Studio sets witches on
fire, creates a river of ooze and much more for second season of the hit

BURBANK—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 are 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
“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
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.”

About FuseFX
FuseFX is a full-service visual effects studio serving the
television, feature film and advertising industries from facilities in Burbank,
New York and Vancouver. Founded in 2006 by David Altenau, the company encompasses
a staff of more than 100 highly talented and experienced artists, producers and
support personnel. Using its refined, custom database and pipeline, the company
can accommodate numerous, high shot-count productions while delivering high-quality,
on-time results.
For more information, visit
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