Tag Archives: VFX Legion

Digital locations for Scandal/How to Get Away With Murder crossover

If you like your Thursday night television served up with a little Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, then you likely loved the recent crossover episodes that paired the two show’s leading ladies. VFX Legion, which has a brick and mortar office in LA but artists all over the world, was called on to create a mix of photorealistic CG environments and other effects that made it possible for the show’s actors to appear in a variety of digital surroundings, including iconic locations in Washington, DC.

VFX Legion has handled all of the visual effects for both shows for almost three years, and is slated to work on the next season of Murder (this is Scandal’s last season). Over the years, the Shondaland Productions have tasked the company with creating high shot counts for almost 100 episodes, each matching the overall look of a single show. However, the crossover episodes required visual effects that blended with two series that use different tools and each have their own look, presenting a more complex set of challenges.

For instance, Scandal is shot on an Arri Alexa camera, and How to Get Away With Murder on a Sony F55, at different color temps and under varying lighting conditions. DP preferences and available equipment required each environment to be shot twice, once with greenscreens for Scandal and then again using bluescreens for Murder.

The replication of the Supreme Court Building is central to the storyline. Building its exterior facade and interiors of the courtroom and rotunda digitally from the ground up were the most complex visual effects created for the episodes.

The process began during preproduction with VFX supervisor Matthew T. Lynn working closely with the client to get a full understanding of their vision. He collaborated with VFX Legion head of production, Nate Smalley, production manager Andrew Turner and coordinators Matt Noren and Lexi Sloan on streamlining workflow and crafting a plan that aligned with the shows’ budgets, schedules, and resources. Lynn spent several weeks on R&D, previs and mockups. Legion’s end-to-end approach was presented to the staffs of both shows during combined VFX meetings, and a plan was finalized.

A rough 3D model of the set was constructed from hundreds of reference photographs stitched together using Agisoft Photoscan and photogrammetry. HDRI panoramas and 360-degree multiple exposure photographs of the set were used to match the 3D lighting with the live-action footage. CG modeling and texturing artist Trevor Harder then added the fine details and created the finished 3D model.

CG supervisor Rommél S. Calderon headed up the team of modeling, texturing, tracking, layout and lighting artists that created Washington, DC’s Supreme Court Building from scratch.

“The computer-generated model of the exterior of the building was a beast, and scheduling was a huge job in itself,” explains Calderon. “Meticulous planning, resource management, constant communication with clients and spot-on supervision were crucial to combining the large volume of shots without causing a bottleneck in VFX Legion’s digital pipeline.”

Ken Bishop, VFX Legion’s lead modeler, ran into some interesting issues while working with footage of the lead characters Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating filmed on the concrete steps of LA’s City Hall. Since the Supreme Court’s staircase is marble, Bishop did a considerable amount of work on the texture, keeping the marble porous enough to blend with the concrete in this key shot.

Compositing supervisor Dan Short led his team through the process of merging the practical photography with renders created with Redshift and then seamlessly composited all of the shots using Foundry’s Nuke.

See their breakdown of the shots here:

Digging Deeper: Legion VFX artist H Hammond

H Hammond, a VFX artist with VFX Legion, comes from interesting parents. They really liked the idea of their son having the initials HHH, but they could only think of a middle name that worked… and so H Haden Hammond was born. This Northwestern Pennsylvania native grew up with a love of film. In fact, as a kid he commandeered the family camcorder as part of his production kit. “I regularly created movies with kids in my neighborhood — or by myself,” he says. “Whoever was willing to contribute, really.”

This interest in making things led him to Florida’s Full Sail University, where he earned a degree in computer animation before relocating to California in search of a job. “I didn’t have a position lined up, but I was committed,” explains Hammond. “Each day I hand delivered my reel to VFX houses I’d seen in film credits. I also went online and sent out emails with a resume attached to each company. I started with the As and was determined to get to the Zs if that’s what it took.”

His efforts paid off. He landed a job working on websites at small production company whose upstairs neighbor happened to be a very young VFX company Luma Pictures. “I kept in touch with them over the following weeks and bugged them until they gave me a job. They told me to show up Tuesday and I came in Monday. I was so excited! I ended up working at Luma for more than 11 years.”

