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‘Virtuality’ Provides Unique Canvas For Visual Effects

VFX supervisor Gary Hutzel shares secrets with Airlock Alpha

One of the things holding back many science-fiction television projects is the cost of visual effects. While computer-generated images have redesigned how such visualizations are created, the manpower and cost to put together even a few shots of simply effects could quickly start eating into a show’s budget.

When Gary Hutzel came on board SciFi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica,” he recognized that right away and created an in-house visual effects team for NBC Universal as a way to cut costs and change the motivation to create.

That same Emmy-winning team is now involved in “Virtuality,” a back-door pilot from BSG showrunner Ronald D. Moore that airs Friday on Fox.

And “Virtuality” created a unique situation for the VFX crew. Where visual effects creators typically are trying to produce realistic shots. This time around, they were working to make it clear when visual effects were being used, especially in the virtual reality environment that we find the cast traversing in regularly.

“The idea was to create a heightened colored environment, but still have it real enough to work for what we were trying to accomplish,” Hutzel told Airlock Alpha. “Our fundamental idea was to create this vivid environment. And when we would settle into a scene, let the audience know they were in a virtual environment.”

That meant a heavy use of green screen, especially for backdrops — a technique used heavily by amateur and even professional Web productions, including the Web version of “Sanctuary.”

The VFX budget ended up tens of thousands of dollars under-budget — a rare thing to happen on productions, especially pilots. That’s despite Hutzel’s crew being a part of 425 shots, or about 20 minutes of total screentime.

“That’s what happens when you have a crew that is not trying to make as much money as possible from a production,” Hutzel said. “Because of that, we could do the visual effects at cost because we are all employees of NBC. It also gives us complete creative freedom because we’re not driven by a profit motive or have to answer to investors.”

Many of “Virtuality’s” green screen shots take place in serious character-building moments through the pilot. That allows such backdrops to be better integrated into the scenes, but at the same time, allow some key plot moments to pop.

“Everything that was shot against green screen were dynamic interpersonal scenes where there is a lot of dramatic dialogue,” Hutzel said. “That stuff shoots very well and quickly because [cinematographer] Steve McNutt doesn’t have to worry about lighting the set. He lights the characters, and we do the rest.”

Probably one of the most interesting tidbits from the “Virtuality” production is that the shooting sets were actually on wheels. That meant the production crew didn’t have to stop between scenes to move equipment and set themselves back up.

“The set was usually the floor or bed or whatever the couple of items the characters would interact with,” Hutzel said. “We would roll one set in, shoot, then roll it out so we could roll the next one in and keep shooting.”

How did it all turn out? Find out Friday when “Virtuality” airs its two-hour telemovie beginning at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

Check out some scenes and video interviews from “Virtuality” in the Airlock Alpha media section. Find them by clicking here and clicking here.

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