The Visual Effects Of The TV Show Defiance

by Matt Miller on Feb 26, 2013 at 11:28 AM

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?]

What attracted you to the Defiance project in the first place?

Well, first of all the tie-in with the game is something new. I mean, there’s been talk and there’s been pilots executed for other game related shows, but it was never integrated as well as this. And they were never particularly successful. This project really sounded like something that was really new that might eventually grow into something that is truly integrated between the show and the video game, to a degree where I hope, that in moving ahead, we can look at really being able to change elements of the show and the game back and forth between the two environments. And really being to realize a real integration –  real time integration between the game and the show. A lot of that is being implemented on this show as well. But I believe in a greater future for it. So it just seems to me like a great place to be as far as doing visual effects right now.

One of the things I look for in a program is a large number of visual effects. In other words, there are a lot of shows out there that do a gag or two for their show. Or their show is related to a specific visual effect, whether it be the invisible man or a caped crusader or what-have-you. It’s very, very specific. They do specific series gags for the show. I look for a program that’s going to have a wide variety of environment situations and effects in it that vary across the series, and that’s what we got with Defiance. Really, every show is completely new visual effects-wise. And story wise as well. The story evolves, and so for me that’s a really interesting project and keeps me on my toes and it allows me to use the newest tools as they become available. In other words, the latest software tools for doing, in our case, natural environments, plants – those are an integral part of what we are doing for Defiance. But there are all kinds of things we get to really stretch our muscles on and get out and try out

The other thing about it is Kevin Murphy, the producer on the show, is very open to new ideas and very open to us coming to him and saying: “Hey, what if we expand this element into the visual effects realm and we can give you more action, and you can get a live action sequence?”. He’s very receptive to trying out new ideas and looking into some fertile ground for us. It’s a fantastic project in that sense. 

What in your mind sets Defiance apart from other sci-fi television, both stuff that you’ve worked on previously and other sci-fi that you’ve seen on television in recent years?

I think that the big difference with Defiance is obviously that Trion has created this gigantic world. So they’ve already developed a tremendous amount of different characters and environments and hardware. So, all of this is laying in wake for us to access it, to implement it into the show. It’s very exciting, the artwork is extraordinary and the development of the game has been fascinating. I’ve been a part of the alpha testing on the game and it’s just brilliant. It’s just a wonderful environment to work with, and it’s inspiring, and it inspires people that work for me. Being able to actually go in to the game environments and really see, oh well this is where we live and think about how we apply that to a live-action world. It is completely different, and a very exciting way to go. Normally when it came to Battlestar, when I arrived, for instance, it was much more traditional. The production designer was focusing on the sets and he basically said “well you do the spaceship and I’ll do all of the interiors,” and we worked together on that to make that a uniform look. So as he designed the interior set, I would put elements of that design into the exterior and proof it to the production designer. So we had a great relationship on that – it was great. But in this case, we literally have a backlog of years and years of great artwork to derive the design of the show from. Kevin is very open to that, which makes it exciting. We have all this great stuff to draw upon.

Would you say there are times that you are, as a visual effects supervisor on the project, are you taking cues sometimes from stuff that you see in the alpha version of the game? 

Oh absolutely, yeah. Absolutely, just the tone and the action, for instance, we had an episode with hell bugs. They’re prominent in the game, and getting a sense of what are the nature of these creatures and how do they move in the game and how does this relate to what we want to do in the show. It literally drove the way that I wanted to lay out the scene that took place where one of our personal characters is attacked by hellbugs and based on what I had seen in hellbug activity in the games, I designed that sequence around that and it literally, as written, was completely different. But as we get to implement it and I showed Kevin [Murphy] and the director some of the ideas that we had, they were totally on board with it. And it has a real energy, it’s different. It’s not the way we would approach that type of attack in a standard television show. It has some unique qualities about it. It was very exciting, and it worked out very well. We put the sequence together and Kevin was just very excited. I guess that’s the big difference; on Defiance everyone’s just excited. Nobody is crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s worrying about whether their stars are the right size or small things like that. They are just excited by the new environment, by these things that we’re able to do. And a large leg up on that is having already developed for us by Trion, in a sense. In other words, we can go to that environment and reference it and everyone says “yeah yeah yeah, I get it.” They understand – it’s a short hand for understanding what the show should be.

[Next up: Hutzel talks about how Defiance compares to projects like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Battlestar Galactica]

How would you describe the visual look and tone of Defiance that your team has come to? 

Well, it was an interesting process. There were a number of different ideas about the city of Defiance originally. And there were some different camps about how post-apocalyptic it is as opposed to promising. In other words, as we began to really get into the show and start working on the series, the tone of some of our original artwork was based on much more treacherous environment. Because the network was really very interested in making Defiance a more inviting place. When I say that, what I’m talking about is when we see Defiance now, it’s not a, yes it’s a frontier community, but it’s not a dirty, Western post-apocalyptic environment. It’s a place when you look at it and say “I see why people settled there.” It has a certain beauty to it, as well as being dangerous, as well as there being the terra-formed landscape in which you find bizarre animals and dangerous creatures like that. But this is a haven for people to come and for them to live together. Humans learning to deal with aliens, and basically different cultures coming together. 

