A Wizard’s Touch – The National Post

I’m quoted in the following article in The National Post. If everyone’s a critic, we’d better update our résumés, because nowadays everyone’s a skeptic, too, especially when it comes to special effects in film. With the rate at which technology is changing, even movies made a year ago can look outdated and clunky, even laughable.

In Toronto, though, Arc Productions (formerly Starz Animation) is making fantasy look easy. Known mostly for its animation work -most recently on display in Gnomeo & Juliet, which was entirely drawn and animated at their downtown Toronto facility -the production company has been making waves in the world of visual effects.

In September, the company’s bigticket Camelot will debut on CBC (it is already airing in the United States and United Kingdom). The 10 episode series features all the magic, battles and romance you’d expect from an Arthurian world, along with a budget of $70-million, practically unheard of in TV. Arc handled all the effects -everything from removing flies buzzing around in a love scene to making Merlin’s magic come alive -effectively making the line between live-action and digital creation smaller than it’s ever been.

The show, which stars Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) and Eva Green (Casino Royale), is suitably impressive, with beautiful period costumes and sets. Particularly striking are the landscape vistas, which feature stretches of rugged sea coast and dense forests that open into idyllic clearings where waterfalls cascade down cliff faces. But don’t plan your next trip to the U.K. based on a desire to visit these locales -they don’t exist. The visual effects team at Arc created them and then stitched them into the appropriate live-action scenes without a trace.

“That line is becoming extremely blurred,” says Terry Dale, vicepresident of operations at Arc. “A lot of the stuff we’ve done for Camelot, you don’t know we’ve done it and it’s all digitally recreated. There’s whole sequences and scenes where all the environments that look natural, look real, aren’t.”

Like an increasing number of production companies that specialize in animation and visual effects, Arc Productions uses Nuke, a compositing and editing software created by English company The Foundry. It’s a new kind of platform, and it gives them the freedom to create what they imagine. Nuke allows artists and compositors to build three-dimensional scenes with an awareness of the camera. While this is immediately useful for creating 3-D films, which Arc also does, it is also an invaluable tool for 2-D productions because it means that artists can place their creations into a shot without disrupting the perspective of the scene. It’s like creating a 3-D blueprint of the shot, so that if trees are being added to a field three kilometres behind the action, they actually look as though they’re three kilometres away from the foreground action.

Work like that, which can take hours to get right, is something no one will even notice when it’s done right, says Bret Culp, visual effects supervisor and producer for Arc and the point person for Camelot. What people will notice, though, is the magic.

The Merlin who appears in Camelot is not the same wizard that mentored young Arthur in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Played by Fiennes, Camelot’s Merlin is more temperamental, and his magic is more about harnessing natural elements than making the pots clean themselves. But even when a scene has obvious visual effects, they don’t need to be cheesy. Whether it’s Merlin freezing a lake so he can walk across it or causing leaves to burn as they fall from a tree, the magic in Camelot is strangely realistic, and almost delicate.
“It was made very clear that the expectation was feature-level on the show,” Culp says. “So the trick with these big-budget miniseries is that all the expectation of a feature [film] finish is there, but with the pain of episodic television.”

Like a film, the new series tells a story with multiple plot lines and characters, as well as thematic depth. Unlike a film, though, the story is cut into 10 equal parts, and elements need to remain consistent from one episode to another, even if changes are made during the editing process, after the cameras have been put away. It also means that the visual effects team sometimes has to make something non-magical happen digitally that couldn’t happen live. These kinds of effects typically occur in scenes where the audience is expecting complete authenticity, like sword battles.

In one such scene, for instance, an actor was stabbed under the armpit instead of through the chest. It didn’t look right, and the director wanted it changed. Arc’s Joe Raasch managed to recreate the scene, with the actor being stabbed convincingly through the heart, in one day.

“Originally they thought it would take maybe a week to get it done,” says Raasch, an artist and compositor. “The tools are evolving so quickly that we’re able to do so much more. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that at all.”

It’s a difficult task, not only because it was unexpected, but also because it wasn’t only the sword that needed to be moved. Raasch had to clean up the original wound and create a new one. He also had to edit the area behind where the original sword had been, which required digitally cleaning and straightening individual blades of grass.
“Visual effects is very guerillastyle filmmaking, really,” Culp says of the kinds of surprises that frequently get thrown their way.

Culp has been working in visual effects for more than 20 years -long before there was compositing software like Nuke -and he says the process has changed tremendously. Before coming to Arc last spring, Culp worked at C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures, a Toronto special effects company that did work on The Tudors. When C.O.R.E. went out of business in March last year, Culp brought his team to Arc, giving them the special and visual effects background to win the contract for Camelot.

It was good timing, because even though the real visual effects side of Camelot didn’t begin until last September (shooting wrapped last May), visual effects are now involved in the production from the very beginning.

“Filmmaking in general has changed substantially, and it will continue to change substantially, in that the lines between preproduction, production and postproduction are blurring and even
going away,” Culp says. “And we have to embrace that.”

Camelot premieres Sept. 13 at 9 p.m. on CBC.

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