What was your feeling to be back for this new season?
I was very excited to be back, because I knew during post production on season 01 what the general plot line for season 02 was going to be. I had all kinds of ideas firing in my brain about season 02 very early on. Once we got the green light then we hit the ground running very quickly. We all went to Dallas to scout all the locations that we knew about in the scripts. I took 100 gigs of reference pics and HDRI just in Dallas during that early scout.
How was this new collaboration with Showrunner Steve Blackman and the various directors?
Steve Blackman is all about the collaboration between the directors and the department heads. Sylvain White was first up with 201, we all knew how difficult that episode was, as it had a very complicated Cold Opener. Most of the directors I had worked with from season 01 so we had a mutual trust going in. These are big complicated episodes. It could be a 15-page scene with 8 actors talking around a table. That may sound simple but to capture each actor’s moment is incredibly complicated. Then thrown in a bunch of Visual Effects on top of that and you can get a frustrated cast and crew very quickly. I make sure in prep I am very clear what VFX needs from production on each scene. Especially talking with the directors early on about the way we need things shot. We have built an incredible and robust playground for them to play in, but they have to play inside the playground. Welcome to the world of Feature Episodic Entertainment.
What are the advantages to be co-producer and 2nd Unit Director in addition to VFX Supervisor?
As Co-Producer my main concern is about image quality going from the camera to the VFX companies, into the AVID and into the DI. We have learned so much over the last few seasons and we have made mistakes. The mistakes are never destructive, they involve pipeline issues that are constantly evolving. We all learn so much on the fly that It is complicated to describe. New cameras, new software updates, new lenses, new LED light panels, etc.…. I thank god every day for our team of Cinematographer’s, DIT, Dailies, Post and DI workflow teams. Working at 4K and HDR is a huge task to manage.
Being the 2nd Unit director in Dallas was a dream come true for me. I have worked all of my life and career to this point to become D.G.A. and earn the trust and respect that goes with that. I have always directed the VFX units on all my shows. But this was the first time I was given credit and paid for it. Steve Blackman, Jeff King, UCP and Netflix all acknowledged my life long career and my contributions to the directing process of the VFX. Amanda Marsalis was the main unit director on episodes 208 and 209 which were the most Dallas, Texas heavy shoots. With Amanda’s permission and cooperation, we both planned out a very difficult and complicated shoot in Dealey Plaza. With very limited time we had to get all the shots very quickly because it is such a heavy traffic area. Amanda would direct the actors on the ground and I directed all the VFX ground based plates, drone plates and establishers for the season. It was the best time of my life. all of my experience and training paid off during that shoot in Dallas. I have to say, the proudest moment of my career.
What are the main changes that you did from the first season?
The Time period being set in the 1960’s. I was born in 1965 so I have a deep affection for that time and the movies and music from that period. It was so much fun to dig deep into that period of history in America. We did a lot of research on Dallas and the 1960’s and we tried to really be faithful to the look. We also changed our overall show LUT to fit that look, a little more color and film grain over the entire show.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
I work very closely with my VFX producer, Phillip Hoffman, our VFX production manager, Misato Shinohara and our VFX production coordinator, Christopher Stack. Once we get an approved script I highlight the VFX sections and make my notes. Misato imports that information into our episodic budget breakdown spread sheet. Phillip will then do a pass on shots and assets costs. Once we have that first pass in good shape we then meet with the production team and review the entire script. Those meetings are very important as it helps all the department heads plan better. Last but not least the approved breakdown then goes out to the VFX companies for bidding.
The season starts with an impressive opening scene. Can you explain in detail about your work on it?
We call that scene “Battle Dallas” and it was the most complicated scene we have done so far in both seasons. It started with the idea from director Sylvain White to shoot it as a one lone shot. A seamless 3-minute shot showing off all of The Umbrella Academy team at the height of their powers. Certainly, our Marvel movie moment. It started off with picking a location that would act as our main street in Dallas, Texas. We found a great location about an hour outside of Toronto in Hamilton, Ontario. This street would be used throughout the season. It was dressed with 1960’s signage and period cars. VFX cleaned up any non-period spots and added the 1960’s downtown Dallas skyline in the background. This worked fantastic for the entire season, but we could not do a big battle scene on that street. To start off the Russian tank was to heavy to be used on a normal city street and we could not dress 6 city blocks with battle damage and destroy all those store fronts. We had Spin VFX LIDAR the entire street, so we could replicate it in cg with exact detail. The idea being that production design would build the road and a few walls at our back lot near our main production studio. Add rubble, turned over cars and especially the practical Russian T-64 tank that we could drive down the street safely. Our amazing rigging grip department built on top of cargo containers a 360 degree bluescreen that stood about 15 feet tall. This was our play ground that has the same dimensions as the real street in Hamilton just with no real buildings. All of the buildings would be CG and have to match exactly but with tons of battle damage. As the battle had been going on for several days the street needed to reflect that idea.
