Visual Effects Supervisor William Powloski helped create one of the most eye-popping worlds ever seen on TV, as part of a feature film aesthetic on a TV budget and schedule. Although it was canceled after only two seasons, it remains one of the most beautiful and innovative programs to ever air on US television. In an extended version of the original article in The Visual Effects Issue of Creative COW Magazine, here is an exclusive look at how he and his team helped pull it off.
t's a simple story, really. A boy discovers his magical ability to bring living beings back from the dead with a touch. He also discovers its dark prices: one more touch returns those people and animals to death, permanently. And for any of them that stay alive for more than one minute, someone else nearby must die.
We meet Ned again as an adult, a pie maker who uses his power to resurrect murder victims to find their killers, so that his detective friend Emerson Cod can collect the rewards. One of the people he brings back to life is his childhood love, a girl named Chuck, who will of course die if they ever touch again.
Okay, maybe not so simple.
In a TV landscape marked even in its comedies by withering post-modern irony, "Pushing Daisies" is very funny, and exceptionally sweet. One of the keys to pulling that off is setting it in a self-contained world, somewhere between a comic book and a fairy tale, a little nostalgic and bursting with color.
It is also very, very good. The Warner Bros-produced show airs on ABC, and was nominated for 12 Emmys in 2008, the most of any comedy series. It won 3 of those (Directing, Music Composition and Picture Editing), plus awards from the Directors Guild (Best Director, Barry Sonnenfeld), the Casting Society of America (Outstanding Achievement in Casting for both the pilot and the series) and the Costume Designers Guild among others.
2009 added more Emmy nominations, for Supporting Actress (Kristen Chenowith), and in design categories including Art Direction, Costuming, Hair Styling and Makeup.
A partial list of other award nominations include Golden Globe and People's Choice Awards, as well as nominations from the:
- American Society of Cinematographers
- Writers Guild
- Art Directors Guild
- Television Critics Association
- Casting Society of America
- Visual Effects Society
- Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films
(This really is only a partial list. IMDb has more details.)
Williams Powloski is the Visual Effects Supervisor for "Pushing Daisies" - and for Showtime's "Weeds" too! We're trying to avoid something along the lines of "William's work isn't your garden variety VFX."
From left to right: Chi McBride, Kristin Chenowith, Anna Friel, Lee Pace, Ellen Greene, Swoosie Kurtz
"'Pushing Daisies' is created by Bryan Fuller, and executive produced by Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen and Barry Sonnefeld.
They wanted to bring a feature film aesthetic to television, so a lot of the effects and the cinematography and the style of show is dictated by Barry's experience as a cinematographer.
[Ed. note: Creator Bryan Fuller's other series include "Hereoes," "Dead Like Me," "Wonderfalls," and "Star Trek Voyager." Executive Producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture for "Milk," and won the Academy Award for Best Picture for "American Beauty." Barry Sonnenfeld lensed films including "Raising Arizona" and "Big," and his director credits include "Men In Black" and "The Addams Family."]
The challenge of shooting on location: the "real world," below, isn't the same as the "real world" of "Pushing Daisies," above
"But we clearly don't have the time and budget that feature films do, so we structure sequences in such a way that you get the most bang for your buck out of the visual effects shots," says William.
"There, I'm talking about the featured visual effects shots. We also do hundreds of 'invisible' visual effects shots that simply add scale to our production environment, like a simple set extension. Or we're creating things that we just don't have the time or the bandwidth to do on sets."
They've also discovered the biggest challenge for shooting on location: the "real" world doesn't look nearly realistic enough to fit into the world of "Pushing Daisies."
In one episode this season, they find a body in a swamp. "Well it couldn't be just any ordinary swamp. It had to be the most beautiful swamp we can create," William laughs.
"I think Bryan and Barry rely more on the story to create this world, but once they have the story nailed, they want to put it in the most beautiful wrapping that they can."
