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I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad

FuseFX Co-Founder Jason Fotter explains why visual effects work can be Hell on Wheels.

Anson Mount’s Cullen Bohannon surveys his work in the Season 2 conclusion of AMC's Hell on Wheels. Except where noted, all images © 2010-2012 AMC Network Entertainment LLC. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of FuseFX.

For two seasons now, Cullen Bohannon has been hard at work trying to ensure the creation of America’s first transcontinental railroad on the Emmy nominated AMC series Hell On Wheels.  In the face of tragedies and unforgiving deadlines, he’s persevered…much like FuseFX’s team of skilled CG artists, who have been laboring away behind the scenes to bring this historical drama to vivid life.  Co-Founder, Senior Artist and Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Fotter has overseen the company’s growth since it first formed in 2006, and nurtured it through various collaborations with noteworthy productions like Lie To Me, Big Love and United States of TaraWheels, however, provided the team with some rather unique challenges.  Among them, creating a CG train so convincing audiences aren’t able to distinguish it from the physical locomotive used on-set.  And then, in the recent second season finale, allowing it to cross a massive non-existent gorge.  Having risen to the occasion, Fotter took a few moments to reflect on the secrets behind FuseFX’s success, explain how the finale’s most startling effects sequences were achieved and share what he’d like to see in season three.

VFXWorld:  How many projects do you currently have on your plate?

Jason Fotter:  We just finished work on Sinister, a Feature that came out around Halloween.  A trailer was just released for a new film called Dark Skies, and we’re doing all the visual effects work on that.  In television, we’re working on shows like American Horror Story Season Two, Last Resort, Criminal Minds, Glee, Revolution and The New Normal.

VFXW: You’ve also worked on The Good Wife and Mike & Molly.  You wouldn’t think some of these shows even had visual effects...

JF:  Most productions require visual effects these days.  We do invisible visual effects on a number of shows you wouldn’t expect.  For Glee, we’ve done some crowd replication work where they have a couple of hundred extras and they need to fill a stadium.  We’ll shoot them all tiled up and make the stadium look full, and there are also production fixes and that kind of stuff.  It’s not big, sexy work but it’s regular work, and keeps everybody busy.  Shows like Hell on Wheels, on the other hand, have big-time visual effects.

VFXW:  How did you first become involved with Hell on Wheels?  Had you already developed a relationship with the producers?

JF:  Most of our work comes from relationships we have between the three partners, Dave Altenau, Tim Jacobsen and myself.  Occasionally we’ll get a call out of the blue, but that’s not the way the business works.  The business is built around relationships with people you can trust.  We’ve been with Hell on Wheels since day one.

VFXW:  Do you enjoy working on a show set in the post-Civil War era?

JF:  I do!  This time period is really fun and rewarding to work on, for me.  It’s gritty and it’s dirty, you know?  You can really have fun.

VFXW:  Speaking of gritty, didn’t some of you also work on HBO’s Carnivàle?

JF:  We weren’t a company during Carnivàle, but the main founder of FuseFX, Dave Altenau, was the Visual Effects Supervisor for Carnivàle.  The three of us also worked on Deadwood, which is probably why producers were confident in our ability to realize the effects needed for Wheels.  There are a lot of similarities between the look of Carnivàle, and Deadwood and Hell on Wheels.

VFXW:  The recent second season finale of Wheels featured some very impressive shots of the train crossing a massive gorge.  How far in advance did you pre-plan the look of that sequence?

JF:  Well, Wheels has a visual effects supervisor on their staff named Bill Kent, and we worked directly with him throughout the whole season planning all the visual effects.  We knew from the very first episode that the finale was going to be this big crossing of the gorge.  There were some shots in previous episodes showing the gorge, so we started to build it very early on in the season.  It was nice to be able to have the lead-time and be able to plan accordingly.

FuseFX's digital gorge and bridge extension.

VFXW:  Exactly how much lead-time did you have?

JF:  I think we had a good six months.  The thing is, we knew we would be doing it but we didn’t necessarily know what they were going to shoot, what the angles were going to be and how it would be implemented.  So, we made the model of the bridge – obviously we had the train already built for other shots in the show – and we did what we could until the episode came in.  I would say 30% of the work had been prepped and was ready to go.

VFXW:  Did having to show the gorge into two different lighting situations complicate things?

