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The Unbridled Creativity of LEGION



By TREVOR HOGG

Lou Pecora

“I’ve always felt that this show is like David Lynch directing a ‘70s Saturday morning kids show with Wes Anderson as the production designer and Stanley Kubrick as the DP. There are lot of those types of visuals styles and cues.” —Lou Pecora, VFX Supervisor, Zoic Studios

Even though Zoic Studios VFX Supervisor Lou Pecora has worked on X-Men projects before, such as X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse, the FX show Legion is something else entirely. In Legion, David Haller (Dan Stevens) is a psychiatric patient who learns that he is the son of powerful mutant and purges his infected mind from a malevolent presence known as Amahl Farouk/Shadow King (Navid Negahban).

“It’s so not a superhero show,” explains Pecora. “It’s more like what would happen if somebody really did have a mutant power. They would think that they were crazy and so would everybody else around them. Dan Stevens plays David Haller so sweetly that you feel for him and are cheering for him the whole time. By the end of this season we see David feel like he got burned, hurt and betrayed. [Creator and Showrunner] Noah Hawley is basically telling a villain’s backstory.”

A shift occurred in the visual effects team during production of the second season of the series. “I got on the show as they were shooting the end of episode nine and about to start shooting episode 10,” says Pecora. “I took over supervising all of the visual effects and inherited a few vendors that turned out to be fantastic, like Crafty Apes, Muse VFX and Chicken Bone VFX. It’s a California tax credit show, so we had to use Californian companies as much as possible, which is the reverse pressure I’ve been under for the last 10 years. Then we had Floyd County Productions [based in Atlanta] who did some killer hand-drawn animation.”

A full digital double was built of Dan Stevens as an older homeless man who gets chopped in half for a 60-frame shot.

Over a period of five months, 1,300 visual effects shots were produced. “Because we got started later on Legion than what was ideal, previs wasn’t utilized as much as I would have liked,” reveals Pecora. “However, Muse VFX was able to do animatics for the creature in episode six.” Not many assets or effects were carried over from season one. “There were a few specific effects like these little particulates in the air, a specific energy wave and the way that people get thrown around violently that we referenced from the first season.

“But the thing I found to be the most difficult to deal with is the lack of reuse and amortization of assets and effects. We build these assets and look development effects for one shot or a few shots. You get very little reuse on Legion. For instance, we built a full digital double of Dan Stevens as an older homeless guy that had to hold up medium in frame. He gets chopped in half for a 60-frame shot. That’s it. All that work for 60 frames. There is certainly no getting bored of the ‘same old effect’ all the time.

The White Space narrative segments required everything being roto so that background could be digitally replaced with a uniform shade of white.

“The writing on this show is solid,” notes Pecora. “Noah has a strong vision for where it needs to go, which keeps the curveballs down to a minimum. But sometimes he’ll see something that is getting close to being realized and he’ll say, ‘It would be cool if it was x, y or z.’ Or, ‘This isn’t working. What can we do to supplement it so it is working?’ I’ll give you an example. There’s this submarine that drives around the desert selling donuts. Initially, it looked too plain. They rebuilt the submarine and re-shot the sequence, but there was still something missing. I know that Noah is a fan of the Beatles, so we put this periscope stack on the top to make it look vaguely like the Yellow Submarine. We showed it to Noah, and he loved it. A stack of CG periscopes that is in just six shots.”

Key in developing the look of Legion are Production Designer Michael Wylie, Art Director Nick Ralbovsky and Concept Artist Laurent Ben-Mimoun. “The nice thing about this show is the way this team works and that everyone is of the same mind,” states Pecora. “That was proven when we were sitting in meetings talking about these laser weapons that pop up out of the ground. Keith Gordon was directing this episode and asked, ‘What does this weapon look like?’ Nathaniel Halpern, one of the Executive Producers and writers on the show, leaned back, rubbed his chin and replied, ‘If someone was going to design a gun to kill the Beatles… it should look like that.’ Wylie got up and drew a little picture on the whiteboard. ‘Like this?’ he asked.

A submarine driving around the desert selling donuts was considered to be too plain.

 

Periscope stacks were added, inspired by the Yellow Submarine featured in a classic animated film by the Beatles.

“There’s this submarine that drives around the desert selling donuts. Initially, it looked too plain. They rebuilt the submarine and re-shot the sequence, but there was still something missing. I know that Noah is a fan of the Beatles, so we put this periscope stack on the top to make it look vaguely like the Yellow Submarine. We showed it to Noah, and he loved it. A stack of CG periscopes that is in just six shots.”

