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December 03
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Running on Rooftops for Jason Bourne Spin-off TREADSTONE

By TREVOR HOGG

A major storyline for the Jason Bourne franchise is a CIA-run black ops program that utilizes torture techniques to turn American soldiers into superhuman assassins. Now the classified and controversial military initiative known as Treadstone gets its own television series courtesy of the USA Network and executive producer Tim Kring (Heroes).

Revelations in the small-screen spinoff include the Russians having their own behavior modification program known as Cicada, a childhood lullaby being used to awaken sleeper agents, and a missing nuclear missile on the market with a rogue group in North Korea being a potential buyer. After dealing with the confines of a massive haunted spacecraft in Nightflyers, Kris Wood serves as a Visual Effects Producer and Supervisor on the action thriller that explores the lethal and ruthless nature of global espionage.

Emilia Schüle, who portrays Young Petra, wears a green sock on her finger. (All images courtesy of NBCUniversal)

The final shot with the finger severed resulting from a fight between the KGB agent and CIA operative J. Randolf Bentley (Jeremy Irvine). 

“The thing is that we always want to be invisible with the visual effects,” states Wood. “Specifically, with Treadstone we had to be even more invisible because it’s gritty, grounded and real. Everything we worked on we tried to make as real as possible, that’s believable in the visuals as well as the physics. If somebody gets hit by a bullet or jumps off of something and is tethered with safety straps, you want to paint that stuff out but still feel the impact of the landing or whatever is happening to that person.”

It was important to honor the cinematic franchise. “Tim Kring [creator/executive producer], Dan Friedkin [executive producer] and I talked about making sure that all of the fans of the movies were still enthused and excited by what we’re doing. The television version is not a departure from traditional Jason Bourne stories.”

A major difference between the big- and small-screen versions is having to produce 10 episodes on a television schedule and budget. “Some episodes are more dramatic with fighting, so there is a bit less in the visual effects world. Premieres and finales get heavier on how big we get with things. Our storyline happens and was literally shot all over the world. Typically for visual effects we would be doing a lot of set extensions to make it feel like you’re in Paris or Korea. In this case we went to those locations so we didn’t end up spending that money on visual effects.”  Flashbacks play a major role within the narrative structure as the origins of the awakened sleeper agents get explored. “We were based in Budapest,  and some of our storyline takes place there, so we had to get rid of cell towers and a modern car passing through a shot.”

In present day, Petra is portrayed by Gabrielle Scharnitzky, who wears a green sock on her finger.  

The trademark severed finger is added in CG.  

“The thing is that we always want to be invisible with the visual effects. Specifically, with Treadstone we had to be even more invisible because it’s gritty, grounded and real. Everything we worked on we tried to make as real as possible, that’s believable in the visuals as well as the physics.”

—Kris Wood, Visual Effects Producer and Supervisor

Not all of the actors had been cast during the shoot of the pilot, so a green cardholder was used to represent a photograph. 

With the casting completed, photographs were composited into the live-action plate. 

A building needed to be constructed into the environment for the rooftop chase.

Texturing and lighting from the actual rooftops were utilized to integrate the CG building into the live-action plate.

The CG environment that Bentley jumps into is the real rooftop that he continues the chase on right after that. We did photo reference and texture photography of that rooftop so you feel like you’re still in the same environment.”

—Kris Wood, Visual Effects Producer and Supervisor

The producers of the show tended to favor implying blood and gore,  observes Wood. “Stuff can be scarier when it’s shot right, happens off-screen, and leaves it to the imagination.” The origins of the severed finger of Petra are showcased with Emilia Schüle playing the younger version while the present-day Russian operative is portrayed by Gabrielle Scharnitzky. “It was more painful for the two actresses who had to keep it up, whether we were putting a green sock over their finger or taping it down or bandaging two fingers together. There were probably four different approaches that we used at various times. We did photogrammetry of Emilia and Gabrielle, specifically of their hands. If we were adding a finger, the lighting and tracking might have been more a challenge. We shot multiple plates and reference in each environment. Those two actresses ended up travelling to different countries where we didn’t have the ability to have any visual effects supervision. We relied on the local team there. Both of the vendors that worked on these shots, BUF out of Paris and Stargate Studios based in Malta, did a great job.”

