With the fall TV season underway, viewers are tuning in to new shows and old favorites. Post facilities and VFX studios coast to coast have worked their magic to bring high-profile politicos, troubled towns, superheroes, post-apocalyptic castaways and picturesque whodunits to living rooms nationwide. Here’s a look at what some of the studios have to offer viewers this season.
HARBOR PICTURE COMPANY — MADAM SECRETARY
Female Secretaries of State are nothing new in government, but now a fictional one has her own TV series. New on CBS, Madam Secretary looks at how a US Secretary of State strives to balance her high-profile professional and family lives. The show is shooting in New York City on Arri Alexa, and Harbor Picture Company in town (www.harborpicturecompany.com) is handling color for the series in one of its three color grading theaters.
Harbor colorist Joe Gawler, who is a studio partner, along with Zak Tucker and Theo Stanley, graded the pilot for Madam Secretary in LA, however. “We worked out of Modern [VideoFilm] in Burbank to be in the same room with the director and producers of the show,” says Gawler. During production in New York, “I sat with cinematographer Jonathan Brown — we’ve worked on features together — to create a LUT, a master look, to use on the set.”
The pilot set the look for the series and garnered “great feedback” from the producers and director David Semel. “We have freedom to keep the show dark and moody,” says Gawler. “The show is not overlit by any means. There’s a lot of coolness in the shadows and warmth in the highlights. We’ve continued with that aesthetic.”
Now that color grading is done at Harbor and the show is shot in and around New York City, Brown sometimes comes in late at night or on weekends to spend time with Gawler. “He’s so busy, but he can drop by when he’s available and we’ll play with footage he’s sent,” says Gawler. “But Jonathan and I are at a point where he’s comfortable with me grading the initial pass unsupervised and bringing him in for the final polishing of the look.”
Modern VideoFilm sends a ProRes 444 QuickTime of the conformed show in Log C to Harbor as a longplay via Signiant file sharing. Gawler grades with Blackmagic's DaVinci Resolve 10 on Mac using the EDL supplied by Modern to notch the longplay into individual shots. He monitors in Rec.709 on a Panasonic HD plasma monitor.
“I moved to Resolve when we opened Harbor two-and-a-half years ago, and I’ve been blown away by it,” Gawler states. “The amount of control the color tools have, the fantastic tracking tools, the structure of the nodes I developed to give more flexibility and speed. For Madam Secretary I’ve developed a custom LUT to put log footage in the aesthetic we’re looking for, then it’s a matter of windowing certain areas to knock down the exposure to keep with the darker aesthetic Jonathan wants.”
He notes that Brown’s “beautiful and inspirational” cinematography “makes it easy” for him to deliver the desired look. Sometimes it takes a while to find that sweet spot, but Brown and Gawler were “very much on the same page” from the start.
Future plot lines may dictate other approaches to color, he acknowledges.
“There will be things that come up in the show — perhaps an international crisis — that we’ll push in another direction with a different look,” Gawler says.
Gawler renders final color as ProRes 444 at 2K to send back to Modern VideoFilm for final mastering. He also sends the Resolve project to allow Modern to apply the grade to any VFX shots cut in after grading has finished.
Harbor Picture Company offers complete post production, including 70 offline edit suites and its Harbor Sound division for sound editorial and mixing and “the best ADR in New York,” says Gawler.
STARGATE STUDIOS — HAVEN
"Haven" is a picturesque Maine seaside town where real-estate values must be plummeting, and one of Syfy channel's most watched shows. Many of its residents are supernaturally “troubled” and bizarre weather events, environmental disasters and weird deaths are the norm. Haven has even leapfrogged the space-time continuum.
“We’ve brought down the lighthouse more than once,” laughs Sam Nicholson, founder and CEO of Stargate Studios (www.stargatestudios.net), which has been the sole VFX vendor for Haven since it began its run on Syfy. “We’re blowing it up again this season.”
The series, which is shot in Nova Scotia, just started a 26-episode fifth season, which will be split between 2014 and 2015. “Our Toronto group does the heavy lifting” for the show, Nicholson says. Kris Wood, president of Stargate Canada, which has offices in Toronto and Vancouver, is Haven’s VFX supervisor.
The show offers a “challenge of the week” for VFX artists, Nicholson notes. “It’s not a show that’s very repetitive; you can’t build something and amortize it. Each episode is totally unique — whether it’s raining frogs or there’s some bizarre kind of energy — and at Stargate, we’re really good at creative problem solving.”
