Chloe Lang is the name of the ten-year-old American actress who plays Stephanie in the next season of the TV series about LazyTown, which is currently being filmed. Chloe is a great athlete who loves to sing and dance. She is excited to see herself on screen. What is your full name and how old are you?My name is Chloe Lang and I am 10 years old. Where are you from? I live in Connecticut,...
Stomach in and chest out is what I do before entering the LazyTown Studio. When you come to LazyTown, you can’t say you’ve been ignoring the gym since Easter. Kjartan Már Kjartansson, PR director for LazyTown, welcomes me and leads me through the corridors. The studio is even bigger than I imagined. It is also buzzing with life. People are busy working in different rooms and corridors and there is a talking sound between men and women. Some people speak other languages. I close my sentence with “..praise for the property” and Kjartan Már confirms that the facilities for the employees are good.
I don’t see Sportacus. Stephanie is also not in sight. “She always has a day off to study on Mondays,” says Kjartan Már. The third main character, Robbie Rotten, on the other hand, is there in full form and quickly shakes my hand. He greets me warmly. “I’ve been working with Magnus for too long,” he says with a broad grin. On the other hand, the chin attracts far more attention. Robbie Rotten has arguably the most impressive chin in television history, even Jay Leno can’t compare to that. “It takes a lot of time every morning to get Robbie Rotten ready for filming,” says Kjartan Már as he shows me around the make-up room. It is not surprising, and a reminder, that all is not as it seems in LazyTown. The possibilities of television have been stretched to the limit.
That’s exactly what my visit is about. I’ve come to find the Spaniard Remo Balcells, head of the special effects department, and his colleagues. The team consists of nine people and in their department the special effects of the show are created. Not in the studio, but on computer screens in a small room. Technology has no limits.
The trick is invisible
LazyTown’s film world is complex and when the dynamic film fails, Balcells and his colleagues take over. Their role ranges from bringing in the smallest details that are difficult to film to creating full-length videos in 3D. Balcells allows me to look over the shoulder of several employees where really amazing things are happening. “Actually, the technical term ‘technological effects’ does not adequately reflect what we do. If the viewer realizes where technology replaces the film, we have failed. The flow of the film should be smooth. The trick should not be seen. That’s why I prefer to call it ‘invisible special effects’,” says Balcells.
Production on the LazyTown TV series began nearly three years ago, and Balcells joined the group late last year (2005). “Raymond Le Gué, the executive producer on the project, contacted me last fall when I was living and working in Honolulu, Hawaii, and asked if I would be interested in participating in a project in Iceland,” says Balcells once we settle in the so-called Hudson room in LazyTown.
“Raymond and I have been friends for 20 years, so I listened to him carefully, but at first it didn’t sound too exciting to switch between Hawaii and Iceland,” says Balcells, focusing on ice. “However, the project seemed very exciting to me, so I came here to see what went on. This was in November last year, 2005. I immediately liked what I saw and went for it. Here in LazyTown, the ambition and professionalism are at a high level.”
Balcells is not a newcomer to the business, having spent years creating special effects for Hollywood movies. “It’s a very demanding job, as the films are shown on a 50-foot wide screen. Accuracy is key, because if the special effects aren’t good enough, the audience will see right away when they’re being tricked. In movies, my role is almost exclusively to add scenes that have already been recorded.
It’s very different with TV. There the work is much more flexible and the special effects are often louder. These two media use completely different strategies. That’s why television fascinated me and this was an ideal opportunity to expand my skills.”
The purpose of hiring Balcell was to take the special effects in LazyTown to the next level. “The bar was set high here, and Raymond and Magnús Scheving were confident that with my knowledge and experience I was the right person to raise it even higher. That’s why I brought in a few artists from outside and mixed them with the group that was here before. I emphasized that these were people who had expertise in things that had not been done here before. There are now four foreigners and five locals here, and this group, as far as I know, fit together well”, says Balcells, adding that several innovations have been made in the computer processing of the shows. “Which I hope will make a good show even better. “
The artist has a free hand
Balcells is artistic director and has the last word. Still, he thinks it’s important that each artist gets his share. “My role is to learn the director’s vision and how best to implement it. Once I’ve done that, I pass it on to the artist and encourage them, each in their own field, to add something to that foundation. When people have a basic understanding of what they’re doing, it’s imperative to let creativity run wild. Otherwise, people won’t get any better. We look at every idea carefully, and then the artist has free rein. I’m not taking control over that unless I think people are lost.”
Balcells enjoys his collaboration with Magnús Scheving. “As you know, he plays different roles here. Director, actor, producer, just to name a few. He’s everywhere. The side of him that appeals to me is mainly the director role. We have regular meetings, where he writes the script to me and come up with broad ideas, which my people and I then elaborate in detail. This is a good arrangement. Magnús is very approachable and you can easily turn to him if you want to ask something. He is also good at following of what is going on with us and to let us know what he thinks. I also keep a close eye on all the recordings, and at that stage we often exchange ideas. There is great flexibility and dynamism in our communication with Magnús. But that’s Magnús, an extremely dynamic man.”
