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The high price of TV's virtual reality

Several new series, from ”Terra Nova” to ”American Horror Story,” are breaking the bank on visual effects

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Lots of series have gone F/X-happy this season, thanks to a surge in high-concept shows that demand lavish locales and creatures. Fox’s dinosaur series Terra Nova is the most obvious creator of computer magic, but dramas like ABC’s Once Upon a Time and Pan Am are also relying heavily on effects in ways that viewers may not notice. ”It’s an indication of how far technology has come,” says Andrew Orloff, the visual-effects supervisor for Zoic Studios, which does effects for the ABC dramas as well as Fox’s Fringe and TNT’s Falling Skies. To wit: It’s not cost-effective to build a replica of a Pan Am terminal from the ’60s, so ABC had Zoic create a computer-generated set instead. The same goes for Once Upon a Time, which is using virtual sets for fairy-tale locations like the Evil Queen’s castle, and also uses F/X wizardry for action sequences. Ryan Murphy paid top dollar to turn back the clock on Jessica Lange for a sequence on FX’s American Horror Story — and don’t forget the old standby, greenscreen, which made a cheesy appearance in the pilot of The CW’s Ringer and also fills in the beachy backdrop of Emily VanCamp‘s Hamptons house on ABC’s Revenge. The cost of these effects adds up quickly; there’s a hefty fee to build the initial image (e.g., a carnotaurus), and studios must pay for every additional shot using any version of that image. Here’s a price breakdown of some of the season’s fanciest special effects.

Terra Nova: $40,000

Ignore the flesh-eating carnotaurus in the pilot. It was perfected by episode 3, when it gobbled up an unsuspecting man who ventured into the jungle.

Pan Am: $50,000

Cost to build the terminal ”set”

Once Upon a Time: $12,000

Price tag on the Evil Queen’s ”death” by sword

American Horror Story: $150,000

Cost of the sequence that made Jessica Lange 28 years younger

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