JF:  It did.  When you’re building something, a lot of times you’re building it from one angle or for one lighting set-up.  In CG we have the ability to light many different ways but there’s particulars on each shot that are what make it look real, so it was challenging to do.  In episode 209 we had to do the gorge in full daytime, and then for 210 we had to quickly turn around and do it at night.  And both of these episodes were aired back-to-back, so there was an even more compressed schedule once we started the shots.

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.

The Sioux Attack, realized through green screen and replication.

VFXW:  The finale also featured a massive battle with the Sioux that took place at night.  Watching it, you almost don’t even see the Native American army approaching.  You do see all their torches, however…

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.

The Durants flee a composited house fire.

VFXW:  Probably the most startling moment of the finale was when The Swede jumped off the bridge.

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.

A matte painting was used to extend the expansive Sioux encampment.

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.

VFXW:  Have you been thrown many curveballs over the course of the show, and found yourself with footage that looked radically different from what you’d expected?

JF:  Oh never.  They shoot everything perfectly!  (Laughs)  Yeah, it happens all the time.  It’s the nature of the business.  You can only plan for so much and you can only expect so much.  Once stuff gets shooting and once you’re out there, things change all the time.  You learn very quickly that you just have to roll with stuff like that.

VFXW:  Can you describe the pipeline you use to complete your projects?

 JF:  Well, the nature of visual effects is a very complicated process.  There are many pieces to the puzzle of completing a visual effects shot, especially the more complicated ones.  If you’re just painting out a wire or removing some production equipment from a scene, that’s pretty simple, but when you talk about a scene where you need to create a full CG environment with a bridge and a train it gets very complicated.  So, what we’ve done at FuseFX is develop procedures and steps that everybody adheres to.  We follow a pipeline.  We have very specific conventions for how we name stuff and how stuff goes through the system, so there are no questions.  It takes the technical decisions out of the artist’s hands and really just allows them to focus creatively on what they’re doing.  I think it helps with our schedules, it helps to avoid errors, and in the end you spend more time making the shot look better.

VFXW: What software do you use?  The Foundry’s Nuke system?

JF:  Yeah, we do all of our compositing in Nuke.  All of our CG is done with 3D Studio Max, and we use FumeFX, which is the plug-in for 3D Studio Max, for all of the smoke coming from the smoke stack of the train.  We pride ourselves in our simulation work, which includes smoke, fire and water work.

Another shot of the creation of the gorge and bridge extension.

VFXW:  It doesn’t seem like there are many limitations to what can be done digitally these days…

JF:  No, the sky’s the limit, really.  There’s not a whole lot that can’t be done with enough time.

VFXW:  …even on a television budget?

JF:  That’s the thing: yes, anything is possible, but how much money do you want to spend to make it possible?  That’s always the give and take when it comes to TV, especially.  We try to give our clients as much of that Feature work as they can get within their budget and we will always give options.  We’ll say ‘what you’re asking for is going to be really hard - how about we simplify it a little bit and you still get the shot that you want, but maybe it’s not the grand shot that would be time consuming and expensive.’

VFXW:  Given that you work in both Features and TV, do you have a preference?  Do you maybe you get a thrill out of working on television and having a week to turn over an episode?

JF:  I like having a mix. You hear stories of people who work on Feature shots for months and months and it can be very difficult to stay motivated for that amount of time when you realize you’re getting nowhere on a shot.  But it’s also very challenging when you see a bunch of shots that you need to finish in a week.  The stress and the will that it takes to get those done can be very hard, so it’s nice to have a mix.  It’s nice to have the Feature work where you have the time to spend on a shot, and it’s nice to have the TV work where it’s a challenge to get the work done on time and at the level of quality that we all expect.

VFXW:  Now that Wheels has been picked up for a third season, have you started thinking about what effects might be needed down the road?

JF:  I have heard some ideas that might be coming up in season three, but we haven’t gotten into many specifics yet.

VFXW:  Is there’s anything that you’d like the chance to do on the show?

JF:  I would love to do CG water.  We’ve developed a really, really good water pipeline for Last Resort and I think it’s something that has set us apart in the TV world – the ability to do CG water for episodic TV.  I would love to be able to incorporate that into any show we work on, and if there could be a chance for us to do a river or some kind of waterfall that would be pretty fun.

CG water effects from FuseFX's work on the ABC series Last Resort. Image © ABC Television. Courtesy of FuseFX.

VFXW:  Maybe the train falling down the gorge and landing in the river?

JF:  Sure!

Hell on Wheels looks to return for a third season on AMC in 2013.  For more information on FuseFX, visit www.fusefx.com .

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James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms.  His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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