—Lou Pecora, VFX Supervisor, Zoic Studios

‘Yeah, like that,’ Nathaniel said. We all snapped pictures of it, and when we showed up on set these things popped out of the ground that looked just like the whiteboard drawing that Wylie did.”

“Stanley Kubrick is a big influence for both Noah and Polly Morgan, the DP,” observes Pecora. “I’ve always felt that this show is like David Lynch directing a ‘70s Saturday morning kids show with Wes Anderson as the production designer and Stanley Kubrick as the DP. There are lot of those types of visuals styles and cues. This is a dream show for someone trying to get familiar with how things work with gear on set. On a typical show you have a set of primes to use for the shoot, and maybe on an extravagant show you’ll have 15 to 20 lenses that you’ll use through the course of a two-hour feature. In one episode alone on Legion we used 56 lenses plus split and strip diopters, and all kinds of trick camera gear like a Squishy Lens, which I had never seen in person before.”

A blizzard takes place in a Jackson Pollock-inspired painting with David Haller (Dan Stevens) looking for Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller) sitting inside an igloo.

Before Pecora joined Legion the delusion creature had already been designed. “The infant form was well on its way by the time I got involved. The grown-up form was developed as we worked on the episode. It’s a surreal creature which is its own thing apart from the infant version. There wasn’t a lot of research involved. It’s a delusion monster that comes from an egg. It has part of its morphology based on a chicken, but certainly surpassed it. It has wider legs, suckers and claws, and a more developed head. When the creature pops out of the back of Ptonomy Wallace [Jeremie Harris] you get a nice overhead shot where its legs spread out and plant on the ground. That was an homage to The Thing, directed by John Carpenter, which is one of my all-time favorite movies.”

Another interesting task was producing a singing mouse for episode six which sings “Slave to Love” by Bryan Ferry. “Muse FX has some really good animators, lighters and compositors,” remarks Pecora. “The direction from [editor] Regis Kimble kept the animation on track as far as what he was looking for. We kept thinking the mouse looked a bit like a marsupial because a [real] mouse can’t stand up and sing. There had to be some liberties taken in that regard. A very different-looking CG mouse goes into Amahl Farouk’s cell in the finale, and he talks to it. The mouse then goes into Sydney Barrett’s (Rachel Keller) bedroom and whispers into her ear. We shot HDRIs, but I believe they’re only good for a first pass of lighting. You need to get in there and do the diligence to make the creatures and characters look artistically solid.”

A bunch of lollipops of different sizes were bought along with a toy carousel found on eBay to create an episode intro that starts off from an aerial perspective.

“The ultimate grandfather of all challenges on this project was the schedule. We’re running against airdates. When you go into a sound mix for an episode that you haven’t got one final visual effects shot in, it can be a nail-biting experience. I can’t thank the sound team enough for their undying patience with us!”

—Lou Pecora, VFX Supervisor, Zoic Studios

Legion’s creators prefer the use of old-school stage magic over digital effects whenever possible. “We built a lot of stuff,” notes Pecora. “In episode 10 there’s this atomic structure that pops up around David and traps him. When they talked about building this thing of steel, putting LED ribbon lights on the inside and outside doing chase patterns, I thought, ‘We’re going to have to replace it with CG and repaint parts of David.’ They looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going to have to replace anything. It’s going into the show like this.’ You know how many times I’ve replaced things that I’ve heard are going into a show as built? We took a lot of pictures of Dan in case we had to rebuild him. But we didn’t need it in the end. That’s the first time ever for me that something which is supposed to be a high-tech visual effect ended up going into the show as it was built. I’m still pinching myself about that.”

A desert battle takes place in the season two finale between David Haller and Amahl Farouk. “We went to the Polsa Rosa Ranch in Acton, California, and shot this whole sequence,” explains Pecora. “Polly was insistent that she didn’t want to shoot it on bluescreen; she wanted the natural light even though we knew that the sky was going to be replaced with storm clouds and giant animations. There are so many benefits to doing it for real as opposed to on a bluescreen. Mark Byers’ awesome special effects team built this track and a platform on a cart. They strapped Dan and Navid on a pair of bicycle seats and floated them across the ground. We had these giant cranes orbiting with Libra Head stabilizers keeping jitter and shake at bay. Camera operator Mitch Dubin was able to do these creative camera moves that looked really cool. You’re not going to get that on a bluescreen stage. I went out there the next day with a crew to shoot clean plates of desert with all of the tracks removed to be used in the clean-up.”