The entire scene was awarded to SPIN VFX and the one long shot was broken into 7 parts. Part 1 is when Five lands shot with the Phantom (at a high frame rate) on a Steadicam. The camera follows Five to the Russian tank then reveals the battle in full effect. As the camera pans back to the tank we see Five say “What the hell did we do now”. A CG version of the tank was used so the tank could recoil and fire an explosive shell. A very complicated effects simulation of the smoke coming from the barrel of the tank with the shell coming out in ultra-slow motion. This blends into Part 2 which was two elements. Element 1 was a BG plate of the street (blue screen set) camera on a techno crane traveling towards Vanya. Vanya was a tracking mark set at a specific height. We shot element 2 of Vanya (Ellen Page) on our green screen effects stage using a high-speed motion control unit with the Phantom camera traveling a very fast towards Vanya. This allowed us to blow wind on her hair and capture all that great detail in ultra-slow motion. The camera wraps around her as she uses her powers to stop the tank shell and it explodes in front of her. Part 3 blends in after the explosion and we are back on our exterior blue screen back lot. The grips built a ramp at the correct height of Vanya, so the Steadicam operator could run down it and catch up to Klaus who charges the Russian soldiers. As he does he raises some ghosts from the dead to help him fight. The ghosts were all CG and scanned from our real extras on set, both military and civilian. The camera settles on Klaus, showing two Russian soldiers behind him with an RPG ready to fire at him. We see a CG Luther running on the rooftop above them, then the camera tilts up as Luther jumps. This is the blend into part 4 with a full CG Luther coming at the camera from his jump off the roof and landing. The landing was where we blended from CG Luther to our real actor who is played by Tom Hopper. Luther blocks the RPG and it explodes on his back, saving Klaus from a certain death. The explosion was all CG with interactive light done on set to help blend in the explosion. Klaus gives Luther a nod of thanks and the camera is on the move again pushing pass them to see blue tentacles grabbing another Russian soldier about to shoot at Klaus and Luther. As the camera tilts we go into part 5 which is 100% CG created buildings, skyline and a full CG ghost Ben with all his tentacles. As Ben throws the Russian soldiers around he tosses one of them to the ground. The camera tilts down to reveal Alison and more Russian soldiers. On the tilt down, we then switch to part 6 of the one long shot.
Back on Steadicam again in our back lot set with the Phantom shooting at high speed the camera passes past the soldiers as Alison uses here rumor powers to “Blow their minds”. 3 actors were chosen as the soldiers and high-resolution full body scans were done. We shot them in front a smaller blue screen, so we could isolate them from the BG. The head explosion was done using a cloth and fluid simulation. During the head explosions as the camera pushes through the gore we switch to part 7. The Phantom camera (shooting at high speed) was then put on a techno-crane. This allowed us to use it almost as a motion control camera. For safety reasons we could not fire the AK-47’s at Diego so we had to do multiple passes. We did Diego’s jump first which was only the real actor for the start of the jump and the end of the jump. The entire flip was a very detailed CG double with CG bullets, cloth and hair simulations. Once Diego lands and says his line we finally cut out of the one long shots.
The rest of the scene was more straight forward blue screen comps of our CG street. The exception being the Nuclear explosion that kills the entire team. That was a very complicated fluid sim that had to form into the shape of an umbrella ending the scene.
Can you tell us more about the various powers?
Luther is super strong and can jump with very tough skin so we he does not have many VFX power moments unless we are doing a CG double for him. Some suit clean up on his prosthetic but only in a few shots.
Diego has the ability to bend the path of a moving metal object. We are always involved when he throws his knives our slows down bullets.
