VFX Legion has just completed the 5th and penultimate season for Madam Secretary. The show will end with its forthcoming sixth season. CBS revealed last Wednesday that it will finish with a 10-episode order for the final season.
This season saw the show, once again, tackle real international issues such as Syria.
Madam Secretary’s effect work is done in LA and British Columbia by a Legion team of over 30 artists who produced more than 100 visual effect shots for the show this season. The series called for a broad range of computer-generated shots – from large-scale set extensions, matte paintings, and compositing to digital environments that are integral to the geopolitical issues that show’s storyline addresses.
Based in Burbank and British Columbia, VFX Legion specializes in providing episodic television shows and feature films. it was launched in 2013 by founder, CD, and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, James David Hattin. The studio has 80+ skilled VFX artists working on multiple projects simultaneously.
Creator and show runner, Barbara Hall’s political drama is shot in New York with a storyline rooted in Washington, D.C. The logistics required Legion to digital replicate iconic environments in the nation’s capital, as well as other regions integral to the geopolitical issues that the show addresses.
A computer-generated shot of the White House viewed from the perspective of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the digital recreation of the Lincoln Memorial are among the photorealistic digital environments that the team had to composite with the live-action green screen material. Shooting in Washington DC. is increasingly restrictive and the work of Legion enabling the show’s scenarios to unfold in the nation’s capital, with the complexity of trying to shoot at those actual locations, which can be next to impossible.
The plight of the Syrian people is core to this season’s storyline. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) tries to broker deals for humanitarian aid with heads of state. She seeks out the Chinese Foreign Minister at a tech conference where she finds him immersed in a VR game.
Legion’s team created an entire CG virtual video game environment, replete with a horde of alien monsters that explode and shatter mid-air as he enthusiastically fires on them. Match moving his performance, artists transferred it to an avatar playing the game inside its virtual world. Looped run cycles and interactive death animations unfolding in real-time were simulated in Houdini and then rendered in Redshift.
A long establishing shot provides the ‘cold open’ for episode 506, jumping directly into the heart of the story with a hard-hitting scene with hundreds of desperate Syrians flooding the Turkish border seeking refuge. Originally shot in NY State, the producers called on VFX Legion to bolster the number of displaced people in the practical footage. The studio’s matte painters, compositors, and CG artists augmented the sequence, building a large crowd of refugees that reflects the scale of a mass exodus.
When producers discovered that the number of people on the naval vessel that was relocating them during this natural disaster needed bulking up, they scheduled a second unit shoot with Legion’s VFX Supervisor David Isyomin on-set directing the action to ensure that the footage aligned with the CGI. Artists then Rotoscoped out the entire foreground and added the sky, along with the additional people during the compositing of the scene.
Legion added to the realism of the computer-generated bombing of the presidential palace in Nicaragua with digital fire, debris and other elements simulated in Houdini. Its team built on existing assets from ActionVFX’s library, eliminating the need to create each shot from scratch and maximizing cost-effectiveness. Another scenario focused on global warming called for a computer-generated C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft flying through a hurricane, which Legion’s team simulated in Houdini, rendered in Redshift and lit in Maya.
The most visual effects-driven episode of the season, aptly titled ‘Proxy War,’ required over a dozen complex shots – from a large set extension and a computer-generated shelled-out lot in Syria, to detailed matte paintings that stand in for the demolished buildings in the background. The digital environment is the setting for children playing football when their laughter turns to terror as they hear the sound of a cluster bomb just before impact. A scene opening with officials walking through the take-off of a computer-generated MiG aircraft via satellite ends as they drop the cluster bomb.
Madam Secretary often deals with issues ripped from the headlines and so in one episode, the show opens with a Mexican woman and her young son as their long trek through the Sonoran Desert ends as they reach the US border. After assurances of help from the border patrol, the scene closes with the mother’s arrested as the son boards a bus headed to a detention center. The establishing environments, a barren desert landscape and the parking lot of a US sheriff’s office, were created by Legion’s Matt Painter Marc Adamson and Compositor Eugen Olsen. Ruy Delgado handled the camera all of the match moves in the scene.