In addition to lots of paint and roto, extensive simulations were required for this sequence. “The clouds had to look real and natural but move in unnatural ways,” explains Pecora. “A supercell normally spins and rotates but our version approaches and expands. We found that when you’re far away, you’ve got to put more movement in the clouds, and when you’re close up you need to put less movement, otherwise, they look like time-lapse photography.”

Live-action plates were shot at Polsa Rosa Ranch for the dramatic showdown between David Haller and Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban).

Previs artist Lochlon Johnston was critical in helping to choreograph the battle in the sky sequences.

“In one episode alone on Legion we used 56 lenses plus split and strip diopters, and all kinds of trick camera gear like a Squishy Lens, which I had never seen in person before.”

—Lou Pecora, VFX Supervisor, Zoic Studios

Creative input was welcomed from everyone on the production team. “We had this situation where Sydney Barrett is walking through this art gallery and there’s a framed greenscreen on the wall. She’s in this Egon Schiele exhibit where David keeps finding her. ‘What is this greenscreen suppose to be?’ I asked editor and producer Regis Kimble. He told me, ‘We are supposed to find Syd sitting inside an igloo in an abstract painting.’ That was the direction that I had to act on. We decided to make our own Jackson Pollock painting. We push into it and all of the layers of the blobs of paint become individual panes that you go through. You whip through the paint and find moving snow which transitions into a snowstorm, then an igloo and finally Syd sitting inside. Compositor Brian Harris really owned that shot.”

“For another episode, we got to come up with the intro,” reveals Pecora. “The opening shot had to find its way to Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), David and Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement) riding on a carousel. Getting to [the carousel] was a little undeveloped when I started on the shot, so I mocked up this idea of a stack of giant lollipops with a carousel in the middle that are all spinning against each other. The idea went over well with show editor Todd Desrosiers, Regis and Noah, so we bought a bunch of lollipops of different sizes and found a toy carousel on eBay for $30. We shot the pieces individually on a Lazy Susan and comped them together. We showed Noah, and he said ‘Cool. Can we plant it in the ground somewhere and have cars and traffic driving around it, like the size of the Colosseum or the Pentagon?’ In the end we have this giant lollipop from an aerial perspective and then you’re suddenly into the shot. That is an example of how collaborative the team is on this show, and it is absolutely a blast to be part of.”

A practical atomic-structured cell was constructed and lit with LED lights while Dan Stevens was supported by wirework.

The wires were digitally painted out and the lighting made more luminescent to emphasize the levitational abilities of the imprisoned David Haller.

Complicating matters is Legion being delivered in 4K and dynamic range, especially for the educational segments narrated by Jon Hamm. “That was an unanticipated challenge,” states Pecora. “It’s simply called The White Space. There are all of these different scenes that play out from a girl on a cellphone, to a bunch of cheerleaders having this twitch disorder that is somehow communicable, to a Salem-style witch hanging, to Farouk fixing his car which turns into a time machine. The set consists of white curtains with white floors and white walls. We were supposed to ‘just’ clean up the white. Not a problem. However, as soon as you throw White Space on a dynamic range monitor you see things that you don’t even see on DPXs for a film-style QC. We ended up having to roto every single thing in the White Space. We replaced the many different shades of white with a uniform one. We did the Red Space in episode six and that was not much easier for some reason.”

“Oddly enough, the weirdest little things are the big challenges,” notes Pecora. “There’s a scene where this video plays out in these pools of water. Rudimentary aquariums were built on top of picnic tables that were filled with this blue liquid. I was trying to figure out what that video effect looks like without making this cheesy scene that you’ve seen a million times with chroma shifting on the edges and distortion or water ripple. We had to come up with something clever in a hurry. The ultimate grandfather of all challenges on this project was the schedule. We’re running against airdates. When you go into a sound mix for an episode that you haven’t got one final visual effects shot in, it can be a nail-biting experience. I can’t thank the sound team enough for their undying patience with us!”

In spite of the many challenges and the merciless schedule, working on Legion has been a career highlight for Pecora. “If I could describe the whole process in two words it would be ‘unbridled creativity.’ Legion is a show that has everyone in all departments firing on all creative cylinders.” He adds, “There are times when you get near to the end of a show and are counting the days for it to be over, but that was not the case with Legion. This was the best time I’ve ever had on anything I’ve worked on in 25 years. I was missing Legion before it was even over!”

The post The <b>Unbridled Creativity</b> of <b>LEGION</b> appeared first on VFX Voice Magazine.



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