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San Francisco Chronicle: Special Effects on TV The X-Files starring Gillian Anderson and Mitch Pileggi: Special effects add to television experience

San Francisco Chronicle
Special Effects on TV
The X-Files starring Gillian Anderson and Mitch Pileggi: Special effects add to television experience
Candace Havens

During Summer 2000, moviegoers watched as gigantic waves crushed a fishing boat in The Perfect Storm and Tom Cruise dangled from a cliff in MI-2. A ghostly apparition chased Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in What Lies Beneath, and the stars of X-Men fought battles with supernatural strength as they flew through the air.

All these films and most major releases in Hollywood these days use special-effects makeup and computer-generated images to make stories more exciting. And as these effects become more refined and easier to duplicate, the same technology is being used more than ever on primetime and daytime TV.

[snip bit on Discovery Channel special]

Fox’s The X-Files and the WB Network’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer use special effects on a weekly basis. HBO’s crime-drama The Sopranos, which created a talking fish last season, digitally put the head of deceased cast member Nancy Marchand on the body of another actress in the season opener.

“We are using more effects than ever in TV, and we are streamlining the process as we go,” says Matthew Mungle, an Academy Award-winning special-effects designer who creates bizarre beings for The X-Files and is working on several feature films, including The Mummy Returns. “The TV audience is savvy, and they expect to see film-quality effects on their favorite shows. There’s no more just slapping it together and throwing it on.”

For the X-Files episode “Dead Alive,” Mungle and his crew created a body suit for a character to make it look as if he had been floating dead in the ocean for several days. “And then … when he’s in the hospital, he still has to look bloated, but his skin is dry. He gets up one night and takes a shower, and all that bloated skin sloughs off. That was another effect we worked on. We had five days to create the whole thing, and it was a real challenge.”

The short time span isn’t unusual for special-effects experts who work in TV. Two weeks before they begin shooting an episode, Mungle meets the department heads and creative forces behind The X-Files. They discuss what they want to see happen and how it can be done within the budget. Mungle goes back to his lab and develops a prototype of the creature or effect to see how it will work in full form.

“Technology has helped a great deal because I can just e-mail the director and producers a picture of what we are working on,” Mungle says. “In less than 15 minutes, I can get feedback from them on what changes need to be made. Then we start putting it all together. We use whatever is the fastest and most appropriate to make it happen. Luckily, we’ve come a long way in this business and have a plethora of materials we can use that set up quickly; otherwise, there’s no way we could do it.”

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