Much of its magical look is old school: instead of CG, the beautiful backgrounds are matte paintings, often inspired by other painters. Their perfect blue skies with perfect, puffy little clouds feel like the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte. The city outside the sets looks like it might have been designed by Edward Hopper.
One of the major "Daisies" sets is for Ned's diner, The Pie Hole, which also incorporates one of the production's major artworks: a 180 foot long, 18 foot high "translight" -- a scenic background designed to be lit from behind, covering over 180 degrees of the city outside the windows of The Pie Hole.
Above, the front of the Pie Hole set. Below, the side of the same set, surrounded by the translight backdrop.
(click to enlarge)
The other side of the set.
Here are some pictures of the translight from behind, looking into the set.
Created from photographs of a series of matte paintings, the translight has camera lens distortion built in which, when combined with lighting and the detail in the images themselves is almost shockingly real. Not bad for a fantasy world. There's even a version for the city at night.
To see for yourself how realistic this painting is, take a closer look at the picture below, (also on the cover of this issue). It's a very small detail from this 180-foot long image.
Click here to see a larger version of the entire translight backdrop painting.
While it might seem an extraordinary amount of work to create and manage a physical object on such a scale, "Daisies" has found that it offers a tremendous amount of creative flexibility and time savings. In the first season, everything outside the windows was blue screen. A digital environment had to be created for every angle, every time of day. For a show building VFX until the very last minute, relying on perfect renders in the home stretch was just too risky.
Modeling variations of the same scene over and over was also draining too many cycles from a team with so little time. "It's so much easier for a matte artist to go in there, and with a few strokes of the paint brush, create something that looks a lot more complex than it really is," says William. It also takes much less time to relight the backdrop, which is so detailed that they've been able to shoot actors right up against it.
"I have endless admiration for matte artists. It's a rare skill and I'm thrilled to be able to use it. It matters that we're using matte paintings on Daisies."
Even when they use CG, they add paintings to finish the look. One of the most striking examples of how these come together is a convent used in three episodes earlier in the season. It was shot in a part of the Warner Brothers backlot called Embassy Court. The only thing real in the shot was the ground, and a small part of one building. The bell tower was added via set extension, with a painted backdrop behind.
Above, finished comp of convent. Below, on location on the Warner Bros backlot. Note that only the front left corner of the original buildings remains.
It's hard to imagine filmmakers who aren't also film fans, and the folks at "Pushing Daisies" definitely are. As soon as a convent came up, they began building playful tributes to some of the great pictures set in convents: "Black Orpheus," "Vertigo," and of course "The Sound of Music," whose iconic opening helicopter shot is recreated virtually down to the last blade of grass.
"Some of that was just for us," William confesses with a laugh. "I know that Bryan had been planning a 'Sound of Music' scene since the first season. We wanted to make it the best 'Sound Of Music' shot we could, on time and in budget."
They watched the original sequence carefully, then began pulling up frames to lay on top of their own story boards, which led to a precise matte painting. They completed the effect by adding a carefully simulated helicopter shot around Olive Snook.
As well as "Vertigo," they've also nodded to Hitchcock's "The Birds," both of which used very distinctive rear screen projection. They went for the same desaturated, artificial look seen in the original. "We're sometimes not only replicating what's in the image," says William. "The look comes from how the image was created."
VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISION
Tying it all together is an obsession with detail that applies even more to the creation of their world from scratch. The combination of modeling, painting, keying, compositing, and two-and-a-half D animation, especially multi-plane pushes, for as many as 300 shots per episode is too heavy a load for one company.
"Last season we had 16 different vendors working on the show which is a lot. I think that might be a record for television," says William. They weren't all working on a single episode. Instead, they were working on alternating episodes to keep things moving toward insane deadlines.
"Television moves so much faster than feature films -- and you're not only moving faster, but you're working on multiple episodes at once. At any given time we're working on five episodes. There's the one I'm shooting. I have at least one in post production. I have one that's getting ready to shoot, and an outline for episode that is coming up two episodes down the line."
