The process of supervising episodic television is demanding and complex, we sat down with Mark Spatny VFX Sup for Station 19 and CoSA’s compositing supervisor Mike Brumit and 3D supervisor Ron Herbst.
In this episode, the Station 19 crew heads to Southern California to assist in a massive wildfire event. Over the course of the day, the fire gets progressively closer until they get trapped by the raging inferno. They witness the destruction of an entire housing development first hand before they are able to escape to safety. For this episode, there was a three week post schedule to complete 56 VFX shots, between the editor’s cut and final delivery.
Mark Spatny is the Emmy-winning Visual Effects Supervisor at CoSA Visual Effects. He is also, along with Erik Henry, one of the two Special Visual Effects Peer Group Governors at Television Academy (Emmys). Mark is a recognized leader in the visual effects industry. He helped create the internationally recognized Visual Effects Society Awards, and served ten years on its steering committee.
Having worked on major feature films, such as I, Robot, he is now one of the leading episodic visual effects supervisors. As such, we deep dive into his process for producing exceptional effects in insanely short post schedules for the ABC Station 19 series, created by Stacy McKee, produced by Shondaland.
“Many of our crew have personally experienced such fires first hand, having either been forced to evacuate their homes as wildfires roared through their neighbourhoods, or volunteered with disaster service agencies helping victims, or in the case of our fire tech advisors, personally battled such fires many times over their careers. For that reason, we wanted to make the experience as real as possible for our audience,” he explained.
Although Station 19 is a show about firefighters, fire normally plays a smaller role in the series. Only five episodes this season involved serious fire incidents. The rest centres around the other kinds of situations firefighters cope with, such as medical emergencies, vehicle accidents, swift water rescues, health and welfare checks, missing children, etc. This season’s VFX were by CoSA, who were founded in 2009. Since then, CoSA VFX has grown from a small boutique into a thriving visual effects studio with offices in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Their team has been Emmy-nominated three years in a row, for work on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Almost Human, Revolution and Gotham.
‘Into the Wildfire’ was the final episode of series 2 and was directed by Paris Barclay DGA, two time Emmy-winner himself, who is also the show’s Executive Producing Director.
‘Into the Wildfire’ was by far the biggest challenge of the season for CoSA. The exterior location was the Golden Oak Ranch backlot owned by Disney, in the Antelope Valley of Los Angeles County. Due to a short preparation period, and real wildfire danger at the location, most of the fire and all of the embers in the episode were added in post. For three days of shooting at the ranch, the special effects crew provided a constant flow of wind, light smoke, and environmentally friendly Bio-Ash. Small highly localized practical fires were set in dumpsters, gutters, cars, and the occasional spot fire on a lawn or hedge.
Very few actual flames or fires could be used while filming. This was welcomed by the cast, who can find acting with actual smoke and heat extremely challenging. In post, Mike Brumit and the compositing team added matte paintings, large house fires, denser smoke, CG helicopters, and red hot embers flying in the air and drifting on the ground.
“Our first question was, what can we do practically?” explains Spatny. CoSA was told that if they wanted to do a gas fire such as a propane gas fire or fire bar that they were okay, but “anything that might cause sparks or embers that could set fire to any of the landscape was not allowed”. When the team wanted to put small practical grass fires on the ground, the special effects team put down new sod over the existing grass and blended that in and then set that on fire with special chemical retardants.
Even away from the location, and back at the studio, no major fire or smoke was used with the actors. Paris Barclay had shot practical fires for earlier episodes of the show with the CoSA team, and he realised it was very difficult for the cast. “It is very hard to act with real smoke in the air and everybody in masks. It is very difficult. We were tasked right from the beginning to do firefighting without real fire,” says Spatny. CoSA had previously worked on episode four of series 2, where Spatny estimated that about 75% of the fire was practical. “We’ve shot on set with real fire, and you have to have proper ventilation and everybody in the cast and crew wore masks for two weeks…it was pretty miserable shooting.” Spatny also noticed that, “If you just take a dark, empty space, throw some smoke into it and put embers in, then right away it looks super dangerous to a television audience.” For episode 7, which involved a burning house, the team switched to their new approach of filming without practical fire and smoke, and this worked much better for the actors and the production.
While filming was still underway, CoSA built a proxy 3D model of the backlot neighbourhood using photogrammetry of the location, satellite photos, and USGS data. This was used by Ron Herbst and the 3D team for tracking and for layout of CG fire and embers that fly through the air and blow along the surface of the street.
