|Posted on February 8, 2016 at 6:55 PM|
Below is a transcript of an interview I did for Heroes Reborn magazine. I'm not sure this was ever published, because they didn't keep their end of the bargain and send me a copy of the magazine. So...in the interest of sharing information, here's the text of the interview:
Stargate Studios and Tim Kring shows go hand in hand, apparently. The visual effects and production company has created the FX for Kring’s five most recent series, namely Crossing Jordan, Heroes, Touch, Dig and now Heroes Reborn. Stargate just celebrated its 25th anniversary and boasts offices in 10 cities around the world. Mark Spatny, the company’s vice president of digital effects, worked on the original Heroes series, and now he’s back for Heroes Reborn, credited as VFX supervisor/producer, and joined by his Stargate Studios associate, Kris Wood, who’s serving as VFX supervisor on Heroes Reborn. The Official Heroes Reborn Magazine recently caught up with Spatny for an in-depth interview about his career, the evolution of FX and Stargate’s efforts on Heroes Reborn. Here’s what he had to say.
How long have you and Kris known each other?
I’ve been here for 11 years. Kris and I have known each other for many years, but we work out of different offices. So this was the first time we’ve worked together on a show.
What are some of the Stargate Studios credits you're proudest of?
Personally, I’m most proud of Heroes, of course, and Nightmares and Dreamscapes, both of which we won Emmys for. And I’m also proud of being the only American to ever supervise for the modern incarnation of the British cult classic, Doctor Who. Stargate also does the effects for other hit shows such as The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy and Ray Donovan.
What are your individual and joint responsibilities there?
At the moment, Kris and I share joint responsibility for managing Heroes Reborn. In addition, Kris is president of Stargate Canada, which means he runs our offices in Vancouver and Toronto. I prepped the first three episodes of Reborn with the writers, directors and producers, and supervised the filming of VFX on set for the first episode. Then I followed that episode into post production and began directing our artists, while Kris took over set supervision. He works with the filming crew day-to-day, while I lead and direct our artists, and coordinate with the editors. At the moment, it looks like I’ll be headed back to Toronto to help with the on-set work for the finale.
You were a special effects supervisor on Heroes. What do you remember most about the experience?
I was a VFX producer, then VFX supervisor on Heroes starting halfway through the first season, and continuing through to the end. Just like today, it took a team of supervisors to make that show. We usually had three supervisors at any given time. It was by far the most-complex show I’d ever, ever worked on… until Reborn, of course, with usually two full film crews working on the same day, sometimes with one on a day shift, one at night. And one of us managing and directing the artists.
What was the mission statement you were given for Heroes Reborn?
It started when I was in a meeting with Tim reviewing shots for Dig, and when we were done, I asked if we could take a few minutes to talk about Reborn. He asked James (Middleton) to join us, and that got the ball rolling. The main thing they emphasized was that the effects for Heroes were great, but many years had passed, and audience expectations were higher now, so they really needed our visuals to blow the audience away. They also told me that the effects had to be done in Toronto, since that’s where the show is filming. They were surprised to learn we already had a facility up and running under Kris’ leadership, doing the effects for the Syfy series Haven that had just finished production. So we had a perfect team already in place for them.
In addition to you two, how many other Stargate Studios pros are on this show?
At the moment, there are about 40 Stargate staff working on the show, including supervisors, coordinators, artists, editors and IT support. And we’re growing every day. We’re planning on doubling the office space in Toronto in October to handle the crew needed for the 2nd half of the season.
How early in the process were you guys brought in?
I got my first draft of the script in mid- to late-January, and began breaking down and budgeting the effects then. Our first day of shooting was March 19, on a frozen lake in Ontario they needed to film before the spring thaw.
Did the Stargate team create the snow field and aurora for the Super Bowl spot?
No, unfortunately, that was done about a year before we were brought on, by the network promo department, working with another VFX vendor. We actually have a very different look for that scene. Since it’s the first episode of the story, we’re not quite so apocalyptic. That’s something we’ll be building to later.
Did you go back and watch the original Heroes series in order to re-create some of the older show's visual cues, like the vapor trails? If not, why not? If so, what did you take away from doing so?