Hammond currently works with VFX Legion, which while based in Burbank, California, calls on artists from around the globe to work on projects. One of the things that drew him to the company was that he could live and raise a family near where he grew up, just outside of Pittsburgh.

Let’s find out more about this artist named H.

What films and television got you interested in the industry?
As a kid my career aspirations constantly shifted. I wanted to be everything from a fireman to a toy designer to a cartoonist. But it was the summer of 1993 that changed my career destination. I was 13 and at a theater to watch a blockbuster film. I had no idea what it was going to be about; it had something to do with dinosaurs, so it sounded good to me.

It was Jurassic Park and it had me hooked. It inspired me to be where I am now. It inspired us to believe dinosaurs looked the way they are portrayed today. It inspired us to believe what a velociraptor sounded like – accurate or not, it felt real. When I found out how they did it and that the dinosaurs were computer generated, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

What are some of the biggest projects you’ve worked on during your career?
The Marvel movies were a lot of fun and contained a lot of creative eye candy to develop. Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy were a couple creative favorites, but when I saw my name in the credits for The Avengers, I felt like I had made it. It was such a fun movie! My face is actually hidden in the film at one point (approved by Marvel, of course).

X-Men: First Class and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince were a lot of fun as well. Before that I worked on Crash, No Country for Old Men and True Grit.

What drew you to VFX Legion?
The biggest draw was working from home. I had moved back to Pennsylvania from California and a friend I used to work with at Luma pointed me to James Hattin (president/CD) and told me he had a company that allowed artists to work from home. I emailed him immediately.

What do you like most about where you live and work?
The cost of living here is much lower than LA’s, which is great. However, the main reasons we moved to Pennsylvania were to be closer to our extended family and for the great public school system. We are able to have a great big yard here, which leads into the woods. That would have been impossible in LA, unless I was a millionaire. I do miss the beach, but it’s not uncommon to see all kinds of colorful birds, deer and little bunnies cross through the backyard.

What are your core skills?
My primary skill is Nuke compositing, but I’ve also done particle and fluid effects animation and rendering in Maya. I also enjoy design, keeping an eye out for continuity across sequences, character and effects animation, lighting, shading and rendering.

Which projects have you been most proud to work on at VFX Legion, and why?
The film Jem and the Holograms (2015) had a hologram sequence that was quite touching. When I watched the edit after it was assigned to me, I was surprised at how much it tugged at the old heartstrings. It was nice to work on a sequence that I knew would move the audience, especially after all the blood, guts, creepy ghost kids and murders I had been looking at.

A good horror film is always fun, but this hologram sequence didn’t give me any nightmares, so that was nice. Speaking of blood and guts, though, it was cool to work on Hardcore Henry as well. I always thought a POV film would be great, and I had the opportunity to work on the first of its kind.

What projects have been particularly challenging or exciting?
The hologram in Jem and the Holograms was a cool challenge. I was handed a good start for the look from other artists that had created the effect for a temporary, earlier version of the film. Finalizing the look and making it consistent across all 40 of the shots was a fun challenge. I had to dial in exactly how much glitching and color it would have and how transparent it would be.

As far as exciting, my wife, mom and sister in-law were all pretty excited to hear I got assigned a few shots on Scandal and The Catch!

What are the challenges facing compositors today, and how do you overcome them?
Mustering up the motivation to get a new shot or project started is always really tough. I find the best way to combat this inner voice is to refrain from letting it speak to you in the first place.

Another challenge will always be finding work. As long as you’re not afraid to take on new challenges you can find a way to make it happen. In this industry I’ve found it helps a ton to have an “I can do that” kind of attitude.

Why do you think remote working is so important for today’s VFX industry?
I’m very glad the option exists and that I’m able to take part in it: it’s great that we live in a day and age where it’s not uncommon to transfer huge files across the internet. It’s thanks to this kind of technological innovation that allows the VFX industry to hire the best artists no matter where they are in the world.

On a more personal level, I can save the time, cost and hassle of making a commute to work. My commute is downstairs, and that’s actually more empowering than you may think. Of course, being in my jammies all day can also be quite empowering.

Quick Chat: VFX Legion’s James Hattin on his visual effects collective

By Randi Altman

While VFX Legion does have a brick-and-mortar location in Burbank, California, their team of 50 visual effects artists is spread around the world. Started in 2012 by co-founder and VFX supervisor James Hattin and six others who were weary of the old VFX house model — including large overhead and long hours away from family — the virtual studio was set up to allow artists to work where they live, instead of having to move to where the work is.

