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February 23
2021

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Recreating 1859 Harpers Ferry And The Abolitionist Rebellion For THE GOOD LORD BIRD

By CHRIS McGOWAN

For the Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, show-side Visual Effects Supervisor Brad Minnich and Ingenuity Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Woolley were tasked with recreating Harpers Ferry in 1859 and other settings from the last years of abolitionist John Brown. Ethan Hawke stars as Brown and co-created and co-wrote the historical drama, which is based on the 2013 novel of the same name by James McBride and produced by Blumhouse Television. The novel and series are fictional, but feature actual historic events and real persons, including Brown, Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) and Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah), mixed in with plenty of raucous and irreverent dark comedy.

 

Matthew Poliquin was Executive Producer and Adam Lambert the VFX Producer for Ingenuity Studios. Marz VFX, Barnstorm VFX, Trehmer Film and Technicolor VFX were other participating visual effects studios. Ingenuity Studios, the primary VFX house, completed 450 shots and worked on everything from period towns and landscapes to CGI fires, muzzle flashes, train smoke, extensive matte paintings and CG body doubles in battle.

Harpers Ferry was the most important location in the story, the site of Brown’s failed raid on the U.S. arsenal there, which he hoped would initiate a slave revolt in the South and ended up being a factor in sparking the Civil War. It is now part of West Virginia. However, the show was shot in Richmond, Virginia, so the challenge was to recreate Harpers Ferry with all means necessary, including leveraging historical references.

For the great reveal of the Harpers Ferry region, a horse and wagon and grassy field appear in the foreground. Right behind them, production rigged a bluescreen. Ingenuity Studios created everything beyond the foreground elements in order to simulate Harpers Ferry in 1859 in this panoramic shot. Images courtesy of Showtime.

“We had a lot of on-set photography and drone footage to reference to build that town,” Minnich comments. A lot of older photography from the area was also used for reference of what the structures and landscape looked like. “The cool thing about Harpers Ferry is that it is still intact and still has the [pre-Civil War] essence. I remember a session with Andrew where we picked off the modern buildings.” With those cleared out, “Andrew and his team at Ingenuity Studios had a good guide.”

The cool thing about Harpers Ferry is that it is still intact and still has the [pre-Civil War] essence. I remember a session with [Ingenuity Studios Visual Effects Supervisor] Andrew [Woolley] where we picked off the modern buildings. [With those cleared out]Andrew and his team at Ingenuity Studios had a good guide.” 

—Brad Minnich, Visual Effects Supervisor

Ingenuity’s Woolley explains, “We also utilized Google Earth in the collaboration process to plot out all the various pieces of action so we know where we are at all times and in which direction we’re facing during each scene requiring set extensions. For example, the mountain with the train station appears at different times of day in different episodes and from different angles, so there really was a lot of tracking going on from a supervision standpoint.”

 

Harpers Ferry is in a river valley, with mountains on either side. One of the memorable establishing scenes is a great reveal of the region. A horse and wagon and grassy field are in the foreground of the shot. Right behind them, production rigged a bluescreen. Ingenuity Studios created everything beyond the foreground elements. “We had to find or build all the elements – trees and grasses, mountains and so on, in the correct varietals and topography for the location,” Woolley notes. Another item was a bridge built in CG and added to the scene. “We had to match all the lighting to the practical elements in the scene,” he adds. “We stitched everything together and projected it onto some rough geo to give more 3D feel. It’s essentially 2.5D, though where the various depths move independently to achieve the correct parallax through the crane move. Finally, it was all integrated with atmosphere and the sky replacement to cap it off. It was the big reveal of Harpers Ferry. Once we locked that in, it established the lay of the land for our viewers.”

The Pikesville Hotel goes up in CG flames. The Ingenuity team matted out that balcony and used various layers for the billowing of fire and smoke that was created by comp.

