Why Television Shows look better and bigger – The history of Visual Effects in Television.

1 July 2017

Some people call it the idiot box and the irony is they themselves cannot live without one of them. Statistics say 99% of U.S Population owns at least one of those boxes – the Television. No idiot can ever become a ‘must have in every household’.  In fact today, you switch it on even if you really don’t have to watch it. You might be in your kitchen, you might be browsing your laptop or doing some housekeeping stuff, but you still want the Television on! That sound has been your companion for a long time. You just cannot stay without it. Such has been the impact! Let you be of any gender and age, you can find a Television program that you like, at any given time. This variety is probably something only Television can offer. This is also the reason why a typical Family evening in front of Television is a lot of fun. The fight for remote is stiff and the winner often feels like Mike Tyson! 

Evolution is there all around us. And like most things that have lasted long, Television also has gone through lot of changes and modifications. Its sizes and designs changed, various accessories such as VCR, DVD, Home Theatres, Blu-Ray, Play Stations etc began to sync with it. But aside from the physical changes what is one major change that improved the quality of contents in Television? The same change the motion picture industry began to seriously consider after George Lucas surprised the world with Star Wars in 1977. The Visual Effects. So how did visual effects influence the Television Industry and where does Television stand in terms of Visual Effects?

Through successful teleplays such as ‘Patterns’ and ‘Requiem for a HeavyweightRod Serling was a popular name among Television Fans by late 1950s. His anthology series ‘The Twilight Zone’ that ran from 1959-1964 was one of the pioneers that explored the possibilities of visual effects. Throughout the series, the visual effects became increasingly inventive as it was driven by stranger storylines that pushed the effect’s team’s abilities to the very extent. Rod Serling must have hated being predictable and he wanted to stand out. Characters, sets, plots, costumes were all in a totally different league of their own. The series consisted episodes of unrelated dramas and hence it had no regular cast members. Each episode was characterized by its surprising ending. Its locations were set in the past, future or sometimes even outside Earth! Adding to that, its characters often dealt with extremely disturbing or unusual events and the characters dealing with such strange events are said to have crossed over into “The Twilight Zone”. Rod Serling badly wanted to make a difference and the unique features of the series are a clear example of that. For the first time, Television viewers had a taste of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In 2013, Writers Guild of America ranked it the third best written T.V Series ever and T.V Guide ranked it the fifth greatest show of all time.

In the timeline of Television series history, the year 1963 was a major turnaround because it was then that ‘Doctor Who’, a series that presently has more than 800 episodes aired first! The series initially ran until 1989 for 26 years and it was relaunched again in 2005. The series follow the adventures of a time-travelling humanoid alien from planet Gallifrey, who simply goes by the name ‘Doctor’. Science Fictions and Fantasies cannot get to life without visual effects and needless to say, without proper application of visual effects, the Doctor cannot have lasted this long. The show’s first episode aired on November 23 1963, one day after the murder of American President John F Kennedy. Many viewers missed the introduction due to news coverage of the assassination and power blackouts across the country. The show is a cult favorite among Television Fans and it played a major role in British Popular Culture. It spawned several spin-offs, comic books, films, novels, audio dramas and has also been the subject of many parodies and references in the popular culture. The show became such an influence that even some of its words such as ‘Dalek’ and ‘Tardis’ were added to the Oxford English Dictionary! But one major contribution to the English language from the series is the usage of the term ‘Cyber’. The Doctor Who villains, Cybermen, is believed to have influenced the prefix ‘Cyber’ to describe anything computerized.

Films and Televisions have seen the rise of many stars. Apart from real actors several animated characters too went on to have huge fan following. But other than real actors and animated characters, there are another set of characters who attracted good number of followers. Puppets! That’s right. The couple Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were the main explorers of this puppetry technique and their most famous project is the Television series Thunderbirds which released in 1965. Produced using a form of electronic puppetry, it featured ‘International Rescue’ a life-saving organisation equipped with advanced land, sea, air and space rescue craft. Ranging from Supercars to UFOs, this was another series that was praised for its visual effects. A typical episode contained around 100 effect shots!. Stanley Kubrick was so impressed by this series that he hired several of its staff to supervise his ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The season ran for 2 seasons of 32 episodes each.

With the success of earlier shows science fictions had already become popular and in 1966 came another science fiction series which eventually enjoyed a cult status. Star Trek. The series created by Gene Roddenberry followed the adventures of starship ‘USS Enterprise’ and its crew. The series was initially canceled after three seasons and 79 episodes due to low ratings but in broadcast syndication it became a huge hit in the 1970s. The Franchise now consists of five additional television series, thirteen feature films, numerous books, games and toys and it is widely considered as one of the most influential Television Series of all time. 

With success counts getting higher and higher it was only a matter of time before visual effects became a norm in Television as in Films. Viewers were treated to contents from all sort of genres ranging from science fiction, horror, fantasy, epics and so on. Moon, UFOs, Planets, Galaxies, Aliens, Dinosaurs. They all became visitors on our mini screen! Throughout the last 50 years there were many shows such as ‘Cosmos’, ‘Twin Peaks’, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘24’, ‘Peep Show’ etc that made good use of visual effects but the one series that elevated the level of visual effects and got the whole world talking was Game of Thrones. It’s grandeur is unmatchable and it will take quite some time to see a Television Series of this scale. The average budget of a Game of Thrones Episode is 6 million!

Based on ‘a Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R.R Martin and created by David Benioff and D.B.Weiss Game of Thrones first aired on April 2011. Till now it has run six seasons and season 8 will see the series finale. Set on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos, the series follow the rivalry and battle across several royal families. The series has received 38 Primetime Emmy Awards, more than any other primetime scripted Television Series and the ensemble cast of Game of thrones is estimated as the largest on television. Most of the environment builds were done as 2.5d projections by keeping the program from becoming overwhelming and by giving viewers a perspective. Some episodes of the fourth season were even formatted for IMAX Screens and is probably the only T.V show with big screen treatment!

From Twilight Zone to Game of Thrones, visual effects have bought revolutionary changes in Television viewing. With modern gadgets getting affordable to any common man, that little box in your living room can give you a movie like experience. So much for an idiot box!

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