|Interview with with Dennis Nicholson
Visual Effects VFX Supervisor - Legacy of the Silver Shadow.
By Chris Evely.
1. What is the difference between the visual effects and special effects supervisor?
A Visual Effects person is in charge of the 'visual' elements that help make up a final effect in a production, whereas a Special Effects person is in charge of any physical 'on-set' tricks, such as explosions, collapsing sets or on-set effects like rain.
2. What qualifications do you need to work in the areas of special and visual effects?
None really. There is no course (in Australia) that covers this field. I started out as a television news cameraman back in the 1970s, but always had a passion for creating visual effects. I was the kid on the block that used to blow up all his toys, and film them with a Super-8 camera. So I suppose you can say that my interest started at a very early age without me even knowing it.
Models and miniatures used in television and feature films always fascinated me, and I constantly created 'home-made' models to add to the little films I made. It was when the first Star Wars came out in 1977 that I knew there was a need for Visual Effects people in the industry.
Because Visual Effects can literally involve all manner of creations it helps to have a creative (sometimes wacky) mind. There are many cases where a way has to be found to do something that does not cost a lot of money, but at the same time the final effect has to look effective on screen.
These days, especially with a lot of visual effects being created via computers, it does help to understand just how an effect will finally be put together in the computer once all the elements have been shot. A background in camera work has certainly helped me, as I have the ability to visualise exactly how a particular shot should be framed in the camera so it will work with other elements that are shot.
3. What was the most difficult effect you co-ordinated in Legacy of the Silver Shadow?
The most difficult effect to achieve was the Cloak of Shadows. Because the actors literally had nothing to put over them during scenes where they had to put 'ON' (or take OFF) the Cloak, they had to 'ACT' as if they were actually holding the invisible cloak.
I had to make sure their arm actions were correct so the 'Cloak' could be properly placed over them later when the visual effect was created in post-production via computer.
4. Which effect was the funniest while filming? What made it funny?
Again, trying to get the actors to use the Cloak of Shadows, some of the actors could grasp the concept straight away, but others made some really funny arm movements, it looked like they were doing a weird dance.
5. Did any of the effects involve risks to actors, other people or animals? What safety measures were used? Were there any problems?
If there is any slight chance of any risk to actors we always have a Safety Person on set to judge the possible danger, and guide the actors about how to avoid any injury. If an actor has to fall down for example, the Safety Person will show them the correct way to fall without hurting themselves and also supply safety mats for them to fall on.
When filming in public places (eg streets), the Safety Person will designate where the crew should stand, and keep pathways clear for the general public. Any stunts are meticulously rehearsed over and over, until all people concerned are happy with all aspects of it, and the safety side if things is 100% accurate.
6. How were the following effects created?
The cloak of shadows
To achieve the 'Cloak of Shadows' effect we shot the actor going through the motions on set of putting the Cloak on (or taking it off) in front of the camera. Then (without moving the camera), we took another shot of the same area (framed exactly the same) - this time without the actor in place. This is called a 'BACKGROUND PLATE', or 'TAIL PLATE'. It is this shot that captures the area BEHIND where the actor WAS standing previously.
The reason it is called a TAIL PLATE is that it is shot after the shot of the actor is taken, at the TAIL (END) of their shot.
The first shot of the actor is put onto the computer, then the 2nd (BACKGROUND PLATE) shot is also put in, over the top of the first. Because the only difference between the two shots is the background behind the actor, the BACKGROUND AREA can be wiped over the actor to make it look like they are becoming invisible.
So the final effect looks like we are SEEING THROUGH the actor as the Cloak goes on.
The flying car
The flying Shadow Mobile is totally computer-generated, but the background images (eg sky, buildings, trees) are actual filmed footage. Since a real Shadow Mobile was built for the series, it was possible to photograph it (from all angles). These images were then scanned into a computer, and a three-dimensional computer model was created and animated over the top of the pre-shot background footage.
If a visual effect shot was required of the Shadow Mobile flying, as the camera follows it (PANS with it), and it was facing the LEFT of screen, then I had to make sure we shot the background moving LEFT to RIGHT to give the impression that the craft was flying towards the LEFT of screen. If the craft was facing RIGHT of screen, then I would shoot the background moving RIGHT to LEFT.
The background footage was shot before the computer-generated car was made, so the computer Shadow Mobile could only be put into backgrounds that were already shot.
Falling through the floor into the lair of the Silver Shadow
A section of floor was constructed above a real floor, so that stunt people could fall through the top section onto safety mats below. The next shot taken was with the real actors as they lay on the real floor, seemingly having just landed there. Since this was a stunt, not a visual effect, it did not involve me.
Crab-Girl jump somersault sequence off tower into boat (episode 5)
The actor was placed in front of a BLUE SCREEN (a large hanging blue cloth). She was then photographed with a digital still camera posing in all manner of positions. In some cases the blue screen was laid flat on the ground and the Crab girl laid on her side, with the camera shooting from above (on a ladder) she could spin around 360 degrees (on her side) to give the impression that she was doing a loop in mid air.
Another series of photographs were taking of the tower building to show her 'JUMP PATH' towards the boat. Using a computer, these background images then replaced the BLUE (screen) area around the Crab girl to complete the illusion.
Fight sequence where rays from Crab-Girl hit the exoskeleton (episode 3)
The fight sequence was filmed with all actors doing their respective actions, i.e. Crab Girl raising her arm to fire her ray, but the actual ray effects, leaving her gun, and hitting the Exoskeleton, were added later via computer animation, that is, drawing the ray effect on the film frames - one after the other.
Exoskeleton sinking into the water
The top part (waist up) of an Exoskeleton suit (with no one inside it), was weighted down and actually sunk in a river. It required a Safety person to retrieve it after the shot was completed. For the Exoskeleton coming back up out of the water a stuntman (inside the suit) waded into the river, ducked under for a few seconds, then popped back up and proceeded to walk out of the river. He also wore a wet suit to protect himself from the cold water.
Crab-Girl puts a net over the exoskeleton (episode 6)
The first shot of the Net leaving the Crab girl's wrist device was done via computer animation, the net being added frame by frame over the original footage. The next shot where the net goes over the Exoskeleton was done by actually throwing a real net over the figure, which was enhanced via computer animation later to add a ' glow' around the net as it lands.