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The Heroic Logistics of ‘Superman & Lois’ VFX

VFX supervisor John Gajdecki and VFX producer Matthew Gore, working with more than a dozen vendors as well as an inhouse team of 44 artists, increased the Season 1 shot count by 25%, across a wide array of complex visuals, in The CW show’s Season 2 production.

A stunning array of visuals is a given with any story that features the Man of Steel. But even more impressive are the behind-the-scenes machinations employed on Season 2 of Superman & Lois, where every shot required an element of digital augmentation.  Making that wide variety of complex VFX shots doable for The CW show, while sticking to its tight production schedule, were VFX supervisor John Gajdecki (Project Blue Book) and VFX producer Matthew Gore (Blade: The Series). The series, co-created by Greg Berlanti (Arrow) and Todd Helbing (Black Sails), focuses on the domestic trials and tribulations of Clark Kent (Tyler Hoechlin) and Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) as they raise twin sons (Jordan Elsass, Alex Garfin) while contending with world events that require superhero intervention. 

A significant change for Season 2 was the establishment of an inhouse visual effects team of 44 artists, which included 20 compositors.  “We have been able to put together a team of senior artists; we send the prep out so that we’re only focusing on the art,” notes Gajdecki. “Wev Alves, one of our lead 3D guys, said that this is the best team of compositors he has ever worked with in television.”  There are certain limitations with team because a lot of different specialities are needed. However, as Gore notes, “What is great about some of the shots that we work with is we’ve had these conversations about [the inhouse team] looking at themselves as an extension of our team instead of being standalone Wev interacts with the shots one to one, goes in and sees what the vendor’s pipeline is doing.” 

Visual effects shots have increased 25% from Season 1’s 2300-2500 count.  “Zoic Studios got busy between our two seasons and gave me a heads up that they were going to be booked probably up and until our first two episodes air,” remarks Gore.  “We have expanded out to include other vendors.  Refuge VFX have done a lot of great work for us last season and this season.  We are working with a shop called Boxel Studio which does animation and did some of our look development.  Frame Lab Studios is another great one that came on for this season as well as Barnstorm VFX and Tribal Imaging.  There’s probably between 10 and 15 shops that we worked with depending on availability.”   

Visual effects assets from Season 1 reused in Season 2 have been tweaked to make them go through the pipeline faster. “We went from heat vision to heat breath for Bizarro,” explains Gore. “What we did was to add the blue vapor element that you get when the gas from the stove is heating up and turning into fire.”

Stunts and special effects are tightly integrated with the visual effects. “[Stunt coordinator] Rob Hayter constantly sends us videos of what some of the stunt work is,” Gore says.  “A lot of times their stunt work ties in with our visual effects live-action handoff.  We would then take their stunt videos and send them to our vendors so that they could get a good sense of what their animation might be before they even see a cut.”   A close partnership is also had with cinematographers Stephen Maier, Gordon Verheul, and Gavin Struthers, who shot the series pilot.  Gore continues, “We gave the vendors reference for all our lenses and flares. Gavin to his credit said, ‘I don’t want these to feel like computer generated flares. I will shoot you the reference.’  He wanted to make sure that we carried that out from there out.  I give him a lot of credit for working with us closely because it could have gone either way.”

A submarine gets rescued by Superman, which was shot wet for wet in front of a greenscreen.  “Visual effects supervisor Robert Habros said to me, ‘We’ll never pull this greenscreen,’” recalls Gajdecki.  “I replied, ‘This looks too cool.’  It’s a big backlit show.  But if we just had Tyler with wet hair and backlit him, we would have put rain on him, and it would have been cool. But we pounded them with rain in front of a greenscreen and then we had the flashes going off. It was Episode 201 so we knew that we could brute force a handful of those shots through; however, these shots already looked beautiful when we shot it.”  Great attention went into the shots’ details.  “John has been on subs and was like, ‘There has to be torpedoes back there and they’re on chains and swinging,” Gajdecki says.  And if you look closely, there are torpedoes back there.  Or he’d say, ‘There has to be these gaskets moving up and down.’”  Gajdecki did not opt to take the easy route. “There was this door that we could look through and the inclination is to close it but instead my inclination is to open it because we can see into the next room and the next room. Boxel nailed that.”    

A huge number of deepfakes had to be produced for the character of Bizarro, an alternative dimension version of Superman.  “No sane person would have agreed to do that many shots,” laughs Gajdecki.  “We fired up two vendors at the same time because we didn’t know if one was going to fail, and they both came through; that would be Od Studios and Lux VFX.”  It was important to determine whether the technique would fit within the post-production schedule.  “We approached both visual effects houses and locked down with them what a ‘perfect world’ scenario would look like,” explains Gore.   “Out of those meetings we put together our ‘AI Wish List’ and approached our executive producer Todd Helbing and our producer on the ground in BC, Louis Milito, and asked if production could shoot the training material for us so that we could run an initial test. Todd, Louis, and our make-up department were all on board.  Within a few days they provided John with Tyler and a camera and crew so that our production could quickly get Lux and Od the material they needed for their tests.  Within a week we had an initial test back and the results were promising. Production agreed to provide us with a second set of test footage, which we used for additional, more refined AI training.” 

Flying shots have been easier to execute this season because of the quality of the digital doubles.  “It would be great to have a 60-foot ceiling, but we just don’t have that,” states Gajdecki.  “We’re always in a world where we’re working within the space that we have.  Because our digital doubles are so good, the flying shooting is much more about the coverage, action, and performance.  Then the wide shots have almost become a reference because we’re going to replace them with digital doubles anyway.”  Digital doubles have also become more prevalent. Gore adds, “What we do a bit more this season is prep everything that we’ve got to do with the greenscreen or talk to production and say, ‘We’re probably going to do a digital double here.’  Or if we see a plate that we’ve shot and we can get this through faster, say something from behind where he’s flying towards something, and we don’t see his face. Those have become digital doubles because its faster to move through the system.”   

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.