I think that the network called it right, it needed to be a place where you felt; okay well the story is big enough. You have these different races all trying to get along in this confined space with radically different ideas about what life is about. You don’t need to be confused about them being attacked by the environment. You want it to look like a place where at least, yes, they are there for a reason. It’s a beautiful place to live and maybe that will help them overcome their fears about each other. And I think that that comes through now with the show, so we evolved that as we moved through the pilot in the series, trying to land where that environment was and how exactly it should play out and how people interacted with it. So it was worth it, absolutely. 

A lot of our readers will be familiar with your work from Battlestar Galactica and some of our older readers will no doubt be familiar with your work on the Star Trek series. In what ways is the visual effects work on Defiance similar to previous projects like Battlestar and what ways have you found it to be really different? 

One word: pervasive. In Defiance, and on recent projects I’ve worked on, the visual texture is very pervasive on the show. In other words, we have a high percentage of the show that are being affected and they are being affected in a large-scale way through developing full, 3D natural environments for aerial shots as well as other simpler stuff like chargeblades, which is a weapon, that characters use. I would say that starting on Battlestar, Battlestar had a pretty good breadth of variety as well, but most of the stuff we did was obviously space, a lot of robot work and a lot of Battlestar work. So it was a smaller stage as it were than what we’re doing now. Now the sky’s the limit. Now it’s if you want to go to a completely exotic environment or to go to a section of the town that we could never afford to build, we can do that now in completely a virtual way. 

So what’s changed is we are still using the same kind of premise, which is three movie cameras in which we take the shots whether they are against green screen or they are in the natural environment, and we stand them up. In other words, we don’t stage shots, we stage scenes and then we add to them. Which is really the different philosophy from what was used on Battlestar that we included and what we continue to do in Defiance. So that premise of allowing the scene to be captured in a natural way, and then extending and developing those scenes in posts is really the difference. Defiance is definitely the show with the most variety that we’ve done Full virtual sets. In Defiance, we have that kind of breadth spread out over 13 episodes. So, quite a bit of more environmental development than we ever did on Battlestar

What’s become your philosophy towards CG and your work on Defiance? Are there elements that you still feel strongly that need to be produced through more traditional effects or is really everything in your mind at this point better done through CG?

Well, certainly on Star Trek, everything was shot as miniatures. I was on Next Generation for five years and worked the next show for seven years. On the first five years, we were shooting everything – everything was miniature work. Now at that time, that was the discipline and that’s what we did. That discipline now would be so antiquated, be unusable because the way television is made now is different. My brief answer to your question is CGI embraces what television is now today. Working from miniature work, I shot miniatures for 13 years; my last miniature show was really way back on Red Planet. I shot all the miniatures for the space stuff. At that point it became obvious to me that that was pretty much over with. We shot with a very large shooting schedule, large-scale miniatures. Shot all the stuff and when the movie was released, quite a bit had been supplemented by CGI because they changed the plot and that was the only way to get it done. And it became obvious that that was not how it was going to be done – in other words shooting miniatures was not going to continue to be a viable field. 

I think on big features it’s still a desirable thing to do in a lot of elements and great fun for everybody. For television and production schedule and budget, it’s not. Not viable. You can be just making—the process of actually shooting miniatures involves obviously you get the script, you have to figure out, okay well here’s a gag we’re shooting, storyboard it, you have appropriate miniatures built, you shoot them and then have to comp them. None of that can be implemented in modern television schedule. Not without expanding it dramatically. The approval process alone would now be arduous. So working in CG allows us to be able to bounce back, and for instance, on Defiance where we started out with a much more gritty monochromatic look it allowed us to turn on our heels and turn Defiance into a more appealing place to live. You’d never know whether we started out in a different direction. But having to develop miniatures for that would have put us in a place where there was no going back. It was a good thing for the show, it was a plus. And everyone can agree on that now. In that sense, CG has been a very big help for the show.

Were there particular effects or situations you are particularly happy or proud of how they turned out?

I am very pleased with our virtual environments, I think in seeing them—and when I say virtual environments I mean the live action shot is entirely green screened and then we created the whole environment around it and the actors—I’m very pleased with the work we’re doing there and it’s very rewarding to see  a scene that runs several minutes that has 5200 shots in it, in which you’re immersed  in a full virtual environment and it builds up the scene. It’s actually part of the  storytelling and that’s what I try to focus on, is how can I build an environment that augments and enhances the key performance by the actors. That’s what I look for. Yeah we do a lot of great map paintings and a lot of terrific effects shots that I think are terrific for the show, but to me I think the most rewarding moment in a show is when I watch one of our virtual scenes really come together and support the performance and make and push that performance up and make it feel stronger and more personal. And that’s what I really focus on in working on the show, are those moments. Not so much the little things. Everybody’s going to love the chargeblade because it’s fun. It won’t be on m reel, but in doing the full virtual environments, seeing how the performance works in conjunction with our build, it’s very exciting. It literally for me makes it a whole new scene and our producers are extremely happy with it as well.