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October 20
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

PERRY MASON and the Case of the Vivid, Vintage VFX

By CHRIS McGOWAN

When HBO decided to reboot the Perry Mason TV series about a formidable criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, it embarked on a nearly total re-imagining of one of the most beloved programs in television history.

Based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, the original Perry Mason starred Raymond Burr in the titular role and ran from 1957-1966, with Burr returning for some two dozen TV movies from 1985 to 1993. The courtroom drama was an orderly affair with Mason always winning his case by the end and justice inevitably being served. The creators and showrunners of the new version – Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald – sent the show back in time to 1932, steeped it in noir atmosphere and morphed the well-groomed lawyer into a seedy, down-on-his-luck private investigator (Matthew Rhys) who drinks too much and suffers from World War I flashbacks.

Welsh actor Matthew Rhys portrays a re-imagined Perry Mason, who is now a disheveled, struggling private investigator in 1932. (All images courtesy of HBO.)

Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) does lots of dirty investigative work for his old pal Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys).

In terms of the show’s striking visuals, “basically, we were re-creating Chinatown,” says Overall VFX Supervisor Justin Ball, referring to the classic 1974 neo-noir mystery, also set in the 1930s. “In VFX we are always working to match our plates, so the DP, David Franco, set the look [and] we just followed suit.” Tim Van Patten was the director, John P. Goldsmith the Production Designer, and Pixomondo, Digital Domain, Crafty Apes, Teamworks Digital and Lola the VFX vendors for the series.

To present a city that has changed so much over nearly nine decades, “we had to add and alter a lot of the landscape to make everything feel more period,” comments Ball. Dozens of locations and stage builds were used, including for the Angels Flight railway, Mason’s farmhouse, the Radiant Assembly Church, the courtroom, the jail, a cemetery, downtown L.A. streets, and various Hollywood apartments and estates that ranged from Spanish Colonial to Art Deco. Plus, a World War I battlefield.

Integrating all the locations and sets with visual effects was a massive undertaking. There were roughly 1,560 VFX shots over the course of the series. The Radiant Assembly of God and World War I sequences especially required “a lot of subtlety and detailed integration work to get the VFX to blend just right,” says Ball. “Both had lots of volumetric lighting and atmospherics to contend with. When going into this work, we had lots of lead-up discussions pointing out areas of concerns. So our vendors were quite aware of what I was looking for in terms of what would be okay as the final product.”

“Basically, we were re-creating Chinatown. In VFX we are always working to match our plates, so the DP, David Franco, set the look [and] we just followed suit.”

—Justin Ball, Overall VFX Supervisor

Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) gives a charismatic sermon at The Radiant Assembly of God before a small number of human actors. Time and people were filmmaking limitations, so Pixomondo was tasked with packing the congregation with digital crowds.

The Radiant Assembly of God church’s interior was filmed at the 1914 Trinity Auditorium (once known as the Embassy Hotel) in downtown L.A. The auditorium had many seats to fill, so Pixomondo expanded the congregation in the upper seats with digital faithful.

Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) brings to mind Aimee Semple McPherson, a Pentecostal evangelist who was popular in the 1920s and ‘30s. In-house motion capture helped Pixomondo refine the characters and fill the church with digital crowds.

“There were many filming limitations [in the the Radiant Assembly of God revival church scenes], with the main ones being time and people. Production had to jump in with both feet on the idea of using digital crowds and using them close to camera.”

—Justin Ball, Overall VFX Supervisor

Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) in downtown L.A. as it looks today. Here, skyscrapers have been removed and overhead wires have been added to create a 1932 period downtown.

“[The Radiant Assembly of God and World War I sequences required] a lot of subtlety and detailed integration work to get the VFX to blend just right. Both had lots of volumetric lighting and atmospherics to contend with. When going into this work, we had lots of lead-up discussions pointing out areas of concerns. So our vendors were quite aware of what I was looking for in terms of what would be okay as the final product.”

—Justin Ball, Overall VFX Supervisor

In the story, the Radiant Assembly of God is a revival church connected to a sensational child kidnapping/murder case. Ball says, “There were many filming limitations, with the main ones being time and people. Production had to jump in with both feet on the idea of using digital crowds and using them close to camera.” Pixomondo was tasked with filling in the congregation.

Pixomondo VFX Supervisor Michael Shelton recalls, “When we got the initial brief we looked at a number of solutions for crowds. Due to the amount of specific scene-driven performance that was needed, we opted to not use simulation specific software, but rather build a queue system of our own to mix and match body types and costumes so we could create the variety needed for a given shot’s crowd density. This allowed us to use a relatively low baseline of scanned actors and create hybrid versions of people in great numbers.”

Shelton adds, “Having in-house motion capture allowed us to throw on a suit and record new takes as needed as we continued to refine our characters to match the performance of actors in the footage. Pixomondo animators would refine motion as needed and sometimes created performances outside of mocap.”

The World War I flashbacks were the biggest workload for Pixomondo, which had to transform scenes shot under a July California sun into a battlefield in France. The filming had taken place at a location called Mystery Mesa in Santa Clarita and involved building trenches, setting off explosions and using flame throwers. “In post, we then took this footage and dialed up the intensity,” says Ball. “Tim Van Patten, our Executive Producer/Director, really wanted to create this feeling of the fog of war, the claustrophobia of it all, and that these men were in a literal hell surrounded by fire and death.”

