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CBS Digital Execs Tout VFX Advances

In the more than two decades since he founded the division, Craig Weiss, executive director and founder of CBS Digital, has seen a lot of changes in technologies used for TV content.

But nothing like what’s been happening in the last few years. Name a TV series around today, and green screen is likely being utilized. Previsualization—long used to develop complex scenes for a movie before filming even began—has become easier than ever for TV productions to utilize.

“Television and film have been separate for a long time, but the lines have blurred between the two,” Weiss said Nov. 16 during a CBS press event. “They’ve become one and the same, and much of the film technology has come to TV.”

Part of the reason TV production technology has caught up with feature films can be attributed to increased competition: digital services including Netflix and Amazon have increasingly invested in original series for subscribers, and that content has an almost theatrical feel to it. Take the Amazon series Transparent: for the first episode of season 2, the producers were prepared to visit a hotel location in Palm Springs, install all sorts of scaffolding and camera rigs, and go the traditional, expensive route for a key scene. A previsualization, green-screen visit with CBS Digital—combined with two hotel room facades built on a sound stage—proved both less of a hassle and less expensive.

“Previsualization was regulated to film before,” Weiss said. “But so much content is being created [in TV] today. And we’re finding we’re getting a lot of great use out of [previsualization]. It’s such a valuable tool now, because the speed of production is so fast. You now spend time making it look right, instead of fixing problems [in post].”

Then there’s the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix, and that brutal, bloody prison fight scene between the Punisher character and a half-dozen inmates: CBS Digital spent a few days creating blood spatters—and then inlaying the results with the actual shots. That wasn’t something that would have been considered for a TV series too long ago, Weiss said.

“Visual effects are behind every show now,” he added. “It used to only be [for] T-Rex, aliens and monsters. Now every decision involves what can be visual effects, and what can be practical.”

George Bloom, executive producer for CBS Digital, touted the unit’s Parallax virtual set platform, which essentially helps producers eliminate the need to go on location to make decisions on what to shoot and what to include via green screen, by offering a 360-degree view of any place that can be shot. “As audiences have become more sophisticated, we have to up the level of what we’re doing to compete with film,” Weiss said, noting that simple sitcoms like ABC’s American Housewife have turned to Parallax to lower costs and make production decisions in advance. “There’s a lot of trepidation in the beginning,” Bloom added regarding Parallax and TV producers. “The first time they use it, they never want to go on location again.”

And things like Parallax are making it easier than ever for TV productions to do things like virtual reality, specifically because it allows for positional tracking, a must for the higher-end VR experiences. A 360-degree shot of the Paris skyline can be created in a Los Angeles parking lot, thanks to the advances of the tools available today, Bloom said.

Perhaps one of the most significant advances in TV special effects has come in the digital archiving of content for productions. Now, if something needs to be added in post, it’s no longer necessary to rebuild a set or go back to a location, Weiss said.

“There’s always unplanned stuff that comes up,” he added, noting that it often only takes a few hours to add a background to the building of a TV scene. “Fortunately, with today’s tools, we have a lot of flexibility.”