Beware of 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 digital elements created for Stargate flow seamlessly 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.
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.
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.”
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.
GW: Another one of my favorite sequences from the show is that very last one, we talked about that in the podcast, where you commented on the complexities of that shot, the San Francisco Bay scene.
MS: Oh Yeah, I liked that shot quite a bit. That was a really fun shot to see come together. Because, we actually thought at first we could pull it off by getting stock footage or something.
GW: Yeah, you had to do a little bit of research.
MS: Yeah, and we couldn’t actually find anybody who has filmed out on that side, looking back [into the bay]. And, you never really get something that would be from the ocean like that. So, we really wanted to stay true to what would be real and created the full-on map painting.
It was interesting because we actually went to Google Earth; you know how you can plop your camera down right at ocean level and see what you can see there. We went from there and placed our camera, and said, “OK we want to be here, what do we see now,” and then created the matte painting from that.
GW: So that is a digital bridge, digital cars, and the whole shebang.
MS: And you saw the cars, so that’s very nice. We actually had, at one point, we tried to put in a lot. You always see in San Francisco in the bay — a lot of the sailboats and everything else. And it was really super cool. But we went back and thought, I think it is Woolsey who says that they cleared the bay. We had to take out our really cool sailboats.
It was a shame. We wanted to have a seagull that came in and smashed into the shield at one point in time. But we thought that might be a little bit too much.
GW: Yeah, you’d have bird advocates at you for that one. “Oh, jeez, what are you trying to do? What are you trying to promote?”
MS: It would have been funny, though.
GW: Exactly. I always wondered why the decision was made to have the city land near San Francisco. I mean, parts of the Golden Gate Bridge were built at Bridge Studios. Aside from the fact that it’s a really cool sequence, a really cool shot; do you know why they selected that?
MS: I think, Paul [Mullie] has a good story about that but I know it went around the writers’ room for a long time. I believe they wanted it in New York at one point in time but it never fit anywhere. So it had to be off of the ocean.
GW: So you really thought about where [Atlantis] would fit?
MS: Yeah, it had to land in the ocean, it had to be looking towards land and see a recognizable structure. I think that is how they came upon the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a really fun show to do that. I liked the dogfight sequence in that show. I think that was really fun to create.
It was especially challenging because we had three or four different vendors working on that sequence. So we had to keep the continuity of the F-302s, of how the desert looks underneath, how Area 51 looked because we created it in Vegas in the map painting and so to keep all that together. To keep kind of the style the same it worked out really well. Where it could just be all over the map, it could be really schizophrenic kind of sequence, where you would know it would feel kind of disjointed. I think it ended up feeling rather smooth. I liked that. I thought it was great.
GW: What is the benefit of having, say, four vendors work on an episode? Is it just the manpower? It is not possible for one place to get all this stuff done in the time that you need it or is it for specialties?
MS: You go with both, really. Like, when you read a script, because the Vancouver community is really quite tight-nit, you know where all the artists are, you know who does stuff really well. You kind of choose it based on that. And, then there is also the time factor. You know, when people talk about visual effects in terms of actors, everybody usually talks about money, but I usually speak more about volume. Because, I think that we do more volume than any other show out there.
I don’t know if there is a recorded count, but I had a friend of mine who worked on another series and they were doing their midseason two-parter and they were going “Yeah, we got to deliver 54 shots” or something. And I go, “That would be a bottle show for us, that’d be nothing.” That’s one of our smaller ones. I think we average over 80 probably, 85 shots throughout a 20-episode season.
GW: That includes green screen, background stuff, everything.
MS: Yeah, rig removal, camera shake, everything else. It kind of speaks to when we have episodes that kind of don’t work out the way we want them to. There was of the kind of “like or hate” episodes last year where we had planned to do 15 shots. Budgeted and planned for 15 shots and we ended up doing over 80.
GW: Which episode was that?
MS: It was “Brain Storm.”
GW: Oh really? Wow.
MS: And that is like an 800 percent, 700 percent increase. Yeah, you think about the kind of work that you’re projecting to do in a day at your normal job and you end up having to do eight times that in the same amount of time. It makes it tough.
I think in Season Five especially. I think in Season Four we really hit a stride, and I think that we were really gelling and really going well. And Season Five became a little bit inconsistent for me. I think that we were trying to do so much volume. We were trying to do everything that we possibly could.
