VFX Legion’s remote team of artists scales for Scandal’s needs
Now in its fifth season on ABC, Scandal has become one of television’s best-rated and most talked-about shows, delivering gripping drama week after week. Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope, a master of crisis management who helps political figures navigate their own tricky situations – all while carrying on an affair with none other than the President of the United States himself.
Scandal is fun, tense, irresistible, and watched by millions of people around the world. For this reason, it needs to look fantastic – it may not the kind of show that necessitates a broad variety of in-your-face visual effects, but Scandal nevertheless requires precise visual effects expertise to deliver its captivating storylines with each new episode.
To accomplish that task, ShondaLand and ABC Studios turned to Rajeev and Elan Dassani of Master Key VFX, who in turn partnered with VFX Legion and its global team of artists to hit the tight episodic deadlines and deliver every crucial shot on time.
Talk of the town
VFX Legion provides visual effects services on another current ShondaLand and ABC series, How to Get Away with Murder, and thus has a great relationship with the VFX supervisors. So, when Scandalwas about to film its most VFX-intensive episode of the season, the producers called up VFX Legion and asked them to handle the job.
VFX Legion’s task: to recreate the famous Truman Balcony from the White House, including the stunning view of the President’s Park, Ellipse, and Washington Monument beyond. While these shots had been done before in the series, it was Legion’s first time at bat – there was an amazing amount to learn in a very short time.
Only the actors would be shot on a soundstage; VFX Legion needed to create everything around it from scratch. To add to the challenge, the sequence was shot from multiple viewpoints, increasing the amount of work required.
“It was a sequence of 50+ shots looking out over Washington D.C. at night, in all angles,” explains James Hattin, creative director at VFX Legion. “It’s not just one view – the actors were walking and talking, with the perspective revealing different wings of the White House and various famous buildings in the background.
“It was a really big task, and we had about a week to do the 50+ shots, including adjustments to previously designed photographic matte paintings,” he says. “We reached out to our entire talent pool to get this done.”
VFX Legion has a core team of artists based in and around Los Angeles, including talented episodic lead compositors Nick Guth and co-founder Kyle Spiker. This makes the studio ideally suited to assist with all sorts of Hollywood productions on screens small or large. Beyond those artists, VFX Legion also relies on a number of freelancers spread across the world, who can be tapped as needed to help the team scale to meet any request. These artists are creative specialists who choose to work where they live, rather than relocate to the expensive VFX hotspots of the world. VFX Legion is able to utilize their talents as larger needs pop up during production, rather than scrambling to find someone from the near tapped-out resources of LA.
Hattin ended up bringing in 10 different artist groups to assist with the work on that one Scandal episode.
“It’s just a matter of telling them to go and go fast, enabling us turn around a lot of work very quickly,” explains Hattin. “With these great artists contributing from all around the world, we can work pretty much 24/7, meaning we can tackle even 50 shot sequences within the tight deadlines of an episodic production schedule like Scandal.”
Ever since nailing that challenging first test for Scandal, VFX Legion has been approached time and again by the production, having delivered about 140 shots by the halfway point of season 5. Scandalhas various VFX needs despite its focus on human drama, including a large green screen setup in Los Angeles to recreate Washington’s Lafayette Square, and other instances smaller in scope, such as screen replacements or set extensions to add a sense of scale to a shot.
Nevertheless, when it comes to television, time is always the biggest issue: the weekly production and airing cycle means that there’s precious little wiggle room between VFX Legion receiving the plates and the work deadline.
Thankfully, VFX Legion’s remote approach makes it perfectly suited to handling tasks both large and small, even within the most demanding of timeframes.
“If your due date is on Friday, you may get plate turnover on Wednesday night or Thursday, and the expectation is that you will deliver – come hell or high water – on that Friday,” says Hattin.
One example of VFX Legion adapting to challenging circumstances in such a limited timeframe can be found during the post-production of a challenging Scandal shot. “We had a scene filmed in a warehouse as night, which needed to be changed after the fact to take place during the day,” explains Hattin. “We received a note from the show’s producers on a Friday, and the corrected footage had to be in the following Monday to hit the airing deadline…” – again, come hell or high water.
Hattin turned to his experts: a matte painter in Vancouver and a tracker in Australia, among others. They removed incandescent lights from the scene, matte painted the windows to give them daytime lighting, and added in light rays dappling through the glass.
You would never know that the shot was so dramatically amended, which is exactly the point: VFX Legion’s visual wizards are up to the challenge of turning around incredible feats of invisible VFX, all thanks to their robust pipeline and adept remote workforce.
“We ramped up instantly and had all six shots done by Monday morning, which included matte painting and 3D tracking,” affirms Hattin. “We worked night and day to get it done – literally night and day, thanks to the 24/7 nature of our workforce. And we did! It aired, it looked great, and our artists could once again revel in the warmth of a job well done.”