Season 5 promises new troubles for Haven residents and more imaginative VFX. “One of the cooler new effects has laser beams bursting out of a woman’s body,” says Nicholson. “Beams of light burn white hot, destroying what’s on-set and chopping people in half.”
“VFX can’t do 100 percent” of the work for shots like that, so Stargate’s VFX team is “well integrated” with the show’s practical effects team, says Nicholson. The laser sequence is a perfect example of “good effects on-set, good camerawork, 2D light beams and particle animation for the reactive elements burning the set.”
Another new “trouble” visited upon Haven’s residents finds people with their eyes and mouths stitched shut with heavy string. “We’re doing that all-digitally,” he reports. “It looks fantastic — it’s a very effective story element.”
Haven executive producers Shawn Piller and Lloyd Segan, whom Nicholson has known for many years, make VFX “a main character in the episodes,” Nicholson says. “They’re all effects you’re supposed to see, and they have a character arc.”
One of his favorite VFX from past seasons involved hyperactive trees. “They were animated and demonic — a very cool effect. The fun thing about Haven is that it can be scary and gross, but it’s all done in the spirit of fantasy, so you might call it good, clean fun!”
Stargate’s tools include Autodesk Maya for 3D, the Adobe Creative Cloud package with After Effects for most compositing and Premiere Pro for editing, and Chaos Group’s V-Ray for 3D rendering. “We’ve written a tremendous amount of automation software for all the Adobe products,” notes Nicholson. “Adobe has been a fantastic partner of ours over the years.”
Also key is Stargate’s proprietary Virtual Operation System (VOS), which connects all computers in the company’s global network of facilities. “It makes us highly efficient at moving data and collaborating creatively at our different locations,” says Nicholson. After all, “we do 15,000 VFX shots a year here. And every single one is hand-crafted with minute attention to detail.” Fans of Haven can attest to that.
ENCORE HOLLYWOOD — GOTHAM
Fox’s new Gotham is a different take on the Batman saga, featuring Detective James Gordon’s early days on the Gotham City police department and the child Bruce Wayne, whose parents have just been murdered. Encore Hollywood (www.encorepost.com) colorist Paul Westerbeck once again partners with executive producer Danny Cannon on the series; the two have been working together for 13 years, recently on Fox’s Alcatraz pilot and The CW’s The Tomorrow People.
“Danny is very visual and understands how important the whole package is: sound, picture and story,” says Westerbeck. “Danny is very involved in every show he does; he knows everyone’s role. And he directed the pilot of Gotham.”
Unlike Batman’s big screen appearances, the TV series isn’t relentlessly dark. “There’s good contrast, it looks really rich,” he says. “Wayne Manor tends to be a bit warmer, Fish Mooney’s nightclub is usually really colorful, the reds and skin tones pop a bit but are a little desaturated. The police station is neutral to slightly cool. On day one, Danny and I move through each scene, setting a master wide shot and close up. Then I follow his template — sometimes a little saturated, sometimes a little desaturated.”
Gotham is shot in New York City on Arri Alexa ProRes 444. During dailies the K1S1EE (Knee 1, Shoulder 1 Extended Range) Rec.709 photometric 3D LUT is applied. “I’ve been using it for over three years,” Westerbeck notes. “I start with it but I’m not locked into it. It’s got a lot of range.”
He explains that, “the beauty of this LUT is that if something is underexposed on the set, you’ll see it [at that time]. If things are properly exposed, they’ll look great. When the set monitor has been artificially opened, the DP is led to believe he is overexposed, subsequently bringing it down to compensate. It really helps when everything comes to us properly exposed — when we get underexposed material we don’t have much latitude to achieve the Cannon look. If too underexposed, the Alexa gets an unnatural magenta skin tone. On occasion, we can’t go any further than what was seen on-set.”
Westerbeck mans a Nucoda Film Master in Encore Hollywood’s Color Suite 3. The system is particularly interactive when he’s working alongside Cannon. “It’s fast and powerful,” he says. “It does background rendering so there’s no time waiting for rendering when Danny is here. When I get to the end of the show, it’s ready to go.”
He also cites Nucoda’s “great tracking and windows and image stabilization, although I don’t use [the latter] a lot on this show. I use [GenArts'] Sapphire plug ins: Glow is great for little accents. Nucoda’s noise reduction is big, and I use the dirt fix tool to clean up digital hits you can get with Alexa.”
