I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad
VFXW: What is the typical turnover time for an episode of Wheels?
JF: We will normally have about a week or two to complete an episode once the cut is locked. The bigger shots, we’ll be aware of them ahead of time and we’ll have a couple more weeks to complete those but most of the time it’s a week or two. When we finished episode 209, we had less than a week to turn around 210.
JF: The nighttime helped us in this scene, because any time you’re duplicating a hundred people to look like a thousand people it’s challenging. I think it also adds to the mood of that scene and the realism of it. Of course they would attack at night – they’re not going to attack during the day because it would be easier to see them! Bill Kent shot a bunch of layers of green screen with the actors and we duplicated them. We had to do quite a lot of integration and quite a lot of rotoscope. Any time you shoot green screen, it’s not just plug-and-play. You don’t just take the green out and put the performers in the scene and all is well. You have to integrate them and blend them into the shot, which is where the artistry comes into play.
VFXW: Was there some of that going on in the shots where we see the town burning down? Were those CG flames the Durants were running away from?
JF: Actually, use used a combination of live action flame elements and CG fire. The actors were filmed running from a non-burning building, and then the building itself was filmed separately. Fire has a very fluid look to it and it has a lot of interactive lighting, especially at night where it lights up the scene around them. So the characters required full rotoscoping to separate them off and then we put them back in front of the fire. We also did a lot of color-correction and blending to really make the fire sit in the scene with them.
JF: Yeah, definitely!
VFXW: How much of that involved visual effects?
JF: The actor was on wires and he jumped down off the practical piece of the bridge that they built on-location. We extended the bridge off to the left and we cleaned up the safety wires to make it look as though he was jumping off the real thing.
VFXW: There’s a fair amount of detailed matte painting in the show. Do you feel like that’s something the audience notices and appreciates or are you happy that perhaps they don’t notice it and assume it’s real?
JF: I would say the latter. Obviously, it’s nice to be noticed for something you do, but probably the best comment you can get on most visual effects is ‘oh I didn’t know that was a visual effect.’ To me any time somebody says that to you, you know you’ve done your job.
VFXW: Given the timeframes you work with, do you ever look back on a shot and wish you could have done better?
JF: We have a saying in what we do that a visual effects shot is never done. You can tweak and make changes forever if you really wanted to. A lot of times it can be more of a personal preference: ‘oh I like this level of green better than that level of green’ but it doesn’t change the shot that much. Overall, I’m very happy with the visual effects of Hell on Wheels and everything that we put out. We’re very strict about looking at everything before we send it to our clients. We don’t like to use our clients as a QC department. We want to send them work that we believe is good enough to put in their show, and if they have creative changes or story changes that’s fine.