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Writer: Nick Joy
Magazine: TV Zone™ Special #32
Publish Date: February 1999
Pages: 80-85
Copyright: © 1999 Visual Imagination Limited
Ordering Info: $9.99 - Info/Order Now at Visimag.com

Shows like Poltergeist: The Legacy feature so many special effects
that supervising them is invariably too much work for one person

USING THE RATIONALE that two heads are better than one, the producers for Showtime's Supernatural series use two Special Effects Supervisors, Sandra Aumont and Jim Finn. TV Zone caught up with them at Poltergeist's Vancouver studios as they were preparing for Season Three's finale, a 'clip show'. They described their 'Top 10' highlights of the past year, hopes for the future and revealed a few sneaky tricks of the trade.

The Usual: Ghosts and Demons

"The show has been going for three years now, and the nature of the show is such that we're constantly doing the same type of effects. Invariably we get called upon to make ghosts appear and disappear, or morph people into demons. That's not hard, because we have refined the process. The challenging thing about Poltergeist is to come up with different versions ot those effects, over and over again. We need to come up with new ideas, and that's what keeps it so fresh for me, " explains Sandra.

Quality Improving

The quality of visual effects is improving all the time, and inevitably it is the big motion pictures that boast the most impressive sequences. Sandra is not concerned that the lower-budget effects on Poltergeist aren't in the same league as their big screen counterparts. "The tv audience is a lot smarter nowadays and I think that people are interested in visual effects, regardless of their quality. They understand that they won't see film-quality effects on a weekly tv show, and just like to watch effects, provided they work within the context of the story. The technology available to us makes it cheaper and faster to do grander things. Five years ago you didn't see many visual effects in tv shows because it was too costly, but most shows are full of them today. I have to look at the effects shots as described on paper and figure out how to do them in the time available, and with the money that we have. Most importantly, I only want to do a shot if it will be aesthetically pleasing within the show."

Season Three was a special year from Jim Finn, as it marked his début as Effects Supervisor. "During the show s first two years I was a compositor, which meant that I was responsible for putting together all the separate digital layers on a shot." For example, any given scene might involve the addition of some smoke, fire, or even something subtle like a new building. "Sandra and I alternate shows, and it's just the luck of the draw as to which ones we each get. Having previously worked on the show for two years before becoming supervisor was a great help, as I know the show very well."


"From my own perspective, I try to get at least two shots per show that I can be really proud of. I particularly favour the more organic photo-realistic shots, as opposed to the pure Fantasy ones. I want things to blend in well, rather than look pasty and composited, " Jim adds. "Admittedly, it's hard to make the ghosts look different every week because the show has a very distinctive look, and we have to stay within the confines of that look. Our standard routine is to save the best effects for the finale, which normally means the death of a ghost or a demon being exorcized. I guess what is equally difficult for us is to work out what exactly the producers have in mind when the 'demon is destroyed' or something like that. I'd love to be able to get inside their minds and figure out what is required and then get the effect right first time. We don't have the money to keep on redoing the effects over and over again. We aim to get them right first time round, with just a few weeks at the end."

Jim continues his analysis of a 'standard' episode of Poltergeist. "The show has a good formula for creating its moments, and getting the actors from point A to point B. In addition to this, an entity of some sort is introduced, its weaknesses are exposed, and then it's defeated at the end. Our goal within Visual Effects is to help disguise the formula by creating an original entity that is practical for us to realize within the budget and timeframe we have. On average, we prepare a week, we shoot a week, have a week to get the shots done, a week where everyone looks at them and decides what needs to be changed, and then we have a couple more days before the show is delivered for transmission. It's not like a feature where you have weeks to get the shots done."


Sandra works under similarly tight deadlines, and is impressed by what her team delivers within those parameters. "We put together between 20 and 40 effects per show, and at least 10 of those shots are in the finale. The shows are a little lighter on effects this year, but still challenging because the schedule seems to be tighter, so it just about balances out. I'd agree that we spend on average a little over four weeks per episode, and that's with one or two different post-production facilities doing the work for us. There have been occasions when four or five different people are working in separate suites, trying to get our shots together, but ideally I only like to have two on the go at any one time. That way I can concentrate on the two, rather than spreading myself too thinly, and the quality of work suffering as a result."

When touring the facilities at The Bridge Studios, it is hard to not be impressed by the hardware on display. "The technology is just getting better all the time, says Sandra. "At the end of the day though, it's the ideas and creativity that count, not what platform you use to put the shots together. Some of the best shots we do are the simplest. We did one this year where a spirit is released from inside Robbi (Chong - Alex Moreau), and the swirling effect of the departing soul is really effective. To achieve the effect a shredded clear plastic bag was dropped into some water, swirled around, and pulled out. It was cheap, but looks great on screen, and all we had to do was add few flares and flashes."

Brief Break

With Season Three wrapping on the soundstages, the work is just beginning for the visual effects crew, who will be busy for three to four more weeks before a well-deserved break. Jim and Sandra look forward to Season Four, but have no idea what to expect from it. "It totally depends on the scripts," says Jim. "The script dictates the story, and although we contribute towards the concept of the show, we have no idea what is lined-up for us. I might have a great idea for a werewolf effect, but if there's no werewolf show I won't be able to use it!" Sandra adds her preferences. "We were very light on morphs this year, so I'd like to do a few more next season. I'd also like the chance to do some more fire effects, and I always enjoy matte paintings. Who knows, we'll just to have to wait and see."