The system also “works from any file format,” he adds, which makes it easy to handle MXF files sent from Avid editorial and drop in shots arriving as AAF files.
Encore Hollywood, a Deluxe Entertainment Services company, conforms and finishes Gotham. Westerbeck also does another color pass for new media distribution, tracing color back to the original files for versioning.
LEVEL 3 — THE FLASH
The Flash, which premiered on The CW, spotlights the eponymous DC Comics superhero who works as a police forensic investigator by day. The production, which shoots in British Columbia, posts with Encore and Level 3 Post, both companies in the Deluxe Entertainment Services network. Encore Vancouver does the dailies pass, Encore VFX in Hollywood crafts the VFX, and Level 3 Post (www.level3post.com) in Burbank does the color grading and conform.
Level 3 senior online editor Brett Truett is the lead online editor for The Flash. The offline is done by show editors working in LA on Avid Media Composers; Truett conforms from ProRes 444 files generated by Arri Alexa.
Truett’s online bay features both an Autodesk Smoke system and an Avid Media Composer. “Most of the conform is actually done in Avid, including clean up and fixes and lighting effects,” he explains. “I process files in Smoke. We create a DPX stream, which makes it very easy to update shots — it’s similar to a tape workflow but with the advantage of speed. The conform is all about making the process as quick and transparent as possible based on the workflow we developed. We’re in charge of making sure the DPX stream is current and the Log color space is managed for the colorist.”
After Truett publishes the conform, colorist Ken Van Deest is able to access all of the show’s original raw media along with the dailies from Encore Vancouver, which he can use as a jumping-off point if needed. Working in Resolve, Van Deest can work on media simultaneously with Truett thanks to Level 3’s infrastructure. When Truett drops in VFX shots from Encore Hollywood, they immediately appear in Van Deest’s timeline.
Truett says this Alexa file-based workflow is now Level 3’s primary workflow. “We worked closely with Avid to maximize efficiencies for load and conform,” he reports.
“The job has become a lot more technical without losing the creative vision of the show,” Truett says. “We’re managing color and file formats. Attention to detail is more critical than it ever was. The level of expertise required has gotten a lot higher.”
TECHNICOLOR-POSTWORKS — GRACEPOINT
Gracepoint, Fox’s re-imagining of the UK’s critically-acclaimed hit crime drama, Broadchurch, premiered with David Tennant reprising his starring role. Shot in British Columbia (doubling for Northern California) on Arri Alexa, the series concentrated its post production at Technicolor-PostWorks New York, where showrunners Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman live, and where the show could take advantage of New York state’s support for local post facilities. Apart from near-set dailies, processed by Earl Fudger from a hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, and boarded VFX by Stargate Studios’ Vancouver office, all post production was done at Technicolor-PostWorks.
Editorial suites there hosted Avid editors, who cut the show on Media Composer V.7 with an Avid ISIS 5000 shared SAN. “It was great to be co-located with the folks doing all the finishing,” says Gracepoint producer Irene Burns. “And Technicolor-PostWorks has an amazing technical support staff.”
Online editor Pat Kelleher did the conform and finish. Smoke on Mac was his dominant tool, but he was also equipped with a Media Composer and Avid DS.
“Since Media Composer on Mac now supports ProRes natively, instead of transcoding, we were able to conform in ProRes 444 on Smoke on Mac and conform the editorial effects on Media Composer,” explains Matthew Schneider, director of technology at Technicolor-PostWorks.
The company also supplied about half of the VFX for the series, many of which consisted of handheld devices’ screen shots. “The VFX were built by the editors, Pat auto-conformed them in Media Composer and sweetened them in Smoke, as necessary,” Schneider says. “Having camera native sources for the auto-conforms gave Pat a real leg up in quality. It is also a tremendously-efficient way to work.”
Colorist John Crowley graded the series on Filmlight's BaseLight. “We were given LUTs to apply from the dailies, but we were also fortunate to have the opportunity to play around with the look with the DP who was [at Technicolor-PostWorks] after the show wrapped,” says Burns.
“CDL adjustments were passed through the Media Composer to the EDL in Baselight, where John could refer to them while also color grading in native ProRes 444 12-bit color space,” Schneider says.
“Gracepoint is a wonderful place where a terrible thing happens,” Burns notes. “So the beauty shots had to be really stunning. The town of Gracepoint is a major character in the story, so a lot of the look had to do with the exteriors.”
