House of the Dragon).

Duncan McWilliam

“We are a part of the entire lifecycle of the process and have very close relationships with a lot of directors who are entrusting the invisible bits of his or her film to us. Immediately, super-early engagement saves money. Fixing mistakes is a very expensive exercise and we will often help DOPs and directors understand the problems on set, and steer them away from visual effects due to cost and get it in-camera. We want the best creative output for everyone, so partnership and trust are absolutely key.”

McWilliam was speaking on a VFX panel at Content London, where he was joined by Framestore CEO of film and episodic Fiona Walkinshaw, DNEG MD of episodic Tom Williams and He Sun, a VFX supervisor at Milk VFX, to discuss how this corner of the television business is evolving in the wake of writer and actor strikes in the US and the emergence of new technology, not least AI and virtual production.

“Business was fantastic until about six months ago when all the strikes kicked off. But it’s an upward curve for us, massively,” McWilliam said about the VFX industry at large, with that trend attributed to the streaming boom over the past decade. “The quality expected now by audiences is absolutely film quality, and that now gets delivered in episodic as well as on the big screen. The technological advances as well – we popped up at the right time to take advantage of those.

“There are always ups and downs in visual effects, as there are in the industry as a whole. But a strong trend towards bigger, better and higher quality is something we could keep seeing into the foreseeable future.”

“We want to be involved in storytelling on any platform,” said Framestore’s Walkinshaw (Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, pictured top). “It’s been really exciting to see the boom in episodic work with the streaming platforms. We’ve had to deliver at scale for many years now, and episodic just is the same. The workflow is slightly different to working on a big feature film, but there’s an efficiency to the shooting.

Outpost VFX’s work includes hit Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon

“When we did the three seasons of His Dark Materials, our supervisor was working with the showrunners, he was in the readthroughs, he was shooting the second unit. It’s a very integrated process and that’s really exciting. For companies like Framestore, that’s what we want to do.”

DNEG’s Williams (Citadel, The Last of Us) agreed there is now no difference in quality between film and episodic effects work, as it’s often the same artists working across both formats.

“It depends what the work is. Are we doing water? You get your best water people. Are you doing fire? Get the best fire people. Are you doing creatures? You want the best creature people,” he said. But where television does differ is in the delivery methods. “You might be delivering episode one, then episode three, then episode seven, then back to two and it changes. That’s very different from delivering a feature, where you’re delivering essentially one project.

Fiona Walkinshaw

“As long as you’re mindful when you partner with your showrunners – because normally you don’t have the same director across the series – and you partner with them correctly and you get up front and you prep and you help them develop, you can be very successful in episodic. It is a great format for us and it’s really good for our supervisors to go on set and also get those opportunities like directing second unit and things that on a feature just wouldn’t happen.”

He Sun of Milk (Bodies, Good Omens) conceded VFX has always been a challenging business, one where quality must always be achieved within tight budget and time restraints.

“But in the last a few years, it feels like the VFX industry has become a partnership of creativity,” he said. “That’s really important because we’re not only a technology-driven company, we are creative technology. Clients come to us and filmmakers come to us at a much earlier stage so now, especially the show I’m running now, an unscripted project, we have been working with the showrunner hand in hand from day one, being on set, supervising and creating creative solutions.

“People expect visual effects to be cinema-quality now, even when you’re doing TV, so it proposes huge challenges for us. But because we are also in a boom of technology, the line is getting blurrier and blurrier. For me, [technology] is just a toolset to create.”

Advances in technology mean VFX teams are not just adding elements or backgrounds in post-production. New tech can now be used to map out how scenes might look before they are shot, through virtual location scouting and pre-visualisations that see entire sequences manufactured on screen before cast and crew then assemble on set.

Shows such as The Mandalorian and 1899 have also championed the use of virtual production, in which backgrounds are displayed on huge LED screens behind a dressed stage, meaning the actors are shot interacting with their environments in-camera, rather than having to stand in front of a green or blue screen and the backgrounds being added in later.

