With 24 relocating to D.C. for its seventh season, Tara Bennett goes undercover to find out how they are adding more vfx to their arsenal.
After 18 long months off the air, 24 finally returned to television for its seventh season on Sunday with a blistering two-night, four-hour premiere. For its first six years, 24 took place and was shot in and around L.A. But coming off a disappointing sixth season, FOX and the 24 series exec producers decided it was time to look for a way to freshen up the series by giving former CTU agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) a new backdrop to fight domestic terrorism.
The creative team decided it was time to throw Jack into the middle of the political epicenter and set season seven entirely in Washington, D.C., despite primary production remaining in L.A. But before the WGA strike delay in late 2007, the 24 team went on location for the first time ever to the nation's capital and spent two weeks there shooting material for the first handful of episodes for the year. When the strike started, FOX then decided not to start airing the half-produced seventh season scheduled for January 2008. They instead decided to delay the season until January 2009 and ordered a two-hour network movie title 24: Redemption (which aired last November) to serves as a narrative bridge between the long gap in season. Showrunner Howard Gordon set the movie in the fictional country of Sengala, Africa, and in Washington, D.C. on the Inauguration Day of new President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones).
With a tighter budget, 24 didn't have the luxury to return to D.C. to get additional location shooting for the TV movie or the back nine of the season, so the producers decided to go virtual, utilizing visual effects to make L.A. work as D.C.
24 producer Paul Gadd is the man responsible for the in-house visual effects coordination, planning and production with such outside visual effects vendors as Stargate Studios, Eden FX and Look Effects. While 24 isn't known as a show that relies on vfx sequences, season seven's change of location has amped up the inclusion of more digital wizardry than ever before.
"I think we have had a lot more visual effects this year," Gadd assesses. "Because of D.C. we have done a lot of visual effects adding, but maybe not as much as you might think. In fact, we now think we should have done it more often because it's so simple and works great. But we really didn't want to make the season about finding a place to put a monument, but more about the scene itself."
Instead, Gadd says vfx shots have really been judiciously considered to get the most bang for the visual buck. "We knew we were going to need to design shots where we could add D.C. monuments that really sold the fact we were in D.C. We're outside a lot running around on 24. The intent was generally that we didn't want a big shot where we are really framing up the Capitol in the foreground, but rather to put things in the distance. It wasn't to hit it over the head with that: 'Hey, we are in D.C.!' but where we could, to place things in the shot. There are upcoming episodes that specifically call for certain things, like one where [a villain] is revealed. It was scripted that he is on the opposite side of the Potomac looking at the night view of D.C. so we shot the actor out in Long Beach just looking at black."
Stargate Studios in Pasadena, California is known for their greenscreen virtual backlot composite work on a host of such primetime series as Heroes and Grey's Anatomy, and Gadd says their experience was a perfect fit for 24's needs. "One of reasons we went with Stargate Studios is because they have a library of things in D.C. that they have shot. We knew they had this library and we could take advantage of that as opposed to having to shoot whatever we needed. Of course, they didn't have everything we needed," he continues. "There were a couple of instances, like the shots across the river they didn't have, so we looked at stock footage. But it turned out that someone who worked with us on the show a couple years ago was going to D.C. for a film festival. He said he had a camera and asked if we needed anything. I said, 'As a matter of fact...' And there is another scene where a car is parked by Lafayette Park. He picked those shots up for us and Stargate composited them. It was fortunate that it worked out."
James Riley, the vfx supervisor for 24 at Stargate Studios, says the series needs have been right in their company's wheelhouse. "24 has a particular shooting style that is a dramatic, natural style," he says. "The initial question was can you even use greenscreen in an environment with a lot of handheld, moving cameras and close-up, out of focus environments. The truth is, yes, and it looks even better. What we found with 24, and many shows, is that the more you move the camera and more naturally you shoot your scenes, the better greenscreen works. You take the onus off of that fixed, locked off feeling. With 24, it was a natural fit. We also have a new technology called VB Live, which allows the DP and director to shoot the greenscreen scene and see in realtime the background composited with the movement of the camera. So you can literally move the camera, zoom in, track focus and all of it occurs in realtime when shooting. It allows them to move into the most dramatic shot.