To wrap up finishing for each episode, Kelleher dropped VFX shots from Stargate into the conform. Technicolor- PostWorks delivered the series to Fox in three formats: HDSR 1080 23.98 and HDSR 720 60p tape, and as files.
“Pat and John are two extraordinary, talented people, and we were really lucky to work with them both on Gracepoint,” says Burns.
ZOIC STUDIOS — THE 100
Nuclear war has wiped out almost all life on Earth, but several thousand survivors remain, orbiting in The Ark, a massive space station formed when various international space stations nested together to form a giant pod. When The Ark’s life-support systems start to fail, The 100 are dispatched to Earth to determine if the planet is habitable. These hundred juveniles had committed crimes and were condemned to prison on board The Ark. Now, they have arrived on Earth to discover that not all humans have disappeared: the Grounders still eke out an existence on a planet that has returned to nature.
Zoic Studios’ Vancouver office (www.zoicstudios.com) has created VFX for The CW series since the show premiered last March. A second season, once again shot in British Columbia, is set to debut on October 22, with Zoic’s Peter Hunt serving as CG supervisor.
At the end of Season 1, the main core of The Ark has crashed to Earth and impacted the side of a mountain. “A lot of cool looks were established in Season 1 and we’re expanding imagery from there,” says Hunt. “Earth is definitely a brave new world, and the show’s writers and artists are bringing viewers new things to see.”
Zoic crafted some epic VFX for Season 1, so it has its work cut out for itself with Season 2. “The Ark is a floating city on a massive scale,” notes Hunt. “It had to look as good in close-ups as in the wide shots. We had a 3D base model from the production art department, and we filled in all the high-level details that make The Ark feel massive.”
CG was used to depict The Ark re- entering the Earth’s atmosphere and crashing. “Our dynamics team created the shots as it rips through the atmosphere: 99 percent was CG fire with particles, smoke, dust and sparks from our elements library,” Hunt explains. “The only real plate photography was the mountains and lakes where it crashes.”
Post-apocalyptic Earth is now overgrown as nature reclaims the terrain. Mutations have also been created. In the first episode of the new season, the castaways encounter a deer in a meadow. It appears normal in profile but when it turns to face them the other half of its face “is scarred and weird,” Hunt says. “It’s all fully animated: You can’t direct a deer and get a character performance.” In a more beautiful mutation shot, Zoic filled a forest grove with thousands of glowing butterflies.
In another sequence, damaging, poisonous, yellow ground fog rolls through the forest. “It was a challenge having the fluid dynamics of the fog roll across the ground and integrate with plate photography of the forest,” says Hunt. “We had to trace out each individual tree in the plates and integrate our fog with it. It was very tricky and labor intensive.”
CG effects also involve the surviving humans. Zoic applied “digital blood and guts” to scenes where The 100 suffer a horrific virus that causes bleeding from the eyes and mouth, Hunt says. For safety issues, CG is also used for sequences featuring their primitive weapons, like bows and arrows, and the wounding that results from the skirmishes with the Grounders. In one dramatic attack shot, The 100’s Drop Ship rocket engines vaporize a band of Grounders, incinerating them and turning actors into CG charred bodies and skeletal remains.
Zoic’s tools include Autodesk's Maya for 3D, The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing and V-Ray from Chaos Group for rendering. The dynamics team relied heavily on Chaos Group’s Phoenix FD plug-in for fluid simulations, including fire, smoke and explosions. Fracture FX demolition tool and Maya’s nParticles created the incinerated Grounders.
Zoic’s own suite of tools and pipeline “make life easier” for artists, and enable them to react swiftly to clients’ needs, notes Hunt. “We have render farms here and in our Culver City, CA, headquarters to share the load of all the complex imagery. It’s as easy as if [Culver City was] in another room.”
Hunt observes that, “20 years ago, VFX for TV were rare. Ten years ago, the lines between features and TV were very broad, but they have continued to narrow and so have timelines. Producers, writers and audiences all expect to see higher-quality effects on TV. But creating entire worlds doesn’t happen in a day. It’s a huge challenge, but part of the fun at the same time.”
At Zoic, Michael Cliett was VFX supervisor for The 100, Tyler Weiss the producer, Kornel Farkas the lead compositor and Andrew Bain the lead CG artist. Robert Smith was the main modeler for The Ark and Mike Rhone served as dynamics lead.