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August 25
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Re-creating L.A. of the 1930s for PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS

By IAN FAILES

It’s a pretty obvious statement to make to say that Los Angeles has changed dramatically since the 1930s. There are, of course, new roads, new buildings and a wealth of new artefacts. So when Showtime sought to re-create a ‘1938 Los Angeles’ for Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, it looked to visual effects from FuseFX to adjust and augment modern photography to make the setting appear period-correct.

In the new series, a spin-off of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, the plot revolves around Detective Tiago Vega’s (Daniel Zovatto) investigation into an L.A. murder. A powerful force, brought via supernatural demon Magda (Natalie Dormer), wreaks havoc on the lives of those in the series.

John Heller, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX

FuseFX’s John Heller, who was Visual Effects Supervisor on Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, oversaw 800 shots for the show, many of which involved taking real photography of Los Angeles locations and augmenting them for the right era.

“Our production crew did a fantastic job planning locations,” notes Heller. “While much of the architecture and general landscape in and around Los Angeles play very well for 1938, each episode had a substantial amount of clean-up, building replacements and other modifications.”

The original plate for a bridge driving shot. (All Penny Dreadful: City of Angels images copyright © 2020 Showtime.)

Many of the VFX augmentations done by FuseFX were subtle, such as removing street line markings and modern buildings.

The most common types of visual effects in the show from FuseFX involved replacing signage, street lamps with period lamps, animating and adding period automobiles and changing paint details on streets. “The more complex period work,” says Heller, “involved extending multiple set locations that played for various neighborhoods throughout the show, including parts of Pasadena, Belvedere Heights neighborhood and main street, distant vistas of downtown L.A., as well as completely re-creating specific areas such as Pershing Square.

“All of this work began in pre-production with the production art department,” adds Heller, led by Production Designer Maria Caso, who built libraries of period imagery that the team at Fuse used as a base. These references included everything one could imagine from comprehensive views of the entire L.A. area, period housing, roadway details and layouts, the Red Car transit system, landscape details of local hills and other topography, as well as the smallest architectural details.”

Original plate.

Tram wires added to the scene.

The show’s supernatural elements also required visual effects intervention, as Heller elaborates. “In keeping with the setting, there was a strong desire to stay within the realm of horror as opposed to anything that felt sci-fi. FuseFX art department and CG teams played a big role in establishing the fine line between these two narratives drawing inspiration from films like The Exorcist and other psychological based narratives.

“A painstakingly detailed amount of work went into still concepts and animation tests to find the right balance in representing ‘other dimensional’ events that are grounded in lore.”

Bluescreens helped with a number of scenes requiring set extensions.

The final shot by FuseFX.

FuseFX contributed previs from teams of animators and its art department in the Los Angeles studio. The company’s Vancouver office then worked on the majority of shot production, with some done in L.A. When the coronavirus crisis hit, FuseFX’s remote working plan expanded the already remote workflows in play.

Says Heller: “The brilliant FuseFX IT team worked to ensure that over 100 team members who contribute to Penny Dreadful, as well as additional hundreds throughout our L.A., New York, Atlanta and Vancouver offices, were up and running at home within a matter of days with a workflow that is nearly identical to our normal experience.”

Daytime exteriors filmed with bluescreens enabled period-correct environments to be placed in backgrounds.

The final composite by FuseFX.

“Our production crew did a fantastic job planning locations. While much of the architecture and general landscape in and around Los Angeles play very well for 1938, each episode had a substantial amount of clean-up, building replacements and other modifications.”

—John Heller, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX

“The more complex period work involved extending multiple set locations that played for various neighborhoods throughout the show, including parts of Pasadena, Belvedere Heights neighborhood and main street, distant vistas of downtown L.A., as well as completely re-creating specific areas such as Pershing Square.”

—John Heller, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX

A nighttime street scene – original photography.

The final shot.

Shooting locations were cleverly chosen that partially matched the 1930s look.

Subtle alterations to the plate were often required.

“In keeping with the setting, there was a strong desire to stay within the realm of horror as opposed to anything that felt sci-fi. FuseFX art department and CG teams played a big role in establishing the fine line between these two narratives drawing inspiration from films like The Exorcist and other psychological based narratives.”

—John Heller, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX

“A painstakingly detailed amount of work went into still concepts and animation tests to find the right balance in representing ‘other dimensional’ events that are grounded in lore.”

—John Heller, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX

A shoot-out is filmed with the glass in the car windows.

FuseFX causes the glass to smash.

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