Creating Iconic Locales for Pair of TV Hit Shows
April 3, 2018

Creating Iconic Locales for Pair of TV Hit Shows

VFX Legion recently created the visual effects for the highly anticipated crossover episodes of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. The storylines of the political thriller and legal drama intersect in the back-to-back two-hour event, which premiered in March on ABC and continues to rank as a streaming favorite on Hulu.
The scenario for the tie-in opens with How to Get Away with Murder's high-powered defense attorney, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), making an appearance on Scandal's turf in the aptly titled episode “Allow Me to Introduce Myself.” Keating travels to D.C. for a face-to-face with political fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) to elicit her help fast-tracking a class-action case to the United States Supreme Court. The storyline plays out with the guest appearance of Pope in How to Get Away with Murder’s crossover episode, “Lahey vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Scandal and HTGAWM are shot in Los Angeles and set in DC and Philadelphia, respectively, yet the cast never needs to leave Hollywood, thanks to the creativity, technical ingenuity, and experience of the team at VFX Legion.

The Los Angeles-based company created a mix of photorealistic CG environments and other effects that made it possible to transport the actors into a variety of digital surroundings that seamlessly match the live-action footage, and defy the viewer’s eye. The “invisible” effects dramatically augment the shows’ visual landscapes with shots that would be either too expensive or impossible to shoot on location.

Legion has handled all of the visual effects for both shows for almost three-years, and is slated to work on the upcoming season of HTGAWM. Over the years, the Shondaland Productions have tasked the company with creating high shot counts of quality CGI 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 one, 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 VFX Legion to shoot the same environments twice, once with greenscreens for Scandal and then again using bluescreens for HTGAWM. Its team addressed all of these variables, finding creative solutions to bridge the look and match the texture and tone of both series.

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 shows 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 Legion’s 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, pre-visualization, 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 a technique called photogrammetry. HDRI panoramas and 360° 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 who created D.C.'s Supreme Court Building from scratch. 

“The CG model of the exterior of the building was a beast and scheduling was a huge job in itself,” says 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, Pope and 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.

Tracker Ruy Delgado achieved a perfect lock on the camera moves in SynthEyes using photogrammetry, lens specs, camera measurements and other on-set survey data. The depth of detail enabled him to match the marble columns inside the courthouse exactly. 

Working from overcast and flatly lit plates, lighting artist Bryan Shepperd added interest to the feel of the shots, while maintaining the continuity needed to blend with the shows.

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 The Foundry’s Nuke.

“These episodes required a combination of good planning and a talented team of over 25 artists and support staff,” says Lynn. “We pulled out all the stops to deliver a large shot counts of complex, high-quality VFX, and make last minute changes, while still meeting a tight deadline and getting the most value out of the budget.”

“The crossover episodes of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder showcase some of the best television visual effects that VFX Legion has created to date,” adds James David Hattin, the company’s founder, creative director, and senior VFX supervisor. “I’m very proud of all of the hard work that our team put into these shows and the results we achieved.  Watching the final shows on air was jaw-dropping.”