Not everything appears as it seems on television. Sometimes an environment is so imaginative that it can only exist thanks to computer graphics. Other times, CGI is used to sell a realistic locale to television audiences, whether for convenience, cost, or some other reason.
In the case of two television series in the spotlight, CGI and VFX helped establish vital story lines. In Designated Survivor, 3D imagery destroys the US Capitol, an event that is at the heart of this political series that just ended its first season. In the award-winning
The Crown, CGI re-created famous British landmarks as they were
in the early years of the queen’s reign, as opposed to their appearance today.
While the shows take place in two different time periods, they both attempt to establish believable settings that are familiar to many.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor ofCGW.
Watching images of the US Capitol engulfed in flames is gut-wrenching for Americans, even when the vision – made to look very real – is staged for a television series.
As lead visual effects provider for the first season of Designated Survivor, FuseFX provides a wide range of 2D and 3D effects for the series, many involving re-creations of familiar Washington, DC, landmarks. And that includes those for the nightmarish scene described above.
The ABC drama centers on Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), a cabinet secretary who becomes president in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the Capitol. To this end, the series premiere showed the building being destroyed, and subsequent episodes showed the aftermath.
For the first season, the FuseFX team, led by VFX Supervisor Eric Hayden, was tasked with reimagining the US Capitol after it has been destroyed in a bomb blast. Artists produced a large-scale 3D model of the ruined architecture and debris field, and integrated it with partial practical set pieces used during the production. The illusion appears in several early episodes.
“In the pilot, you see the remains of the Capitol immediately after the disaster has happened,” notes Hayden. “We see it again the following day when the new President Kirkman stands before it in addressing the country. For later episodes, we modified the model to indicate that rebuilding has begun.”
From an aesthetic perspective, the Capitol ruins had to be believable and convey the enormity of the catastrophe without drawing undue attention. “This is not a fantasy show,” Hayden says. “The Capitol needed to play as a real element in the background, and not distract from the actors’ performances. It couldn’t look too dramatic or not photoreal. Our biggest challenge was to ensure our work tied seamlessly to the set.”
The FuseFX team rigged the Capitol model for destruction in Autodesk’s 3ds Max. It required special modeling of its detailed parts to create the correct structure, volume, and scale. It was also designed to match the practical set of the destroyed building.
While on set in Toronto, Hayden took a plethora of photographs that were used to generate a photogrammetric model. Although the model was not used directly, the artists did use the photographs as reference for the size, scale, color, and placement of the debris.
“We learned a lot on the first pass that we did of the Capitol for the pilot and were able to apply those lessons when we revisited the effect and improved the way the pieces fit together,” explains Hayden. “For example, we were able to strategically position fire trucks on the set to create better cut lines between the practical and CGI sets.”
Added to the scene was a lot of practical smoke on the set, which tended to float into sections of shots that were going to be replaced with CGI. For nighttime shots, the group was able to screen back the practical smoke and keep it in the final shot. For daytime shots, they used less practical smoke, which is much harder to pull from a daytime sky, and instead added 2D and 3D elements. In addition, there was a column of smoke coming from the Capitol dome. That was simulated in Side Effects’ Houdini and designed to interact with the geometry of the dome.
A shot from earlier in the episode has Kiefer Sutherland looking out a window and seeing the remnants of the explosion of the Capitol. The explosion was created in Houdini. The plate of the view outside the window was HDRI photography that Hayden shot while scouting in Washington.
For a later episode, FuseFX created elements for an inauguration scene, referencing news footage of the Obama inauguration. “We modeled a different piece of the Capitol representing a small portion of the building’s platform. We also redressed the existing model for daytime, and added scaffolding and flags waving in the wind,” says Hayden.
The inauguration scene also involved a reverse perspective from the podium looking out over the Mall. For that, the artists created a CGI crowd in 3ds Max, populating the area with approximately 150,000 people. (The inauguration was for the new vice president, so the presumption was that the crowed would not be as large as one for a presidential inauguration.) One additional shot showed the crowd from a distance of about a mile – from the perspective of an assassin.
Moreover, “a lot of the effects we create for the show go by without the audience recognizing them as effects,” says Hayden.
FuseFX’s work also includes such things as a CG aircraft and enhancing gunfights. The work, says Hayden, is highly variable and story-specific. Additionally, he notes, the studio’s shot list often grows as episodes move through production.
“Designated Survivor is a very creative show; the producers and writers continue to refine and improve each episode virtually through to delivery,” Hayden explains. “We need to be on our toes so that we can react to new requests.”
