Three-Time Academy-Award-Winner, Executive Visual Effects Supervisor Jim Rygiel joins FuseFX, a leading visual effects house that is dominated by an award winning portfolio of television effects work. In a move that reflects the shifting quality, acceptance and structure of the whole industry, vfx legend Jim Rygiel has joined FuseFX to focus primarily on high end episodic work.
Rygiel is a three-time Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor and a leader in visual effects for many years. Winning multiple Oscars, he has supervised on a wide range of tent pole features, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Godzilla, Spiderman (2011), Night at the Museum, among others. Prior to his tenure as an independent supervisor, he helped found Boss Films Digital, one of the original and iconic feature film visual effects facilities in Los Angeles. In short – Jim Rygiel is known as a ‘film guy’. We sat down with him to discuss his move to TV and the state of the industry heading into 2018.
A move to episodic by someone such as Rygiel might have been unthought of a few years ago. This is not because the episodic companies were inferior, but their punishing schedules and lower budgets naturally limited what could be done, and the scope of the work possible. Today, few would argue that the episodic vfx teams are producing outstanding character work, compositing and digital environments. The work on air now is often truly on par with films, and audiences are responding by flocking to watch them. “I know when I go home, “ comments Rygiel, “that I want to see Game of Thrones, more than see a movie, and that is one aspect driving me. The quality of the shows are getting on par with films, but if you’d asked me 5 years ago, I’d have said ‘I don’t want to work on television’, but I have completely changed now”.
The relationship between film vfx and television is complex and it shifts dramatically over time. Back at the introduction of digital visual effects, companies in LA such as Digital Magic, POP and others were able to deploy Quantel’s Harry, Henry and Discreet’s Flame at standard (525/625) TV resolutions before companies such as ILM and others were able to shift to digital from optical printing. This digital revolution saw the rise of Digital Domain and other new companies as the first digital only film effects companies. These companies were born of the SGI OYNX age of million dollar vfx suites. In the early 90s, television effects in shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, were at the cutting edge of digital innovation. But budgets and R&D depth saw the traditional film effects companies regain domination especially in areas such as character animation, in a way that episodic VFX companies could not match. Bigger budgets and longer time scales facilitated feature film work, and once again the big film projects were the key career making thing to do.
It could be argued that this is changing again. In the current ‘Golden Age of Television’ feature film actors are embracing the quality of scripts and bigger budgets in Episodic. In the same way, visual effects in those TV shows is once again competing with feature film visual effects to attract the best talent.
FuseFX is an award-winning visual effects studio that services clients in the television, film, commercials, games and special venues industries. The company is a dominant force in visual effects for episodic television, with increasing work in other areas such as VR productions through its FuseVR division. The company was founded in 2006 by David Altenau with Tim Jacobsen, and Jason Fotter.
Today FuseFX employs more than 300 people in three studio locations; Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver. “We are incredibly excited to have Jim join our team,” said David Altenau, co-founder and CEO of FuseFX. “He’s a legend in this industry and adds an elite level of expertise and experience to our growing studio. His leadership of our supervision team will compliment the depth of our existing talent and allow us to expand our role in providing the best visual effects for episodic television, feature films and beyond.” Rygiel commented that he has worked with many high-end facilities and that “the FuseFX team is on par and in some cases exceeds the pipelines and creative environments of the larger post houses. I’m thrilled to play a part in the future of this dynamic company.”
FuseFX as a company, has done major vfx work on shows such as The Black List, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (above), Mad Men, The Magicians and others.
TV effects is benefiting from this perfect storm of great scripts, bigger budgets, lower episode counts (shows can now be 10 or 12 eps instead of 22 a season), faster computers and management techniques forged in high shot counts. The teams are now used to more rapidly turnaround and automate project management. Episodic is not just a smaller version of feature film work. The approaches and very structure of the work are quite different, in terms of schedules, role of the director, budgets and more.
