PURE GOLDER A Nagging Sense Of Digi Vu

SFX.co.uk editor Dave Golder wonders if all US sci-fantasy TV shows are buying their CG FX off the peg

Watching Once Upon A Time I couldn’t but help have a feeling of deja vu. And I’m not just talking about the plots. Yeah, sure, it’s all been done before in The Tenth Kingdom , The Company Of Wolves , The Wizard Of Oz, Shrek and a zillion other shows and films that put a new spin on fairy tales, but it’s winning me over with its spirited performances and the wonderfully sparky antagonism between Emma Swan and The Evil Bitch Queen Town Mayor. I keep expecting a full-on, Dynasty -style cat-fight any minute. (And I loved the way the landlady at the guest house wore a floral dress which matched her wallpaper – she’s a stealth granny you’ll never see coming for you… as long as she stays indoors.)

No, the real problem are the special effects. Long gone is the era when Doctor Who ’s washing-up bottle space ships and bubble-wrap monsters were upstaged every week by Battlestar Galactica ’s slick motion-controlled models. These days, the FX in UK shows like Who and Merlin are often streets ahead of their US rivals. Oh sure, Fringe and Terra Nova will spend millions on their pilots, but after that, as the shows fall into a weekly production schedule, there is a real drop in quality. And Syfy shows like Sanctuary and Warehouse 13 (which I love, but let’s be honest here) have a reliance on virtual sets that look barely better than Knightmare and bendy CG creatures that can be downright embarrassing at times.

Specifically, though, the weekly production grind on US shows seems to have generated a growth industry in off-the-peg FX, and it’s something that’s becoming increasingly more obvious. And it stood out like a sore thumb in the second episode of Once Upon A Time .

Knightmare Sets

Aside from some iffy virtual sets (a step up from Sanctuary ’s, sure, but still with that overly-smooth computer game feel whenever the camera is required to move) it's astonishing how familiar some of the FX look. When the trees in the forest magically grow to threaten The Evil Queen’s cronies, the living branches snake about in a way that almost seems a cliché now (and reminds you that Haven did something that looked almost identical a few weeks back). And the black pillar of smoke that erupts later appears to be a distant relative of the smoke monster from Lost . Why? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that there’s “rapid plant growing” and “evil black smoke” software that the FX team can buy and adapt for their own purposes.

It’s nothing new. A couple of years back you couldn’t switch on a telefantasy show without the air rippling with CG concentric circles whenever anyone touched a force field. And massive, fiery explosions ripping through the sky have been looking identikit for a while now.

You can’t help thinking that these off-the-peg FX are actually beginning to inform the script. I do wonder if the original script for Once Upon A Time episode actually specified “a huge column of black smoke”? Or did it actually say something like, “A hurricane spitting lightning bolts” until an FX bod said, “We can do it a lot cheaper using BlackSmokeGenerator 2.0”? Or do the producers go through a shopping list of what’s available and encourage the writers to stick to things on the list?

It’s a Stock Problem

It’s no great problem. Most viewers aren’t going to notice. And TV writers are past masters are writing within limitations. And it’s no worse than stock footage or reusing another show’s sets, in some ways.

On the other hand, I rarely get this feeling of deja vu when watching British sci-fi. Hell, even on the relatively low-budget The Fades , the visual style of Paul’s energy bolts and wings felt unique to that show, and Doctor Who and Merlin – while occasionally suffering from a few FX that don’t quite come off – seem to go out of their way to add new twists to existing effects. For example, I’m constantly amazed at how many different “beaming up” effects we get on Who .

I’m sure the UK FX teams are using just as much off-the-peg software as their American counterparts – economics of TV production anywhere on the planet makes bespoke CG an unaffordable luxury. Maybe somehow, they just seem to be able to customise with a bit more ingenuity. Maybe all those years of having to battle with bargain basement budgets have bred a little more creativity this side of the Atlantic.

Check out previous Pure Golder ramblings

Dave Golder
Freelance Writer

Dave is a TV and film journalist who specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He's written books about film posters and post-apocalypses, alongside writing for SFX Magazine for many years.