“We also utilized Google Earth in the collaboration process to plot out all the various pieces of action so we know where we are at all times and in which direction we’re facing during each scene requiring set extensions. For example, the mountain with the train station appears at different times of day in different episodes and from different angles, so there really was a lot of tracking going on from a supervision standpoint.”

—Andrew Woolley, Visual Effects Supervisor

 

John Brown and his men ride through a burning Pikesville. Layering fire elements helped sell the shot.

Minnich comments, “Geography played a huge role for the matte paintings. On one side of the set, the background was the town. Then if you turn the camera around the other way, you’re looking at one side of the Appalachian Mountains. Then if you turn the camera another corner, you look down the sloping river valley, so we created a 360-degree view of that river valley. We had to do this for daytime and nighttime. It was a great process. Ingenuity Studios created the world that we dropped this set into.” Woolley adds, “Brad and his team did an incredible job tracking the angles from all of these different locations to make sure we maintained continuity.” He adds, “We oriented the set in Google Earth which anchored our grounds for communication.”

 

Another challenge was to add smoke to stock footage of a period train and make it look convincing. “The sim was done as a cluster of smaller volumes due to the distance it needed to cover in the shot and render times,” Woolley remarks. “We searched reference materials as well as production footage to match the color and density of the smokestack. We did a lighting pass to match the scene rendered in V-Ray through Houdini. We had to play with the dissipation to make the smoke linger correctly. This was the biggest challenge. Once it was complete, we utilized the lens grids from production to match the modified stock footage to the look of the show, which was shot on anamorphic lenses.”

 

Episode 2 had especially impressive VFX. In it, John Brown and his band of freedom fighters come to a slave-trading town called Pikesville to rescue Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), the young freed slave who is the narrator of the story. A massive gun fight occurs. “The hotel burns down and they ride off into the sunset,” Minnich explains. “I really wanted it to feel that they came in and burned this place to the ground. We needed to go big on the fires. Andrew was able to layer in a bunch of fire elements which absolutely sold the shot.”

“We built the flames all in comp – 2D because our team is excellent and it’s more cost effective,” Woolley notes. “We had to think about how the structures were built in order to deconstruct them in the degradation that the fire caused. Mattes created depth to make it look like there is fallen timber and different levels of charring and degradation. Then they used layers and layers of comp fire to build the correct depth and intensity to create the correct level of flames and smoke.

 

“We were on a low level looking up, [at] a two-story hotel with an upper deck and balcony,” Woolley continues. “There was a ton of roto that is match-moved to track the action and the camera dolly. We matted out that balcony and used various layers for the billowing of fire and smoke which was created by comp.”

In this nighttime shot, the Rail Man talks to Onion across from Harpers Ferry. The moon on the right serves as the primary light source. A train headlight illuminates the station tunnel. Ingenuity Studios integrated the scene with foliage and then the river below.

Another challenge was to add smoke to stock footage of a period train and make it look convincing. Woolley and his team searched reference materials as well as production footage to match the color and density of the smokestack. They did a lighting pass to match the scene rendered in V-Ray through Houdini, and played with the dissipation to make the smoke linger correctly.

Vintage firearms were an essential part of the battle. Minnich notes, “Production shot all of these elements with period-accurate guns. It took a day or two of shooting these elements to get these muzzle flashes. We’re talking about violent guns with gunpowder and bullets that don’t shoot accurately. These things are breathing fire and smoke. So we were very specific about how they interacted with the story. We allowed two frames for the flash, for example. Whether you have a big shootout in a bar or the scenes outside, you feel the closeness and the violence of the fight. There was a lot of R&D to get that right. Another big part of these gun battles –  and there was a lot of gunplay – every single time a pellet or bullet hits the side of a building, it explodes. So you have to track that bullet hole through the long scenes. We tracked muzzle flashes, smoke, and the debris when hitting walls, shot after shot to make sure the continuity was correct.” The biggest shot of them all involved a cannon, which blew up Steve Zahn’s character. Woolley says, “A cannon shot to the body is not something there’s a ton of reference for! Production shot the actor on a pulley running towards the camera and then yanked him up and away with a cannon in the foreground. We did a CG takeover of the actor [Steve Zahn] with our CG body double, which was way overbuilt with all the textures and clothing elements, considering the abrupt and violent nature of the shot, but our artists were having fun.

