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Posted Sep 17

MPC Episodic EP talks childhood film experiments, approach to episodic VFX

by Jane Bracher
MPC Episodic EP talks childhood film experiments, approach to episodic VFX by Jane Bracher

MPC Episodic is award-winning visual effects studio MPC’s answer to the rise of TV or episodic shows, especially in the age of streaming platforms.

In the Q and A below, we get to know a little bit about Christopher Gray, Executive Producer for MPC Episodic based in London, and find out how he navigated his way to working on well-known shows such as Black Mirror, The Boys, and The Witcher and his current role.

He chats with us about the earliest days of his visual effects career as a kid who made stop motion films and set fire to miniature recreations of the Death Star, as well as his thoughts on opportunities available for episodic VFX in a post-pandemic world.

What made you get into visual effects? Do you recall a specific experience or situation that made you realise you wanted to work in VFX? 
 
From as early as I can remember I was captivated by film, I soaked up every cinema excursion, watched everything I could get my hands on, and developed this insatiable appetite for the medium and its process, and later the technological tools to achieve it.
 
It probably sounds cliché to say it, but I was really was that goofy kid hacking stop motion on his dad’s Hi8, setting fire to miniatures I’d built with his toolkit as I tried to recreate the destruction of the imperial Death Star amongst other things. I carried that passion subconsciously through my teens but as harsh futures presented themselves, my careers advisor helped me decide against the boring stability of business, architecture or engineering and I chose to pursue the dream of attending film school and somehow made it in, majoring in producing and writing.
 
After graduating, I wore a few hats in my early career, managing film design projects on the studio side and commercials work. I was always slightly removed from the VFX process but I'd often jealously admire the work of the studios like MPC. I was so close I could smell it, and it really spurred me to take the leap over the fence, landing first at Framestore. I started with high-end commercials and lower budget films before I transitioned to television. My move into this space fortuitously coincided with the boom around peak TV and the expansion of visual effects for the SVODs.

Could you describe what your role as Executive Producer at MPC Episodic involves? What does a typical day look like for you? What’s the most interesting thing or your favourite part of the job? 
 
Thankfully for me, it’s never a dull moment. Every day is spent on behalf of, in my opinion, the best artists in our industry. My days range from working with the business development and creative leadership team to scope, develop and attach the most exciting new shows, and making sure our internal show teams have absolutely everything they need to do their job, whilst keeping the tanker on course. It's never an exact science but we have an incredible leadership team here at MPC Episodic that I’m proud to be a part of.

Your credits already include some major episodic work such as Black Mirror, The Boys, The Witcher and See. What drew you to episodic content, and how different is the nature of VFX work in episodic vs film?

In my opinion, television has more lately offered increasing opportunities for deeper narrative immersion that feature film as a format simply doesn’t compete with.

You just have to look at some of the most successful series to see the profound and sustained psychological effect they had on viewers, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are great examples of this. Now that the ambition for television across the board is rising, it’s creating incredible new opportunities for visual effects to support storytelling in greater degrees in this longer format. For me, it’s the most exciting development in the visual storytelling medium for years.
 
Now that quality is no longer a variable between film and episodic, and showrunner expectations have reached parity with cinema, what sets episodic work apart tends to be the nature of the process. The speed of delivery, fluidity of approach, and acute service of story all require a higher level of collaboration and communicative efficiency between showrunners, directors, and studios like us. This proximity is also great for artist teams as it provides increased exposure to show creatives, something less common on a film show due to its overall scale.

Do you think that for episodic VFX it requires a different set of skills or approach compared to film – and if so, what are those skills and approaches? 
 
For the most part episodic exists and operates in a similar environment to film, after all we’re creating a similar product.

However, the variety and quick turnaround of the work demands a different mindset and a flexible, nimble approach to every aspect of the work.

This filters down into the skillsets of our artists. We need them to land creative briefs in less time, take creative risks, which may or may not pay off, create tools to find technical efficiencies and shortcuts, and be prepared to learn new skills and expand their knowledge on the job. It’s a different kind of challenge and it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely an exciting environment to be in.

The ground is shifting in the film industry globally. What opportunities do you see for visual effects companies post-pandemic? And specifically for episodic content generally as well? 
 
The pandemic really has driven a heightened interest in visual effects to create safer, more manageable set work, not least in the application of virtual production tools, something MPC pioneered early on The Jungle Book and The Lion King. The unscheduled production slowdown has actually created a unique opportunity for focused development of our VP toolset, testing and experimentation with engine and real-time render and an opportunity to put plans in place to take our operations into new territory, all made possible by a little enforced breathing room.

‘The writing is on the wall, the episodic arms race is going nuclear, with new players entering the fray’ is the incredibly dramatic headline.

Meanwhile in reality, the volume of work produced continues to grow year on year, but also the scale of production and ambition is expanding, we are entering the era of the 'mega-series', with projects like The Witcher, Foundation, Wheel of Time, and Lord of The Rings on the horizon.

Part of keeping up with this content drive will put visual effects and animation on the driving edge of realising new levels of volume. Tools like engine rendering, virtual production, and LED wall technology will start to become commonplace over the next few years – all providing creative teams the opportunity for intuitive real-time decision-making and eventually final pixel visuals in much shorter timeframes. All these tools are going to drive forward the efficiencies around episodic production.

What are some of your favourite episodic shows at the moment?

As is the current trend, I’ve got three on the go, currently watching The Third Day, which happens to be MPC Episodic’s first show out the gate for Sky/HBO (shameless plug intended). Also really digging Dark and Little America – so much to watch, so little time. – thefocus.com

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