DREAM LOVER – "An ancient Asian devil has overtaken a woman's body, and again the incantation helps pull the evil spirit out of her body. The producers wanted it to be serpent-like, but not a snake! Of course, we had to start with a snake to get the general shape, and then just softened the edges to make it less defined. We also had to make her eyes serpentine and make her throat ripple when the entity leaves her." - Jim

FALLEN ANGEL – "Two kids were killed in a car accident, and when they returned from the dead he became a demon, and she was an angel. Derek saves the day by chanting some incantations, causing the demon to reveal its true face. It took us a couple of weeks to create the 3D computer generated image for his demonic face, but lasts seconds in the show. Luckily, we've been able to redress it and use it again in other shows. The final shot involves the girl going back to Heaven, and we had to create some animated CG wings. The wings took a couple of hours to composite, but weeks to do the feather texturing. It's a beautiful shot though." - Jim

THE LIGHT – "After this demonic light was conjured up, it went round attacking people. It was one of our bigger episodes this year because we had the responsibility of creating a totally CGI villain, and the credibility of the show rested on the light creature being believable. At the end of the show the members of The Legacy are turning off all the lights in the house because they are trying to trap it. We took a flame element, wrapped it into a 3D sphere, and then flew it though the room. Finally, it gets bounced off the ceiling and ricochets down into the safe, which flies up in the air before the light gives in. That sequence is a number of shots but it plays really quickly and took a while to do. We also did a couple of wire removals on the safe, which was hoisted up in the air by wires. Not many people realize that we do a number of 'tidying-up' effects of this nature." - Sandra

LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI – Robbi's character (Alex Moreau) gets possessed by a spirit, and is under the control of this evil man. At the end of the episode we needed him to go up in flames, and then for the spirit to leave Robbi. The fire stunt went OK but the gel on the stuntman's hair didn't all ignite, so we had to sample a few flames and add them to the patch that was not flaming. Of course, there were never any flames near the actor; we just added them afterwards. A flame-bar is also held between the camera and the actor to make it look as if he is behind a wall of fire. The final shot where he sinks to the ground was shot here outside our studio. We brought in some grass that matched the location's grass, laid down a prosthetic burnt corpse from a previous episode, and finally set fire to a section of the grass to make it look like he had burnt into the ground. It looks cool, but what a lot of work!" - Sandra

LIGHT OF DAY – "More bats and stakings in the second part of the story. The stakes were done by 'make-up', but we were called upon to add some smoke to the wounds to show that the life-force was draining away. The vampire episodes featured the most consistent effects this season, and took probably the longest amount of time and were the heaviest for us. We added some new mythology to the species, and didn't skimp on the good old-fashioned stake through the heart, and also threw in a beheading. The vampires may be dead now, but they'll be back again when the clip show airs!" - Jim

OUT OF SIGHT – "I can't remember the plot in any great detail, but a key scene involved the old man changing into a young man. The morph works really well, and instead of just adding old age make-up to the same actor, we used two different actors. Both of them were dressed in the same clothes, and after we'd shot some background plates, we filmed both actors in the same position, but with a green card behind their heads. Morphs take a long time to be done properly, and you need to get the dissolves right. The two elements were morphed together, and then we had to line-up the mouths and the eyes, because that's what people are normally paying most attention to. One actor was bigger than the other, so we had to slightly enlarge the old mans' face so that there wouldn't be any dramatic downsizing. It worked really well." - Sandra

THE ENLIGHTENED ONE – "We had a possessed priest who left behind him a trail of destroyed churches. The script required us to blow up a church, but the producers weren't keen on us doing that for real on location in Downtown Vancouver! We built a 1/3 scale model of the church, it was blown up, and then we had to add smoke and fire, and intercut it with shots of the real building. It looks really nice, and I think that some people weren't sure what was, or was not, real in that sequence." - Sandra

HELL HATH NO FURY – "The show is about Furies, caped creatures from Hell who wear flowing black robes. They are conjured up whenever someone is branded with a sceptre and they ripped people's hearts out of their chests, taking their souls with it. It happened three times in the show, but for the last one the producers wanted something that graphically depicted where these Furies had come from. We shot a hooded Fury, but instead of the normal black cover, we used a green screen cover and marked little 'X's over the nose, eye and chin. These were used as tracking points, and then we added a swirling vortex made-up from some fire elements we had to hand. On top of this we added a 3D demon face, and put some flames on top and bottom. We made it lunge up towards the camera and then retreat back down again. That was a cool effect and very satisfying." - Sandra

DARKNESS FALLS – "The first of our two-part vampire story. The producers wanted a promo piece for the opening of the season, so we concentrated our efforts on a shot where the vampire bat attacks Derek at the end of the episode. It took almost two weeks to create that seven second shot, but it turned out well. The sequence was pure CGI, and included five separate shots. We could cheat a bit on the bats that were in the distance, but the one coming towards the camera had to look real. Our audience have high expectations, and you can't have a bat on a wire any more." - Jim

IRISH JUG – "A comedy episode, with some really hilarious moments. Derek and his friend (played by Rene Auberjonois, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Odo) drink some ancient whiskey and get possessed by the spirits of some Irish rascals. Rene was great because he has worked with so many effects in Deep Space Nine, and knew what to do. One of my favourite shots involves the spirits leaving the bodies, whilst Derek and Rene are asleep on the floor. This was harder than say a demon escaping from a body, because we wanted the spirits to be mirror images of sleeping characters. The process is the same, but the leeway for error is reduced dramatically." - Jim