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The Wider World of Special Effects

In recent years, the use of visual effects has grown substantially in television. Producers realize that special effects can set their content apart in a crowded programming space. It can transport viewers to exotic locations, make improbable scenes real to audiences and turn previously inaccessible ideas into tangible products.

Special effects—or VFX in the trade—is no longer confined to the genres of science fiction and fantasy. But producers must be careful not to indulge themselves. An excess of computer-generated imagery is no replacement for strong plots or believable characters.

Television in the 21st century has evolved into an interactive viewing experience. Viewers can vote, play and participate on their favorite shows all via their remotes. Producers of scripted entertainment are battling to keep viewers' attention. In keeping with this evolution, special effects are changing the way stories unfold on TV screens. No longer are audiences satisfied with description. They demand to see how much damage a bullet or an explosion causes.

VFX can satisfy audiences' hunger, but gratuitous visuals for their own sake will merely spoil viewers' appetites.

The evolution of video effects has changed the world of television production, too. Producers, freed from the shackles of physical sets, are now able to take audiences all over the world, via green screen. When Dawson's Creek went to Paris, only the audience got to visit the Eiffel Tower. All of Katie Holmes' scenes were filmed in a production suite in North Carolina.

Star Trek promised to “boldly go where no man had gone before,” and it did so by pioneering the use of VFX. Today, we may have lost the preoccupation with space, but shows like Nip/Tuck and CSI give us images of the human body that would previously have seemed as alien to audiences as any Klingon.

The quest to push the envelope continues, but, as box-office flops like Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow show, VFX is not a replacement for physical sets.

But it has allowed producers to develop visually rich content at lower cost. Budget shows with fixed shooting schedules can now take viewers anywhere they want. But audiences are just as discerning about special effects as they are about bad acting. Done correctly, though, special effects can expand the range of content by broadening storylines and genres.

So, though Star Trek may no longer be prime time viewing, VFX can still take viewers where no fan has gone before.