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March 20


Spring 2019

Enhancing Reality in TOM CLANCY’S JACK RYAN


The Paris apartment explosion witnessed by Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) was created by using gas explosions and demolition references. (Photo: Jan Thijs. Image courtesy of Amazon)


Shifting from the big screen to the streaming service Amazon Prime is Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the further adventures of former U.S. marine turned CIA analyst Jack Ryan, with John Krasinski taking over the role previously played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine.

In order to visualize the espionage world originally conceived by author Tom Clancy, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland recruited Erik Henry, who has won Primetime Emmy Awards for his visual effects work on John Adams (HBO) and Black Sails (Starz).

“We did have a consultant from the CIA and he was forthcoming with, ‘This is how small that would be’ or, ‘The technology that we have is much better than what you’re seeing on the Internet.’ It was an interesting balance,” says Henry. “A perfect example is surveillance videos. We made sure to give the audience something better than what they’re seeing on YouTube, but not so crazy good that it would take them out of the show.”

A decision was made to shoot the eight episodes for the first season all at the same time with the post-production period lasting six months. “We would ask the editors to cut visual effects sequences quickly, get those in front of Carlton and Graham for approval, and then show them to Paramount and Amazon. That way we could get these things in the pipeline, and start the look development and animation,” explains Henry. “It guaranteed that we had a good amount of time for sequences or shots that needed attention.”

Continuity was not a major issue. “There was a bit of luck in that we did not have a lot of changes,” he adds. “If there was one scene that we experimented with a lot and even added some things that we hadn’t planned originally, it was the opening of Episode 1 with the jet airplanes dropping bombs on the kids’ home in Lebanon.”

There are a little over 1,000 visual effects shots in the show with a significant amount involving wire removals and cleanups. “There wasn’t a lot of reuse [when it came to the digital assets],” remarks Henry. “We would have an episode where they said, ‘We need to have a 737 parked on the tarmac there.’ It was like, ‘Okay, we’ll do that.’ We absolutely modelled a 737, put it into the scene, and it’s a beautiful shot, but it’s the one and only time that we did it. The airport runway scene was shot only 40 yards from the fuselage, so there was a quite a bit of detail that had to go into it to make that look real, including having the sense of dirt or water stains at the corners of windows that you see on planes that have not had a lot of maintenance.”

The opening bombing run in the pilot episode was completely done with previs and thoroughly vetted before heading to Morocco to shoot the plate photography; however, other sequences came late in the production. “The ending of Episode 8 was rewritten to amp things up so we have a CG subway sequence where a character gets shot, stumbles in front of the train and is hit,” recalls Henry.

“That and the fact that our main character had to squeeze himself against the tunnel wall as the train races by him. We didn’t have enough time to do previs, but we came up with a rig to get interactive light coming from the train windows onto John Krasinski as he moves through the tunnel. You take it as it comes. I never felt that we were in a position where there was a sense that we were not prepared for a sequence.”

Helming the pilot episode was Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum, who previously directed Headhunters and The Imitation Game. “The script was solid,” notes Henry. “Morten brought his film background to it, and we have some wonderful actors in John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce and Ali Suliman. They made this not your average run-of-the-mill television show.”

Various kinds of visual research were conducted. “Graham Roland played an important role in vetting our research because he fought in Iraq as a member of the armed services. That helped us quite a bit. We did research into specific types of writing that would be appropriate for a Turkish airport sign and made sure to authentically name people from other countries, whether they be Chechen or Russian. We spent the time and money to bring in graphics companies that had worked on $100 million feature films. I could go on about the level of detail that Jack Ryan so elegantly puts on the screen.”

One of biggest set extensions for Hybride was the refugee base camp in Episode 5, which involved plate cleanups and reconstructions, ground and background replacements, designing CG tents, digital doubles, as well as dust and smoke effects. (Photo: Jan Thijs. Image courtesy of Amazon)

Montreal stands in for Washington, D.C. as Jack Ryan cycles through the city. (Photo: Jon Cournoyer. Image courtesy of Amazon)

On the set with Jack Ryan in Paris. (Photo: Jon Cournoyer. Image courtesy of Amazon)
A key dynamic is the relationship between Jack Ryan and his CIA superior James Greer (Wendell Pierce). (Photo: James Minchin III. Image courtesy of Amazon)

