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August 02
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

RISING ABOVE THE NETWORK SCHEDULE FOR SUPERMAN & LOIS

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of The CW.

A shot taken from the pilot episode outside the Fortress of Solitude.

A shot taken from the pilot episode outside the Fortress of Solitude.

A creative partnership and friendship forged 28 years ago at MGM has Visual Effects Supervisor John Gajdecki (Stargate: Atlantis) and Visual Effects Producer Matthew Gore (Battlestar Galactica) working together again on the second season of The CW production Superman & Lois. Co-creator and showrunner Todd Helbing (The Flash) has produced a unique spin on the superhero genre where at the heart of the story are the family struggles of Clark Kent (Tyler Hoechlin), Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) and their twin sons (Jordan Elsass, Alex Garfin) who have inherited the patriarchal supernatural abilities.

“We know that the artists are good and the art is built into the people. This team manages the process so tightly that we can deliver shots without panic two days before they’re on TV.”

—John Gajdecki, Visual Effects Supervisor

Superman & Lois is a testament to logistical prowess of the visual effects team that manages without panicking to deliver shots two days before they are on television.

Superman & Lois is a testament to logistical prowess of the visual effects team that manages without panicking to deliver shots two days before they are on television.

Even though Superman & Lois is spun off of Supergirl, the look of the series is uniquely its own.

Even though Superman & Lois is spun off of Supergirl, the look of the series is uniquely its own.

Superman (Tyler Hoechlin) must not only fly, he must fly through elements such as smoke, fog, clouds and dust. Bigger ambitions resulted in a 25% increase in visual effects shots in Season 2.

Superman (Tyler Hoechlin) must not only fly, he must fly through elements such as smoke, fog, clouds and dust. Bigger ambitions resulted in a 25% increase in visual effects shots in Season 2.

A major part of the visual language are Cooke Xtal Xpress lenses, which were emulated in the visual effects shots.

A major part of the visual language are Cooke Xtal Xpress lenses, which were emulated in the visual effects shots.

It was important to be able to produce feature-quality visual effects shots within a television schedule.

It was important to be able to produce feature-quality visual effects shots within a television schedule.

Water was poured onto Tyler Hoechlin when shooting the scene where Superman rescues a submarine in Episode 201. The submarine was created in Maya, with Houdini water and lots of clouds and smoke from the stock library added in Nuke.

Water was poured onto Tyler Hoechlin when shooting the scene where Superman rescues a submarine in Episode 201. The submarine was created in Maya, with Houdini water and lots of clouds and smoke from the stock library added in Nuke.

The Kent family farmhouse is dilapidated and the barn has burned down in the Bizarro World version. Even though there are assets and locations that carried over from Season 1, modifications still had to be made.

The Kent family farmhouse is dilapidated and the barn has burned down in the Bizarro World version. Even though there are assets and locations that carried over from Season 1, modifications still had to be made.

The Kent family farmhouse is dilapidated and the barn has burned down in the Bizarro World version. Even though there are assets and locations that carried over from Season 1, modifications still had to be made.

A particular expression comes to mind for Gajdecki when describing how the show operates. “You hear people saying, ‘Armchair generals talk strategy, but the pros talk logistics.’ ‘Can we get the weapons to the front? Will there be food for the soldiers when they get there?’ We know that the artists are good and the art is built into the people,” Gajdecki states. “This team manages the process so tightly that we can deliver shots without panic two days before they’re on TV.”

“At the beginning of the season, we said that we wanted to take this up another level and try to get as close to feature quality as we could, knowing our limitations. But every time Superman does something, there is usually a CG component to it that adds to the schedule and budget issues. John mentioned to me that he had an in-house team on Project Blue Book, and so we proposed that. The in-house team has shined and been great in helping us to get this on the air.”

—Matthew Gore, Visual Effects Producer

Necessity led to a creative solution for Season 2 of Superman & Lois. “We have a tight network schedule, so it’s tough to try to do what we’re trying to do,” Gore notes. “At the beginning of the season, we said that we wanted to take this up another level and try to get as close to feature quality as we could, knowing our limitations. But every time Superman does something, there is usually a CG component to it that adds to the schedule and budget issues. John mentioned to me that he had an in-house team on Project Blue Book, and so we proposed that. The in-house team has shined and been great in helping us to get this on the air.”