Alison has her rumor effect that is a fluid sim and some displacement. The victim’s eyes turn glazed over white for a bit which is done in comp.
Klaus and Ben had a new effect this season were Ben would possess Klaus. that was a fun RnD trying out new things. It ended up being a CG Ben match-moved on top of Klaus has be performed twisting and tortured with some cloth and fluid simulation work on top.
Five had is normal blink effect which is a shared Nuke script amongst the various VFX companies.
Vanya and a variety of effects. Some just a subtle shock wave of distortion to a full CG double of her flying in the air.
There are many slow-motions in the sequence. What are the main challenges with this kind of shots?
We use a Phantom high-speed camera that can go up to a 1000 fps. The challenge with high frame rates is the amount of light you need, and the camera has to move at an incredible speed. We use high speed motion control rigs and custom-built spinning rigs that move at super high speeds. It is very scary to stand next to that machine in motion.
Can you explain in detail about the portal’s creation and animations?
We amped up all the time portal’s this year to give them more detail and depth. These were done primarily by FOLKS VFX in Montreal. A combination of fluid simulations and 3d generated elements. All interacting with LIDAR of each location for better interaction.
Vanya and her terrifying powers are back too. Can you tell us more about these FX?
Vanya has a variety of powers this season. Some are subtle VFX such as shockwave from her chest that will crack a window. Slowly bringing back the White Violin look into some scenes. The white blue eyes and pale skin. What worked so well last season in a dark opera house does not play so well in broad daylight. We had to make adjustments to the BG plates so her bright whites would be able to show up. Then she flies and floats in this season which was a combination of Ellen Page on wires in front of a green screen and some full CG double work.
Can you elaborate about the design and creation of the character AJ?
AJ was in the graphic novel “Dallas” and I really wanted to have him in the series. I worked with Frank Ippolito and his company Thingery in Burbank on some design ideas. One bit of concept art really stuck with me and Steve Blackman. A very retro 1950’s neck piece and glass dome. It looked like something you would see in a 1950’s kitchen. A cross between a blender and a microphone. We showed that to Gabriel Ba the artists who draws the comics. He made some tweaks and that became to starting point for Chris White at WETA DIGITAL. The main challenge was how much human features and expressions do we add to AJ, a Shubunkin goldfish. We did some tests and we felt going with a more realistic normal goldfish would be best. But we made sure WETA added lots of animation controls for the eyes, nose and mouth. This would allow us to push the animation to extremes helping sell the performance of the fish. On set we had an actor in a business suit with the practical neck collar only. So, from the neck up AJ is completely CG with a full water simulation going on at all times to react to AJ’s head movement.
We discover a younger and super cute version of Pogo. Can you elaborate about him?
We see a very young chimpanzee coming to NASA in the 1960’s in a crate from the African Congo. In fact, if you look at the crate label closely is has the letter P,O,G,O, PRIMATES OF THE CONGO. That is where Grace gets the idea to name him Pogo. We started with some concept sketches from Miles Teves, who did the concept work last season from Pogo. His first sketch set the tone of a very young chimp in the jungle. He had to have a sweetness and innocence to him which helps Grace fall in love with him. Grace trains him to become a NASA test pilot for the Mercury program. This meant we had to have a training suit and a space suit designed for him. We based these designs on the real NASA chimp suits from the 1960’s. We did take some creative license and put Pogo in the classic Mercury silver spacesuit. Which NASA never did, but it was so iconic we could not resist. Once the designs and concept art were approved we had Miles Teves working with Frank Ippolito and his company “Thingery” to sculpt a life size Pogo head. Frank did the molds and cast it up in silicone, painted and added hair. This became our onset lighting reference. We sent a copy to Chris White at WETA DIGITAL in New Zealand. They used this copy to scan and as a base model to do some RnD. It is all about the eyes, so lots of time was spent getting that just right.
How did you recreate the iconic Dallas environment of the JFK assassination?