Real aircraft such as a Elizabeth City Coast Guard helicopter as well as digital versions of a Boeing 747 and Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard (a French strike fighter) make an appearance throughout the series. (Photo: Myles Aronowitz. Image courtesy of Amazon)
Omar Rahbini (Helmi Dridi) and Suleilman (Ali Suliman), with the latter being de-aged using a 2D approach for two flashback sequences. (Photo: James Minchin III. Image courtesy of Amazon)

An effort was made to go to actual locations such as Paris to add to the sense of authenticity. (Photo: Jan Thijs. Image courtesy of Amazon)
John Krasinski shooting on location with series co-creator Carlton Cuse who directed Episode 6. (Photo: Jan Thijs. Image courtesy of Amazon)

A total of 222 visual effects shots amounting to 17 minutes of screen time were produced by Hybride for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. “Most of the FX produced for the show implicated some level of creative and technical challenges,” notes Hybride Visual Effects Supervisor François Lambert. “When the pickup truck explodes in the army base in Episode 1, for example, we actually needed to cut with actual pyro elements just like we did for the Paris apartment explosion that created a massive fireball and smoke plume. In Episode 7, one of the terrorists is testing a device the terrorists plan on using to release poisonous gas in a hospital. For this scene, it was important that we understand that it’s the cell phone that will be triggering the explosion of two glass cartridges that contain a deadly gas, and that this gas will be sucked in by the fan and dispersed through the vents. It took us a few tries before we got the dust particles exploding and swirling into the fan in a way that would make sure the audience would understand exactly what was going on.”

Cinesite delivered 111 shots. “One of the biggest sequences in the show was one where we had not anticipated any effects,” reveals Cinesite VFX Supervisor Gunnar Hansen. “The scene took place in a Vegas casino. As they had shot a casino in Montreal, the architecture and black ceilings were not at all like a grand Vegas-style casino. The request from production was to replace the ceilings in all the shots. The tracking and layout team did an incredible job of reverse engineering the camera positions and placing CG grand-lofted ceilings to match those seen in the larger casinos of Vegas.”

Hansen was on set when principal photography was taking place in Montreal. “I am looking forward to the pizza parlour explosion,” he says. “It was fun to be there on the shoot as they dressed up and blew up the façade of one of my favourite pizza places. Cinesite enhanced the huge fireball with realistic CG debris, and flaming bits and pieces. Thankfully, production reset the real pizza place the very next day.”

Outpost VFX looked after 70 shots across three episodes. “We did a fair amount of research regarding de-aging the antagonist Suleiman [Ali Suliman],” remarks Giorgio Pitino, Visual Effects Supervisor at Outpost VFX. “We’ve done quite a lot of 2D de-aging in the past for things like Nocturnal Animals and always do plenty of photo research to ensure that any de-aging work we do is as natural as possible. Usually this involves tracking down pictures of the talent from when they were a little younger and then sort of reverse engineering the aging process with visual effects.”

Critical was finding the right balance between de-aging Suleiman and making him believable as a younger man. “Retouching an actor’s face is a subtle art that needs a lot of fine tweaks and balance. The most difficult part is to make someone look younger but still maintain the key features of their face and not create a look that feels soft or airbrushed. For instance, rotating the corner of the eyes by just a couple of pixels could drastically change the final look making the actor appear completely different.”

Important Looking Pirates was responsible for 36 shots over three episodes. “The two main sequences we worked on take place in Lebanon in the 1980s, where we follow the story of two brothers that get caught in a life-threatening air raid,” remarks Important Looking Pirates VFX Supervisor Bobo Skipper.

“For the first sequence our task was to create fighter-jet aircraft flying in for a bomb run that demolishes a village,” he explains. “The plates we received were shot in Morocco with a few houses in the foreground. Part of our job was to set-extend the shots with a CG village, including trees and vegetation. We then simulated this environment together with explosions and smoke plumes rising from the bombardment. Later in the sequence, we find the younger brother stuck under a burning log. For these shots, our job was to enhance the plates with fire, embers and smoke. We created a CG version of the log that replaced the on-set prop, giving it a scorched looked, and adding burning embers, flames and smoke.”