The most important way that William manages all of this is to treat visual effects as a PRE-production process, rather than strictly post. "When I get an outline or a script, I'll go through it and highlight the areas where there's going to be a potential visual effects shot. It could be a major feature shot, but it could just be something where we're just overlooking a beautiful river going underneath a Hopperesque bridge. And I know we are not going to find the river, so the question is how we'll build it as a visual effect."
Another example came early in season 2, when they discovered that a character was going to be covered with bees. They knew it was going to be CG, and they knew it was going to be tough. In typically obsessive fashion, they began by learning everything they could about bees, how they look and how they fly.
Realizing that there was no way they'd be able to handle it all themselves, William turned to an animation company that had worked on several of the Star Trek television series. The work looked great, but "it turns out that real bees don't fly the way they should on 'Daisies,'" says William. "We had them tweak the way the bees fly, and they added a bunch of other nice touches. If you look closely, you can see bees crawling in and out of Chuck's nose."
This is the kind of VFX work that William and his team save for post: making sure the shot meets the look they had in mind from the beginning, and matches up with production lighting, production design, and the rest of the elements to fully integrate an effect into this unique world.
Among the keys to integration is not starting the effects in post. After preproduction and effects design, William finds that it's critical to be on set to make sure they get what they need, such as helping the DP to account for the set that will be extended in post: what's two stories during shooting might become six stories in post. This knowledge significantly affects lens selection and shooting angles.
"A lot of the work on the set is just making sure that if this stuff doesn't exist when we're shooting, we're at least leaving room for it in the negative, so that we can add it in later. The best time to talk to the director and DP is on the set, and see how what vision they really have for it.
"The set is a very dynamic environment, so they might be coming up with different ideas once we're all in the same place," says William, adding that for the most complex 3D effects that need to be integrated with live action, full pre-viz is essential.
"We start an episode with a story board, and we'll have a pretty good idea of what we want. But once you get on the sets, it's not just the director, DP and the crew. The actors on our show are endlessly creative. They'll come up with another idea - 'What if I do it like this...?' - that completely changes what you thought your execution was going to be.
"The preference on 'Pushing Daisies' is always that you go with the better idea. No matter what you go in with, if somebody comes up with a better idea and you can execute it, you execute it. 'Awesome, lets do that. Lets put it in.' And then it's up to the production crew and everybody else to see how to get it done."
It sounds hairy, but William thinks that in this kind of crunch time, the visual effects team has it easy. "These people who have to design and build these sets when somebody comes up with something amazing comes up at the last second - they pull it out of the hat! That's endlessly amazing to me. This didn't exist yesterday but now we're sitting in this room, and it's shaped like a beehive. I don't know how they do it."
EXPERIENCES AND EXPECTATIONS
It's difficult to build complicated effects on the fly, but the unexpected is expected. Not unexpected disasters - everybody has those. But the knowledge that things will change if a better idea shows up.
"Part of the fun is getting the picture on the negative, and figuring out whether we can pull off the effect in post," says William. The visual effects department has to make sure it looks good, but also that it doesn't impact the production time too much. There's simply no extra time to add to the schedule, and budgets are budgets, and that's all there is to that.
The key for William is a very deep understanding of what it takes to shoot something, what's needed to augment the shot, and what's possible to accomplish in post in a given timeframe.
This knowledge has come from a wide range of experiences. "My very first job was camera assist on an IMAX film. That led to doing motion control, which led to doing miniatures and animations for features and television. Then I began working with VFX in live action and commercials, and started blending it all together.
"That helped me with visual effects because I understand what it takes to get it on the negative in the first place. I can talk with the director of photography about lenses and exposure, which probably a lot of other visual effects people don't.
"I make the effort because I want my visual effects shots to blend seamlessly with whatever the DP is doing. Both in terms of exposure and lighting and everything else inside the camera, and also in terms of camera movement.
"So I frequently try to get into the head of the DP and the Director as well as the Production Designer. Because for a show like ours, it's up to the visual effects department to come up with something that FITS. We have to see through other people's eyes, how they're going to do accomplish what THEY have to do.
