Season of TV Q&A: James Whitlam, VFX Executive Producer

Framestore works with the biggest television producers and distributors to bring the latest series’ to life. From the photoreal creatures in the landmark His Dark Materials and the magical worlds of The Witcher to the invisible VFX of The Crown, we’re celebrating our ‘Season of TV’​.

As part of that we’re conducting a series of Q&As about the work, the television department and the shows featured in the season. First up is James Whitlam, VFX Executive Producer on the BBC / HBO series His Dark Materials.

Follow along on social media using #SeasonOfTV.

What’s your name and position?

James Whitlam, VFX Executive Producer

What does your usual day to day look like at Framestore?

For the last eighteen months I’ve been based at Wolf Studios in Wales, where we’ve been shooting and posting His Dark Materials (HDM) seasons one and two for the BBC and HBO. We’re part of a crew of hundreds who are charged with planning and capturing enough material in 20 weeks to create eight hours of high quality television.

A usual day here in Wales involves a combination of script, schedule and production meetings, edit reviews, VFX turnover reviews with the showrunner, VFX reviews with Framestore and VFX signoff reviews with the exec producers.I’ll also have regular catch up calls with the BBC, HBO and Framestore management, schedule reviews with the Framestore producers, and a whole lot of budgeting and reporting to do.

Your usual work is on Framestore’s film projects but you’ve recently been working on the episodic His Dark Materials. How important are cinema-quality VFX to recent television projects?

Cinema-quality VFX can be make or break for a TV show that hangs it hat on being fantasy or sci-fi. You only need to go to twitter during the transmission of a first episode in a new series to see whether an audience will collectively support or torpedo a show based on the calibre of the visuals. The human eye is very discerning and if a show’s VFX are not well integrated it’s as easy to spot as someone leaving a starbucks cup in shot. That instant breaking of suspension of disbelief pulls the viewer out of the story and in a world where viewing choice is instant and almost limitless, spells near certain doom for the longevity of a television franchise.

What’s the main difference in feature vs episodic production?

Budgets on feature films tend to allow for an exploratory phase on shots which gives us the ability to be a little more flexible with the client, in terms of turnover, changes to the edit and changes in direction. It also gives us the ability to internally iterate shots to create the best possible results.

In television, we only really have the resources to do it once, and do it right. This means we need to be in delivery mode from the very outset. It’s kind of like the difference between taking a few warm up laps before a race, and having to go from 0–60 in under three seconds. It takes a focussed, disciplined team internally and client side to get this right. Turnover must be on time, briefs must be clear and concise, and moving shots through the pipeline without too many iterations has to be front of mind for everyone.

Why have cinematic VFX made their way into TV projects more and more? Is it audience expectation or producers needing to compete with more content distributors than ever?

Martin Scorsese wrote an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times recently, clarifying his comments about why superhero films aren’t cinema. He draws a distinction between worldwide audiovisual entertainment and cinema from filmmakers including the likes of Katherine Bigelow, Spike Lee or Wes Anderson. Whether you agree with him or not, he has a good point — it is hard for auteurs to compete for funding and screen time in a world where audiences have been conditioned to expect a certain kind of entertainment. When your primary choice at the cinema is big budget visual effects intensive franchise films, audiences are naturally going to gravitate towards similar programming at home. When people talk about the convergence of film and television, I think this is primarily what they mean.

Will at-home entertainment continue to evolve, bringing more cinema-quality products to audiences at home?

Short answer — yes. All the writing on the wall seems to point to the natural evolution of entertainment being a squeezing out of the middle ground. Tent pole feature films will still be produced by the studios and people will continue to flock to the big screen for them, and art house and documentary films will always find an audience at festivals and in theatrical short runs. But a lot of the material in the middle will be produced in the way that The Irishman was; by streaming services for digital delivery but with a short theatrical run to satisfy the broadest audience demand possible. If that is the case, then the requirement for cinema quality VFX at-home is a given.

How important is it for VFX vendors like Framestore to be involved in the production process before it comes to post-production? What perspective do VFX personnel provide on set for example?

On a character based show like HDM it’s extremely important. Russell Dodgson, our overall visual effects supervisor, has played a significant role in the shaping of the not just the visual effects, but the overall story. His deep understanding of the nature of the Dæmons and the characters of Iorek and Iofur affected the script, the actor’s performance, and the edit. This production is no different to any other, in that everyone wants as much as they can possibly get on screen for the budget that’s available. Russell and I have to find creative ways to make that practically possible from script stage all the way through to edit lock and beyond, and get everyone to buy into our suggestions. Having a blended Framestore / HDM on-set team and production office team has allowed us to become a trusted part of the fabric of the show, and having Rob Duncan (VFX supervisor) on set means we know we are getting the best possible plates and reference passes for our team to work with. All of this combined means we are steering the VFX ship, and can confidently brief Framestore artists on performance and visual direction and not waste valuable time going down creative dead ends.

Do you think episodic content producers start thinking differently about what they put in their shows if they know VFX can operate as creative partners instead of just someone to ‘fix it in post’?

I’ve been so fortunate with my projects at Framestore, having been a part of three creative partnerships in row. Working with Andy Kind, Glenn Pratt and Pablo Grillo as the production side supervisor on Paddington 2, and then Chris Lawrence and Michael Eames as the production supervisors on Christopher Robin has showed me just how much influence we can have as a company if we are in the room with the Directors, Editors and Producers.

It’s no accident that Paddington 2 is the highest rated film ever on Rotten Tomatoes and Christopher Robin was nominated for an Oscar. When Framestore supervisors and producers get involved on the production level, we can really make a difference.

Framestore’s Season Of TV is a celebration of the work that our teams have delivered to broadcast and streaming series which are coming audiences all over the world. Take a look at the extensive Season Of TV here, follow along on social using #SeasonOfTV and catch don’t forget to tune in to watch His Dark Materials on the BBC and on HBO.

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