21CF Chats: Emmy-nominated Tom Mahoney, VFX Supervisor for FOX’s ‘Gotham’

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Creating the city of Gotham, collaboration, TV’s impressive rise in VFX and more

If you’ve ever watched an episode of FOX’s show “Gotham,” then you’re familiar with the eponymous city. It’s dark and brooding, ever on the cusp of a storm; it’s at once foreign and familiar, sometimes tricking you into thinking you’ve been on of its blocks before; and it’s the award-winning achievement of VFX Supervisor Tom Mahoney and his talented team, one that earned another Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role last month.

Tom Mahoney

Tom, who has three Emmy nominations to his name and one win in this same category last year, explains that the visual effects team plays an important part of the storytelling that happens in “Gotham”: “We serve the story. The writers write, and we try to figure out a way to make it happen. It’s all about making other people’s visions a reality.”

I recently spoke with Tom about his latest nomination and his work on “Gotham.” During our conversation, he talked about how the city of Gotham was realized, his favorite parts of the nominated episode, when he thinks visual effects are appropriate and more.

To start, can you walk us through a brief history of your career – from your start in the world of VFX, to being a partner at CoSA VFX, to being VFX Supervisor for “Gotham” and highlights in between?
I got my introduction to visual effects back in 1990 or 1991 when I interned on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with the post-production department. From there, I was an assistant editor for a little while and found my way back into visual effects working with one of my CoSA partners, Jon Tanimoto. We often found ourselves working for units that were put together specifically for film, and at a certain point we looked at each other and said, “Well, they keep throwing these units together and they sort of ran like small companies – we may as well see if we can give it a go as a company.” So Jon and I got together. Initially we were working on features, and shortly after that, [CoSA partners] David Beedon and Chris Lance joined us. The features market for visual effects in LA kind of dried up with a lot of films taking rebates and having the luxury of longer turnarounds, but TV still needed fast turnarounds. Most shows were still posted in LA, so it was more convenient for TV to use LA-based visual effects facilities. So we made a shift to be more TV-centric. A year or two after we got things going, we were lucky enough to be considered for “Gotham.” Just by luck of the draw, I ended up being the one of the four partners to come to New York to supervise the pilot, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.

How would you explain to a layman like myself the role VFX plays in the show?
Everything is about telling a story. That’s what TV shows and movies are about, and we are there to tell the story of “Gotham.” Now, since the show is based in Gotham City, we are fortunate to play a large part in that since we help provide the city. Early on, the creators of the show Danny Cannon, Bruno Heller and John Stephens said that Gotham should always feel like there’s a storm coming. So that was always the directive we lived under for creating the wide shots of Gotham, to make it feel dark and moody. The architecture is very much based on a gothic, Art Deco style to make it feel like a unique place that feels familiar but isn’t quite reality.

How long did it take to get Gotham City right? Has it changed throughout the seasons?
I think we’ve gotten a little bit better at doing it as the seasons have progressed. Early on, we did a lot of tests to make sure that the show creatives were happy with the direction we were going in for the general look a city that was mainly built in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, but with a gothic flair. It took us a little while to mix some architectural elements; we did a few test shots and when we had it right, they gave us the thumbs-up.

[Spoiler alert] This year, you and your team are nominated for the Season 4 episode “That’s Entertainment.” From a sinister ice bomb, to a blimp, to gas-induced hallucinations and more, I think my uneducated eye can spot some of your fingerprints on that particular story. Are there certain scenes in that episode that were particularly challenging or memorable for you?
I enjoy the shots of the blimp because I feel like it’s really there, even though I know it’s a CG blimp. The most fun shot of the episode is the final pullout when we’re tight on Penguin when he’s in the blimp gondola, and then we keep pulling out until we see the bridge and Gotham City in the foreground and then in the distant background. It’s just a very small, self-contained camera move, and then we make it feel big and grand by adding everything into it. I also like the scene of Jerome when he’s hanging and falling to his death – that’s all shot on green screen, and we create a 3-D version of the alleyway that he falls into so we could show that he’s much higher than he really was. The fear gas is always fun to do. A lot of the artists get to have a little bit of fun when we’re creating the hallucination look because that’s when you get to let somebody loose and say, “All right, make something that looks cool.”

Can you describe the collaboration between your team and others on the show?
The writers write an episode and a director happens to get that episode to direct. There’s a great deal of back and forth in pre-production about what we can do with visual effects, what we can afford to do with visual effects, what can be done practically via special effects or if there are stunts that can be done so we don’t have to do visual effects. I’m always a big fan of doing things practically whenever we can.

A scene from Gotham’s Emmy-nominated episode “That’s Entertainment”

Can you explain a little more about when you think visual effects are appropriate?
I’d say my two criteria for things that should be visual effects are when we want to add scope and spectacle, and when it’s something that can’t be done safely. Obviously safety is paramount, and all the show creators and directors and everyone feel the same way. So if something’s unsafe but we still need to do it, then visual effects can step in. People’s lives are more important than any television show.

Do you have much time to track what your counterparts are doing on other shows? If so, do you notice any trends for VFX in television lately?
TV visual effects have come so far in the past 15 years. I would challenge people to say the visual effects on some shows today aren’t as good as most features out there. A lot of the visual effects on “Gotham” are as good as features’ visual effects. I think the disparity that used to exist between feature-film visual effects and television visual effects has become a blurred line. And people aren’t afraid of visual effects like they used to be. You used to go on a show and hear the director say, “I hate green screen. I hate visual effects.” You don’t hear that as much. More people embrace it now as a solution to a problem instead of rejecting it as a problem unto itself.

Is the greater acceptance of VFX a result of the higher quality in general? Or do you think there are other factors at play?
The resolution between film and video is almost the same with shows now mainly delivered in 4K, which is the same resolution we deliver feature films in. So there’s much more attention to detail in television visual effects than there used to be because you couldn’t see the details before. The technology has certainly evolved, so we’re able to do it faster. And the artistry has just gotten better. As software and tools have become more available and artists have gotten more familiar with them, they can do more interesting things that no one thought they could do before. Then there’s also the fact that as time has passed, things have gotten cheaper to do. So effects that we thought were only for features in 1990 are now commonplace in TV; they’re nothing you would even bat an eye at.

If you could tell a “Gotham” viewer what to look for or appreciate from a VFX viewpoint, what would you tell them?
Without a doubt, my favorite thing in “Gotham” is when we do the aerial shots of Gotham. We do a lot of special, cool stuff, but I think whenever we feature the city of Gotham, those are the shots that I love the most. The mark I’ve always set is if someone who lives in New York watches “Gotham” and isn’t sure if it’s New York or not, then I think we’ve done a good job.

In case you missed it, here’s our interview with “Gotham” star Ben McKenzie on directing his first episode last year.