Emmys: John Adams

The series John Adams received 23 Emmy Award nominations, the most of any program this year. Among those was the nomination for Outstanding SVE for a Mini-series. This week we speak to Jeff Goldman, at CafeFX about their Emmy-nominated work. As second President of the United States, and one of the most influential Founding Fathers of the USA, the story spans decades of Adams’ life UPDATED: EMMY WINNER

“John Adams” – “Join Or Die” (HBO) – Congrats to the entire team from fxguide
Erik Henry, visual effects supervisor; Jeff Goldman, visual effects supervisor; Paul Graff, visual effects supervisor; Steve Kullback, visual effects Producer; Christina Graff, visual effects Producer; David Van Dyke, visual effects Producer; Robert Stromberg, visual effects Designer; Edwardo Mendez, Compositing supervisor; Ken Gorrell, Special Effects Coordinator

Congrats also to “Battlestar Galactica” who won in the category: SPECIAL VISUAL EFFECTS FOR A SERIES
“Battlestar Galactica” – “He That Believeth In Me” (Sci Fi Channel) –
Gary Hutzel, visual effects supervisor; Michael Gibson, visual effects Producer; David Takemura, visual effects Coordinator; Doug Drexler, CGI supervisor; Kyle Toucher, CG artist; Sean Jackson, CG artist; Pierre Drolet, CG modeler; Aurore de Blois, senior compositor; Derek Ledbetter, compositor



One of the most outstanding mini-series in recent times has been the historical drama of John Adams. Apart from outstanding performances by Paul Giamatti as John Adams and his wife, Abigail, played by Laura Linney, the whole production was one marked by visual excellence and historical authenticity.

Adams’ political motivation was that there is a purpose greater than one’s self. The story is both moving for its personal love story between John and Abigail Adams, and impressive in its scope of history and detail. The mini-series covers decades of Adams’ life in both the USA and Europe.

HBO’s visual effects supervisor Erik Henry and HBO’s visual effects producer Steve Kullback collaborated with CafeFX visual effects supervisor Jeff Goldman, visual effects producer David Van Dyke and compositing supervisor Edwardo Mendez, all of whom were nominated, on the production of CafeFX’s 320 film-resolution shots.

John Adams was nominated for the Emmy in the category of Special Visual Effect for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special. It was the fifth show that CafeFX had done in collaboration with Henry. The Emmy nomination is shared with Digital Backlot visual effects supervisor Paul Graff, visual effects producer Christina Graff, visual effects designer Robert Stromberg, and special effects coordinator Ken Gorrell, each of whom contributed to the show’s visual effects.

Jeff Barnes, CEO of CafeFX said, “We are thrilled to have an Emmy nomination for ‘John Adams.’ The HBO brand is synonymous with outstanding programming and we are very proud to be associated with them and this superb mini-series.”

In this week’s fxpodcast we speak to Jeff Goldman, a vfx supervisor at CafeFX about what it was like to work on such a lengthy seven part series, and how the 50 person team at CafeFX solved a wide range of visual effects problems for a period of over eight months.

Green Screen plate
CG background

Final shot


The subtext of many of the episodes resonates for a modern audience as Adams struggled to maintain peace (especially with France in 1800) at the political cost of popularity. The weighty issues of executive power, the role of Congress and the political & military issues of the presidency are extremely relevant today. Paul Giamatti has pointed out that while Adams may not be remembered for it, he was a great advocate of peace.

As the character of Adams comments himself in the series, for the most part, history was written such that Washington, Franklin and Roosevelt over-shadowed John Adams own life, thus this mini-series itself is a partial rewriting of history and brings to the forefront the very significant role Adams played in US history. As Actor David Morse, who played Washington, has stated online at the HBO website, these people including Adams are responsible for laying the foundation of so much that has happened since,. “The world would not be what it is today without those men and women,” said Morse. “This story happened not over a few years but over decades.”

The Paris location with live action actors
Final shot with digital crowds


To recreate their world almost every trick was required of the visual effects team from set extensions, virtual environments and 3D crowds to matte paintings and fluid dynamic sea simulations. Luckily many of the key places shown in the film have become historical locations which allowed the production team to visit, for example, the houses Adams stayed in both in London and Holland still exist today. Of course, while these cities have changed dramatically the events and locations were well documented and this allowed CafeFX to do extensive research, especially for recreating period buildings.