Our very first tech scout in March of 2019 was to Dallas, Texas. Since the entire season takes place in Dallas in the 1960’s we wanted to really understand the city. What has changed since then and how much of it we could use as it is today. Especially Dealey Plaza as that was the center of our story. I took a ton of high-resolution digital stills and I had Travis Reinke from his company, SCANABLE do a full LIDAR scan of Dealey Plaza. We knew we were going to come back and shoot in Dallas at some point. The original plan was to shoot two weeks in Dallas in October of 2019. That plan got greatly reduced partly because of budget concerns but a week before we got to Dallas a massive tornado destroyed a lot of homes and business near Dallas. Our police support for the Dealey Plaza shoot was tied up with other concerns for public safety. So, our 2-week shoot went to a one day shoot on a Sunday. Another surprise after we arrived was many of the buildings in Dealey Plaza were now under renovation and covered in scaffolding. We awarded all the VFX work in Dealey Plaza to FOLKS VFX. They were able to use the LIDAR data we gave them and along with deep research on what the location looked like in 1963. FOLKS also had to build a full CG presidential motorcade, all of the crowd and period cars. A massive undertaking for FOLKS but we got them started very early in post-production. This allowed FOLKS a good amount of time to get all the CG assets looking great and ready to put into the plates I shot with my 2nd Unit team.
Where was filmed the various parts of the series?
Our main stage and locations were in and around Toronto, Ontario.
With a small unit that went to Dallas, Texas and Dealey Plaza.
Did you bring new vendors on this season?
Yes, we added SOHO VFX, PIXOMONDO, STUDIO 8 and BOT.
All the VFX companies from last season also came back.
WETA DIGITAL, SPIN VFX, DELUXE TORONTO, EXCEPTIONAL MINDS,
MARZ, FOLKS and DIGITAL FILM TREE.
How did you split the work amongst these vendors?
We try our best to keep entire scenes with one VFX company. But this season got a bit crazy especially with episode 210. That was a difficult episode that required on a lot of VFX companies to work almost shot to shot in some cases.
Can you tell us more about your collaboration with their VFX supervisors?
I treat them with the respect they deserve. I came from working at several VFX companies and I was on the other end of things just like them. Nothing is more demoralizing then a production VFX supervisor being indecisive, overdemanding and frankly, disrespectful. I am not that, the VFX Supervisors and the companies are my partners in this adventure. I need them to fall on that had grenade for me on occasion as I would do the same for them.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
All of episode 210. We had a huge problem with weather and we called it. “Snowmageddon”. We had to rotoscope each actor out of the snow and put in a grassy field to match the scenes we shots before the snow fell. On top of the snow problem we had to add 5,000 commission agents attacking our hero’s firing machine guns. Vanya releases a huge shockwave that wipes them all out. Then Lila who can mimic all the sibling’s powers releases an even a bigger shockwave to knocking out our heroes. Every type of VFX techniques was used working 7 days a week for months during pandemic. I still get nervous just thinking about it.
Did you want to reveal any other invisible effects?
All the normal Dallas street shots are invisible VFX done by FOLKS. Every time we are on that street there is some type of VFX at play. Building replacement, clean up, adding the 1963 Dallas skyline. Very nice and subtle.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Trying to finish the season during a pandemic was a challenge. Keeping everybody safe was priority and NETFLIX completely understood. They kept telling us “Be safe and how can we help”. They were behind us 100% and I need to give a huge shout out to Jason Sperling for his love and support. NETFLIX truly has the best VFX team I have ever worked with.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I am very proud of all the 1963 Dealey Plaza shots done by FOLKS.
But Battle Dallas done by SPIN, Pogo and AJ done by WETA DIGITAL are outstanding as well.
What is your best memory on this show?
Getting to direct 2nd Unit in Dallas Texas.
How long have you worked on this show?
I started season 02 prep in February of 2019 and we wrapped that last VFX shots June 26th of 2020.
What’s the VFX shots count?
The final shot count came in at 1983 shots.
What was the size of your team?
There was 8 of us plus SPIN and PIXOMONDO would come onset to help out when I was in production meetings are back in Los Angeles for Post Production.
Senior VFX Supervisor, Everett Burrell
VFX Producer, Phillip Hoffman
VFX Production Manager, Misato Shinohara
VFX Coordinator, Christopher Stack
Associate VFX Supervisor, Jesse Kawzenuk
Associate Data Wrangler, Brandon Harber
Tandem Unit Data Wrangler, Derek Lang
VFX Production Assistant, Christopher King
What is your next project?
I hope Season 03?
A big thanks for your time.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020