15 different vendors worked on Season 2, including Zoic Studios, Refuge VFX, Boxel Studios, Frame Lab Studios, Barnstorm VFX, Tribal Imaging, Od Studios and Lux VFX.

15 different vendors worked on Season 2, including Zoic Studios, Refuge VFX, Boxel Studios, Frame Lab Studios, Barnstorm VFX, Tribal Imaging, Od Studios and Lux VFX.

The more shots were broken up over multiple vendors, the more often they would come back to the in-house team as the final 2D. “I see us as the final line of digital defense,” Gajdecki remarks. “Everything comes in and we do the comps, and we’ll put that photographic pass on it to make sure that the lens flares feel right and that the camera move looks like it fits between the shot, before and after, and the contrast, smoke and dust levels are matching. When Superman flies in and comes to a stop, something else has to keep going otherwise it doesn’t feel right. With some artists it is hard to explain why that’s wrong. We came up with the term energy transfer and suddenly people went, ‘Okay, I see it now.’”

“I see us [the in-house team] as the final line of digital defense. Everything comes in and we do the comps, and we’ll put that photographic pass on it to make sure that the lens flares feel right and that the camera move looks like it fits between the shot, before and after, and the contrast, smoke and dust levels are matching. When Superman flies in and comes to a stop, something else has to keep going otherwise it doesn’t feel right. With some artists it is hard to explain why that’s wrong. We came up with the term energy transfer and suddenly people went, ‘Okay, I see it now.’”

—John Gajdecki, Visual Effects Supervisor

There is mutual cooperation between the different departments which allows for seamless integration between practical and CG elements.

There is mutual cooperation between the different departments which allows for seamless integration between practical and CG elements.

There is mutual cooperation between the different departments which allows for seamless integration between practical and CG elements.

Tyler Hoechlin was put through the deepfake process to apply Bizarro's face. Deepfake technology was critical in being able to create the Bizzaro version of Superman.

Tyler Hoechlin was put through the deepfake process to apply Bizarro's face. Deepfake technology was critical in being able to create the Bizzaro version of Superman.

Tyler Hoechlin was put through the deepfake process to apply Bizarro’s face. Deepfake technology was critical in being able to create the Bizzaro version of Superman.

Bigger ambitions have meant that the visual effects count increased from 2,300 to 2,500 shots for Season 1, to an additional 25% for Season 2. Also expanded are the number of vendors, which can be a many as 15 depending on their availability. Among the contributors are Zoic Studios, Refuge VFX, Boxel Studios, Frame Lab Studios, Barnstorm VFX, Tribal Imaging, Od Studios and Lux VFX. “We have an honest relationship with our vendors,” Gore notes. “In my conversations with them, are you available and can you do this work? They’ll tell you flat-out. It won’t be like the shop that wants to take the work and figure it out. They’ll say, ‘We don’t have these artists available for those weeks, but we have these who are available.’ We’re constantly trying to fill what somebody can do.” Even though there are assets and locations that carried over from Season 1, modifications still had to be made. “The [Kent family] farmhouse ended up in Bizarro World, so even though the farmhouse didn’t change between seasons, there was a whole new farmhouse and barn,” reveals Gajdecki. “The barn has burned down and the farmhouse is dilapidated.”

Villainous Ally's acolytes prepare to travel through the portal to Earth Bizarre in a greenscreen plate of the actors on the dressed studio floor. The portal was created in Houdini and comped in Nuke with smoke elements.

Villainous Ally's acolytes prepare to travel through the portal to Earth Bizarre in a greenscreen plate of the actors on the dressed studio floor. The portal was created in Houdini and comped in Nuke with smoke elements.

Villainous Ally’s acolytes prepare to travel through the portal to Earth Bizarre in a greenscreen plate of the actors on the dressed studio floor. The portal was created in Houdini and comped in Nuke with smoke elements.

A greenscreen plate of Superman and Tal-Rho on the volcano's edge. The Maya model of the interior of the volcano was comped with Houdini lava, live-action volcano splashes and lots of smoke and embers to produce the final shot.