VFX Legion has provided visual effects for television shows like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, as well as feature films such as Insidious: Chapter 3, Jem and the Holograms, and Sinister 2. We recently reached out to Hattin to find out more about his collective and how they make sure their remote collaboration workflow is buttoned up.

Sinister 2

Sinister 2

Can you talk about the work/services you provide?
VFX Legion full-service visual effects facility that provides on-set supervision, tracking, match move, animation, 3D, dynamics and compositing. We favor the compositing side of the work because we have so many skilled compositors on the team. However, we have talent all over the world for dynamics, lighting and animation as well.

You co-founded VFX Legion as a collective?
Legion was started by myself and six equal partners. We are mostly artists and production people. This has been the key to our early success — the partners alone could deliver a significant amount of work. Early on, Legion was designed to be a co-op, wherein, everyone who worked for the company would have a vested interest in getting projects done profitably. However, in researching how that could be done on a legal and business level, we found that we were going to have to change the industry one way at a time. A fully remote workflow was enough to get VFX Legion off the ground. We will have to wait for that change to take hold industry wide before we move into 100s of “owners.”

You have an official office, but you have artists working all over the world. Why did you guys opt to do that as opposed to expanding in Burbank?
The brick-and-mortar office is for the management and supervision. We have an expandable team that handles everything from IO to producing and supervising the artists around the world. We could expand this facility to house artists, but the goal of the company was to find the best artists around the world — not to open offices all over the world. We want people to be able to work wherever they want to live. We don’t mandate that they come in to the office and work a 9 to 5. Artists get to work on their own schedule in their own offices and personal spaces. It’s the new way of giving talent their lives back. VFX can be insanely demanding on the people who work in the industry.

What are the benefits?
The benefits are that artists take control over their lives. They can work all night if they are night owls. They can walk the dog or go out to eat with their families and not be chained to a desk in one of the most expensive cities in the world — which is where all VFX hubs are based. It takes a certain kind of artist, with a certain level of experience, to manage themselves in this atmosphere. Those who do it well can live pretty well by working full time for Legion on projects.

Are there any negatives?
If the artist isn’t the kind of person that can start and finish something, if they can’t manage their time very well, or don’t communicate well, this can be very challenging. We’ve had a few artists bow out over the last few years because they simply weren’t cut out for the type of work that we do. Self management is very important to this pipeline, and if someone isn’t up to it, it can be frustrating.

What kind of software do you use for your VFX work?
We use Nuke and Maya, along with Redshift and VRay for rendering. We also call on After Effects, Mocha, Zoom, Aspera and Shotgun.

With people spread around the world, how do you communicate and review and approve projects? Can you walk us through a typical workflow, starting with how early you get involved on a project?
On many projects, we start at the very beginning. We are there for production meetings and help drive the visual effects workflow so that it is easier to deal with in post. Once we are done on set, we work with the editorial staff to manage shot turnovers and ingesting plates into our system. Once we have plates in our system, we assign the work out to the artists who are a good fit for the work that needs to be done.

Jem and the Holograms

Jem and the Holograms

We let them know what the budget is for the shot and they can accept or refuse the work. Once the artist is kicked off, they will start sending shots through Shotgun for review by a supervisor in-house in Burbank. We generally look at the Shotgun media first to see if the basics are in place. If that looks good, we download the uploaded QuickTime from Shotgun. When that is approved, we pull the synced DPX frames and evaluate them through a QC process to make sure that they meet the quality standards we have as a company.

There are a lot of moving parts, and that is why we have a team of trained coordinators, project managers and producers here in Burbank, to make sure that we facilitate all the work and track all the progress.

Can you talk about some recent projects?
We have been working on Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder for ABC Television. There are a number of challenges working on shows like this. The schedule can be very tight and we are tasked with updating many older elements from previous vendors and previous seasons.

This can also be a lot of fun because we get a chance to make sure that the effects look as good as possible, but we slowly update each of the assets to be a little more ‘Legion-like.’ This can be little secondary animations that weren’t there originally or a change in seasons of a set extension. It is all very exciting and fast paced.


For more on VFX Legion, check out James Hattin’s LinkedIn blog here.