VFX Take 'Madam Secretary' to DC and Beyond
December 11, 2019

VFX Take 'Madam Secretary' to DC and Beyond

Madam Secretary began its final season with the highly anticipated premiere episode revealing that Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), had won the race for the presidency. Capping off three years of contributing digital effects to the show, VFX Legion created a mix of large-scale CG shots for this last season, right through to the series finale.

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Legion's team has been called on to create over 140 of the CBS show's most complex visual effects over the last three seasons: from CG environments built from the ground up that transport the live-action to locations throughout the world, to technically challenging effects designed to elevate the visual impact of creator, writer, showrunner Barbara Hall's hit dramatic political series.

VFX Legion first came on board during Madam Secretary’s fourth season, after the show’s producer, Tony Palermo, took a meeting with the LA/B.C.-based company’s VFX supervisor, James David Hattin, and executive producer, Reid Burns.

“Tony was surprised to see such convincing shots of the White House and D.C. from the TV show Scandal on our reel of CG work," says Burns. “The high-quality digital environments, built by Legion from the ground up, were indistinguishable from practical footage – and got us in the door.”

Madam Secretary had been using stock footage of the White House, as well as other locations, and working around their limited flexibility. The cost of taking the New York production to D.C., as well as tight deadlines and actors' schedules made filming multiple environments unrealistic. Legion presented a viable, efficient alternative: photoreal computer-generated environments custom-designed to seamlessly match the show's live-action footage, while enabling locations that don't permit film crews on-site to be re-created digitally with spot-on accuracy.

“The high-quality, complex visual effects we turned around quickly and on budget for that first episode led to the expansion of Legion’s role,” says Burns.  “We became the go-to VFX specialist for Madam Secretary as the writer’s room started developing scripts with a wider range of scenarios that took advantage of our CG assets.”

Madam Secretary was shot in New York and set in the country’s political epicenter, Washington, D.C., addressing issues requiring international diplomacy that took story lines beyond the borders of the U.S. The White House was a crucial fixture in the show. Legion also created CG environments that enabled scenarios to play out in political hotspots around the globe, taking the show digitally where it was unable to go to on film.  

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“Our team created computer-generated environments throughout the world, from Syria and Turkey to Iraq and Mexico. We were fortunate to be given the freedom to design shots that were innovative, dramatic, and of a scale rarely seen on Madam Secretary ,” adds Hattin.

Legion created numerous virtual crowd sequences over the years – adding large numbers of individuals in motion. Towards the end of season 6, its team took digital crowd simulation to the next level. Compositors, animators, and artists created a CG motion capture sequence, digitally building large groups of people gathered in D.C. to support the president. 

During season 5, Legion simulated a crowd of hundreds of people that augmented original footage of displaced Syrians. When the producer realized that the numbers didn't reflect the massive scale of the Syrians making the trek to the Turkish border, the VFX company stepped in to create a digital motion-capture sequence that dramatically bulked up the number of refugees.

Most recently, Legion completed a number of visual effects for the series finale.  The episode closed with an elaborate wedding scene in the Rose Garden that took full advantage of Legion’s White House asset. Helmed by Hattin, the company’s team used SpeedTree software to generate virtual trees, which they animated to match the wind that was blowing on the day they shot the sequence. They used large bluescreens to add sections of the White House’s facade visible in the background.

"Producer Tony Palermo and Associate Producer Drew Ysais worked with us as a team, communicating and collaborated with Legion throughout the VFX process," says Hattin. "Their approach maximized the efficiency of our pipeline, enabling us to meet tight deadlines with ease – and gave us more time to focus on getting the most production value out of every shot.”

 “The prestigious roster of television shows created by Barbara Hall sets the bar high. We’re thrilled that our work met her high standards and grateful to have had the opportunity to create challenging visual effects that elevated the visual impact of this hit series,” adds Hattin.

(Top) Before and (bottom) after.