Episodic shows are still run on a tighter schedule than feature films. With the added complexity of individual episodes overlapping during post. There can be 10 episodes of a series all at different stages of completion, with different teams on different episodes, but yet the final product must appear to flow as one linear clear narrative. “We have much shorter time periods (in TV), which I sort of enjoy. On a feature you will have 500 shots and you’ll be 6 to 8 weeks on a shot, – it can really linger on,.. but in episodic I had a show here which had a turnover last week, and it has pretty complex materials – underwater with jellyfish,..digital water and all done within a week. That was it, it was pretty much final”, Rygiel explained. One of the things such schedules necessitate is a stronger role for the supervisor as there is just not time to fuss with shots and do endless tweaking, as is the de facto standard in features. “it is just not as rampant here, people have an idea, they go for it and everyone just has to head for that one vision”, he adds.
Role of the Director.
With two or three directors in rotation with Episodic television, the roles are quite different. The show runners have to manage the overall arc of the show, but the individual directors are working inside a stylistic established aesthetic of the show, and less able to spend time on what one might call ‘their vision’. This naturally makes the Supervisor, who has always been a collaborator, a more defined voice inside the episodic team. “ I have been on many films, where we have quietly said – ‘I wish this was run like a television show’” Rygiel recalls. In TV, the director still articulates a vision in pre-production and works on set with the Supervisor, but after the shoot “he’s onto something else, and then you are just dealing with the producer. That may sound horrible in a way, but it makes sense. The producer was also in those same meetings, but they also have a clear view of the budget”. This is very different from the separation of director and producer when feature film VFX shots are being discussed and the director can be asking for things, almost blind to the overall budgetary negotiations. For Rygiel having one person to report to while juggling shots, who also controls the budget, makes the process more direct and in many respects easier. “We are still doing super high quality work, but just really quickly. I just reviewed some creature animation work here this week and it was ‘feature quality’, but it is for a Netflix show”.
With the exception of some major TV shows, the budgets are lower per shot in television than films. That being said, episodic represents a lot of work, spread over months. In a recent Variety article, current TV budgets are quoted as often being well above $4 million an episode, some, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones can be considerably more than $15million. According to that report, “Amazon is laying out $8 million on action drama “Jack Ryan” and $5 million per half hour for “The Tick,” the superhero comedy with lots of visual-effects shots that also films largely on location in pricey New York(see below).” While FuseFX works on only some of these shows, the general move to bigger budgets places FuseFX on the right side of history, with their very strong television pipeline. Central to succeeding in this market is having the depth of talent to manage episodes which is why FuseFX has been so active in building its serious arts and supervisor talent pool such as Rygiel.
The skill set required to solve a vast VFX problem on an 18 month long film project is a focused, slow and steady mentality, this is sometimes called ‘a film mentality’. “What you need for episodic is what, in film, I call generalists. They can do a little bit of everything. Some of our supervisors at Fuse, are running 3Dmax and running their own shots, or comping shots. They are not just waiting for things, they often just get in there themselves. Both types of skill sets are needed in the industry, it is just different”, he adds.
Rygiel says it is less clear if episodic or feature film production will be the leading adopter of Virtual Production. Fuse is doing virtual production and “I have to say we did a shot in Unreal and it was spectacular. It was near full render quality, it is not even just for virtual worlds, and test comps, it is just having real time rendering. It is getting so good, and that’s what excites me” says Rygiel. “This shot I am referring to, would normally have been done in 3D Studio Max, and I assumed that’s what I was looking at when I first saw it, and someone had to say to me, ‘no this is all rendering in real-time’”. What interests Rygiel is having these sets built then being able to previz shots with the director, before principle photography, and “then you don’t even really do ‘previz’, – it is sort of done”, which is really cool”.
FuseFX needs to work quickly and key to their pipeline is being able to play a very proactive role on set, and quickly transition that knowledge into visual effects. For example, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) of a set is very useful, but until recently it was still a specialised tool on set. Lately, FuseFX has been using the new Leica BLK360 LiDAR. “You can carry this thing around, it is the size of a Google Home. We can put it on set in two minutes and capture the whole set” comments Rygiel.
