Angel’s Heavenly Creatures

Joss Whedon is a cult leader and Jeffrey Bell is his high priest. Along with their staff, the two are responsible for Angel, one of TV land’s biggest cult hits this side of Star Trek. Angel concerns the adventures of a vampire named Angel, “cursed” with a soul and a conscience, as he seeks to eradicate evil in Los Angeles. During the show’s more than 100 episodes, he’s had to battle demons, a necromancer, an ancient Aztec curse, and numerous other nasty nasties, all while running the law firm of Wolfram and Hart. Jeffrey Bell also has his demons: As the co-executive producer of the series (the other executive producers are Whedon and David Fury), he’s in the trenches daily, making sure the vision of show co-creator Joss Whedon is consistently implemented, pitching ideas and hearing them pitched, reviewing and rewriting scripts, coordinating the visual effects that make up a large part of the series, and generally “dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s,” as he puts it.
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Joss Whedon is a cult leader and Jeffrey Bell is his high priest. Along with their staff, the two are responsible for Angel, one of TV land’s biggest cult hits this side of Star Trek. Angel concerns the adventures of a vampire named Angel, “cursed” with a soul and a conscience, as he seeks to eradicate evil in Los Angeles. During the show’s more than 100 episodes, he’s had to battle demons, a necromancer, an ancient Aztec curse, and numerous other nasty nasties, all while running the law firm of Wolfram and Hart.

Jeffrey Bell also has his demons: As the co-executive producer of the series (the other executive producers are Whedon and David Fury), he’s in the trenches daily, making sure the vision of show co-creator Joss Whedon is consistently implemented, pitching ideas and hearing them pitched, reviewing and rewriting scripts, coordinating the visual effects that make up a large part of the series, and generally “dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s,” as he puts it.

“I run the show for Joss,” said Bell. “Which means I try to deliver 22 episodes of Angel that he’ll be proud of. I try to protect his idea, his vision, what I believe his sensibility to be.”

Whedon’s sensibility, which comes across in Angel (as well as in another show he dreamed up that also went on to enormous cult-hit success, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) seems to lean toward creating an underworld, an alternate reality, to what we know as Los Angeles. “We have a universe where magic happens, but in a tangible way,” said Bell. The series is also heavily story-driven, another trademark of Whedon’s work. “It’s always about storytelling,” said Bell. “It’s always about the emotion and how you can make people feel things.”

Making people feel things, as it turns out, is no easy feat. Bell easily puts in ten- to 12-hour workdays, often coming in early in the morning and leaving later than midnight. “It’s a great job,” he said. “There’s just too much of it.”

Dustings & Demons

Much of Bell’s time is spent developing and finessing scripts. Similar to many episodic television shows, once an idea for a particular episode is chosen, Bell and his team “break the story”: outlining it to show what main themes need to be expressed, what emotions characters are feeling, and what kinds of stunts and visual effects will take place. Then they hand it off to a writer. Once the script is delivered, revised, and finalized, Bell begins to coordinate what types of monsters, demons, and other non-human creatures will be needed with Rob Hall, who runs Almost Human, a company specializing in special effects makeup. Almost Human provides most of Angel’s creatures. Bell also talks to Loni Peristere, CEO and creative director of Zoic Studios, which creates most of the visual effects for the show, about what types of those elements will be needed (Zoic’s other well-known project was the recent remake of the Battlestar Galactica series, which aired on the SCI FI Channel in December).

Dissimilar to most episodic television shows are the number of special and visual effects employed by the Angel team. On any given episode, for example, viewers will likely witness a “dusting”: When a vampire gets killed, his body disintegrates, leaving behind a large amount of dust. Another common effect is what Peristere calls a “vamp,” where a vampire changes from his human to his vampire visage. Longtime fans of Angel can remember more spectacular effects, such as the episode entitled “Rain of Fire,” in which a monster from Hell called “The Beast” explodes into molten lava when he is vanquished. There’s also the episode in which Spike, a vampire character who first appeared in Buffy, re-materializes after being destroyed in the other series.

While such complex effects as blowing up a building (or a monster) obviously take a lot of time to envision and create, the vamps and dustings are old hat to the Angel crew. The dustings are a combination of two- and three-dimensional effects wherein the team at Zoic takes live-action footage and layers it into 3D elements. The 3D elements include 3D dust men and 3D skeletons, which emit 3D particles.