A greenscreen plate of Superman and Tal-Rho on the volcano's edge. The Maya model of the interior of the volcano was comped with Houdini lava, live-action volcano splashes and lots of smoke and embers to produce the final shot.

A greenscreen plate of Superman and Tal-Rho on the volcano’s edge. The Maya model of the interior of the volcano was comped with Houdini lava, live-action volcano splashes and lots of smoke and embers to produce the final shot.

“There is stuff that we can’t talk about for the series finale that might come as a text from Todd Helbing with a photo that says, ‘We’re going to do this,’” Gore comments. “We went, ‘Okay. Cool. Let’s figure out how.’ A lot of times Todd will give us a heads up that something big is out there, so we can at least start thinking about it even if we don’t get a full outline or a script yet. At least we know conceptually this is something that we have to try to fit into the schedule.”

“Anything that we need we get. When we shoot greenscreens, the line producer says, ‘It’s Gadjecki Rules.’ They light it for us and get the exposures and interactive light that we need. Our shots look good even though we have little time because we shoot the pieces so well and production is behind us.”

—John Gajdecki, Visual Effects Supervisor

Gajdecki has a particular philosophy towards visual effects. “Every shot that we do has to look like that the art department directed it and the camera operators operated the camera. We are sensitive to the inputs from the other departments to make sure that we put in the same chaos that would be in a real shot.” The cooperation is mutual, he says. “Anything that we need we get. When we shoot greenscreens, the line producer says, ‘It’s Gadjecki Rules.’ They light it for us and get the exposures and interactive light that we need. Our shots look good even though we have little time because we shoot the pieces so well and production is behind us.”

The term 'energy transference' was coined for the scenes where Superman flies in and comes to a stop, to explain why the energy all around that action must continue.

The term 'energy transference' was coined for the scenes where Superman flies in and comes to a stop, to explain why the energy all around that action must continue.

The term ‘energy transference’ was coined for the scenes where Superman flies in and comes to a stop, to explain why the energy all around that action must continue.

Episode 208 features a portal. Comments Gajdecki, “Upon hearing that there was going to be a portal, we got all of the reference together, numbered all of the references, put it out in front of our executives, got on the Zoom and asked, ‘Todd, is any of this close to what you’re thinking?’ He might have 50 images to look at, and we start to talk about the nature of the portal, what’s the portal doing and the behavior. We go from there and start narrowing down the focus.” Superman gets affected in a dramatic way. “There had to be some component of him getting shredded as he enters it,” Gajdecki adds. “Then we had this whole other thing where once he’s inside there, what does it look like? It goes back to who does what. Our in-house team started a look in Episode 201 where Bizarro is flashing to stuff. We need some cool flash that is supposed to sell that it’s him traveling through the portal. The in-house team was tasked with that. They came up with a look. It evolved to a certain point, and we knew that we wanted it to feel like it had depth to it. That was our other challenge. Todd wanted it to feel that he is breaching something, but we also wanted to sell that there is something behind it,  and then he had to shred in there at some point. We didn’t want it to be holes underneath and you see through him. We wanted a substance there, but didn’t want it to be bone and skin because it’s CW.”

Only 10% of the shots don’t have a custom 3D element.

Only 10% of the shots don’t have a custom 3D element.

Adding to the shot count was number of deepfakes associated with the character of Bizarro, who is revealed to be an alternative dimension version of Superman. “We let everyone know that the AI approach was not going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to all the Bizarro shots,” Gore explains. “We had numerous discussions with Todd that if a shot was going to ‘break’ the AI, we were going to have to apply more traditional methods to get the sequences to where he wanted them to be. For example, there were a couple shots where we needed to go all CG on Bizarro in order for him to be able to appear in the same shot as Tyler during some of the fight scenes. We massaged the cuts with Todd. Boxel Studio took on all the work that the AI couldn’t do. The in-house team came up with the look for Bizarro’s eyes and then worked with Tribal Imaging in Calgary, Wild Media Entertainment in Toronto/Vancouver, Kalos Studios, Animism Studios and Refuge VFX to make sure no matter who took Bizarro to final, the look for Bizarro’s eyes and makeup was going to be consistent in all the comps across the various episodes. It was also a great learning experience working with this new AI toolset. And to be clear, not every scene in the Bizarro story arc was achieved using AI.


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