Rygiel like the units speed on set and it’s accuracy. The BLK360 has a measuring radius of 60m and an accuracy of 6mm at 10m and it runs via the ReCap360 Pro mobile app on an iPad Pro. The Autodesk ReCap is used to import, view and edit point clouds and prepare them for 3D.
FuseFX also has extensive libraries of CAD assets and props such as cars, that it can rely on directly, which speeds up environment work, and model building.
FuseFx is doing all its work now at 4K resolution, and “a lot of it is high dynamic range also” Rygiel adds. While a lot of mid-level films are shot at 4K and higher, many are still mastered as 2K Cinema, in a P3 color space master format. FuseFX, by comparison, assumes 4K and Rygiel is very up on new HDR color pipelines. “I have been advocating HDR for years, since I first saw it”. FuseFX is very proactive in promoting the format, as the team do not have to do much differently, since their pipeline is already OpenEXR, it just requires some additional monitoring and attention to detail in the compositing and reviewing.
Previously many of the color grading suites were only set up for “2K, DPX format which is just 10bit, so we’d work on it in OpenEXR and then dumb it down … because they couldn’t process the higher resolution formats”, Rygiel explains, recalling his previous experiences before joining FuseFX. “But now there are places like LightIron and others that can do 8K DI, so there is now a lot of power in the grading suites”. This in turn allows FuseFX to promote dual mastering to HDR and standard 4K P3, which provides both a legacy archive and a standard deliverable.
FuseFX has its own in-house tool Nucleus. “it is another reason I wanted to come and work at FuseFX” comments Rygiel. “It is like a crystal ball. It’s upcoming work it is so accurate at bidding and scheduling…it is down to the hour. What we bid, how much we are over, or are the artists having to work more than 8 hours (a day).. it is keeping track of so many complex things correctly,” he explains. Rygiel goes further pointing to the lack of such complex and powerful tools as a primary reason companies fail when attempting this style of work. “They just can’t keep track of the project, they do great work, but at the end they are just so worn out financially from it that they can’t continue.”
Nucleus is a proprietary and comprehensive internal production management system developed by FuseFX. The team developed Nucleus in house and it differentiates the company from its competitors. Nucleus aims to allow for better quality control, more predictable and precise resource allocation for projects, faster turnaround of shots, and efficiency. In turn, Rygiel believes that this allows for a workflow with more focus on the creative process and a more consistent delivery.
Rygiel can get an immediate overview of 20 shows that the team are working on simultaneously, which helps in both load balancing, assigning artists and understanding the company’s day to day profitability on jobs.
The Tick @ FuseFX
An example of FuseFX’s recent work is for the Amazon Video show The Tick. This is a VFX heavy show with 110-160 VFX shots per episode. FuseFX handles 100% of the VFX between their three offices. The team do on-set green screen work, as well as talking dogs, The Tick jumping / rocketing / flying, which involves digi-doubles for the Tick, as well as digi-doubles for Arthur, Overkill and even a digi-double bus.
The Tick is just one show currently being handled by FuseFX. The show is set in a world where superheroes and villains have been real for decades. Arthur, an unassuming accountant with no superpowers, becomes embroiled in the middle of the battle between good and evil. When he realizes that his city is owned by a global supervillain who was long thought to be dead, he struggles to uncover the conspiracy. As he becomes obsessed with the conspiracy, most people think he’s crazy. One person who believes Arthur is the mysterious Tick, who is a bizarre blue superhero who may just be a figment of Arthur’s imagination. Chad Wanstreet, is the show’s VFX supervisor, and Jeff Wozniach from FuseFX is the on-set supervisor.
Barry Josephson is EP on the show and comments, “this is my third time as a FuseFX client (Bones, Turn and The Tick), and I can say we always get inspired input from them. We have a highly collaborative storyboarding process. Plus, many great ideas often come up in post. FuseFX moves with the production sequences and helps us grow the story”.