How 'hidden' visual effects are transforming television

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For Vivian Connolly, it all began with E.T.

As a child growing in a single parent home, Steven Spielberg's film made her "feel so much less alone".

"It was a movie that felt to me like it was made for me, and even about me. Elliott was full of self-doubt but also had an inkling he could do something great. I think I felt that way growing up."

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Not only did the film resonate with Connolly, it was also a formative example of the magic screen escapism could offer - and the possibilities of what groundbreaking visual effects could achieve.

Now, as the CEO and co-founder of Phosphene, an award-winning TV and film effects company based in New York, Connolly has overseen vital VFX (an abbreviation of 'visual effects') work on everything from True Detective to Boardwalk Empire, and gripping new drama series The Looming Tower.

Of course, you may not have realised just how prevalent visual effects were in your favourite TV shows. And that's a testament to how well the likes of Connolly and her team do their jobs.

Non-VFX shows are a thing of the past

Set extensions and computer generated environments are a speciality of Phosphene, who frequently fool your eyes into thinking a period-appropriate backdrop is real.

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"When we do our job right, the viewer just accepts it as a practical environment."

In short, it is Phosphene that often gets the call when a show or movie wants to recreate New York in the '70s, or beef up the surroundings of a crucial outdoor scene.

"People often don’t even realise there were effects in our shows, which is always a great compliment," says Connolly. "The challenge is that sometimes our shots disappear so seamlessly into the landscape, that people don’t realise how challenging they are!

"When you watch a superhero movie, how much work goes into it is clear to the average viewer. When we do our job right, the viewer just accepts it as a practical environment."

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When Phosphene formed in 2010, Connolly and co-founder John Bair's plan was to concentrate on feature films. But the pair soon noticed that the landscape of TV was rapidly changing - and they "got on that train early" with HBO's Treme, from The Wire creator David Simon.

"There are no longer any 'non-VFX' shows," explains Connolly. "Some are more involved than others, but VFX are now part of every show. That wasn’t true when we started."

Notable films and TV shows Phosphene has worked on include Boardwalk Empire, Treme, The Get Down, Mr Robot, The Girl On The Train, The Greatest Showman, The Fault In Our Stars, The Deuce, Vinyl, A Most Violent Year, True Detective, Hostiles and The Looming Tower.

The Looming Tower: 'it took my breath away'

The "big hallucination shots" in True Detective season one are among some of Connolly's favourite work her firm has done.

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More recently, Phosphene has handled all of the VFX work for acclaimed thriller series The Looming Tower, which charts the events leading up to 9/11.

"I am extremely proud of the work on The Looming Tower," says Connolly. "That is such sensitive material, and [visual effects supervisor] Aaron Raff really led the team in ensuring the work was absolutely accurate as well as photo-real. I am a lifelong New Yorker, and seeing the Twin Towers in episode nine took my breath away.

Before and after: effects firm Phosphene transforms the backdrops of shows like The Looming Tower (Photos: Phosphene)

"We did pretty much all of the effects including the embassy bombing, the USS Cole and the Twin Towers. All in, there were 335 shots across ten episodes, so it was a relatively sizeable VFX show, even though it may not always be obvious to the viewer."

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Connolly was also "thrilled" to work on all-singing, all-dancing Hugh Jackman hit The Greatest Showman: "I am a huge musical theatre nerd, so it was all I could do not to sing along."

Time's Up: 'we can all do better'

Born in Mexico City to a Mexican father and an American mother, the multi-lingual Connolly moved to New York when she was three, where she attended a French-speaking school.

She won a scholarship to college where she majored in Theatre and Dance, before moving into the world of TV.

After cutting her teeth on a variety of projects, Connolly wrote and produced comedy for several years before taking a break to have her first child.

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She then got a job as head of production at the studio Edgeworx, where she met Phosphene co-founder John Bair - and the pair ultimately decided to strike out on their own.

Having "grown up struggling", as well as being "the daughter of a very strong union family", Connolly values diversity and fair work practices - and stresses her philosophy that she wants Phosphene to feel "more like a home than a job" for her employees.

'We can all do better, and I intend to' - Connolly believes diversity in the entertainment industry generally, and effects specifically, is essential (Photo: Phosphene)

At a time when the #MeToo and Time's Up movements have exposed and challenged harassment, discrimination and assault in society generally and the film and TV industry specifically, Connolly has especially strong views on this topic.

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"Because I grew up in a very international environment, I always feel most comfortable when my community is as diverse as possible.

"I've found the Time’s Up movement thrilling. I am the daughter of a strong woman, and mother to an even stronger little girl. I have always thought of myself as a strong feminist, but this movement has caused me to look deeper into things I’ve overlooked or just accepted over the years. We can all do better, and I intend to."

Diversity will beget diversity

Connolly, who is herself a female CEO in a traditionally male-dominated field, notes that it isn't always about "obvious marginalisation or harassment", either.

"For me it has been about the unconscious decisions I’ve made to step back because I don’t see myself represented, and I certainly didn’t encounter too many people going out of their way to invite me in."

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When she appeared at an all-female VFX panel with a female audience last year, Connolly found herself surprised by "how palpable [her] increased sense of comfort" was.

"It isn’t that on the male dominated panels, anyone was rude or dismissing. It was just inherently more comfortable for me to be in this environment. People need to see themselves. Men get that privilege without even being aware that it is a privilege."

Performing miracles: Phosphene made mountains out of thin air in recent movie Hostiles (Photos: Phosphene)

But the upshot is that things may be changing in the entertainment industry. Especially when it comes to the world of visual effects.

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"I do see more women, and even more importantly, I see way more focus on outreach to women.

"I think women still feel discouraged from entering into technical fields, and it is hard to be a pioneer. More diversity will beget more diversity. To women pursuing a career in VFX, we are all waiting for you!"

For more information on Phosphene and their work, visit their website. The Looming Tower is available now on Amazon Prime in the UK.

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