VFX For TV: 'Agent Carter'
Issue: April 1, 2015

VFX For TV: 'Agent Carter'

Born from Marvel’s blockbuster Captain America film franchise was heroine and military officer Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell. The character has been so popular with moviegoers that she earned her own starring eight-episode run on ABC in Marvel’s Agent Carter, which recently wrapped (episodes are available through iTunes, Hulu and on-demand) and looks to be grabbing a spot in the newest Avengers sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, coming out in May, as well as Marvel’s Ant-Man, to be released this summer.

Right from the start, visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal (pictured below), with feature film credits that include Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games, and Spider Man 3, says the bar was set high for the show’s visual effects.

“It was kind of a passion project for a lot of us, trying to get this Marvel hero, with these powers that men underestimate, to television,” says Duggal. “ABC had never really done this kind of big visual effects show, where we ended up doing in the 20 weeks that we prepped and shot and posted 1,038 visual effects shots, which is an enormous number. And, we wanted them to be Marvel quality visual effects, rather than television visual effects. That was really the challenge.”

With her impressive list of film credits behind her, Duggal, who had never done television before, brought on outside vendors ILM (www.ilm.com), Base Effects (www.base-fx.com) and later, Double Negative (www.dneg.com).

Duggal says that her job was to “make sure we shot and executed the visual effects and that they were to the quality that Marvel is used to creating. And a lot of those shots were in the first two episodes, which were directed by feature directors Louis D’Esposito (Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy) and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier).”

Working closely with writers to stay ahead of upcoming storylines, and within a more limited television budget, Duggal says that “often times, we would actually be creating previs or concept art for the visual effects before we even had a director on board so that we could get the key people at the studios and the networks and everybody to buy off on these ideas and what we were going to do and get the ball rolling — get us time to actually execute them. So, I figured out how to do the shots, what the shots were, and was responsible for prepping everything for the shoots, and deciding where we were going to have a green screen.”

Duggal worked directly with ILM, who, in turn, communicated with China’s Base Effects and the UK’s Double Negative for a seamless workflow, as well as with three teams of editorial, with different episodes simultaneously in post.

The setting was in 1940s New York. Duggal says they used every back lot in LA, including Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros., relying on a tremendous amount of green screen and matte paintings to create the show’s authentic-looking locations.
“We did a lot of set-extension work,” she says. “Lots of matte paintings. Every time you saw the SSR building from the exterior, that was a set extension on the Warner Bros. back lot and we completely rebuilt the façade. Every time you saw the automat from the exterior, it was actually shot on Stage 7, so it was green screen. Every time you saw it from the outside, it was basically a CG front of the building. When you saw it from the inside, everything in the windows was green screen. When [Howard Stark] gets on the boat at the dock and we see the New York night sky in the background, that’s a set extension. We shot that at San Pedro. The establishing shots were matte paintings or photographs we made into actual live action shots.”

The sheer amount of VFX work created for the show goes deep, ranging from key explosions and implosions to fight scenes atop moving vehicles and trucks diving into rivers. “When she’s disarming the bomb and throws the bomb on the floor, we see all that effects animation,” says Duggal. “There’s some quite complicated effects simulation going on there, probably one of the hardest things we did on the show because effects animation is just really hard to do with no time. For the CG explosions and CG implosions, FX animation was the dust, smoke and debris that you’re seeing in the shots.” 

Noting a scene with a truck going over a cliff, “that was entirely, fully CG — a CG truck, a CG environment,” she says. “We were collecting camera data, HDRI, texture reference and lights and so forth. We lit our truck and lit our sets, so we could do a lot of set extensions and had the 2D geometry and then we shot all the textures. So, while the truck was completely CG, the water we leveraged off an interesting element of a car falling into water and we painted the car that was in the shot out and we used the impact, put our CG truck in and we did more effects, simulations and bubbles coming off the truck. That was beautifully done. I mean, it was really hairy and we were right up against our deadline, but it was very successful.”

The series was shot on Arri Alexa XTs with VFX supported by Houdini and composited in Nuke. Of note, it’s reported that this was the first TV show to use ArriRaw for main unit photography (DP was Gabriel Beristain) and an ArriRaw workflow in series television.

“Gabby decided that we should shoot ArriRaw to capture the best quality images, something that had not been done for network TV before, to my knowledge,” says Duggal. For camera shooting formats, the team shot open gate for the VFX plates and 16:9 for the non-VFX shots.

Duggal adds, “I think we did an amazing job. We were all in this idea of creating a female character that we felt passionate about because we feel the younger generation of women needs a strong female role model in the mass media to teach women that they have their own power.”