VFX work on The Last of Us included depicting Boston in post-apocalyptic ruin

“The showrunner comes to us very early stage, and real-time technology allows us to visualise the stuff on the screens before we go on the set,” said He Sun, who on one project invited members of the construction crew to use a virtual reality headset to see the set they were about to build after it had been digitally mapped out. “That was a great example of how VFX isn’t just technology, but is also a part of the creative process.”

He continued: “Cross-department communication is absolutely crucial and also [creates trust]. Once we trust each other, things are just going to be going smoothly, which is the crucial part of it. Collaborative decision-making really is the key to success.”

Tom Williams

“We obviously use virtual production toolsets across a whole range of approaches,” Walkinshaw said. “Real-time technology has enabled virtual scouting, where you’re scouting a scene without having to go there, and you can be in LA and we can be in London. Or you can fill in camera effects on an LED volume, as we did for 1899 for Netflix.

“But in other cases, it might be completely not a tool to use. With all these tools, when it’s contributing to the creative process, when it’s getting you to the creative quicker or getting you to the right creative end point, then they’re really good tools to use. But I don’t think anything actually replaces human performance, and that is always going to be key to filmmaking.”

As for artificial intelligence (AI) – which has achieved unprecedented levels of public attention since the arrival of the likes of ChatGPT and was also highlighted by the writer and actor strikes – McWilliam said VFX houses have been using AI in some form for decades.

“It’s really important to say, ‘What do you mean when you say AI? What do you think it is?’ It is not a silver bullet that is going to replace actors,” he said. “It’s not this magical thing that can make films at the touch of a button.

“Often people look at visual effects and think, ‘Well, don’t you just press some buttons?’ Look at the credit roll [after a film] and, if you stay past the second piece of music, you’ll see 4,000 people go past. They’ve all worked for a year full time to create the stuff you just saw, and it would be nice to redress that in the industry and not sweep 4,000 people a year under the carpet with the term AI.”

Michael Sheen and David Tennant get their wings from VFX in Good Omens

What AI can be is a tool to support artists’ ability to deliver high-quality work. “But I don’t see the Armageddon of AI coming for us,” McWilliam continued. “I’d like to just stub that one out, because that is actually something that is quite damaging to the people who work in the industry. I’m certainly not a denier, but it’s progressive, like all the technology that has changed over the last 10 years. We will adopt it more in our processes and our efficiencies, scheduling, bidding, resource management and technology management. It’s useful and we will adopt it, but it won’t do the jobs of the thousands.”

“It is a tool we can use in our arsenal to help us progress work,” Williams agreed. “But ultimately you need the talent to deliver that work. It will come. Technology evolves and it will become more prevalent as we go. But it’s quite a way off, to really make a big impact to our business.”

He Sun

So if the industry – and audiences – have finally reached Peak TV, where next can VFX take storytelling?

Looking ahead, “it’s more about how much of what is made is required in visual effects versus reality,” McWilliam said. “Maybe there are trends and swings of what the director wants to do. Virtual production was going to be the new way we shoot films when Covid forced us all to stay indoors, but directors are exceptionally happy to fly to Morocco and go on location again, so there are swings and roundabouts and we might see decline in the market there.

“VFX will support the imagination of directors wherever they want to go. We’re here to support it, really.”

“Storytelling isn’t going to stop, so visual effects will always support that process,” agreed Walkinshaw. “The trajectory is for content to grow, albeit a bit slower, but to still grow, and there’s an appetite for good storytelling. The future of visual effects will be about being quicker, more efficient, delivering at scale and probably delivering at higher resolution.”

The boom in the VFX industry has seen a lot of people come into this sector of the business, or begin to work with it, and Williams said the best way to succeed with VFX is to ask questions.

“We don’t know everything either, and we have to ask and we have to learn,” he said. “If you come with an open mind to VFX and ask the questions, you’re bound to end up with a better product than going in and just saying, ‘I know what I’m talking about on this, it’ll be fine.’ And we are here to help save money. We want to put as much money on the screen as possible, and that can only be done by asking questions.

He added: “One of the challenges at the moment is just educating a lot of new directors and producers on how VFX actually works and why things do take time. Some things are quick and other things can take a year. It’s education, really.”

tagged in: , , , , , , ,