"Ultimately they still have approval. I still bounce all of my design shots off the production designer just to make sure it jibes with what he's doing. Or he might have knowledge about what's coming up in another episode, so that the choices we make now will have to work for specific story points we have upcoming."
Being so involved with so many aspects of the production is a big part of how William keeps learning. "Now matter how long we're at this, it's never the same shot," he says. "Talking to a matte painter, CG artist, the camera crew - 'We just finished this feature, we had this problem, this how we solved it.' There's always going to be some sort of wrinkle and it's important to keep stretching into what you don't know.
"Because this isn't like a typical show."
One of William's great rewards comes when people have no idea what he's done. "It kills me that some of the work is so good that even people in the show don't know that it's there," he laughs.
He points to a small set that's just a corner where two apartment doors meet. It's maybe 15 feet long.
But in keeping with the show's visual ambition, they wanted to make the hall look like it was in the Bradbury building, an iconic location for dozens of films, starting with "Double Indemnity" in 1944, and able to accommodate the futuristic vision of "Blade Runner."
Its "outside of time" character made the Bradbury perfect for 'Pushing Daisies,' but the budget didn't allow for even a single standard location shot. "So they paid for me to go in there on a Sunday. I think I took 2,000 photographs with my digital camera. I was there all day. We used the pictures to create a digital version of the Bradbury building so complete that we have the camera move all through it.
"Our crew saw the result and asked, 'When did you go shoot the Bradbury building? Because the footage cuts right in with our set.' I hear this from colleagues, too Â 'Hey, great shot inside the Bradbury.'
"And you really can't see the difference between the physical set and the very specific extension of one of the city's most well-known interiors. You know what, I know where to look and I don't see the seams either. I just love that!"
He says the same thing about his reel: his favorite thing about it is that people can't tell what he's done - which is exactly what gets him hired.
"There are certain things that are more obvious, but the effects I like best are the ones where if I saw them in another film, I would have no idea there was any art involved."
And actually, "art" is exactly the context that William see his work in - not so much the fine art that inspires some of his work as it is "like the old school. The visual effects department is just another department, like the art department. We're not using effects to draw a crowd. We're decorating an environment, just as if we were on a set or on location.
Matte painting of he most beautiful swamp in the world. The circus in the background is the same one pictured earlier in this article.
"But we're creating that environment from scratch. I love these sort of 'production enhancement' shots that are just beautiful, and make it feel like a much, much, much more expensive show than it really is."
You heard the man. Not a typical show.
As William was working on this article for "The Visual Effects Issue" of Creative COW Magazine, the fate of "Pushing Daisies" had not yet been decided. In fact, as they were shooting the final episode of the season, they did not know if it was to be the final episode of the series. The news came just as we went to press, that the show was being cancelled, after only 26 episodes. It remains one of our all-time favorites here at The COW.
Speaking of which, among the things we learn in the final episode is that the Pie Hole's waitress, Olive Snook (Kriten Chenowith, who received two Emmy nominations for the role) left to start a macaroni and cheese restaurant with her new love Randy Mann (David Arquette).
The name of the restaurant? The Intrepid Cow! Complete with elevator rising up through the steam from her udders. We can't take any credit, but we can't help smiling, either.
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Los Angeles, California USA
William is a regular Creative COW visitor who says, "It's not even necessarily for anything related to 'Pushing Daisies.' I get inspired by the way that people solve problems, and use that to create solutions of my own." His work on "Pushing Daisies" was nominated for "Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program" by the Visual Effects Society.
Among other current projects, William is the Visual Effects Producer and Visual Effects Supervisor for Showtime's "Weeds," as well as a number of projects both in production and pre-production. His other credits include "Breaking Bad," "Ray," "Total Recall," "The Tick," "War of the Worlds," "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," "Quantum Leap," "Batman Returns," and animation for "The Simpsons." His IMDb profile has more.