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It is easily one of the most memorable promotional trailers of the 1980s. A little girl, sitting in front of a television, peers into the snowy screen and says "They're back."
The promotion was for Poltergeist II, the sequel to one of the most popular ghost stories of all time. When Poltergeist was released in 1982 it used modern visual effects to tell an oft told story of a haunted house. The effects were scary and, of course, expensive.
Now they're "back" again, but this time the ghosts really are inside the television. In the television show Poltergeist, a San Francisco-based organization called The Legacy sees itself as the final line of defense against the evil demons of the paranormal.
To assure that no-one mistakes this version of Poltergeist for Ghostbusters, the producers, The Outer Limits' Trilogy Productions and MGM Television are working with Vancouver's Pacific Motion Pictures have constructed a classy Bridge Studios-based set that they say will be used as a character as the show progresses. [ Typist's Note: this sentence makes little sense, but it's how it appears in the article ] The set is the house owned by The Legacy with each oak paneled room scheduled to contribute to the plot and the suspense. The show starts Derek de Lint, Helen Shaver, Patrick Fitzgerald and Vancouverites Robbi Chong and Martin Cummins.
According to Trilogy partner Richard Lewis, television audiences tuning in to see the kind of visual effects that were created over a period of months by Hollywood's special effects experts will be surprised at the quality manufactured every week by a team led by Elan Soltes. Soltes himself told Reel West, while working on the special effects for the show Mantis, that it is a constant struggle to overcome the short schedule required by a television series.
"The schedule is something that we're always struggling against. There's not too many things that we're doing that you wouldn't do in a feature other than the fact that we don't have the time or the budget. We're trying to anticipate what our needs might be. Part of it is building on experience, in having to rely on gut instincts to do a down and dirty and say that we're going to get what we need."
Lewis says that nothing on television compares with the visual effects that Soltes, CGI wizard Bob Habros and the effects team have created for the series. "There really is nothing like this on television. It's truly amazing. We have a variety of different shots here and a minimum of twenty different styles of effects of every show. The work they're doing is so visual, and it has a really visceral feeling to it. And that's the key. The technology is there to help to tell the story. You want the audience to be amazed by the story, not the effects.
"In one episode, for instance, we are telling a story of child abuse. A child has came back to haunt the man who abused him. There is a real ghost but the issue is as interesting as the ghost. The man who is being haunted is a friend of the Legacy but he is a child abuser. The question becomes how do you enhance the story with visual effects. The body has to float around and walk through walls so you create that effect because you want to tell your story. But the story is about the lack of closure, about people with unfinished business."
Lewis says that part of the reason he and his Trilogy partners Pen Densham and John Watson became interested in making The Outer Limits, and later, Poltergeist was their sense that they had their own unfinished business. They had made six episodes of a Showtime series called Space Rangers that didn't work. They were "dabbling" in television after succeeding in movies with Backdraft and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. They felt that television, with its quick cancellations, was too frustrating for creative people who wanted to make shows that had a visual impact and told interesting stories.
"We were making movies and then we dabbled in television and we found it frustrating. We wanted to have more control over the product all the way down the line and we knew that the only way we could do that was to sell out episodes through syndication. We're the only producers who create their own material so that gives us some advantage." The approach has apparently paid off for The Outer Limits. Lewis says that it is now the number one rated syndicated show in the United States after spending several months on Showtime. Poltergeist will be handled the same way, moving from cable out to independent stations.
Brent Clackson, the B.C. native who produces Poltergeist, says that by making Poltergeist and The Outer Limits in Vancouver, Trilogy is giving a major boost to what he considers to be one of the weakest areas in Canadian production. "Visual effects is weak here," he says. "It's certainly the weakest area within special effects. We have pretty good special effects people in Vancouver, people who can create explosives, rain, wind, lightning etc. But visual effects now are mostly done through computer graphics and through the matteing process. We don't have that mastered yet but by shooting both of these shows at Bridge, we are taking a big step towards a time when it will be just one of the many things we do well." Clackson says that since most of the visual effects work is done in post production, that side of the industry should also see gains as the series progresses.
"When I first started in this business about 15 years ago, if there was one blue screen effect on a show, no-one knew what to do. On this show, we did 54 for just one episode. In every episode we do something that television shows don't usually do in terms of visuals. In the show coming up, we have water workers in a tunnel and we see an urn opening and energy and light and then a beautiful woman appears. She's a ghost created through visual effects while the rest of the scene is made possible through the use of special effects.
"We can get the special effects done here so we need to do the visual effects as well. But so many shows done here still do their post production in the United States If you aren't doing post production here then the chances are good that you won't be doing the visual effects here. There are several sci-fi shows in town but it's a coincidence. They're not here because they can create the fantasy here.
"At least, in our case, we are hiring the people like Elan Soltes who are the best in the business and we would expect the local people who can do the work to learn from them.
Richard Lewis agrees. "We're committed to four years at least for The Outer Limits and two years with Poltergeist. We're working closely with Northwest Imaging here on the effects and we have already trained 35 to 40 people in special and visual effects. That will increase as the series continue."
Lewis says that no matter who is used to create the visual effects on Poltergeist, the story will continue to be the priority for Trilogy. We'll continue to push the envelop as far as special effects go" he says. "But we want to make sure that the audience feels for the characters. That's the most important thing. The rest is just icing on the cake. Mind you, I have great respect for the people who create the effects. They can either turn the light on or turn it off."
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LegacyWeb V.3 - March 2002