VFX supervisor Laurent Spillemaecker and his Montreal team turned Toronto into early 1960s Dealey Plaza and surroundings with an exacting, detailed set of CG environments, people and digital assets.
In the recently premiered 10-episode Season 2 of the hit Netflix series, The Umbrella Academy, the dysfunctional, estranged superhero family returns, dropped into early 1960s Dallas, Texas to once again save the world when they themselves have caused its destruction. The sci-fi action series is based on Eisner award-winning comics and graphic novels of the same name created and written by Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), illustrated by Gabriel Bá and published by Dark Horse Comics.
As events of Season 2 unfold, in the process of preventing the apocalypse that wipes out the entire planet, the seven Hargreeves children inadvertently cause World War III. To avert yet another doomsday, Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) goes back in time to prevent the Soviets from launching a nuclear strike against America. Complicating matters is that during his Season 1-ending time jump to save his siblings, he accidentally scattered them across Dallas, each at a different time between 1960-1963. As the season unfolds, they slowly realize that saving the world and their family, then safely returning to the present timeline, revolves around President Kennedy’s fateful upcoming visit to Dallas.
To help produce what ended up as almost 2,000 visual effects shots, overall VFX supervisor Everett Burrell turned to Folks VFX, a high-end visual effects studio that works on a full spectrum of VFX services for films, TV series, commercials, and virtual productions. Folks has been a member of the FuseFX family of brands since 2020.
Under the guidance of VFX supervisor Laurent Spillemaecker, the Folks Montreal team crafted around 400 shots for Season 2; in addition to creating time portal effects seen throughout the season, particularly Five’s special ability, Spillemaecker’s crew recreated events surrounding JFK’s fateful Dallas visit, while including The Umbrella Academy’s superpower interactions. Part of the challenge included turning Ontario, Canada into 1960s Dallas with digital matte paintings and CG environments. “At least a third of these shots were related to the Dealey Plaza JFK event, where almost every single building had to be either recreated or digitally enhanced, and every shot included CGI trees, crowds, and vehicles,” the VFX supervisor notes.
“Folks had some really nice assets and key moments to work on for this second season, after our very successful contribution on Season 1,” he continues. “I dealt with overall VFX supervisor Everett Burrell. Everett's vision is incredibly clear and straightforward, he knows exactly where to go, and carries the special tone of the show. From CG environments and characters to magical superpowers, our scope of work was very wide.”
Folks worked on many of the time portal effects that bring all main characters, separately, from our current time to the 60s. “Every individual time portal was rendered with particle simulations based on what we already saw in Season 1,” Spillemaecker says, “Five’s character is also very often using his own teleportation power, what we internally describe as a ‘Blink,’ that is all done in Nuke.”
While most of the story takes place in 1960s Dallas, it was actually shot in Canada; many shots had to be CG enhanced or backgrounds completely recreated to look like the actual location of President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. Under Burrell’s precise guidance, Spillemaecker studied all available public archives and films related to the location and events surrounding the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, determining ways to adapt the actual historical records into the storytelling, where the main characters try to interfere with the course of history. “The actual Dallas city had to be digitally transformed to look like 1963 Dallas, by using CG cars, CG people, and of course the presidential motorcade had to be completely digitally recreated for that matter,” he explains. “Some elements were shot in Dallas during a short period of time, while many were shot in Toronto, Canada and had to be assembled together. Our environment team reconciled a huge set of Lidar scans of the area and recreated several buildings to give it a more 60s southern Texas look.”
According to Spillemaecker, “Working on the JFK sequence was such an amazing experience; the historic context is unique, and the event is such a key point of U.S. history. Most of our mandate was to recreate accurately the scenery, environment, and crowd, with great attention to details, while adding that spicy ingredient to get the Umbrella Academy vibe. Our artistic input was greatly welcomed, and Everett always gave our team a lot of creative latitude. It was a very collaborative process.”
One of Folks’ greatest challenges was determining just where, and how much, CGI should be used in creating required environments. “It’s always a challenge in period shows to find a reasonable balance of the extent we use CGI in the environments,” Spillemaecker explains. “Do we change every single shot to be a perfect match to the 1960s Dallas, which is of course not realistic budget-wise, or do we find a smart compromise with the shooting location, the set dressing, and the CGI to tell the story while keeping the VFX budget reasonable? We always had an open dialogue with Mr. Burrell about the extent of our work and what's important for the storytelling. Then everything surrounding the JFK assassination event was also very touchy: it's such an iconic event in US History, we had to make it right while keeping the scope of work reasonable once again.”
The number of people to digitally add into crowds, and their distribution, was based on available stock footage from the real event. Cars, buildings, signage, flags, a host of environmental elements had to be carefully replaced to match the real event. “We had to recreate not only a full CG crowd but also the presidential motorcade and the people in these cars,” Spillemaecker notes. “We crafted digital versions of JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Mrs. and Mr. Connally, the drivers, secret service and security agents, all reacting to the new course of events that our heroes cause in this season. We approached this sequence with a lot of respect and attention to detail.”
“The Umbrella Academy offers such a wide variety of VFX shots, from invisible period environments to sci-fi superpowers, and time-traveling scenes,” Spillemaecker concludes. “From an artist’s point of view, it's an amazing project to work on. I had an amazing creative team on the show, and this allowed us to deliver this second season in such a smooth way. This is truly the kind of project I personally love to be involved in.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.