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Getting a Bang Out of ‘The Equalizer’ VFX

VFX supervisor Luke DiTommaso and VFX producer Michael Fernandes are responsible for everything from muzzle flashes to CG explosions on the CBS crime drama, starring Queen Latifah, which was just renewed for a second season.

Just renewed for a second season, CBS’ hit crime drama, The Equalizer, a reimagined version of the 1980s series, stars Academy Award-nominated actor Queen Latifah (Chicago, Bessie) as Robyn McCall, a woman with a mysterious background who uses her extensive skills as a former CIA operative to help those with nowhere else to turn.

It’s up to VFX supervisor Luke DiTommaso and VFX producer Michael Fernandes to identify and produce the show’s visual effects, done in collaboration with creative studio Molecule VFX. According to DiTommaso, “Michael and I have three main areas of responsibility for each episode. First, we identify potential VFX in the script, and discuss them creatively with the showrunners and director. That includes VFX logistics planning for the shoots. Second, during production, we supervise the visual effects on set or on location, making sure they are shot in a way that will suit us well later. Sometimes that includes shooting additional VFX elements for production. And lastly, we collaborate with post-production, and guide the Molecule VFX artists on a creative and technical level through to final delivery, making sure that the original idea on the script page makes it to the screen in a convincing and realistic way.”

The Equalizer is a fast-paced action show that takes place in New York but is shot in New Jersey,” DiTommaso notes. “There are often set extensions and location enhancements to ground the show in New York, as well as a certain amount of action enhancements like gunshot muzzle flashes, bullet hits on surfaces and people, breaking glass, blown tires, smoke grenades, even a CG dart for a bar scene. In the pilot we did a large explosion; we’ve also done some smaller explosions. The interior driving scenes are done at the stages using greenscreen. We did a CG drone for a scene where that was a central story point. We also do a fair number of burn-ins for monitors and screens, including some floating text elements.” 

A bit more than half-way through the season, the pair note that while each episode presents a new and fun challenge, they can think of three highlights to share. “In the first episode, we did a massive explosion that nearly kills McCall,” DiTommaso reveals. “On the day Queen Latifah did her own stunts, she dove onto the ground while there were interactive lights that simulated the light from the fire. We did a separate pass with an SFX explosion, which gave us a great base of propane fire, dirt, dust, and debris. We followed that up with CG simulations of the glass windows and wood mullions shattering, along with huge CG fireballs that complemented the practical effects that overtake McCall. We composited all the elements together into a dramatic end of act.”

“In the second episode, there is a plot line where McCall recognizes the sound of sailboats in the background of a call and decides to investigate marinas in the area,” he continues. “The scene was shot in an industrial area of New Jersey, far from any water. The Props and Art Dept did a great job dressing the location, but you can clearly see in a big opening crane shot that it was not a marina. As part of a separate VFX unit, we shot crane footage of a real marina full of sailboats and composited that onto the background of the production footage. We were very happy with the result, which helped tell the story of McCall’s detective work.” 

The fourth episode includes a scene where McCall and William Bishop, played by Chris Noth, have a conversation out in front of the Jumbotron in Times Square. “The conversation was shot in front of a bluescreen at the stages,” DiTommaso explains. “The DP and gaffer did a fantastic job providing the interactive lighting, so it felt like the actors were standing among all the illuminated billboards. We shot the background footage of Times Square beforehand using stand-ins, so we matched those angles when we shot on stage. When we composited the actors into the background, the result was a scene that felt seamlessly in Times Square.”

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.