VFX For TV: ABC's <I>Station 19</I>
Issue: March/April 2019

VFX For TV: ABC's Station 19

In March 2018, the team behind television’s longest-running medical drama, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, introduced viewers to a new spinoff series centered around the Seattle firefighters of Station 19. Created by Grey’s Anatomy executive producer Stacy McKee, the production team also includes Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s star Ellen Pompeo and Grey’s executive producer Betsy Beers. A true “Shondaland” product, Station 19 finds its lead characters in some precarious situations — including fires, explosions and severe storms. And while the characters face life-threatening circustances each week, the network certainly wants to keep its actors out of harm’s way. 

“Our job is to create absolute reality,” says VFX supervisor Mark Scott Spatny (pictured). “And if we’re doing our job right, then viewers don’t know that we have special effects. We’re just trying to create the world and the actual environment and danger that firemen and women encounter every day, while keeping our actors safe.”

According to Spatny, two great examples of what he and his team at CoSA are accomplishing for the show can be seen in Episodes 4 and 7 of the 2019 winter season. 

In Episode 4, for instance, there was a large fire in an abandoned building. “They actually did that scene the old-fashioned way,” he says, “by building a fire-proof set, which is very expensive and very complicated, and using some real fire where they could, and our actors were in there. Our part in post was to put in the extra fire and smoke, that was closer to the actors. There was enough fire in there for them to feel the heat and feel the danger and enough smoke that they were feeling it when they were breathing so they could get a real performance, but then we added that extra level. We added the extra fire that was closer to them, sparks flying in the air so it would look more dangerous but something you wouldn’t want to do on the set in case it hits something combustible. We put a ton more smoke in there because real smoke, the kind of dense black smoke you would see in a real fire, is pretty toxic so they can’t actually use it. When you’re watchin those finished scenes, it’s really very real.”

Spatny describes a later Episode 7, where there’s a house fire. "It starts on the roof and spreads through the house, and that reflects where we’re going with the show. The show would like the flexibility to be able to film these kinds of scenes anywhere, to not have to build a fireproof set on a stage, and not be restricted to shooting on a studio lot. They want to be able to film in a location that makes sense to them and have the fire and smoke and everything added in post.

"So, for that episode, we carefully planned everything — we were at a location where there could be zero real fire. It just wasn’t allowed. Even smoke, because we were shooting with children and other factors, we could only use a little bit of light smoke in the air. So, we planned it out. The art department came in and made the interior of this house look like it had smoke damage on it, got the walls all dirty, the lighting department provided us with interactive light on the wall so it looked like flames were flickering…We added all of the fire and dark smoke again.”

Fire and smoke effects are created using a host of tools, predominantly Maya and Houdini. “We shoot real, practical fire elements when we can — so we’ll shoot fire and smoke against black and blue screen so we get realistic elements. The special effects department works with us where they can so we can get real flames into shots, so it acts like real, and when we add our extra flame elements that have been shot on green or black screen, it looks like the same kind of fire they’re adding, because it’s created with the same…usually propane, it burns the same way, has the same feel…so when we integrate our stuff into it, it feels like what the special efects guys are putting in for real. It’s created the same way, we’re just adding in layers of it in post. Sometimes we use CG fire, too. And it’s the same with the smoke, some of it is real elements, some of it is CG. It really depends on what it needs to be doing. Ultimately, we want it to look like our cast is in the fire, in the danger. So, it’s a very careful combination of special effects, the stunt team and visual effects.”

In addition to the stunt sequences, the VFX team is charged with helping to put the characters in the Seattle environment. Moreso since the show returned earlier this year. For instance, one of the characters lives on a house boat on a lake where, Spatny says the team “shot plates for those backgrounds at different times of day so we’ve got backgrounds for whatever time of day we need. And the same with the station rooftop, there are some scenes up there, too, with the perfect, million-dollar view of the Space Needle and downtown Seattle. We’re looking at doing more of that. We’re slowly rolling out more ways to say, ‘Hey, in this shot, wouldn’t it be nice to see a little of the Seattle skyline?’ Hoping we can expand that out a little more next season, if there is a Season 3.”

Faced with the challenges of time and shrinking budgets, Spatny says that he leads a team of more than 100 artists at CoSA VFX — the studio where he works — across the studio’s LA, Vancouver and Atlanta locations to try and complete visual effects on episodes in just a few days. “If you’re doing an HBO show, and you’ve got 14 weeks of post production, you can do more than if you’re a network broadcast show and you’ve got eight days of post production,” he explains. “That’s always the challenge on a broadcast show. It is the number one leading factor and the difference between doing a Game of Thrones or a Jack Ryan or a Lost in Space — they have months in post so they can really refine things. They have a lot more money. Broadcast shows are advertiser-driven and so budgets are designed to reflect that. The trick is, and the hardest part, is to sometimes steer everybody towards more realistic ideas of what can be done with given budgets and schedules so the challenge is to help them understand that — in a diplomatic way. So, if they start out with 20 beats that are spectacular, we help them narrow it down to maybe three, four or five that are really critical in telling the story so that we can do a great job with it.”

While he says he doesn’t think the team is doing anything necessarily innovative, “I do think we are trying as much as possible to push the envelope of network TV in getting our real actors into the enviroemnts and danger so our audiences can feel that. I can compare to other shows that are on the air that do these kinds of things…a lot of times it still feels like old school…I thnk our goal is to push beyond that paradim and have our audiences believe 100 percent that they’re there and immersed in that. I think we’re doing that better than any other show on broadcast TV.”