Balcells admits he was surprised that a project as big as Latibær would take place in Iceland. “I knew very little about Iceland when I arrived. Like so many people, I used to learn the names of all the capitals of the world at school and then this strange name, Reykjavík, stuck in my head. It was so hard to pronounce. However, I never expected to come here. It is amazing that only three hundred thousand people live here. Reykjavík seems much bigger than it is because the city is so international and rich in culture. There is also a lot of knowledge in the field of TV here series production and the equipment is great. I was pleasantly surprised.”
Filming for this season ends in July, 2006, and Balcells says he’s not sure what will happen to him next. “Honestly, we haven’t talked about it yet. I’ll be here at least until September, as my role won’t end until after filming stops. We talked about it at first to see how it goes – and it seems good to go – and then talk about it later. I haven’t received any confirmation, but I assume production of the shows will continue. It’s great to be here, the environment is good, the people are nice and the project is very challenging. So I’m open to anything.”
Balcells is 53 years old. He was born in Italy but grew up in Spain. “My mother is Italian and my father is Spanish. I was born in Turin, and when I was two months old, we moved to Barcelona, where I grew up. I could choose between two nationalities and I chose Spanish However, I was raised very Italian, especially in cooking, so I’m quite mixed.”
Balcells is not a computer whiz and started filming relatively late. “I’m a late bloomer. I think I was about thirty when I started working for my friends who had a small business in Barcelona that specialized in video art. It went well and we won several awards, among other things. I was just an assistant, and soon I was working as an editor, cameraman, and lighting guy, just to name a few. One day, the company decided to buy a computer to handle basic elements like titles. It was a very simple computer, but no one knew how to use it. I was one of the few who could read English, so I started flipping through the manual.”
With that, Balcell’s fate was decided. Technology became more advanced and he started working independently. “That’s where the Amiga machines came into play, and I traveled around town with such a machine in a backpack doing various projects. Soon after, I was hired by one of the biggest film companies in Europe at the time and stayed there for five years. Then I met an American artist and collaborated with her on a project. That went well and she then invited me to work for her in California. Without being told twice, my wife and I boarded a plane and landed in Irvine, California. I stayed there for six months before joining the big company Digital Domain in 1997.”
Worked on Titanic and The Day After Tomorrow
At Digital Domain, Balcells went on to do technical work on several blockbusters, such as The Fifth Element and Titanic. “It was a very fun and educational time.” Three and a half years later, he got the chance to work in Honolulu on the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. “It was a computer movie that had to look like a regular movie. I thought the movie was totally cool and didn’t quite live up to the standards. Moving was no problem because my wife and I were excited about living on Hawaii. This project took four years. However, the film did not do well enough and the company went bankrupt. Unfortunately. But my wife and I fell in love with the island and hung around until we were invited to Iceland. In that time we lived in Hawaii for nine years.”
Balcell’s last job before coming here was managing the special effects in the movie The Day After Tomorrow for a company called The Orphanage. He says it has been a big challenge. “We had to create snow, big storms, helicopters crashing and a few other things. All in a computer. It was a very exciting project, but extremely complex and tested the imagination. The Orphanage is a much smaller company than e.g. ILM or Sony, so we had limited resources to work with. Time was also short. I still think it worked out. At least we were very happy with our share of work in the movie.”
Balcell’s family is with him in Iceland. “My wife and children came with me. We have two-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and I couldn’t imagine being away from them for so long. So we all moved to Iceland. My wife comes from the Netherlands, so we are both much closer to our people here than in Hawaii. That’s a big advantage. We haven’t seen our families much in recent years.”
Always with the latest gadgets
Jóhann Örn Reynisson and Sveinbjörn Davíð Magnússon have been working on the production of the LazyTown TV series from the beginning, when the project was launched in early 2004.
They say a lot has changed in the special effects department, even if it wasn’t that long ago. “In the beginning it was just one Macintosh in the corner of a small shop on Laugavegin. We were brought to the computer and told to start working on it,” Jóhann says, laughing as he recalls it. Soon after, it was moved to the current building in Garðabær and the department gradually expanded. The number of people increased and the choice of equipment improved. “The equipment is now very complete and the innovation is fast. We always have the latest gadgets. The ambition here is great,” says Sveinbjörn.
Jóhann works with digital composition, while Sveinbjörn works in 3D. Neither has formal training in their field as the subjects are not taught here. But people learn quickly in LazyTown. “Things move fast here and you can gain experience quickly,” says Sveinbjörn, adding that it’s easy to gain knowledge in the different areas of home television production. “Otherwise there is so much going on here that no one can follow it all – except maybe Magnús Scheving.”
They work well with Remo Balcells and the other foreigners on the team. “They come from a different working environment than we do, and it is clear that the way of working here and abroad is completely different. The specialization is much narrower there, while people here have to be able to combine the different jobs. Here it is not uncommon for the same person to have four job titles. As a result, the cooperation has been very educational for both parties. We benefit from getting to know this structure, which they have to get used to, and they benefit from seeing that it is easy to resolve various issues quickly and easily if people are prepared to let things flow,” says Jóhann.
The Sveinbjörns agree that the spirit in the group is good because nothing else matters when people work so closely together. “In LazyTown everyone helps each other.”