VFX For TV: 'Chicago Fire'
Issue: April 1, 2015

VFX For TV: 'Chicago Fire'

For the past three years, LA’s Spy Post (www.spypost.com), a FotoKem company, has been setting TV on fire with some of its visual effects — literally — as the sole VFX provider on NBC’s hit drama Chicago Fire (a Wolf Films show, along with spin-off Chicago PD).

The producers for the series, which is centered around the lives of the firefighters and paramedics working at Engine 51 of the Chicago Fire Department, obviously can’t be sending its star cast into harm’s way for dangerous rescue missions so, rather, they look to the talents of Spy Post to add that extra element of danger.

The team, headed up by VFX supervisor Scott Rader, has been upping the ante on some of the series’ life-threatening rescues, fires, and explosions to increase the drama for viewers at home. 

Working closely with the studio’s San Francisco location for some of the heavier CG shots and matte paintings, Rader says, “Like other shows, everything we do has to be seamless. Here, we’re not adding dragons or fairies; we’re augmenting a tremendous amount of shots with smoke and flames. Obviously, one of the reasons is to amp up the danger. But there’s also a huge safety issue here. Even though all the actors are in full gear, and there are all kinds of safety and fire issues being addressed on-set, there’s only so close you can put actors to flames.” 

Rader explains that the studio also adds debris and embers to scenes, as well as rig removal for scenes involving firemen dangling off of buildings and roofs, dropping from elevator shafts, or being blown out of windows, that ultimately make the scenes look more dangerous than they really are.

The same can be said of Chicago PD, which focuses on the special unit detectives and police officers of District 21 of the Chicago Police Department, with some of the series’ gunfights and explosions shot in front of green screen. According to Rader, one scene requiring a rooftop shootout was scheduled to take place at night, when the temperatures were 20 below. Instead, production was brought to an inside set, shot in front of a green screen, and Spy later added the beautiful city of Chicago as its backdrop. PD also required a scene that took place at an airport, where one of the characters walked out of a private jet and into a car waiting on the runway. “They couldn’t get to an airport or have the budget for it, so we created the whole airport and the airplane. There was another episode on PD with a father and son that was held hostage in the back of a truck that ended up going into the Chicago River.” According to Rader, the river was completely frozen over, so Spy created a matte painting as though the truck broke through the ice, redid all the river ice and the water on top and placed the truck below it. 

Both shows are shot on location in Chicago on Arri Alexa cameras, and Spy works directly on DPX plates for the VFX. 

With an extremely tight schedule of about three or four days to turn around anywhere from 50 to 100 shots, Rader says Spy relies heavily on both Inferno and Flame, Maya for the 3D work, Nuke for heavy CG comp'ing, and Photoshop for matte paintings.

“We work under a really tight deadline,” says Rader. “That’s the trickiest part of doing this, the sheer amounts of shots we have and the quick turnaround. But we really enjoy it. And what we’re really proud of is when you look at some of these scenes, with just a little bit of fire and smoke in them when they’re in editorial, and then we take them and add these big flames and black, billowing smoke — and then the sound guys put all the crackling sound of fire — all of a sudden it hits air, and you’re like, ‘Now that’s scary and dangerous.’”