I actually still have every major effect from the original series on my laptop. Since it is a different team of artists on Reborn, I put together a three-minute “best of Heroes effects” demo, and gave it to the new team with one simple instruction: “Your job is to beat that.” It’d be easy for us to go back and copy many of the old signature effects, but we’re actually not doing that much. We look at it as a starting point, but we always want the effects for the new series to be bigger and better. So we let the new team bring their own creativity to work, in a way that matches the tone of the new scripts.
How does it all work? Do you get a script, meet with the producers and director, art department, etc., and hash out what needs to be done?
We have about 20 hours of planning meetings for each script, with the art department, the practical FX crew, our stunt coordinator, the director, writer, James, and our directors of photography. We go shot-by-shot through the script, discussing what each effect looks like. Kris and I give our advice about how to shoot the elements, and what should be digital and what should be practical. Kris also goes out to each location with the directors to get into more specifics about the camera work, and then follows through on that during filming. After filming, I work with the editors and Tim while they are cutting the show, and then oversee our artists, giving them guidance and direction.
At that point I’m working just like a director, giving our artists very specific notes about what we want to see on screen, as well as the composition and timing. But then, just like cast members, our artists bring their own ideas and talent into the mix, and so the end result is better than any one person’s ideas. Because I used to be a theater set and lighting designer, I’m particularly sensitive about making sure our virtual sets feel like a natural extension of the practical photography.
What are some specific Heroes Reborn FX shots you were most excited to realize?
Well, I’m particularly happy with the Arctic effects in the pilot, and the destruction of Primatech in episode 7. We built amazing set extensions, filled them with digital people, and built the explosion itself and the aftermath using the Tianjin explosions in China as our reference point. It’s going to be spectacular and emotionally devastating. And I’ve just seen the script for the finale, and it promises to be the biggest ‘event show’ Stargate’s ever been involved with.
There was also one shot where we travel through levels of Primatech never seen before in the series. Our direction was to make one level storage, one level agent training, and one level a lab. Beyond that, we were given carte blanche. So it was great fun to be able to tell a little story about how Primatech operated, and pick the specific visuals to tell that story in less than 10 seconds.
Which characters and which powers intrigued you most in terms of depicting them on screen?
Phoebe’s shadow powers has been intriguing because it’s been written many ways, doing many things, and finding a cohesive look for the design has been the most-interesting challenge. We’ve been working on sketches and tests almost from the beginning of filming. We’ve recently hit a look we’re very excited about.
Heroes Reborn has dozen-plus major characters, each with different powers. There are locations worldwide, many that people probably won't even realize are digital creations. You're creating weather events, too. Just how ambitious is Heroes Reborn on the FX front?
As was its predecessor, it’s definitely among the most ambitious shows on television. And while most shows only have to deal with creating locations or super powers or weather, we’re doing all of that, and more, on a normal network broadcast schedule. For example, in the last four episodes, it is looking like some of the locations will be 50% or more CG enhancements, in addition to the super-power action. We don’t have the luxurious post-production time the cable shows get. Having the original series as a trial run, as it were, has put us in great shape to meet the challenge.
For all that, you're still dealing with a TV budget and TV schedule versus that of a feature. How challenging has it been to get it all done on time, on budget and convincingly?
Yes, a TV schedule is our biggest hurdle. A normal broadcast network series will typically get 3-4 weeks to do the effects for an episode, versus months or years for a feature film. And there are certain things you simply can’t do in that amount of time. You can’t make a photo-real Transformers battle in that time, for example. So we have to guide production and help them be aware of this limitation, and present options that will give them the scope they are looking for, in the time allowed. And if something can’t be done in the time allowed, then we, of course, have to suggest alternatives that will look equally good.
Are you involved in any of the Heroes Reborn offshoots, like the games? If so, how much fun is it to basically world build?
We’re not involved in the ancillary properties, but we are world building, in that we’re establishing the look of many of the character’s powers. So that’s a lot of fun. We put a lot of thought into every character’s effect, for that very reason.
At the end of the day, how happy are you both to be a part of rebooting Heroes with Heroes Reborn?
In an interview for the Heroes season 3 DVD extras, I said how, if you are lucky, you get to work on a show like Heroes once in your career. I’m very happy to have been proven wrong about that.