GW: It is interesting. You know, you’ve got episodes that are designed to be bottle shows, they are designed to cut back, like EPISODE was for Season Four, and it just turns out that not everything worked out as it was planned to. You have to, hopefully, have some flexibility to work around that.
MS: Totally. I remember reading on, I think it was some of the threads on GateWorld, when “Trio” and “Midway” aired and everybody was saying “Well they must have saved a lot of money because they are so alike, those shows, in terms of visual effects.” [Laughter]
Those are two of our most expensive shows of the year in terms of volume, because “Trio” was massive. It turned out to be a massive show. And “Midway” was, you know, we had so much virtual set stuff in there that it ended up being quite large as well. But it was a nice complement that people said that.
GW: It’s not just the bangs and the flashes. A lot of your work is meant to be disguised. Like you said, rig removal, if you do it right no one will ever know that you even took a finger to it.
MS: No, absolutely. And that’s kind of your goal. You really want people to believe that sometimes there are real spaceships up there. But you know deep down that everybody knows there is not a camera up there. But, [there is] a lot of stuff that you want to do, “invisible effects” as you call them, right. So, if you do a 65 shot show, and people think that there are five or 10 shots in it then you have done a pretty good job.
GW: Because you have disguised a lot of it. Right. Probably my biggest beef, and I know that you have listened to this particular podcast, about the show is the inconsistency of Atlantis from the first season and then the third season and then the fifth season. Is it because different vendors have different copies and different versions of the city?
MS: Yes it is. And different versions were built from the original, and they aren’t exactly the same, and they don’t look and feel exactly the same.
GW: Why was that? Was it just the software? You couldn’t transfer one hero model from one studio to the next? Or a liscencing thing?
MS: They were built to be distributed. In digital effects, it has always been a real kind of touchy subject throughout my whole career, which is 15, 16 years now, is “Who owns the models? Is it the vendors, or the show, or the production?” And people always agree that it should be the show, but then trying to get models out of vendors is not always the easiest thing to do. So we, myself and James, ended up building a lot of models in the in-house department here just so that we could specifically send them out to vendors.
A lot happened between Seasons One and Two [of Atlantis]. And we all, James and I, started in Season Two and so we really inherited a lot of stuff.
GW: Well I know Rainmaker built the original model. And it had, like I said, with the naked eye, it had all the piers disconnected then by Season Three. When we saw those big shots in, say, “Prodigy,” the city was visibly different in terms of design. Even more people noticed it in “Allies” when there were some close-up shots with the Wraith shuttle landing on the pier.
Do you strive for that consistency? I worked at Stargate Worlds and every artist wanted to put their own touch on it. To say, “Yes, this is my work. I am not just replicating what somebody else did.”
MS: No, we really do strive for that consistency. It is one thing that you go for. Unfortunately, for something that massive like the city, it really can’t be replicated. It should be the original and it should be consistent throughout. And that is why for Universe a lot of things are being done differently, where the bigger assets are being created by us and being distributed to everyone so everyone has the same model.
GW: The same copy.
MS: Yeah, exactly. Things change bit by bit as shots designate. If you have to go closer into one section you have to beef up that section, understandably.
GW: Of course.
MS: But even the style this year we have [is] planned. It’s going to happen. All the lead animators from each vendor are going to get together with myself and pick out examples from each person’s work and we are going to create a style that I want everyone to be on the same page with. And I want it to remain consistent.
Because, a lot of times for me, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you look at “Enemy at the Gate” for example, because that is the most fresh in my head, is the dogfight, in the middle the F-302 dog fight. And then the superhive-Atlantis exchange were done by two different vendors, two different people. And, I don’t think the style really was the same. Even though it worked out, because you have two massive ships and you have a dogfight.
It really feels different to me sometimes. And I want everybody on the same page all the time for [Universe]. And it is super important to me. Universe is going to have a very distinct style in-camera and I want the effects to match as well. As close as they can, and be as consistent as they can.
GW: Brad [Wright] said that if the right sources weren’t willing to pony up with the money to do Universe, he wasn’t willing to do it. He didn’t want to do something that he couldn’t have be exactly what he had in his head, the idea for the show. Is Universe going to be more visual effects-intensive than the previous two incarnations of Stargate?