 

“We used particle sims and smoke sims for the dust, and integrated all of this with the smoke from the cannon,” he adds. “We added a foreground fuse with some smoke and sparks to the CG cannon which was built in order to allow the cannon to recoil and settle back in place. We used Maya for all the modeling and animation and Houdini for all the FX works, which were then rendered in V-Ray.”

 

One of Minnich’s favorite effects involved a carriage in the final battle scene in Episode. 6. “I love the way this carriage chase works out. We used greenscreen comps, with the horse carriage on a greenscreen. You have to be careful with this stuff because it can look fake quick. It took nuanced comp work, including complex window treatments. Bob [played by Hubert Point-Du Jour] has to jump out of a carriage, but we didnt have footage of a body dropping to the ground. To sell this sequence we had to position the environment correctly. That was some amazing work because it looked real, and there wasn’t a moment when you were pulled out of that scene due to bad work.”

“We built the flames [in the hotel fire] all in comp – 2D because our team is excellent and it’s more cost effective. We had to think about how the structures were built in order to deconstruct them in the degradation that the fire caused. Mattes created depth to make it look like there is fallen timber and different levels of charring and degradation. Then they used layers and layers of comp fire to build the correct depth and intensity to create the correct level of flames and smoke.”

—Andrew Woolley, Visual Effects Supervisor

 

Ingenuity Studios added muzzle flashes and damage from the gun fight to this scene where Onion and John Brown, far right, and Brown’s men come to free the slaves. Ingenuity Studios had to track all the bullet hits throughout the scene, building them into each subsequent shot to ensure continuity.

Brown and his men leave the slave-trading town of Pikesville in flames. The scene features a dolly move from left to right with horsemen riding through the shot. The Ingenuity Studios team did “a ton of roto” that was match-moved to track the action and the camera dolly.

“Production shot all of these [gun-battle] elements with period-accurate guns. It took a day or two of shooting these elements to get these muzzle flashes. We’re talking about violent guns with gunpowder and bullets that don’t shoot accurately. These things are breathing fire and smoke. So we were very specific about how they interacted with the story. We allowed two frames for the flash, for example. Whether you have a big shootout in a bar or the scenes outside, you feel the closeness and the violence of the fight. There was a lot of R&D to get that right.”

—Brad Minnich, Visual Effects Supervisor

Fire ravages the buildings of Pikesville including the hotel. Mattes created depth to make it look like there is fallen timber and different levels of charring and degradation. Layers upon layers of comp fire were used to build the depth and intensity to create the correct level of flames and smoke.

On The Good Lord Bird, VFX created many things but also took away quite a few as well. “There are a lot of things that were painted out including telegraph poles, modern roads and fences, tractor marks in the fields, modern smokestacks on the horizons,” observes Woolley. “All the little things that you may not consider, but had they been left in you would subconsciously break the suspension of disbelief that allows us as viewers to travel back to that time.” 

 

The VFX challenges increased when the COVID pandemic began halfway through post-production. We had to adapt and adopt a new workflow that kept us both compliant for COVID, and with remote security protocols to stay in line with the various studio requirements,” Woolley recalls. “This was seemingly a moving target that our team behind the scenes worked relentlessly to achieve. We’re incredibly proud and grateful for all their efforts.”

About the series as a whole, Minnich concludes, “I had a great time problem solving. This show just works. That’s what makes it fun.” Woolley adds, “We were all proud that we were able to bring this to the audience at an especially meaningful time.”


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