“One of the reasons why we did photogrammetry for the neighbourhood was so that we could do collision objects for the Houdini simulations of the embers that were falling, so we see them brushing up against curbs on the street and other practical elements” commented Spatny. But, for very close to camera embers, the team did comp in burning paper practical elements.
Wild Fire Stage 1
SCRIPT: HOLY SHIT: Right in front of them is a full on view of fire raging in the distance. It’s massive and expansive and truly scary. Miles of orange topped by thick, grey smoke filling the sky.
The start of the fire had the team racing to a small community in the hills. These early shots were composited with CG smoke and 2D fire added. The team had to create shots seen through the windshield of the fire engine and add distant wildfire smoke and fire to the shot provided by production. Only when the episode progressed did the fire move closer and ash and spot fires started to rain down on our heroes, both isolating them and those who had chosen not to evacuate.
CoSA VFX are known for their specialties in matte painting and environments, effects simulation, motion graphics and hard body CGI. A lot of the flames that were added, especially in the distance, were from CoSA’s stock library. Brumit curated the clips of the right types of fire and then composited in, often times with CG smoke from Houdini, especially on the wider shots.
Wild Fire Stage 2
SCRIPT: FIRE –DAY: Sure enough, the fire in the distance, suddenly looks a lot closer, and a lot more ominous.
Fairly quickly the fire progresses and works its way at least half way down the hillside, even closer to the neighbourhood. The smoke starts to get denser, thicker, and blacker in the direction of the fire. The sky is more orange, as the danger encircles the firefighters.
The on-set ash that was falling on the town was a special kind of Bio-Ash. “It is essentially coloured instant potatoes. It’s the same kind of kind of starch… so we were breathing that in all the time, it was getting in our mouths all the time, and we’re like, ‘oh it’s okay, it’s just instant potatoes, it is just having a little snack’,” jokes Spatny.
The fire built throughout the show. It started as a fire that was still a safe distance away from the neighbourhood and grew to engulf the houses. The team worked hard to track the rate of fire and smoke to match the advancing fire in the story, making sure each scene built on the previous one in terms of drama and the potentially lethal fire.
While the exteriors were shot at the Golden Oak Ranch, the show’s interiors were shot at Sunset Las Palmas Studios, in Hollywood. Thus work was required to blend the interiors with the exteriors and complete window replacement shots.
Pool Fire: Wild fire out of control
SCRIPT: “Andy and Sullivan are now in the midst of the HAILSTORM OF EMBERS AND SMOKE….They turn to head back but as they do they see the embers ignite A NEARBY HOUSE in the background.”
By the time the fire had reached its peak, the script called for our heroes Andy and Sullivan to dive into a pool to avoid being burned alive. In reality on set, while a real pool was used, there was no fire, only strong back light and smoke.
To composite the fire into the shot, rather than the team using green screen, the figures were rotoed. The reflections in the pool were based on a simulation of rippling pool water done in Houdini. Once the top half of the shot was composited, the comp team handed the pre comp to the 3D team who ray traced it into the digitally created displaced water.
Above is the plate photography and the final shot. To find out how Mark directed the VFX team, we include below a snap shot from his VFX supervision notes, where he offers reference and advice as to how he thinks the team should move from the empty plate to the dramatic final shot.
CoSA used Baywatch as inspiration, Spatny recalls, “Yeah, we looked at Baywatch, which did similar stuff, that was our reference originally.” He continues, “This was actually a special pool. There’s a guy who’s a diver and a camera man who lives out in the Antelope Valley near the backlot ranch. He has a big pool in his backyard, but he made it extra deep so that you could shoot in it… it’s great, but otherwise it’s just a normal backyard pool, but with trusses next to it that you can hang lights from.” The team had planned to put a green screen above the actors when they were underwater by hanging a giant green sail over a pool. However, they realised that it would be better handled with more accurate lighting, that such an approach would not have allowed, and instead decided to later use roto to isolate the actors.
Blazing Houses: Stage 3 of the Fire
The fire, now out of control, has burned its way through the neighbourhood. The homes are engulfed in flames and are beyond saving.
SCRIPT: “Andy and Sullivan are now in the midst of the HAILSTORM OF EMBERS AND SMOKE….They turn to head back but as they do they see the embers IGNITE A NEARBY HOUSE in the background.”