MS: It is hard to say right now, at this point. I’ve only read, I guess the pilot, the first three. I haven’t read anything beyond that. And with the pilot it’s a lot of introducing all the new characters and everything and there are a lot of effects in it. So, I would imagine it’ll grow.
I am expecting it to be larger. And, the thing about the show, it is so super cool with the characters. You know, to go to an aside for a second, that is not visual effects. When Atlantis was cancelled and everybody was upset about it, of course, and Universe came out, people who were saying they wouldn’t give it a chance because their beloved characters were on Atlantis . Well, this is Robert and Brad who created those characters that they love so much, too. You got to have faith in them. You’ve got to trust that they will create characters that you’ll love just as much. I think.
GW: Give it a chance.
MS: Yeah, exactly. Have faith. There are a lot of TV shows that I like, where I trust the creators of the show, you know, pretty much blindly. To just say, “OK, I’ll give it a chance.” Because its people that I really like making it.
GW: Exactly, what are you losing by watching a pilot? It’s not like we are asking you to strap yourself down in a chair and watch the entire series. Just watch the pilot, that’s what it’s for.
MS: Totally. It’s got such a nice hook, and the characters are going to be there, without a doubt.
GW: Do you have any idea when we will be seeing the exterior of the Destiny? When TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly, or someone really big is going to be kicking out an exclusive, be it months away or weeks away?
MS: It shouldn’t be that far away. I don’t know what kind of a date there is on it. But it should be soon. I’m getting really excited about it. People around here as well. Brad and Robert are digging it. It’s going to be cool.
GW: Is it a shape that fans can identify or is it something out of this world?
MS: It will be a shape that fans will absolutely identify with. It was a real mandate going in. And creating a ship, a new ship that will be iconic in a way, you hope, Is a challenge. It is harder than people think. Where you go, “Let’s create a new ship.“ This ship really has to stand up. It’s going to be cool. I was walking around the sets today with Andy Mikita and, wow, that’s amazing. They have done some incredible stuff in there.
GW: When you go for designing something like that, do you go for something that is functional or it has to have a reason for why it’s shaped a certain way? Or do you just go for something that looks cool?
MS: I think that you have to go with a mix. It certainly lends itself as well to the exteriors. And the interiors have to match. It can’t look completely out of place. Or you kind of give that away. You have got to have exteriors and interiors look the same. And there is a certain functionality. You know where Brad and Robert are taking this series, and what this ship does, and what it has to do, and what it is going to do. There is a lot of balance and juggling on what this ship looks like. So, Yeah it is very cool. You know, we have to see it for quite a long time, and I am sure it will be under much scrutiny.
GW: As everything is.
MS: It is such a subjective media.
GW: What are you most looking forward to about Universe and the next few years?
MS: I’m looking forward to the clean slate, I guess I would call it. Because it touches back to what we had talked about before. We are creating all the new mass sets. We aren’t inheriting anything like we did on season two of Atlantis . So, any kind of mis-function or anything that goes wrong, we have ourselves to blame. We can’t go back and say, “We got this model so it’s somebody else’s fault because it doesn’t work the way we want it to.”
We have to make it work to look good to hold up for a certain number of years so we really have got to get it right. That is key to what we do. We are pretty much starting fresh. I kind of like that. Some of the things that people didn’t like about Atlantis and about the city and everything else that we always had to deal with. People didn’t like the shield idea, the dome, and how it looked in space. It was always kind of like a battle to make it look the best you can with the resources that you deal with.
But now we are creating them and so we have to create that with everything in mind. I am looking forward to working with all the great department heads and all the people here for another few years. Because, in all honesty, the hardest part about working on any TV series that I have had in the past, or anything else, is it is always a new crew assembled. So doing a pilot is always hard, because the first quarter of a new series is tough because everyone is feeling their way and everybody is new and people don’t know who to talk to about what.
But this group has been together a long time, so we should hit the ground running and the pilot should not feel like a pilot. It should feel like a new season of an old series but it is going to be a pilot. Which is great. And just in terms of how the crew is going to gel and how much we can do, it should be amazing to see. Just walking around today, just looking at it, we are doing something big here. This is going to be super cool, it is going to be fun.
Interview by David Read. Transcript by Avi Zisook.