Hayden adds that the studio is well prepared to accommodate such changes. “We have a very well developed pipeline that allows for changes without disrupting communication across the team of artists. It is something that this studio has prided itself on from its beginnings. Our workflow complements the television production process in ways that are efficient and deliver the best results.”
The Crown, available through Netflix, is a royal gem. It provides a history lesson about the still-reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II as she uses a steady yet firm royal hand while on the throne, even when those around her may act less than regal at times.
The production covers the queen as a 25-year-old newlywed in 1947, as she is faced with a declining empire during an unstable political time, and follows her to the present day. The Crown is expected to span 60 episodes over six seasons. Season 1, which has garnered a great deal of attention (receiving a Golden Globe for Best TV Drama Series and recently a BAFTA Craft Award for Special, Visual and Graphic Effects), depicts events through 1955. Claire Foy, who plays the role of the queen in Season 1, also received a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Drama.
Indeed, the series is a realistic glimpse into this royal’s life, yet visual effects were required nonetheless. This duty was completed by One of Us, which was the sole VFX provider, covering all 428 effects shots over the first series. The facility is also handling the work on the second series.
The VFX are primarily focused on creating a believable world to support the narrative. It was exclusively invisible, photoreal work, including digital set extensions, environments, crowd replication, CG aircraft, and a re-creation of Buckingham Palace.
Among the range of environments One of Us created was one required for the coronation sequence in Episode 5. Shot on a greenscreen stage at Pinewood, it needed to look like the famed Westminster Abbey. It was not possible to film or take photos inside the sacred locale, even for reference, making it even more challenging to replicate the grandiose scale of the abbey. Alternatively, the artists had to use online and archival information for reference during the reconstruct.
Next, they used Ely Cathedral as a base on which to build the abbey for the scenes, following filming at the cathedral for the royal wedding in Episode 1. “So for the coronation, we ended up with an amalgamation between the two architecturally,” says Ben Turner, VFX supervisor at One of Us.
Other main environments included the Downing Street rooftops in Episode 4 and the Buckingham Palace courtyard, which appears throughout the series. For the work, the artists used Autodesk’s Maya and Banzai Pipeline’s Enwaii for the photogrammetry. Compositing was done with The Foundry’s Nuke.
The 3D crown jewel for the series was in fact Buckingham Palace, a 3D model comprising 202,333 polygons. “We had many scenes across the series of people driving in and out of Buckingham Palace, and it’s not possible to get access to film at the actual location,” Turner explains.
Thus, an archway set piece was built on the backlot of Elstree Studios for cars to drive through, and the artists added the rest. “The first series only covers a short period of time across the ’40s and ’50s, so the model was a much dirtier version of the palace than the one we know now, as the palace was very dark with dirt back then,” says Turner.
Nevertheless, the artists had to make the palace as photoreal as possible, taking their own photos and using Enwaii to build the model. They then re-projected the photos onto the model and added 1950s post-war dirt and grime. Still, covering the building in dirt without it getting lost in the grime was hardly easy, and it needed to be realistic to the period while still being recognizable as Buckingham Palace.
There were also many digital set extensions, such as Downing Street. One of the more difficult extensions was for a BOAC DC-4 plane, which had to feel three-dimensional. “We saw it from many angles, and at times we got very close to it, so the level of detail needed to be very high. Also, shiny silver aircraft needs to reflect the light believably,” Turner adds.
The DC-4 was used in multiple scenes across the series. The team took a good deal of detailed photo reference of a real DC-4 in South Africa and used that to build a 3D model using Maya and Enwaii. They then re-projected those photos back onto the model as textures, and added additional detail on a per-shot basis using digital matte painting done in Adobe’s Photoshop. Furthermore, the model was rigged so that it could take off and land, which it did in a handful of shots.
Crowds are ever present in the series. One of Us did not use digital doubles for this work, but instead used digital crowd replications. The group devised an in-house 2.5D tool in Nuke that was a card generator, giving the artists a choice of crowd elements and letting them determine the costume, angle, resolution, and actions.
While the overall effects were not difficult, what made them complicated was the scale of the work. There were four different directors across 10 episodes, and the shooting schedule and post schedule overlapped significantly. This meant the artists often were pulled in two directions at the same time.
“The number of shots and the huge amount of data became a challenge when juggling multiple episodes at once,” says Turner.
It’s not every day that a studio gets such a royal assignment. As a matter of fact, One Of Us typically works on films, and although this was an episodic production, they approached it as a feature film. So, the expectations for high-quality work were exactly what the group is used to, and the crew was able to transfer its film experience directly to the project. And the result? Award-winning.