Filmmakers can get a good glimpse at the future in an excellent article by Mike Seymour on about the 10-episode Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome miniseries and movie that will drop in February on the SyFy network as well as Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand and Digital Download. The show was shot without building very much in the way of sets’; instead, the production was almost all digital and that has an impact not just on the effects but also the conception and writing of the show.
Gary Hutzel is the visual effects supervisor on the project. At 57, born in Michigan, he is already the winner of four Emmys from some 18 nominations and a veteran of Battlestar Galactica and before that Star Trek. “My theme going into the show was completely a new paradigm in doing an action show,” he says. “That was my plan executing it the way we approached it – doing it all green screen, in other words I wasn’t trying to to say ‘OK we going to completely fool you and you’ll never know that it was on a virtual set’ – that wasn’t the plan. The plan was to entertain people and really to try and do a new style of entertainment that freed the writers to write anything they wanted.”
This point should not be over looked – unlike many other writing positions, writers of episodic science fiction often have to write with shot count in mind, they can’t just write anything, sometimes shows must be written ‘VFX-light’ to balance with heavier shows, and always the writing is influenced by strict budget and schedule issues where VFX is concerned, until very recently. Since Forrest J Ackerman started using the term sci-fi at UCLA in 1954, and television producers started making episodic sci-fi shows, effects have been a limiting factor: expensive, time consuming and a real limit to what could be done. In recent times however a new approach has started to emerge, the idea of a virtual backlot, or a digital sandbox where greenscreen would allow greater freedom without a heavy handed shot count filtering the story. Taking this to its logical conclusion – if every set was digital and there was no need for a vfx shot count as the whole show was vfx, writers could start to expand the stories and not pre-censor their ideas.
Read the whole article to get even more details but one of the things that is exciting about this is that the tools used were affordable. For example, the artists used LightWave 3D (which at $1495 is one of the most cost efficient 3D modeling and rendering platforms out there) and mostly used After Effects for compositing, which is part of the $50 / month Creative Cloud suite. The Red Camera systems used to shoot are becoming more affordable and have more competition from DSLR cameras from Canon and dedicated ‘cinema cameras’ like Blackmagic.
But forget the tech stuff; the hardware and software will change by the time you read this. The real point is that writers and producers aren’t limited. Here’s the key sentence from the paragraph I quoted – “The plan was to entertain people and really to try and do a new style of entertainment that freed the writers to write anything they wanted.”
Got it? That’s a good plan.