Working from old maps and paintings, as well as reference materials from their own historical research, CafeFX recreated Boston of the 1770’s and the blockade of British ships across Boston Harbor. The visual effects work also includes a wintry scene at Grosvenor Square in London, Philadelphia in 1776, a painterly depiction of the canals in Amsterdam, the royal court at St. James’s Palace, and the historic launch of the Montgolfier hot air balloon in Paris.

XSI was used throughout the projects production. For example, the hot air balloon sequence was originally shot with only 50 extras in a field in Hungary. The initial plan was to copy this crowd and replicate them, but with the complexity of camera moves it was decided that a digital crowd would be needed. Using original costumes from the production company,15 digital extras were captured.


A set was created in Virginia in which a large cornfield was rebuilt several times and paved with cobblestone to serve as different cities, namely Boston, New York, and Philadephia. All the buildings were only two stories high, as the third stories were added with digital set extension.
The trees were real, but the leaves were all added using fake silk to make sure the production could control the leaves and hence the seasons.

In the story, significant periods are spent on the family farm which had to be rebuilt, including everything from chicken runs to fields, barns and houses.

“We tried to be as historically accurate as possible,” said Goldman, balancing accuracy with the need to still be a narrative drama.

The production shoot in the USA ran for 13 weeks and then moved to Hungary. This location served for much of the European locations of the film. While we think of this as being an American story, much of the series shows Adams during his time in Europe, in places such as Holland, France, and England.

The greenscreen plate for the Amsterdam location
Final shot

The London locations were some of the most challenging as whole rooms were recreated as virtual sets. While there were some historical buildings that the team could use, the St. James Palace scene, for example, took place entirely on greenscreen. The greenscreens were shot in Hungary, while the plates had been photographed as stills prior, shot by Henry in London. These stills were built into sets which allowed the team to previz the scenes before rolling on them in Hungary. Goldman described this as “one of the most enjoyable scenes to work on.” Once the previz was done, the foregrounds were filmed. “When the principle photography came to CafeFX, we plugged in what we had done based on the greenscreen and it all lined up really well,” he recalled.


The Wharf set was built on top of a grassy knoll or hill, so clearly the oceans were added digitally. The ship set was not even built on a gimbal, therefore the Ocean scenes required not only the addition of the sea but also believable movement.

Initially this sequence was not intended to be a major part of the story, however it grew dramatically. “HBO only gave him (the director) one day to shoot it, so he did 80 to 100 shots in a single day, which is pretty amazing,” Goldman explained. This did not allow much time to set up greenscreens or tracking markers. Some sea footage was shot from a boat, but much of the rough storm footage ended up being Stock library. The waves were initally shot for Master and Commander. Since that film was not shot with the 18mm lenses that this section of the mini-series had been shot on, Digital Fusion was used to stitch together multiple plates to make the stock footage much wider than it had originally been. This was then camera tracked back into moving 3D planes, something that CafeFX found Fusion very good at doing.

Ship crossing foreground plate shot on a hill top
Final shot from the Atlantic Crossing

The project was done at 2K resolution in a very film-style pipeline, but the deliverable was primarily an HD 1920×1080 for HBO. The production shot up to three cameras at a time, to produce around four million feet of film negative, making for a long and complex offline edit.

3D Tracking:

The Director Tom Hooper chose to shoot with a very wide lens in most scenes. The most common lens used on the show was a 14.5mm lens. This posed various problems for post production, not least of which – 3D camera tracking. There were not a whole lot of image tracking markers on set due to multiple camera usage and the nature of the material. The CafeFX team used Boujou and 3D Equalizer for the most complex shots. “It allowed for the most amount of hand tracking and helping,” said Goldman.

CafeFX and The Syndicate (see this week’s fxguidetv Episode with Ben Grossmann) are held by an umbrella corporation known as the ComputerCafe Group, which has also established Sententia Entertainment, a long form production company. With a focus on both live action and animated projects, Sententia is poised to capitalize on years of experience in the feature film market while developing a catalog of properties utilizing the proven strengths of sister companies CafeFX and The Syndicate. Among Sententia’s credits is the Academy Award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Emmy Awards will be broadcast live on ABC on September 21.