In 2006, the superhero drama Heroes premiered on NBC. Not based on an extant property, Heroes was a pastiche — and a good one at that. Showrunner Tim Kring turned Heroes’s seasons into thematic serials. The show was as comic book-y as it could get without Adam West line readings or “Bam!” bubbles. It looked like a lower-budget version of 2002’s Spider-Man or 2000’s X-Men, but a bit darker. VFX producer Mark Spatny, in part, pioneered that aesthetic, a product of both decisions and constraints. VFX Lead Supervisor Mark Kolpack worked on Heroes in season 1, and Eric Grenaudier filled that role in seasons 2-4.
“A lot of people talk about the advances in technology and computing when they talk about visual effects, but ultimately, that’s irrelevant,” says Spatny, who spoke with Inverse to mark Heroes’s tenth anniversary. “There’s no such thing as truly computer generated effects — good effects are generated by world class artists.”
Spatny says the way we make humans look superhuman on television has changed drastically over the decade that’s passed since Heroes premiered. “A modern day superhero show,” he tells Inverse, “will have a visual effects budget that’s nearly ten times the size of what we had during the first season of Heroes.” Superhero TV effects of today are much more advanced than they once were but still fundamentally a product of similar thinking and similar answers to this question: How can we get closest to movie-quality effects without movie budgets?
The launch of feature films from DC and Marvel inspired superhero TV shows to inflate their budgets in response, after Heroes ended. It seems every professional working in visual effects has their eye on the sup
Overall, there’s a funny disconnect between superhero TV and superhero films: While TV effects crews are perpetually chasing the superior look of Marvel of DC’s films, their expanding budgets and access to technology will never quite reach the billions of dollars thrust into making feature-length movies. Heroes set that bar pretty high, but the bar hasn’t stopped rising ever since.
He’s impressed with how far superhero TV effects have come, and says FOX’s Gotham’s production design stands out to him as unique.
“I watch all [the superhero shows] to see what my competition is doing, but I particularly love Gotham,” he says. “I love how closely the production designer, cinematographer, and VFX team work together to achieve a really unique stylized look for that world. You could run episodes of that show on a flat screen in a museum as a piece of artwork.” The unique aesthetic Spatny admires about Gotham didn’t exist when Heroes was on the air; Gotham has to work to stand out from a crowded line-up of similar shows, all featuring powered up people amid large-scale set pieces.
When Heroes arrived, in comparison, it only needed to define the visual rules of its world. The show had no superhero competitors, so the writers and production team could make Sylar’s (Zachary Quinto) vicious abilities appear any way they wanted. “We had a staff of about a dozen artists working mostly in one location, and they handled the effects for the entire show,” Spatny says. That team, by today’s standards, looks surprisingly small.
Spatny also mentions The Flash and Jessica Jones when asked about current superhero programming: “[Jessica Jones] is a great superhero show with very few VFX,” Spatny says. “It’s all character-driven, and David Tennant was amazing. […] But, to be honest, I came to my current employer specifically to see how they manage to do The Flash on a weekly basis. Armen Kevorkian’s team amazes me with what they accomplish for television.” Though Spatny doesn’t currently work on The Flash, it’s clear he has a personal and professional interest in the work Kevorkian’s team does.