"24 director Jon Cassar and DP Rodney Charters are great filmmakers," Riley continues. "Not only do they understand all the tricks, but they love to be innovative and explore new things. So this process wasn't difficult at all. If it's an Inauguration sequence and they don't have time to go to Washington to shoot a scene, they work with the technology but they never lose their style. We love that. And the tools are at a stage where the VFX people don't have to hold a production hostage. We slip in and make it work and then we are out."
Riley explains that along with himself and VFX Producer Matt Robken, Stargate has assigned the show "two or three 2D, and one or two 3D artists that are the 24 leads. Depending on the shot demands, we can expand and are very scalable if we need to get the show done."
The team also did a good deal of work on 24: Redemption, in particular, for Taylor's swearing-in scene. "We did some 3D work in the inauguration," Riley details. "We used Massive to create the crowd. There were lots of angles but the primary angle was looking towards the Capitol steps and then the angle looking back at the crowd. For those primary angles, we had to do quite a bit of 3D work to not only create the architectural structure, but to fill it out with all the people. In the case of the steps, we only shot the insert part of the President and the few people around her, and that was inserted into what was an effect and a 3D shot. And, in fact, the other way was all 3D and matte painting."
Not surprisingly, Gadd says the whole inauguration sequence was all meticulously designed. "We pulled a lot of stock footage and we had to work with the art department to match it. Largely it ended up being matte paintings when we went wide on the inauguration. Jon shot a wide shot when the President arrives as the background of the Capitol which was in fact really the Huntington Library. Then the whole Presidential Inauguration was shot at the football stadium at Pierce College. They built the three-sided stand with the Presidential seal. It basically went down to the dirt, and we had a certain number of extras. I swear, when we shot that it was 105 degrees and they are dressed for January in D.C.! So that sequence became two things: a set extension, in the shots where when we went wide to see her and then the reverse when we wanted to see out towards the National Mall, which was all shot on greenscreen knowing we would fill it all in later.
"Another big sequence for us this year was in episode two, where there is the near miss of the airplanes," Gadd continues. "Steve Pugh at Eden FX did that sequence. They did the big oil rig finale sequence for us in season six. They did a couple of jets that go by and they did good work so we went back to them. For the shot we had a mock up with a greenscreen outside where we shot our actor pilots. And then we had a greenscreen outside airplane windows inside with the cabin where the passengers were. We used some stock footage so we could use real footage of airplanes taxiing at an airport, and our production designer came up with a graphic for then airlines and then CG airplanes were created to do the near miss."
Otherwise, Gadd says season seven has primarily been filled with lots of subtle effects. "Other things we've had to do is erase some mountains and palm trees in shots. Basically shots fall into three categories. There are the specific shots that were scripted or shots that after a director's location scout, they decide that they want some D.C. in the background and they design a shot. And then there are a couple of times where they shot the episode and in post, we looked at it and saw a good opportunity to add; for example, the Capitol. An instance of that is in the prequel, where the stockbroker character that's in trouble walks out on the parking garage and the Capitol dome is in the background. They shot that in a parking garage roof in downtown L.A. and in post we saw the perfect opportunity to put the dome in the background to sell that we are in D.C."
"Another shot is outside the White House with Tony Almeida [played by Carlos Bernard]. It's a pretty simple shot where the camera pans from our actor to the White House in the background. We just start basically with the camera pointing at black and just pan over the actors. We then paint the White House in there. It's really easy to do and sells the location in a natural way because we don't tend to have wide shots on the show," Gadd says.
He adds that they've done other minor vfx chores such as replacing computer monitors or burning a picture into a cell phone display. Gadd concludes, "We've had a ton of that and little things we are painting out; a tremendous amount of clean up. But I really love the shots that are so simple and transparent."
Tara Bennett is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.