Hot House: FuseFX Adds Feature-Style Gloss to Episodic TV
This boutique shop puts a feature-style pipeline to the test for United States of Tara, Glee and Mercy
What’s Their Gig?
Today, the newly rebranded FuseFX has six full-time employees (plus two full-time resident dogs), a contract staff that could ramp up to 12 by this summer, and a roster of effects work for top shows like Big Love, Glee and United States of Tara. “We’ve done really well in terms of landing new shows as we’ve grown,” says Altenau. His first move after the strike ended, he says, was to bring in two more key staff, Tim Jacobsen and Jason Fotter, both of whom had been clients, and make them partners in his company. Jacobsen, who oversees project management, is the former director of visual effects at Encore Hollywood (part of the Ascent Media Creative Services Group), where he worked with Fotter, now FuseFX’s lead creative, tech and compositor.
That move, says Altenau, “basically reinvented the place. That’s when we opened offices. We were still operating as The Outfit, but we knew it was time to rebrand to something more contemporary.” FuseFX was born late last year when Altenau sent official notices to all of The Outfit’s clients. “As VFX work becomes more project-oriented,” says Altenau, “there’s a lot of terrific talent out there, especially if you need to do a quick expansion. But my goal was always to make sure we had the key players in place in four key positions—VFX supervisor, producer, compositing and tech lead, and CG supervision. We have those now.” Matt Von Brock, the newest staffer, is FuseFX’s CG supervisor. “I guess over the last 12 years, whether consciously or not, I was always looking for those key people,” says Altenau. “So when the time came, I knew that if I got the right people in those key positions, the chemistry would just work. I feel like we’ve got the dream team for a small boutique.”
Ã¢Â€Â¨The Cool Factor
Since the end of the strike, FuseFX has been on a roll. “Over the last two years we’ve worked on close to a dozen episodic shows,” says Altenau. Effects-heavy, stylized TV may be driving a new boom in visual effects work, but Altenau says he and his team have made a conscious effort to “gradually add shows to the slate, to try to grow the shop organically, with the idea that we’d like to also do some small feature work and some commercials, as is typical with shops of our size. It’s just a really nice, manageable way to do it.”
To date, FuseFX’s credits represent some of the most critically-acclaimed content on the small screen, including United States of Tara, Glee, Mercy, The Good Wife, Lie to Me, Big Love, Hung, Monk, Nip/Tuck, The Unit and Hawthorne. A few smaller features are now in the pipeline as well, including the next installment in the Scooby-Doo franchise. “We’re animating one of the characters,” says Altenau. “That’s a perfect hybrid show for us,” he says, “because it’s run by the Warner Bros. feature visual effects department but they now are working on it in made-for-TV mode. We’ll use this project, which has a full 20-week post schedule, to establish a character-animation pipeline and hopefully we can add more character-animation work in house down the road.”
The Geek Factor
FuseFX became a Nuke-based studio early last year. “When we started our growth mode, we were using Shake and After Effects, which is pretty typical for small shops,” says Altenau. “But we knew early on that we wanted to develop a feature-like pipeline, not only for the talent we had in house, but also for how we were managing shots as we were going through the system.” After evaluating both Nuke and Fusion, Altenau says it was a pretty easy decision. “Nuke is becoming the de facto standard for larger shops and it’s slowly migrating down to smaller shops. Drawing on my previous feature experience, I just had a sense for how I wanted the workflow to go and also the atmosphere I wanted to create here.” The shop currently has licenses for each of the the six primary finishing systems in house.
Adds lead compositor and FuseFX partner Jason Fotter, “We use Nuke about 95% of the time,” often in combination The Foundry’s Furnace plug-ins. “We’ll go into After Effects if we need to use Trapcode Particular, for example. But Nuke’s pretty powerful on its own, so there isn’t that big a need for too much else. We use it for the most basic shots on up to the more complex.” For the heavily green-screened United States of Tara, for example, the lead character is shown in multiple scenes talking to her multiple selves. “Nuke’s keying tools helped us get really, really clean shots,” says Fotter. “People know it’s not real, but we’ve got to make it look as real as possible, so the effect isn’t obvious.” The Fox series Lie to Me, now in its second season, has been supplying FuseFX with a number of equally challenging but rewarding requests. “They have a number of great effects transitions on the show,” says Altenau. “There’s a nice technology feel to it, so the cutting and style of the visuals lend themselves to some pretty fun work for us. We just finished one transition that involved multiple layers, day-for-night and time-lapse clouds. There are so many creative opportunities for us on that show to make some very cool images.”
The team has also used Nuke’s 3D tracking and projection mapping on a number of set extensions—one of the most requested types of effects shots in episodic television. “It works really well with RED RAW (.R3D) data,” says Fotter. “We love RED for shooting effects shots because we can bring the high-res data directly into Nuke without going to tape.” Altenau says that the shop has shot and compiled an entire library of backgrounds for these set extensions, which they use regularly on shows like Mercy, The Good Wife, Lie to Me and on an upcoming pilot for a Criminal Minds spin-off. Managing all that data might be daunting for some smaller shops, but Altenau says that because of the pipeline they’ve created, “We have a very robust database system, which we’ve custom-designed, that feels more like systems I’ve used on feature work in the past. It’s terrific for shot management. With a pipeline like this, managed by such a great team, we’ve been able to add new work fairly easily and painlessly.”
Who They Are
David Altenau, founder, partner and VFX supervisor
Tim Jacobsen, partner, executive producer
Jason Fotter, partner, creative, tech and compositing lead
Matt Von Brock, principal, CG supervisor
FuseFX principals (l to r) Dave Altenau, Matt Von Brock, Jason Fotter and Tim Jacobsen
1612 West Olive Ave., Suite 302
Burbank, CA 91506