A vamp is a 2D effect in which Zoic composites one live-action plate of an actor in his regular non-vampire makeup and one live-action plate of him when he’s in vampire make-up through a series of warps and dissolves. “We basically warp one piece of live-action footage onto another piece of live-action footage and then we dissolve the two together by lining like features,” said Peristere. “We’ll take the eyebrow and line it up with the eyebrow and we’ll take the eye and line it up with the eye and then we’ll take the nose and line it up with the nose. We do that over about a second of screentime. Theoretically, you [the viewer] don’t see it.”

According to Peristere, the actor who plays Angel, David Boreanaz, has become especially adept at mimicking his own movements as a non-vampire to match his movements as a vampire. “A lot of the success of that visual effect happens through the performance of the talent, and obviously David Boreanaz has done hundreds of these transformations. So he can virtually mimic his movement perfectly in action to create the visual effects,” he said.

Alas, in real life, even David Boreanaz is only human, so he can’t always perfectly mimic his own moves. When there are some disparities between the two plates, Zoic’s special effects whizzes use Discreet Logic’s flame to reconcile the differences. “We basically force the elements that don’t fit by bending them,” said Peristere. “We’ll force that second face into the first face or the first face into the second face and cross-dissolve them.”

Zoic uses Discreet Logic’s flame and combustion to create most of Angel’s visual effects. “combustion has just added its own warp tools to its palette, which is excellent, because it has the capability of rendering on a backburner, allowing it to render on multiple processors, making it very fast,” said Peristere. Zoic also uses Elastic Reality, which is no longer manufactured, for physical transformations.

Bell will also have Zoic step in to add some digital flare to the looks created by the Almost Human team. This is especially true with the demon characters. “I think about 75% of the time, the demons are actors in costumes that Rob Hall puts together over at Almost Human,” said Peristere. “And the other 25-30% of the time what we do is we support Rob.” Supporting Rob and Almost Human usually means adding digital appendages. For example, Zoic will add limbs or claws or other types of appendages to demon characters.

And Then There’s Dying

Dying isn’t always easy to do in the analog world, so sometimes Almost Human will call on Zoic in assisting with that as well. “If one of Rob’s creations needs to die in a elaborate way, we help with that,” said Peristere. “For example, last season we had a creature called ‘The Big Bad [a catch-all term Mutant Enemy uses for any nemesis on a given episode].’ And The Big Bad had to die in a couple of different ways. He was very tall and had elaborate makeup, and Rob couldn’t do what he necessarily needed to do to kill him, so, over at one of our digital scanning companies, we scanned the costume Rob built from top to bottom and created a 3D rig and animated it through a death sequence.”

Considering that Angel already creates half-digital, half-live-actor characters, it begs the question whether or not the show has featured a fully digital character. The answer is yes. Bell remembers two instances of this: In an episode entitled, “A New World,” there was a scene in which Angel’s son Connor climbed on top of a bus. His digital stunt double was what viewers saw on top of the bus. Also, in the season five opener, a digital stunt double was used to show Angel leaping across two buildings.

High-tech effects deserve a high-tech recording format. To that end, Angel currently posts in 24p (it shoots in 35mm). Bell is not a big fan of high definition. “It limits us technically,” he said. “For example, we’re limited to in-camera ramping now. Whereas before I could put it on an Avid and do whatever I wanted. Now I have to do it in multiples of two. Also, I think our show really looks great on 35mm. We’re a 185 format, were not a TV format—we have skinny black bars at the top and bottom—which I think makes our show really unique. I’m sure film is ultimately on its way out, but right now, I really love it.”

Currently, Angel is in the middle of season five. Not only is it one of the WB’s most popular shows, its fan base is particularly active. Typing in “Angel” on Google brings up fan websites that are as elaborate as the official one on WB.com. There are numerous Angel chat rooms all over the Internet. Whedon has become a celebrity in his own right, on par with David E. Kelley and Chris Carter. Who knows what the future holds for Angel? Death? Redemption? Salvation? One thing is for sure--Whedon, Bell, and the rest of the gang at Mutant Enemy can sit tight. They’re not going anywhere.