Designated Survivor
June 27, 2017

Designated Survivor

Watching images of the US Capitol engulfed in flames is gut-wrenching for Americans, even when the vision – made to look very real – is staged for a television series.

As lead visual effects provider for the first season of Designated Survivor, FuseFX provides a wide range of 2D and 3D effects for the series, many involving re-creations of familiar Washington, DC, landmarks. And that includes those for the nightmarish scene described above.

The ABC drama centers on Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), a cabinet secretary who becomes president in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the Capitol. To this end, the series premiere showed the building being destroyed, and subsequent episodes showed the aftermath. 

For the first season, the FuseFX team, led by VFX Supervisor Eric Hayden, was tasked with reimagining the US Capitol after it has been destroyed in a bomb blast. Artists produced a large-scale 3D model of the ruined architecture and debris field, and integrated it with partial practical set pieces used during the production. The illusion appears in several early episodes.

“In the pilot, you see the remains of the Capitol immediately after the disaster has happened,” notes Hayden. “We see it again the following day when the new President Kirkman stands before it in addressing the country. For later episodes, we modified the model to indicate that rebuilding has begun.”


From an aesthetic perspective, the Capitol ruins had to be believable and convey the enormity of the catastrophe without drawing undue attention. “This is not a fantasy show,” Hayden says. “The Capitol needed to play as a real element in the background, and not distract from the actors’ performances. It couldn’t look too dramatic or not photoreal. Our biggest challenge was to ensure our work tied seamlessly to the set.”

The FuseFX team rigged the Capitol model for destruction in Autodesk’s 3ds Max. It required special modeling of its detailed parts to create the correct structure, volume, and scale. It was also designed to match the practical set of the destroyed building. 

While on set in Toronto, Hayden took a plethora of photographs that were used to generate a photogrammetric model. Although the model was not used directly, the artists did use the photographs as reference for the size, scale, color, and placement of the debris. 

“We learned a lot on the first pass that we did of the Capitol for the pilot and were able to apply those lessons when we revisited the effect and improved the way the pieces fit together,” explains Hayden. “For example, we were able to strategically position fire trucks on the set to create better cut lines between the practical and CGI sets.” 

Added to the scene was a lot of practical smoke on the set, which tended to float into sections of shots that were going to be replaced with CGI. For nighttime shots, the group was able to screen back the practical smoke and keep it in the final shot. For daytime shots, they used less practical smoke, which is much harder to pull from a daytime sky, and instead added 2D and 3D elements. In addition, there was a column of smoke coming from the Capitol dome. That was simulated in Side Effects’ Houdini and designed to interact with the geometry of the dome.

A shot from earlier in the episode has Kiefer Sutherland looking out a window and seeing the remnants of the explosion of the Capitol. The explosion was created in Houdini. The plate of the view outside the window was HDRI photography that Hayden shot while scouting in Washington.

For a later episode, FuseFX created elements for an inauguration scene, referencing news footage of the Obama inauguration. “We modeled a different piece of the Capitol representing a small portion of the building’s platform. We also redressed the existing model for daytime, and added scaffolding and flags waving in the wind,” says Hayden.  

Additional Effects

The inauguration scene also involved a reverse perspective from the podium looking out over the Mall. For that, the artists created a CGI crowd in 3ds Max, populating the area with approximately 150,000 people. (The inauguration was for the new vice president, so the presumption was that the crowed would not be as large as one for a presidential inauguration.) One additional shot showed the crowd from a distance of about a mile – from the perspective of an assassin. 

Moreover, “a lot of the effects we create for the show go by without the audience recognizing them as effects,” says Hayden.

FuseFX’s work also includes such things as a CG aircraft and enhancing gunfights. The work, says Hayden, is highly variable and story-specific. Additionally, he notes, the studio’s shot list often grows as episodes move through production. 

Designated Survivor is a very creative show; the producers and writers continue to refine and improve each episode virtually through to delivery,” Hayden explains. “We need to be on our toes so that we can react to new requests.”

Hayden adds that the studio is well prepared to accommodate such changes. “We have a very well developed pipeline that allows for changes without disrupting communication across the team of artists. It is something that this studio has prided itself on from its beginnings. Our workflow complements the television production process in ways that are efficient and deliver the best results.”