The COVID-19 pandemic struck about halfway through post-production on the Showtime limited series The Good Lord Bird, pushing the team at primary VFX house Ingenuity Studios to think and act fast. The studio completed 450 shots for the series, with a role that increased in complexity along the way.
Based on the award-winning novel by author James McBride, the series follows staunch abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) on his holy crusade to end slavery. Brown eventually finds himself part of the famous 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The story is told from the point of view of Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a newly freed teenager who joins Brown’s quest.
“We were in the trenches on this with our client Blumhouse and the show's VFX Supervisor Brad Minnich, and we were determined to not let COVID stand in the way of delivering beautiful final shots that give the viewer a real sense of the landscape and the intense action that plays out in The Good Lord Bird,” said Andrew Woolley, visual effects supervisor at Ingenuity Studios.
Matte paintings, in combination with various CG elements such as the rail bridge, played a pivotal role in achieving convincing environments that assist the storytelling, with perspectives from both sides of the Potomac River.
Woolley added, “The show was shot in Richmond, Virginia, but since The Good Lord Bird is set in a well-known location–Harpers Ferry, West Virginia–we knew that we had to be true to the place and achieve realism. To fill in where some plates weren't available, we created beautiful matte paintings and models, leveraging historical references, and we worked closely with the show-side VFX Supervisor to define the geography and ensure accuracy and continuity.”
For the many gun battles, Ingenuity Studios used a variety of period-correct comp elements including some practical muzzle flashes that were shot by production. For one pivotal moment in the series, Ingenuity built a CG cannon and body double requiring FX blood sims that took over from the in-camera action in order to punctuate the drama and dark comedy of a moment when the character gets impacted by a cannonball.
Woolley explained more about how the studio persevered, “The team at Ingenuity worked tirelessly to deliver great visual effects under tough circumstances, and we’re proud of the finished product and everyone involved. The way Ingenuity is structured as a company really allowed us to be nimble through this series and in reaction to the pandemic. A lot went on behind the scenes in terms of infrastructure and workflow that made this possible and these shifts required everyone to adapt. Our goal is to consistently deliver a painless experience for our clients and, in this case and many others, having the breadth of artists that we do across so many disciplines makes us agile.”
Technology used by the Ingenuity Studios team included Nuke, Houdini, Photoshop, After Effects and RenderMan. The limited series was filmed in Panavision DXL2 w/anamorphic lenses.