Cover Story

It's a Bird! It's a Plane!

By Amy Amatangelo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Remember the big ferry crash last season on "Grey's Anatomy?"

It never happened.

"There was no ferry. There was no water. There was no Seattle skyline. No helicopters taking off. None of that. It was actors against a green screen in a parking lot," said Mark Spatny, supervising producer at Stargate Digital, a visual effects company.

Visual effects are everywhere on your favorite TV shows, from the obvious (a monster on "Supernatural") to the surprising (Betty's Queens neighborhood on "Ugly Betty"). These effects make it possible for a TV series to be anywhere and have its characters do just about anything. Bryan Fuller, creator/executive producer of "Pushing Daisies," said visual effects are key to the "fairy tale vibrancy" that defines that show. There are hundreds of visual effects in a single episode, including characters who come back to life and a city of windmills. "It's the tool that we could use to create a world that you're never going to see on any other TV show," Fuller said.

Advances in computer technology, including cheaper processors and increased hard-drive capacities, have allowed TV shows to employ effects that only movies used to be able to afford. The work is detailed and time-consuming. Last season on "Heroes," it took almost eight weeks to create the scene where a charred Claire (Hayden Panettiere) heals as she walks out of her burning house. The scene only comprised about a minute of the episode.

"We got calls from our friends who could not believe we pulled that off," said Spatny, who also serves as the visual effects producer on the show.

On CW's "Supernatural," Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) are constantly fighting monsters that aren't there.

"We try to make sure that they can envision what's happening," said Ivan Hayden, the special effects supervisor for "Supernatural."

Those perfecting the art of visual effects are constantly challenging themselves to create an effect that might have seemed impossible only a few months before.

"Now with visual effects it's bigger, better, stronger, faster," Hayden said. "If we don't do an effect that comes off just perfectly, then everyone will see it. . . . Visual effects is a real community where we're pushing each other to newer and better heights."

This is the first in an occasional series that looks at how TV programs are made.

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