Burbank-headquartered FuseFX has been providing visual effects for Salem since the drama about witches in colonial Massachusetts made its debut last year as WGN America’s first original series. Currently in the midst of the show’s 13-episode second season, the studio’s team of artists is hard at work, helping to conjure a 17th century world riven with black magic, intrigue and strife. The series is produced by Fox 21 Television Studios.
“On Salem, we get to do a lot of different types of effects,” says FuseFX senior VFX supervisor Jason Piccioni. “Right now, we’re creating a tar-like river of ooze that plays heavily in several episodes. It involves a CG fluid simulation that bubbles and burps fire. We also do a lot of blood and gore, CG ships and set extensions. It’s fun.”
A single episode of Salem can include anywhere from two dozen to more than 100 VFX shots all of which need to be delivered within the scope of a two-week post schedule. Maintaining that pace requires a skilled, flexible crew and careful planning.
Piccioni, on-set supervisor Glenn Neufeld, VFX producer Jason Spratt and other senior members of the team spend time in pre-production with Salem executive producer Brannon Braga and co-producer Skip Schoolnik scrutinizing scripts to identify visual effects needs and discussing artistic considerations. From there, the FuseFX supervisors determine manpower requirements and sketch out a workflow.
For the show’s first season, all of the effects work was completed at FuseFX’s Burbank facility, but for season two, a portion of the work is being handled through the company’s recently launched satellite office in Vancouver. Geographical separation might appear to present a hurdle, but high-speed data connections and a seasoned team of supervisors allows the two groups of artists to function as though they are working in the same space.
The work is demanding. “The VFX are very well-planned,” says Spratt, “but plans can change and the effects for this show are often complex. A single shot could have multiple plates—green screen, background and so forth—and there may be other small elements shot by production. Then, there are the VFX components—CG, matte paintings, compositing—and all of the pieces have to go together. And that’s just one shot. Multiply that by 20 or 100 and media management becomes a challenge.”
The effects produced by FuseFX for the show fall roughly into two categories: historical/environmental embellishments, including set extensions, matte paintings and CG ships used to establish time and place, and magical elements that support witchcraft and other supernatural emanations.
CG artists spend considerable time searching through historical archives to find sources for architecture, natural environments, naval vessels and similar elements. “We look for real world references in photographs, video, books and movies,” says CG supervisor Michael Kirylo. “We use those sources to develop a game plan. We rough things out and refine from there.”
Among supernatural effects certain types of elements prevail. The battles that rage between factions of witches call for plenty of blood and gore. CG effects are also needed to enhance practical makeup for facial and body deformities.
Fire is another recurring theme. An early episode from season two features a particularly grizzly conflagration, as several witches are set ablaze in their sleep. For that sequence, the FuseFX team created CG flames to supplement practical fire shot on set. “We had to match the movement of the girls as they writhed in pain,” explains Kirylo. “We had 3D geometry of the actors (gathered by on the set by Neufeld) and that allowed us to match their movement frame by frame. We ran various fire simulations over that geometry, rendered it out and composited it over the live action.”
Getting CG fire to blend convincingly with practical fire is not easy notes compositing supervisor Tommy Tran, adding that it typically takes several iterations to achieve seamless integration. However, when it works well, the results can be amazing. Tran points to a portion of the same witch burning sequence where compositors made it appear as though an actress is being burned alive.
“The actress was positioned far from the practical flames but she needed to appear to char and burn,” he recalls. “We motion tracked her body and applied scars and oil. We started to char her clothing and then proceeded to her body and face. By the end, she looked like she was completely on fire. It looked really good.”
Spratt says the whole team enjoys tackling the creative and technical challenges presented by the show. And, they are proud of the results. “Salem is fantastic,” he says. “Brannon Braga is a great showrunner. He is very accessible to us and clear in his expectations. We do what he asks for and it’s working really well.”