Mark Spatny, while fully aware of the show’s real nature, treated the VFX like a documentary. It was very important to him that the VFX honoured the real world firefighters and provided realism to the award winning show. “We were very much trying to make a documentary. A lot of our team have lived through brush fires in our neighbourhoods. I’ve had a fire get within 500 yards of my house,” explained Spatny, who is himself a Red Cross volunteer, and as such has gone out on the fire lines and helped support firefighters, when they need it. The team also had a consulting fire tech who previously fought big brush fires for a living. “We have a number of people on our crew who came very close to losing houses in a couple of big fires in California… so we really wanted to recreate that experience,” he adds. The team looked at hours of footage of Californian fires trying to exactly emulate real footage.
Below is Mark’s VFX supervision notes for the dramatic escape back through the burning town.
Mark Spatny was present on-set and with so little time, he was both advising the technical crew and the cast. “Paris (Barclay) would bring me up to the actors and say ‘okay, tell them what’s going to happen in this scene’. Because it was mostly in my head, I would say ‘oh that house is on fire, embers are blowing off, it’s hitting the grass, the grass is spreading, it’s going to the next house, it gets into the trees, the next house catches on fire. You turn when the house in front of you is on fire, but then when you run that way, the hedge that’s closer to you is going to catch fire. It bursts. Then you have to make a right turn’ and so on,” recalls Spatny. This proved so effective and helpful that he remembers, “one of the actors, Boris (Kodjoe/Captain Sullivan) saying: ‘okay, I’m going to need that guy next to me yelling that stuff at me as we go – so I know what’s supposed to be happening!'”
Mark and the team were called in around the time of episode 13 to discuss the possible ideas for the big final episode of the season. At that stage the writers were still weighing up what the finale would involve and the team worked out there would only be about three weeks for post. Spatny went through a bunch of footage of fires and also the movie Only The Brave, “which is, I think, the best movie about brush fire firefighters that’s ever been made,” he comments. Spatny then put together a reel showing the sort of shots that the team could reasonably do and those that would not be possible inside the scheduled three weeks the production predicted they would have. “Then I presented the reel to the writers room and explained: fire on the hillside in the background. Easy. Yes, we can do that. A fire on the buildings, yes we can do that. Smoke coming out of the buildings, all of that stuff. Great. But the one thing I said we absolutely positively can’t do is a front view out of the fire truck onto all the houses on fire.”
Unfortunately the writers came back and said, “Sorry you’re going to do a shot from the truck looking out at the burning town as they escape…and I said, okay, all right then, we’ll work it out.”
Truckin’ it out
For the final sequence, the team had to recreate the harrowing ordeal of people fleeing the town of Paradise, California, as the raging inferno of the camp fire engulfed everything in flames on both sides of the road. “We carefully studied video shot by evacuees on their phones as they drove out of town to capture the look and feel of that moment,” explained Spatny.
This was one of the very few green screen shots in the show. In reality, visibility is very poor in such situations. The CoSA team initially matched the thick smoke perfectly but the director asked if it could from time to time clear a little to see the street.
The team started experimenting and found that it, “wasn’t going to be anywhere near as hard as I thought. It was still hard, don’t get me wrong. It was a lot of work, but it ended up being possible. And I think those shots are some of the most that I am proud of, because they are just so dramatic,” Spatny concludes.
Getting Out Alive
Script: “Stylized, scary, ridiculously low visibility …waves of hot embers blow across the ground…when suddenly they see flashing lights ahead, belonging to Engine 19.”
The show was shot on Alexa, seen here below on the left. The location shots were intercut seamlessly with studio shots incorporating projected fire footage, providing correct contact lighting and reflections. Looking into the vehicle and the side angles were done practically. “We also did rear screen projection with a ton of smoke with a loop of Fire running on the projectors” explained Brumit.
The Company of Science and Art created an application called After Effects way back in the early nineties. After Effects, for a while, was known by many artists as ‘CoSA’. When Aldus bought the Company of Science and Art, which was in turn bought by Adobe, the CoSA brand all but disappeared. CoSA co-founders Tom Mahoney and Jon Tanimoto always liked the name. As homage to the early days of digital VFX, and in the spirit of combining science with art, they decided to call their company CoSA VFX. Mahoney and Tanimoto met in the mid-nineties at Mad River Post, doing commercials post-production and broadcast design. They moved on to Activision, where they became Flame artists, and spent the next decade working as VFX artists and supervisors on features such as Titanic (1997), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005).