“Our first task was coming up with solutions for neutralizing all the highlights on metallic surfaces as well as on skin. Additionally, we needed to remove ground shadows as the battlefield would ultimately have a persistent smoke canopy,” says Shelton. “Our second major challenge was to create layers of smoke that gave a sense of depth to the scenes. The challenges of keeping the on-set smoke consistent over the course of the day, including the travel of the camera, meant more would need to be added in post. Through extensive roto and the use of volume and depth mattes we established foreground, mid-ground and background levels of smoke that would be present throughout the sequence.

“Our final contributions,” Shelton continues, “included 3D environment extensions to the trenches and gun nests as well as adding numbers to the size of both armies and explosions. A 2D/3D environment was also created for the town of Montfaucon,  which was the historical prize in this battle. To finish it off we did a pass to lower or remove in some cases the mountain ranges of Santa Clarita to better match the horizon of the French countryside.”

He adds, “For the WWI sequence it was challenging to add our CG extensions due to the complexity and volume of roto that needed to be done for actors as well as the location itself. We did need to contend with some practical smoke and explosions in order to place our extensions in depth. And [for] some shots we were changing 40% to 50% of the frame with our matte painting and CG environment, and our FX elements needed to blend seamlessly with what was practical in the rest of the plate.”

World War I flashbacks torture Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys). Battle scenes were filmed at a location called Mystery Mesa in Santa Clarita, where explosions and fires were not a problem. Pixomondo created the flames, smoke and a ridge-line effects.

“Our final contributions [to the World War I scenes] included 3D environment extensions to the trenches and gun nests as well as adding numbers to the size of both armies and explosions. A 2D/3D environment was also created for the town of Montfaucon,which was the historical prize in this battle. To finish it off we did a pass to lower or remove in some cases the mountain ranges of Santa Clarita to better match the horizon of the French countryside.”

—Michael Shelton, VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo

Director Tim Van Patten wanted to create a feeling of a literal hell surrounded by fire and death in the WWI battlefield flashback. Pixomondo created layers of smoke to give a sense of depth to the scenes and also added more flames and a higher ridge line.

The archway of the iconic Angels Flight funicular was moved from its original location due to redevelopment. Period-accurate imagery from the 1930s replaced greenscreen.

The Angels Flight funicular railway ride was recreated by Digital Domain.

The top of the Angels Flight funicular was built by the production team. Digital Domain recreated the missing parts of the Angels Flight funicular and the surrounding environs.

A crucial event in the story’s plot takes place at Angels Flight, a narrow-gauge funicular railway that is a historic landmark. It posed a particular challenge because in 1969 it was moved to a new location a few blocks away. “To complicate things a bit more, the production was only permitted to film at the base of the Flight on Hill Street,” says Ball. “So about 90% of the location had to be re-constructed around the base. The art department did a superb job of building a small set there that we could then play into and build the rest of the world around.”

Digital Domain recreated the missing parts of Angels Flight and the surrounding blocks of Bunker Hill circa 1932. Digital Domain VFX Supervisor Mitch Drain comments, “Fortunately, there are a lot of archival photographs and vintage film clips to reference since accuracy to the time and place were critical. The art department did an amazing job of creating parts of the environment that the actors would interact with. Everything beyond was created digitally.” This meant each of the iconic buildings, the ticket booth, train system, foliage and all props, street lights, cars, telephone and electrical lines and period-dressed digital extras would all be needed since some shots were full CG and others were extensions of the practical environment.

Drain notes, “Our CG model would be lined up against the practical photography and tracked to match camera movement. Getting the lighting, materials and atmosphere to match the photography was our biggest challenge. Much attention was paid to the lighting of the scenes; our lighting team would digitally light the extended environment to match the practical lighting.”

Another aspect of keeping things historic was that L.A. was booming at the time in the ‘30s and “it was difficult for the infrastructure to keep up in any type of logical way,” says Ball. “So there were wires everywhere – telephone, electrical, cable car, you name it. They were strung all over the place. This was a detail I really wanted to capture in the show. The showrunners were happy to let us run with this and add wherever we could.”

Some stretches of Downtown L.A. are similar to how they were in 1932, except for skyscrapers in the distance, which were removed. Infrastructure couldn’t keep up with a booming ‘30s L.A., and the showrunners allowed VFX Supervisor Justin Ball to go crazy with overhead wires.

One of the biggest VFX challenges was dealing with the quarantine. Internally, Ball and his team had already been using tools for team communication and information tracking. “I’m a big proponent of using tools like Flock or Slack for internal team communication to keep some of the clutter out of our in-boxes. We had our FileMaker DB that we had already built for night and weekend VPN access, and I always write all my own shot review notes,” says Ball. “So as we went remote all of these approaches just continued to be in use. I used Hiero on my local system in Atlanta to review both QT and EXR submissions and could over-cut edits provided to me.

“All of our vendors had their own unique challenges to moving remote,” Ball  concludes, “but each handled it in stride, and we only really felt about a loss of one week’s productivity as everyone transitioned. They all did a fantastic job of making the switch as seamless as possible.”


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