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The Visual Effects Of The TV Show Defiance

The upcoming game has a sister project TV show coming to Syfy. We spoke with acclaimed visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) to learn more.

Yesterday, our interview with game senior producer Rob Hill offered an in-depth look at the upcoming MMO. Today, we switch gears to examine the TV show of the same name, also coming out in April. I spoke with the show’s visual effects supervisor, Gary Hutzel, who offered details about his approach to effects in the new show, as well as insight into his long career in the ever-changing field of visual effects. 

Game Informer: What is your specific role on Defiance?

Hutzel: I am a freelance visual effects supervisor. So, what that means is I am hired by the executive producers on the show to come in and design the visual effects for the show. In addition, because of my relationship with the Syfy network, I’ve established an in-house visual effects department, meaning I have put together a team of people specifically to work on this show, and I’ve done a number of shows for them in the past. Battlestar Galactica – and several other shows. So my role is to come in and work with the executive producer and director on the visual effects elements of the show and to get them implemented and make them come in on budget. 

Tell me a little bit about your background as a visual effects professional.

I started as a coordinator on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then eventually did Deep Space Nine as a supervisor. So that’s kind of how I cut my teeth in visual effects. Since then, I moved on after Star Trek and did a couple of small feature projects and then came back into television. Frankly, I kind of missed television. I really enjoyed the excitement and the spontaneity of it. And I actually really enjoyed the fast schedules and the demands of doing television over feature works. So I was very happy to get back into it when I came back in to work on Battlestar after I heard that Ron Moore, who I knew from Star Trek, sold the script and that they had a greenlight on it. And so I sent him an email saying “congratulations, it sounds like a really interesting project.” I actually just kind of hoped to get the chance to take a look at the script and instead he fired me back an email not more than five minutes later saying to get into the office. I got started on Battlestar right away, which was a really completely different kind of visual effects project from the things I had done before. I know it’s all space but we were going at a completely new direction thanks to Ron Moore’s vision. We were able to create a really different kind of space environment that nobody had done before. That was very exciting. 

Out of that grew my concept for the in-house department, which is basically a group of artists that I specifically hire with the talents necessary for that show to do just those shots. You work on one show at a time basically. And I hired just the people with the specific talents necessary for that show. That allows me to do what is not usually done on a television show. Normally if you go large-scale television show, the first thing the supervisor will do is start breaking it up amongst different houses. Now in order to make the schedule and to help with the pricing on it, the problem with that is of course then distributing amongst different houses and giving out small amounts of work, the cost generally gets pretty high. So you are then pretty limited in what you can actually produce as far as sequences are concerned in the various different shows. 

By creating the in-house department, it basically is bringing together a bunch of artists and putting them all in one place. We are able to do all of the effects of the show instead of breaking them up into houses because we are bringing in expertise specifically for those elements of the show, which normally has to be distributed between different houses with different areas of expertise. So we are able to bring the cost down. Now it’s more than just the cost. By doing that, we then create an environment where the writers are able to write more visual effects content into the shows. 

So, that grew out of Battlestar by necessity, in which we weren’t able to do the kind of shows that they wanted to do by distributing the work to outside houses. It simply was never going to work. So by doing it in-house, we could let the writers write the kind of shows that they wanted to write. And we continue to evolve that until the last year we did [Battlestar Galactica:] Blood and Chrome, which was 100% visual effects. So out of that beginning with Battlestar, eventually we got to a point where we had 100% penetration in the show with visual effects, which means now that writers can write anything they want. Literally, we’re completely unconstrained in the writing of that show. Now going into Defiance, we’ve applied some of the things that we’ve learned from doing that show, and we have learned quite a bit, we have a pretty good number of visual effects in every show, which allows us to go in and develop entire scenes that takes place against green screen so we can then take the story to environments that they could never afford to actually go and shoot, like underground caves and entire underground cities, as it turns out. It allows us quite a large number of full, virtual set pieces, which really is not a tool that is available on most shows.

[Next up: What sets Defiance apart from other science fiction on television?]

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