Three hundred visual effects shots were in the pilot. With 100 being the average for each episode. “BUF was on the show before I started, based on their reputation, and we were shooting in Europe, so there are certain tax credits that are applicable to European vendors,” explains Wood. “At one point we needed to bring in slightly lower cost vendors to get some of heavy lifting done. There were so many muzzle flashes. We weren’t able to do as much real gunfire as we would have liked. Things like that went to a secondary vendor, Stargate Studios. We also used CVD VFX in Vancouver and Krow VFX in St. Catharines, Ontario.”

Each vendor used their own compositing and 3D software. “There wasn’t so much of sharing shots and assets between vendors,” adds Wood. “We would collect all of the assets in Los Angeles and distribute them from there. On our first episode we had one vendor do all of the finger removal shots, establish the look, and share those images with the other vendors so they could match to it in terms of where on the finger we wanted the cut and how the wound at the end looked.”

In the pilot episode J. Randolf Bentley (Jeremy Irvine) escapes his KGB captors in Berlin by running on rooftops in the middle of winter attired only in underwear. “Some were stage and others were real rooftops,” reveals Wood. “We had to 3D scan him and use that material to paint out all of the boots, warmup and safety gear that we used at various points.” A building was digitally added. “That was the biggest background replacement in the pilot. The CG environment that Bentley jumps into is the real rooftop that he continues the chase on right after that. We did photo reference and texture photography of that rooftop so you feel like you’re still in the same environment.”

Half the time the main cast members were shot fighting rather than relying entirely on stunt performers. “We got to do some exciting stunts that most TV shows won’t do, like our car and rooftop chases,” says Wood. “There are a lot of fights. Petra [Gabrielle Scharnitzky] and Yulia [Ekaterina Medvedeva] have a fight that you’ll never see two mature women go at each other quite the way that these two do. It’s stunning. We did setup for some face replacements for multiple setups, but the stunt team nailed it every time.”

There has not been extensive environmental work for the visual effects team. “We have been shooting in Budapest, which also doubles for Berlin, and has an old train graveyard [Istvántelek Train Yard] that is a stunning environment that did not need a lot of visual effects work.” A dramatic car chase concludes with a crash that takes place in Paris. “The only real digital augmentation that we needed to do on that sequence was removing the cameras. There were many cameras that got a lot of great angles, but we ended up with dollies and crash boxes in a few of the shots. We did one shot where the crane pushes through the back window just before the crash. The car that the actors were in had one of the stunt pods on top of it,  so we had to mount a camera in front of the pod so we could paint the pod out.”

Photographs were composited into shots. “A lot of times why we had the green cards was because the actors in the later episodes weren’t cast yet.  Some of the environments were difficult because someone would pick up a photograph, manipulate it, and there would be a shadow that passes across it. The photograph would be sent to the vendor, and they would use whatever was occurring in that natural environment and the edges of the photograph itself to track it into place.”

A good relationship has been developed with the editorial department. “We’re already working ahead on Yuri Leniov’s yacht. Editorial has been great about pulling those shots ahead of time for us and allowing our vendors to get started.”

The UI found on the computer monitors in the CIA headquarters in Langley was based on firsthand knowledge. “Our executive producer, Ben Smith, had already had a visit to Langley and was particular about making it as real as possible,” remarks Wood. “All of the monitors ended up being bluescreen or greenscreen or off so we could make decisions in post and have time to build some graphics that worked for those scenes.”

CIA operative J. Randolf Bentley (Jeremy Irvine) escapes his KGB captives.

The warmup and safety gear were replaced to make it appear that J. Randolf Bentley is running in his underwear.

“The rooftop chase turned out to be fantastic. It was probably also our biggest challenge because we had two studio sets and two exterior rooftop sets – make those look like they were living in the same world, have the same lighting, and add CG environments to it. Then getting it done in the TV timeline and price.”

—Kris Wood, Visual Effects Producer and Supervisor

With the help of a harness, J. Randolf Bentley jumps from a rooftop.

The harness is replaced as J. Randolf Bentley leaps into a CG environment. 

The signature action sequence in the pilot is Wood’s personal favorite. “The rooftop chase turned out to be fantastic. It was probably also our biggest challenge because we had two studio sets and two exterior rooftop sets – make those look like they were living in the same world, have the same lighting, and add CG environments to it. Then getting it done in the TV timeline and price.”


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