|Beware SPOILERS for the series finale of
Stargate Atlantis in this interview!Mark Savela
has been a part of Stargate's visual effects process since "Children of the Gods."
Well over a decade later, his role in the franchise is more important than ever.
As Visual Effects Producer, Savela is responsible for making sure all of the digial elements created for Stargate flow seemlessly with the live-action, and that the effects we see are as real as possible -- all while remaining under budget.
In GateWorld's interview, we discuss the ever-evolving world of computer-generated imagery, Mark's favorite visual effects sequences (and some of his not-so-favorites), and the challenges where Stargate Universe
will allow his team to raise the bar!
GW: Now, I am trying to get the sequence of the line of successors straight in my head. Did you come in after James Tichenor?
MS: Yes. I came on in Season Two of Atlantis and worked on Season Nine of SG1. I did about four episodes in Season Nine. But, I go way back to even working on "Children of the Gods" back in the day. I worked at a company in Toronto on "Children of the Gods." It was GBFX, which was John Gajdecki's company at the time.
We were pulled in kind of late in "Children of the Gods," and we ended up doing a lot of the puddle shots at that point in time. Which was really cool, because the show was amazing. It was big and it felt big. And everybody knew what was going to happen with the series. So I always kind of felt that. And you know it is so cool -- well it would have been four years after, so nine years after -- to come back to it.
GW: As the supervisor, yeah.
MS: Yeah, exactly.
GW: So what is your relationship with Michelle Comens?
MS: Well Michelle and I met during that first season because we worked on it. She was actually Ted Ray's coordinator for a while and then went to work with John and Bruce Turner. So we've known each other for 13, 14 years now.
“Be All My Sins Remember'd” arguably contains the most spectacular battle sequence of Atlantis.
When I was working on SG1 and Atlantis, we supervised our own episodes. So we didn't really report to each other. Even though, we kept up with what each other was doing. Which for me, the first season was a challenge because the stuff I was doing was both series. I had to keep up with James and Michelle or do my own episodes, as stand alones.
GW: What got you started in this field?
MS: That's a tough question. You know, like most people it was a kind of roundabout way. It is a huge long story and it takes about 3 days to tell.
GW: What about the reader's digest version?
MS: The reader's digest version was, I started off doing documentaries. Then worked at a post house for a couple of reasons. And, one of our clients was GBFX in Toronto. And I wanted to branch out and I liked the stuff that they did. And at that point in time it was fairly new. It is always a growing industry. But, it was pretty new in Canada.
I found a way in there and kind of worked my way up from there. [I was] working on stuff like Poltergeist and SG1 and some of the movies that John did. And came up from there. Reader's digest version. Left out the car accident and all the other stuff.
GW: Oh man. All right.
MS: Then about seven years ago I came out to Vancouver to do one movie and I haven't left since. So it has worked out well.
GW: What is it about the visual effects process that you enjoy? Do you find it a headache; do you find it a rewarding, immersive process?
MS: The actual process itself is amazing. Because, I like to sit with the directors and the creators and really try and blend as much into the live action and make it as seamless as possible. That's our goal. And we are going to be doing that much more with Universe. It is really something that you try and do.
In the early days it was very much, here is a lock-off shot, and it always telegraphed that a visual effects shot is coming because the camera is moving around then you get this dead lock shot. You know that something is going to happen. Right?
GW: Yeah. It gives it away.
MS: It is really quite a challenge to blend that into the live action and create a style. People just think you fly around a couple of spaceships. But, even with Atlantis from Season One up until Season Five. We really have kind of subtly tried to create a certain style throughout the years. We have changed it a bit year by year I think.
In the final years, I believe we were a lot more into the dogfights and more into those than we've had before. I really like that kind of stuff. I thought it was fun. The challenges of the job, I believe, is that anytime you finish your show and deliver it, it becomes dated.
GW: Oh really?
MS: I think it is because I always hate everything right after it is finished.
GW: Why do you say that?
MS: You look at stuff a year later; it is kind of a mindset thing. And I think anybody in the whole process of making a TV show or anything else kind of feels that way, from directors or anything else. Or maybe it's just me.
Sheppard and Zelenka's space walk from “Adrift” remains a favorite of Savela.
GW: Because of the visual effects technology always improving?
MS: It is improving, plus you look at shows, go back, and look at something and you are always with a different mindset. You say, “Would I have made this decision at this point in time?” Probably not. I would have done something different here.
GW: Can you give me an example of that in Atlantis ?
MS: Oh my, there were tons. [Laughter] Yeah, there's a few things I look back at, because I remember, you know, without saying that things were really crappy. But I remember, I think, "First Strike,” I thought, as being super cool. Then I went back and looked at it and I think even when we started, I thought “Jeez.” Could have changed so much of that to make it better.
GW: Just like the shot, the angle, the final rendering, the quality of the laser, things like that?
MS: Yeah, I think pretty much everything. You look at shot selection, at the time it feels dynamic and fresh and then you look at it later and it kind of gets stale a little bit. I think it is always a challenge to not make it stale.
GW: Continually reinvent yourself?
MS: Yeah, because I think one shot that I like is the space walk from "Adrift." And I think that I will always like that shot because, you know, [it's] this big, massive shot. We worked really hard on that. You know you try and improve on a shot like that, and maybe that's just me, but those are very few.
GW: Well, Atlantis sure kicked out some good ones. You know, one of my favorite shots which is very similar to that one in the "Prodigal." And, you've got Michael and Sheppard fighting on the tower. Great combination of live action, right down to the moons in the sky.
MS: Yeah, that whole sequence was really well worked-out. I actually liked the city glow. It really looked nice. And I've seen green screen shots on other shows with actual filmed backgrounds looking down that don't look as good as that. I don't want to criticize other shows of course.
GW: No, no. Atlantis is your baby. That's OK. One of my favorite shows in terms of visual effects, just outstanding, was "Be All My Sins Remember'd." There are some complicated shots in that. How long does it take to render out a battle sequence like that? From the conceptual stages in the script, I'm sure you have some sort of pre-render for every single frame then to the final output.
MS: Yeah, that was a fun show as well. You look back at that, that's another example of where "I like it but it could have been better."
" There is a big saying in visual effects: ‘No visual effects shot is ever completed.' So, it's at what stage it's abandoned at."
GW: Well, I think it is safe to say that everything could always have been better but you are under a tight schedule.
MS: There is a big saying in visual effects: "No visual effects shot is ever completed." So, it's at what stage it's abandoned at. And, that show, was so much fun to choreograph that sequence. Because, we actually did it with little toys on a boardroom table. We had the ships, and like had little chess pieces moving around. We had one fantastic lead who worked on it and he was brilliant.
I thought the shots were really dynamic. They were exciting. That's just one thing, like, as a fan, you sit there you do that show and there is so much crammed into it with stuff. With the Fran thing and everything else.
I wanted to do more space. There was a lot more there that we could have elaborated on a lot more. I think it would have been cool to be a longer sequence. It was really fun. But, I think it took about, probably on that show it was probably about 3 months, I think, from when we got the script to the final.
MS: By that point in the two parter we were working on probably about eight other shows at the same time. It gets a little confusing at times in people's heads. You'd expect it. Especially that season.