The Magic Of Post At CBS Digital: An Interview With Craig Weiss and George Bloom
By: Marjorie Galas
Craig Weiss, executive Creative Director of CBS Digital, marvels at the company’s origins roughly twenty-three years ago. At that time, the marriage of television and visual effects was still in its honeymoon phase.
“We literally started with a Macintosh computer on a picnic table,” recalled Weiss. “It’s been wonderful to see (the merger of TV and VFX) blossom over the last few years. It used to be that VFX was reserved for the T-Rex and the alien, but now it is used in every aspect of the story.”
Since emerging on the television landscape in 1992, CBS Digital has blossomed. It offers a diverse range of services geared at post-production creative services and technology developments. Some of CBS Digital’s specialties include VFX, color correction and final color, re-mastering and virtual reality. Situated in the main building on the CBS studio lot, CBS Digital is comprised of a wealth of producers, technicians and artists. While CBS Digital handles CBS network programing, roughly 90% of their services are devoted to a client roster that includes ABC, Disney, Fox, Amazon and Netflix. A sampling of their projects include VFX for “The Last Man on Earth”, “This is Us” and “Transparent”, color correction for the “Carpool Karaoke” segments on “The Late, Late Show with James Corden”, re-mastering for “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and virtual reality for “Stranger Things.”
Recently, I toured the CBS Digital facility. In addition to witnessing the layers of VFX applied to reconstruct the façade of a house in “American Housewives” and the “destruction” of a city via the use of green screen from “The Last Man on Earth”, I witnessed the detailed, frame by frame color correction of a “Carpool Karaoke” segment. Captured on a series of Go Pro cameras, the variety of angles differed wildly by influences such as: building shadows, clouds obscuring the sun and light glares from other vehicles. Senior colorist Marvin Hildebrandt painstakingly matches light balance and hue throughout the segments to create a cohesive final product. My tour was completed with two different (and ultra-top secret) VR experiences. One literally pushed me to the brink of reality; while fully aware of my surroundings, my mind was duped into responded to the stimulus it witnessed. I’m still mesmerized by it.
Limited to details I can fully describe, I will share highlights of my conversation with Weiss and CBS Digital Executive Producer George Bloom, who happily spoke about the work their company oversees.
Marj Galas: We started talking about blending the lines of VFX and TV, that VFX is used in general storying on TV. Can you speak about that?
Craig Weiss: Absolutely. Going back, even ten years ago, there were feature films and TV shows. VFX now has the quality to be the same in both mediums. In fact, we are working on stuff for TV that is a 4k resolution, which actually exceeds the resolution that they are using on some of these films. Many are still working in 2k. In a lot of ways our challenges are to work at that level in the TV medium. We have to approach everything with the same level of quality that feature guys do, and make sure everything looks right.
MG: I noticed, in looking at the photos in your promotional material, that some effects are done without a green screen. Is this commonly done in TV?
CW: Yes, that is a really good question. There are always the planned visual effects, and then there are the situations where they decide in editorial they want to change some story points. For example they want to see a hospital behind their lead, but they didn’t have a blue screen. We are able, with today’s tools, to go in there and make that happen. We have to be really fluid, and I think today it’s about reacting to what’s needed in the editing room.
MG: I noticed that CBS Digital does previs. Do you try, when you have a new client that knows they are going to need some specific services, to encourage starting at that step?
CW: Absolutely. I think it is one of the most important, and overlooked, steps in what we do. Feature films have benefited from previs for many years because they have the budgets. (Additionally) TV shows have a guest director each week. They come in, get a week of prep and then they shoot two days. They aren’t necessarily versed in VFX unless they’ve been associated with it. So it is really our job to educate them and make sure that everything is technically to code. So we absolutely encourage it, because a lot of times it is very helpful for them to say “Oh, I get it now, we’ll need a blue screen there” or “I can move my camera this way “ and it is a great education process. Everybody wins, time is spent making it look great instead of spending it fixing problems that could have been avoided on set.
George Bloom: One thing I want to add to that is no two shows are alike. Everyone has a different solution, a different execution, a different problem. Craig is always trying to work with the engineers and trying to come up with solutions that allow the filmmakers to have more time. For example, when Craig worked on creating the parallax platform, (it placed) the world to the stage. For example, (we used it for the) first season of “The Last Man on Earth”. They couldn’t afford to go to a cul de sac every week because it was costing a hundred and sixty thousand dollars a day. So we built a virtual 3D model of a cul de sac, and they could shoot on a stage day or night. We are always asking ourselves what we can do to make that process more efficient for the film maker.
CW: The parallax system allows the director to see the effect in real time. The traditional way, which we still do today, is you go out, you shoot a place, and you marry the plate with the foreground and the blue screen. The problem there is you are limited to the camera moving. You can pan and tilt, but if you start to dolly, it doesn’t parallex like it would in the real world. So, with this technique, it’s almost like being there. They then can frame the shot, understand the geography, versus just staring at a giant blue screen.
GB: From there, our artists work to add the textures. They aren’t just mechanics putting down shots. They have to really understand what’s being told in the story, what we can do, how can we help the filmmakers bridge what they are trying to say and what is the theme of this story.
MG: With that in mind: do you have circumstances where, looking over a project thinking about it in a financial realm and contemplating what they are asking for, you suggest they’d be better off doing a practical application and focus their money on another aspect or effect?
CW: Yes! The way I like to approach it is by finding what the best solution is. Some people might think “Oh we’ll just do it digitally”. But I always say, ”Let’s do what we can practically and what we can’t we try to solve with what we do.” Like George said, we are so involved in the process of helping them. Where VFX, I go back again, it used to be the T-Rex and the alien in a mini-series. And now VFX is an everyday solution to help them. We have become part of that process. We are in there in pre-production and early concept script meetings, and we become part of the team that maybe helps to guide the way they should go to get through what they need to for that job.