Territory Studio created 100 graphic assets to help story beats involving military operations, scrubbing drone footage, data searches and facial recognition. “We mainly looked at drone reconnaissance and firing footage to make this as realistic as possible,” states Territory Studio Creative Lead Nils Kloth.

“The story is meant to play out now and be almost nonfiction,” Kloth says, “so realism was one of the key driving factors for all the work we did. For us, it is always important to ensure that we build a believable system that people feel comfortable operating and interacting with.”

Kloth adds, “The biggest challenge was the lack of information available at the time we started work. The episodes and scripts developed and changed, thus affecting the graphics and what they needed to do.”

A gray model render of the carpet bombing that occurs in the opening scene of the series. (Image courtesy of Important Looking Pirates)

The final composite of the carpet bombing created by Important Looking Pirates. (Image courtesy of Important Looking Pirates)

Roto animation was favored over greenscreen largely because the handheld cinematography did not lend itself to motion-control cameras. “We have some soundstage work like when the scene is at the CIA,” notes Henry. “We knew right from the get-go that in order for this show to be successful you couldn’t use the California desert for Morocco or the Middle East. There are certain things like the people, vehicles and the ways that roads are built that give such credibility when you globetrot to Paris, Moscow, London or Washington, D.C.” Shooting extensively on location presented logistical challenges such as the jihadi explosion in a Parisian apartment. “We were able to seal the street because it was almost like an alley, but no explosions were ever going to happen. We were re-enacting to some degree an event that did occur in the Muslim neighborhood of Paris a few years back where the police stormed an apartment and a suicide vest was detonated and blew out a section of the building. We toured that area of Paris while scouting and picked a neighborhood that was close to it. Lots of great plates and simulation work by Hybride.”

Digital doubles needed to be created for refugees trying to get onto boats. “There were 300 extras, and we clearly understood after looking at it that we were going to need about 1,000,” explains Henry. “Hybride has a relationship with Ubisoft in Montreal, which has a high-quality motion-capture studio. They were able to take the textures that I supplied from set and put that into their digital doubles. We also did mocap for motions such as picking things up and walking that the people on the beach would be doing. Because the digital doubles were of such a high quality, we were able to mix them throughout the drone shots to fill up the beach.”

Extreme changes in the weather were encountered during the production, notes Henry. “We started in Montreal where it was subzero and our feet had become blocks of ice, and we laughed when we finished the Morocco shoot and it was 118 degrees in the desert. We definitely had some extremes and that shows on camera.”

300 extras were not enough to fill the scene of a refugee camp, so Hybride created a crowd simulation that was interwoven into the live-action plate. (Image courtesy of Hybride)
A close-up shot of the crowd simulation produced by Hybride for the refugee camp scene. (Image courtesy of Hybride)

Storefront of a pizza shop shot on location in Montreal. (Image courtesy of Cinesite)

Cinesite digitally augments an explosion featuring fire and glass shards coming from the interior of the pizza shop. (Image courtesy of Cinesite)

A command search computer screen created by Territory Studio. (Image courtesy of Territory Studio)

Territory Studio was responsible for creating computer screen graphics for drone footage. (Image courtesy of Territory Studio)
John Krasinksi is cornered in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. (Photo: Philippe Bossé. Image courtesy of Amazon)

“We did research into specific types of writing that would be appropriate for a Turkish airport sign and made sure to authentically name people from other countries, whether they be Chechen or Russian. We spent the time and money to bring in graphics companies that had worked on $100 million feature films. I could go on about the level of detail that Jack Ryan so elegantly puts on the screen.”

—Erik Henry, Visual Effects Supervisor

“For the opening bombing sequence, the special effects guys gave us amazing gasoline explosions that would singe the hair on your face if you got too close,” reveals Henry. “But they could only do so much. Important Looking Pirates did some simulation tests of what a bomb would do if it hits the ground or a tree. We had some good footage of bombs falling during the Vietnam War that showed the shockwave that emulates out from each bomb that is dropped and the damage that it does to the buildings.” Because of several challenges, the opening bombing run was the most difficult sequence to execute. “This was a real event that happened in 1983 in Lebanon, and the whole point of it is that we need the audience to feel that there is ambiguity so things aren’t so black and white. It’s a visual effects sequence, but I hope that you forget that at one point and live in it as these two kids do.”

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